Spring football primer: Burning questions for each Big 12 team
The Great Realignment has altered the Big 12 landscape, with Missouri and Texas A&M becoming the third and fourth schools to leave the league the past two years. The conference has lost rivalries that spanned generations, but from a pure production perspective, new members TCU and West Virginia may actually be upgrades.
West Virginia has played in three BCS bowls, TCU two. We can argue about how competitive their former conferences were, but a BCS game is a BCS game.
Though more expansion may await -- Louisville, Cincinnati and BYU have been rumored targets -- there's plenty to discuss about the here and now. The Horned Frogs and Mountaineers are preparing to play in a league facing numerous adjustments -- like losing a Heisman winner (Baylor's Robert Griffin III), a two-time Biletnikoff recipient (Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon) and the most prolific pass-catcher in NCAA history (Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles). And yes, like adding two new programs.
Here's a look at some of the key questions facing Big 12 teams this spring:
Replicating Griffin's success was going to be hard enough without also losing wide receiver Kendall Wright and running back Terrance Ganaway. Art Briles' squad will benefit from returning three receivers (Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson) who compiled at least 572 yards last season, and boasts a potential feature back in Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk. But the Bears also return eight starters from a defense that allowed 488 yards per game in 2011. Griffin helped Baylor overcome those defensive deficiencies, and replacement Nick Florence will face pressure to do the same. The senior has experience, having started nine games in 2009 when Griffin was injured, but Florence was shaky at times. He looked more poised filling in for a banged-up Griffin against Texas Tech last season, accounting for three touchdowns. Finding consistency will be Florence's top priority.
In co-Big 12 defensive player of the year A.J. Klein and fellow junior Jake Knott, Iowa State has one of the nation's top linebacker duos. But the Cyclones, who produced just 17 sacks (106th nationally) and 56 tackles for loss (112th) last season, need to find more support up front. Redshirt senior tackle Jake McDonough is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and while end Roosevelt Maggitt is back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2011 opener and end Willie Scott brings experience, Iowa State is fairly green elsewhere. Paul Rhoads brought in five defensive line recruits, and they'll have a chance to make an impression. Juco transfer Cory Morrissey will likely compete for playing time at end, while Devlyn Cousin (6-foot-2, 270) and Mitchell Meyers (6-4, 241) can bolster the tackle position.
Weis inherits a lengthy to-do list at a school that won five games in Turner Gill's two seasons, including just one in conference play. But the offensive guru's first task will undoubtedly be revamping an attack that ranked dead last in the Big 12 in total offense (326.8 yards per game) and scoring (22.3) last season. Weis will be working with a familiar face in former Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, but it remains to be seen if Crist, who threw 16 touchdown passes during three years in South Bend, can live up to the five-star rating he earned as Weis' recruit. To do so he'll have to find a go-to receiver among a group that failed to produce a player who ranked in the league's top 20 in receiving yards last season.
Bill Snyder's crew stuck to a fairly simple script last season: run quarterback Klein, run tailback John Hubert and then run them both some more. The duo accounted for 87.8 percent of the Wildcats' rushing yards and all but four of their 34 ground scores. It was effective, and both players proved durable, but the approach came at the expense of a passing game that ranked last in the conference with 151.4 yards per game. To his credit, Klein averaged 61 more yards over the last five games than during his first nine, and he'll return his top three pass-catchers from a year ago in Chris Harper, Tramaine Thompson and Tyler Lockett. But improving the passing game will be key if the Wildcats want to get close to last year's 10 wins.
The former Arizona head coach has returned to brother Bob's side in Norman, and will serve as defensive coordinator now that longtime staffer Brent Venables has left for Clemson. Mike, who helped develop the defense that led the Sooners to the 2000 BCS crown, must now shore up a unit that ranked 55th nationally in total defense last year and 53rd the previous season. If the unit is going to rebound, Mike will have to fill two huge holes at defensive end following the losses of co-defensive player of the year Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington (5 sacks) and David King (4.5 tackles for loss) have shown potential and are the likeliest choices to slip into those roles, but neither has been an every-down player.
In a conference that's been defined by its quarterback play, no spring competition will be more riveting than the one in Stillwater. Mike Gundy has enjoyed a nice run of passers, with Zac Robinson putting up big numbers and Weeden stepping in to blow them away. Clint Chelf, Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh will vie to replace Weeden. Chelf, a fourth-year junior, is the only one with any experience, attempting 49 passes as Weeden's backup, but redshirt freshman Walsh and early enrollee Lunt both arrived as more heralded recruits. Conventional wisdom would say Chelf has the edge heading into camp, but Gundy said the competition remains wide open. "No one guy has the advantage now," he said.
Even with the graduation of All-America linebacker Tank Carder, TCU still figured to go into Big 12 play with a talented bunch. But with All-America linebacker Tanner Brock, tackle D.J. Yendrey and safety Devin Johnson among those kicked off the team following their arrests in a drug sting, Patterson now returns just five defensive starters. The secondary, which was already going to be young, now includes just one player with more than a year of playing time. Patterson's typically found a way to develop top-flight defenses, producing units that have led the nation five times. But that was in non-AQ conferences, not in a league where the Horned Frogs' schedule will feature five offenses that were in the top 15 in the FBS last season.
The league's second most interesting quarterback derby takes place in Austin, where the Longhorns are looking for some stability after David Ash and Case McCoy shared the job last season. Neither was sensational, with Ash throwing four touchdowns to eight interceptions and McCoy tossing four picks against Baylor, but Ash is considered the slight frontrunner heading into camp after going 14-of-23 for 142 yards and a touchdown in Texas' Holiday Bowl win.
Both have experience on their side, but don't count out early enrollee Connor Brewer, who won three straight state titles in Arizona. The offense Brewer ran at Chaparral (Scottsdale) High included elements of Boise State's attack and was installed with the help of then-Boise coordinator Bryan Harsin, who now coaches Texas' offense.
For the fourth time in five years, there will be a new defensive coordinator in Lubbock. And with a new DC comes a new alignment. After operating in a 4-2-5 under Chad Glasgow last season and a 3-4 under James Willis in 2010, the Red Raiders will work out of a 4-3 under Art Kaufman, which is what they used with Ruffin McNeill in their last year under Mike Leach. Tommy Tuberville is already applauding the play of juco transfer linebacker Will Smith and tackles Kerry Hyder and Dennell Wesley as they take on veteran quarterback Seth Doege and the offense at practice. Things certainly can't get much worse than last season, when the Red Raiders ranked 114th in total defense.
Anyone who saw the Orange Bowl knows West Virginia's offense will fit just fine in the Big 12. Quarterback Geno Smith should open the season in the Heisman conversation, but the Mountaineers might need every bit of cushion Smith and the offense can supply. The defense, which ranked 61st in points allowed last year, will have to adjust to losing five key seniors (four of whom were All-Big East) along with most of the defensive coaches, including long-time coordinator Jeff Casteel. In his place steps Joe DeForest, who is used to life in the Big 12 after 11 years at Oklahoma State, but has never been a coordinator. Six starters return, but like fellow newcomer TCU, West Virginia could be in for a rude Big 12 welcome on the defensive side of the ball.