Big 12 preview: Two additions mean this league race should be most entertaining of them all

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

The first season of the reconfigured Big 12 figures to feature the best college football conference race in the nation.

Missouri and Texas A&M left for the SEC, and TCU (from the Mountain West) and West Virginia (Big East) have come aboard. The newcomers add depth to the conference race; this season, at least, TCU and WVU are better than Mizzou and A&M.

Other than Kansas, where the biggest storyline is that Charlie Weis is the new coach, every team in the league heads into the season with a legitimate shot at a bowl bid. (Last season, eight of the league's 10 teams, all but Kansas and Texas Tech, went bowling.) And get this: TCU and WVU join the league fresh off winning conference titles in their old leagues.

Oklahoma is the pick – albeit a somewhat shaky one – to win the league. OU looked to have a loaded offense (a common refrain in the Big 12), but the line has lost two starters since the beginning of August – C Ben Habern, one of the best in the nation, to a career-ending neck injury, and senior G Tyler Evans to a torn ACL suffered in practice. The defense also has some issues, though the hope is that new coordinator Mike Stoops – head coach Bob's brother and a former DC at OU – can make things right.

[Top 10 receiving units: Top 10 receiving units: Big 12 solid, but the best is out west]

WVU's calling card should be an extremely prolific passing offense. But the Mountaineers' defense is a huge question. They lost some key players, and coordinator Jeff Casteel left for Arizona. In addition, offenses in the Big 12 are a lot better overall than the offenses in the Big East.

Oklahoma State lost two first-round picks off its offense: QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon. The Cowboys' defense forced the most turnovers in the nation last season, but will it be that much of a playmaking unit again? There are no questions about Texas' defense, which should be the best in the league and one of the 10 best nationally. But do the Longhorns have a competent quarterback? TCU lost four starters in the secondary; can the Horned Frogs rebuild that unit quickly?

All those questions should lead to a fun fall.

The order of finish

1. Oklahoma; 2. Texas; 3. West Virginia; 4. Oklahoma State; 5. TCU; 6. Kansas State; 7. Texas Tech; 8. Baylor; 9. Iowa State; 10. Kansas

The players

Best offensive player: West Virginia QB Geno Smith. Smith, a senior, passed for a school-record 4,385 yards last season, with 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had eight 300-yard games; in addition, he threw for at least 400 yards four times, with a season-high 463 against LSU. He threw just two interceptions in the final six games. He has started 26 consecutive games and should leave WVU with all the key school passing records.
Best defensive player: Texas DE Jackson Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat, a junior, is a former five-star recruit who began living up to the hype last season. He has excellent speed off the edge and has gotten better against the run. Jeffcoat led Texas with 7.5 sacks last season and added 54 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. He played especially well in the second half of last season, with all of his sacks coming in the final seven games. His dad, Jim, played defensive end in the NFL from 1983-97. Jackson Jeffcoat is a good bet to be an NFL first-rounder next April.
Offensive player on the spot: Baylor QB Nick Florence. You have to feel for the guy. He has to replace Robert Griffin III, the best player in school history and last season's Heisman winner. Baylor still has a number of talented skill-position players, and it will be up to Florence to get them the ball. A bowl bid is within reach is Florence plays good football.
Defensive player on the spot: TCU E Stansly Maponga. Maponga was the Mountain West's best pass rusher last season; how will that translate to the Big 12, where opposing teams throw the ball a lot more than they did in the MWC? In four career games against Big Six schools, including two contests against Baylor, Maponga has a half-sack.
Breakout offensive star: Baylor WR Tevin Reese. Someone needs to step up to replace first-round pick Kendall Wright as the go-to receiver, and the pick here is Reese, a junior who was the Bears' No. 3 receiver last season. He is an incredible athlete (vertical jump of 45.5 inches) who can fly (his nickname is "Sweet Feet"). He averaged 17.2 yards on his 51 receptions last season and scored seven TDs. A quick perusal of shows that Reese had six receptions that covered at least 50 yards and four that covered at least 60 yards, both tied for second-most in the nation. And that was as Baylor's No. 3 guy. More receptions this season will lead to more big plays.
Breakout defensive star: Texas LB Jordan Hicks. Hicks is a junior from Ohio who is a former five-star signee. He has battled nagging injuries but appears ready for a huge season. He is the only returning starter among Texas' linebackers. Hicks is a three-down, sideline-to-sideline player, and the Longhorns need him to make plays all over the field.
Best offensive newcomer: Oklahoma WR Trey Metoyer. Metoyer was a five-star signee for the Sooners in 2011 but didn't qualify academically. He spent last fall at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy, where he again was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 prep school player in the nation. He got his academics in order and enrolled at OU in January. Metoyer had a strong spring and is penciled in as a starter along with junjor Kenny Stills and Penn State transfer Justin Brown. Metoyer has a higher upside than both. He has good size (6-1/190) and is an advanced route-runner for a guy his age. Another guy to watch is Texas' Donald Hawkins, a JC transfer who will start at left tackle for the Longhorns. He probably has more sheer talent than any tackle in the Big 12 and appears ready for the defensive linemen he will see. His nickname in junior college? "Franchise."

