Oklahoma did in 2010 what it always seems to do — win the Big 12 championship, a record seventh title in the relatively brief annals of the conference. And with starters returning seemingly everywhere and Nebraska gone and Texas down and few real road tests on the schedule, it’s easy to peg the Sooners as the league favorites yet again in 2011. Not that it’s going to be easy. Contenders are in place and the Longhorns can’t be that bad again … can they? Still, with Landry Jones at quarterback and Ryan Broyles leading a rising group of receivers and Travis Lewis spearheading another stout defense, the Sooners wear the favorite’s tag — again.
Texas A&M’s breakthrough of a year ago has the Aggies believing they’re Big 12 title contenders. And for good reason. Ryan Tannehill, who grew up steadily after his permanent move from receiver to starting quarterback, figures to thrive in his second season. Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael may be the league’s best running back duo. And the schedule is kind, stacked with favorable home games outside of a trip to Norman.
Oklahoma State maintained its contender status when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon — the nation’s top returning pass-catch combo — came back for more. And there’s plenty to like around those two, including the league’s best offensive line. The defensive front needs an overhaul, but OSU’s overall talent and defensive depth are improved.
Is Garrett Gilbert the guy for Texas? Can the junior quarterback elevate his play and those around him to return the Longhorns to national prominence? That seems to be the lingering question. Texas will rely on several rookies to provide a desperately needed upgrade to the playmaking positions on offense. The defense, under new direction, must replace several standouts.
The North and South divisions no longer exist, yet the references won’t simply go away. And Missouri offers the best hope to break up the South stranglehold that has ruled the conference and still remains in place. The Tigers will have to do so with an unproven quarterback, but Missouri is solid at almost every other spot on the field.
Texas Tech will have a new signal-caller as well. Junior Seth Doege is the favorite to take over for Tommy Tuberville’s squad. Baylor has no issues at the most important position on the field. Robert Griffin is coming off a banner sophomore season and should be as good or better in ’11.
Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas — the rest of the former Big 12 North — have enough holes to create deep concerns.
Athlon's 2011 Big 12 Previews
When the new Big 12 shook out following a 2010 summer of realignment talks, the conference wagered its future viability on the potential to secure strong television relationships.
The gamble paid off.
Texas used its substantial clout in landing a 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN for a 24-hour television network to broadcast Longhorn sports, including at least one football game per season. The deal includes Texas’ licensing and marketing partner IMG College.
“We want to define what it means to be ‘the’ public university,” says UT president William Powers. “The challenge is to create new sources of revenue to support our mission.”
As for the conference mission, the Big 12 strengthened itself long-term with a 13-year lucrative cable deal with Fox Sports that will bring $90 million a year — more than four times the current deal — beginning with the 2012 football season. The league already has a deal with ABC-ESPN that runs through 2015-16, raising the Big 12’s total TV rights revenue to the neighborhood of $130 million annually.
“This landmark agreement positions the conference with one of the best television arrangements in collegiate sports,” says Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe. “It exceeds the benchmarks as we move forward with our 10 members.”
The departures of Nebraska (to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-12) left the Big 12 with 10 teams and no need for North and South divisions. And no divisions means no conference championship game.
Still, the Big 12 made a move to maintain national relevance in December, shifting two games to what has become known as “Championship Saturday” — Dec. 3 in 2011 — including the Bedlam Game, with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma squaring off in a showdown that will likely impact the league title, if not be a winner-take-all event.
Baylor and Texas will also play that day, with the two games set for either ABC or ESPN national broadcasts.
“People can read between the lines, but there are 10 schools in our league and all 10 would want to play in a prime-time network game,” says Cowboys coach Mike Gundy. “For us to be in this situation kind of shows where we are as a program.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we have elevated ourselves. When they come and hand-pick you to play on Championship Saturday, it kind of shows where we are at.”
One of the more intriguing spring storylines across the conference centered behind center. Quarterback battles or breakouts commanded attention and will continue to do so into preseason camps. At least five schools will break in new starters, and incumbents in a few other locales are under fire. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, with 27 career starts, is the most experienced starter in the Big 12, followed by OU’s Landry Jones with 24. No other conference quarterback has started more than one season.
During a February press conference, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was interrupted by the sound of his own cell phone.
The tone, or tune: Justin Bieber’s hit “Baby.”
Gundy laughed it off and insisted the moment was not staged. But he did cop to adopting the teen sensation’s sound after Bieber revealed during a national interview that he’d adopted Gundy’s “I’m a man, I’m 40” rant as his ringtone. Later, Gundy joked about bringing Bieber to Stillwater to sing the National Anthem or even to purchase a suite at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Once upon a time, the Big 12 was ruled by ground games and elite running backs. A seismic shift has occurred in recent seasons and only figures to continue in 2011. Only one 1,000-yard back — Texas A&M’s Cyrus Gray — returns, and he’s the only runner back from last year’s list of top-10 rushers in the league. By contrast, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles, Missouri’s T.J. Moe and A&M’s Jeff Fuller all return after topping the 1,000-receiving-yard mark a year ago, while Baylor’s Kendall Wright went for 952. And eight of the top-10 receiving leaders are back.
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