[Related: Ranking the top 20 running backs entering the 2012 season]

Best defensive newcomer: Texas Tech LB Will Smith. Smith will start at middle linebacker for a Red Raiders team that was last in the nation in rushing defense last season. Smith, who is from the Los Angeles area, has taken a rather indirect route to Texas Tech. He spent a year at Division II program Northwood University in Midland, Mich., before returning home and playing at Riverside (Calif.) CC last season. Smith had 13 tackles for loss at Riverside, and Red Raiders coaches hope he can fill a desperate need for a playmaking linebacker.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Texas' Mack Brown. The guy has averaged a bit more than 10 wins per season in 14 years and he's on the hot seat? Well, sort of. Texas has lost 12 games in the past two seasons, the highest two-season loss total since 1996-97; then-coach John Mackovic was fired after that '97 campaign. And to be fair, those 12 losses over the past two seasons equal the total number of losses in the previous seven seasons combined. Still, there is no question Texas has slipped and has underachieved. The offense has been mediocre, but there is hope that it can return to form this season. What if it doesn't and Texas again loses four or five games? In that scenario, it wouldn't be a surprise if Brown, who makes a reported $5.1 million annually and turns 61 in August, decides to "retire."
Best coaching staff: Texas. Brown has one of the best coordinator duos in the nation in OC Bryan Harsin and DC Manny Diaz (more on him in a minute). He also recently upgraded some of his position assistants, most notably Stacy Searels (offensive line) and Bo Davis (defensive tackles). Oscar Giles does a good job as defensive ends coach, too. This is a highly paid staff, so the results need to be there this season.
Best offensive coordinator: Oklahoma State's Todd Monken. He replaced Dana Holgorsen after the 2010 season, and the Cowboys' offense didn't miss a beat. Monken was hired off the Jacksonville Jaguars' staff, where he had worked with quarterbacks and wide receivers. He also worked at Oklahoma State from 2002-04 and at LSU from 2005-08. He has a sharp offensive mind, especially when it comes to the passing game. Monken, 45, gets a chance to truly show off this season, as the Cowboys have lost QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, both of whom were first-round picks.
Best defensive coordinator: Texas' Manny Diaz. At one time, Diaz, 38, was best-known as being the son of Miami mayor Manny Diaz. He didn't play college football and spent his first two post-college years working at ESPN. He became a graduate assistant at Florida State, his alma mater, in 1998. He became North Carolina State's linebacker coach in 2002. Diaz spent four seasons at NCSU, then spent four seasons as coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, where his defenses became known for their aggressiveness and ability to force turnovers. He spent one season as Mississippi State's coordinator before being hired at Texas after the 2010 season. His calling card has been aggressive units, and that should continue this season. It shouldn't be long until he is a head coach.

The schedules

Game of the year: Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 13. The "Red River Rivalry" is one of just three annual neutral-site games now (Florida-Georgia and Army-Navy are the others), and it will be the most important this season. The possibility exists that both will be unbeaten at game time (though that possibility is stronger for OU than for the Longhorns). In that scenario, the winner takes a huge step toward winning the Big 12 title. No offense to anyone else in the league, but the Big 12 just seems more fun when these rivals are both highly ranked.
Toughest schedule: TCU. The league office certainly wasn't kind to one of the league's newcomers. TCU has Virginia and SMU in nonconference contests; given what the rest of the league is playing outside of conference, that's equivalent to two NFL teams. In league play, the Horned Frogs face tough road tests against Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia. And the closing stretch is a monster: at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, vs. Kansas State, at Texas and vs. Oklahoma.
Easiest schedule: West Virginia. The league office certainly was kind to the other newcomer. The toughest nonconference game? Either Marshall or Maryland. There are road games against Texas and Oklahoma State, but the other two league games away from home are against Iowa State and Texas Tech. There's an open date in late October, before a visit from TCU. Playing Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks in early November obviously is tough, but that is the season's only tough two-week stretch.
The 10 best conference games:
10. Oklahoma at Texas Tech, Oct. 6
9. Kansas State at West Virginia, Oct. 20
8. TCU at Texas, Nov. 24
7. Oklahoma at TCU, Dec. 1
6. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Nov. 24
5. West Virginia at Oklahoma State, Nov. 10
4. West Virginia at Texas, Oct. 6
3. Texas at Oklahoma State, Sept. 29
2. Oklahoma at West Virginia, Nov. 17
1. Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 13
The 10 best nonconference games:
10. Kansas at Northern Illinois, Sept. 22
9. Tulsa at Iowa State, Sept. 1
8. Virginia at TCU, Sept. 22
7. Iowa State at Iowa, Sept. 8
6. Texas at Ole Miss, Sept. 15
5. Oklahoma State at Arizona, Sept. 8
4. SMU at Baylor, Sept. 2
3. TCU at SMU, Sept. 29
2. Miami at Kansas State, Sept. 15
1. Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27

The preseason All-Big 12 team

First team
QB Geno Smith, West Virginia
RB Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
RB Eric Stephens, Texas Tech
WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia
WR Stedman Bailey, West Virginia
WR Josh Boyce, TCU
T Donald Hawkins, Texas
T LaAdrian Waddle, Texas Tech
G Blaize Foltz, TCU
G Lane Taylor, Oklahoma State
C Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma
E Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
T JaMarkus McFarland, Oklahoma
E Alex Okafor, Texas
LB Arthur Brown, Kansas State
LB Jordan Hicks, Texas
LB A.J. Klein, Iowa State
LB Jake Knott, Iowa State
CB Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State
CB Carrington Byndom, Texas
FS Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
SS Ty Zimmerman, Kansas State
Special teams
K Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
KR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
PR Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Second team
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma
RB Malcolm Brown, Texas
RB Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma
WR Tracy Moore, Oklahoma State
WR Tevin Reese, Baylor
WR Kenny Stills, Oklahoma
T Tanner Hawkinson, Kansas
T Lane Johnson, Oklahoma
G Cyril Richardson, Baylor
G Mason Walters, Texas
C Joe Madsen, West Virginia
E Stansly Maponga, TCU
T David Johnson, TCU
E Meshak Williams, Kansas State
LB Kenny Cain, TCU
LB Alex Elkins, Oklahoma State
LB Terence Garvin, West Virginia
LB Tom Wort, Oklahoma
CB Quandre Diggs, Texas
CB Nigel Malone, Kansas State
FS Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
SS Darwin Cook, West Virginia
Special teams
K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
P Tress Way, Oklahoma State
KR Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
PR Brandon Carter, TCU

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