by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Week 1 College Football Rankings: Big 12
1. Oklahoma – The Sooners enter 2011 as one of the frontrunners to claim the national title. The offense – led by quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles – is among the best in college football. The defense returns six starters, but will be without senior linebacker Travis Lewis for at least the first month of the season. Finding a go-to running back and plugging the interior of the defensive line will be two areas to watch for Oklahoma this year. The Sooners open with Tulsa, one of the favorites to win the Conference USA title. However, the Golden Hurricane will be without star receiver Damaris Johnson, who has been indefinitely suspended by coach Bill Blankenship. This is Oklahoma’s only game before a key matchup at Florida State on Sept. 17. Expect to see the Sooners hit on all cylinders before getting their starters out of the lineup to avoid injury.
2. Texas A&M – The focus for the 2011 season in College Station has recently shifted. The Aggies are expected to announce their intentions to join the SEC in the next couple of weeks, which has overshadowed a potential top 10 team and a Big 12 title contender. Texas A&M returns 18 starters – the most in the Big 12 – and closed out 2010 by winning six out of its last seven matchups. The Aggies host SMU on a Sunday night game this week. The Mustangs are Athlon’s pick to win Conference USA, but have not fared well against Big 12 teams in recent matchups, which includes a 66-8 dismantling in College Station in 2005. Will the discussions about a move to the SEC be a distraction? We’ll find out on Sunday night.
3. Oklahoma State – With a new coordinator calling the plays, Saturday’s matchup against UL Lafayette is a good tune-up for the Cowboys’ offense. Todd Monken was picked as Oklahoma State’s coordinator, after Dana Holgorsen left for West Virginia. The Cowboys plan on keeping the same offense in place, but there could be a slight drop-off with a new playcaller. Expect Saturday’s game against the Ragin’ Cajuns to feature a lot of hookups between quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, which will pad the stats for two players in the thick of the Heisman race. The Cowboys have a short turnaround, as they will play on Thursday, Sept. 8 against Arizona.
4. Texas – After last season’s disappointing 5-7 record, there will be a lot of interested observers in the Lone Star State. The Longhorns revamped their coaching staff, but question marks remain on both sides of the ball. Is Garrett Gilbert or David Ash ready to emerge as the No. 1 quarterback? Gilbert struggled last year and was pushed by Ash for the starting job throughout fall camp. The biggest concern on defense rests with the secondary, as three key corners from 2010 are gone. This matchup will also be the first on the much-criticized Longhorn Network. Although high hopes remain for the network, finding carriers hasn’t been easy and few people nationally will likely see this game. The Owls have some offensive firepower, but should provide little resistance.
5. Missouri – The Tigers will need to be on upset alert on Saturday against Miami, Ohio. The RedHawks are the defending MAC champs and return 16 starters from last season’s team. This matchup will feature the first start for Missouri quarterback James Franklin. The sophomore played sparingly last year and if he emerges as a steady performer, the Tigers could be a darkhorse in the Big 12 title race. Missouri blew out the RedHawks last season, winning 51-13 in late September. Expect a closer matchup this time around.
6. Texas Tech – The Red Raiders have high hopes entering the second season under coach Tommy Tuberville. New quarterback Seth Doege had a strong fall camp and there’s a lot of capable options surrounding the junior passer in 2011. The defense returns five starters and features a new 4-2-5 scheme. A revamped front seven will be one of the biggest question marks this season for new coordinator Chad Glasgow. The Red Raiders host Texas State and former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione this Saturday. The Bobcats are in the process of transitioning from I-AA to I-A for 2012.
7. Baylor – There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the 2011 version of Baylor football. The Bears are coming off their first bowl appearance since 1994 and return a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Robert Griffin. Last season’s embarrassing 45-10 loss to TCU has stuck with Baylor since last season and revenge will be on its mind on Friday night. The Horned Frogs are replacing several key starters from last season’s team and could be ripe for an upset, especially with a Baylor team hungry to avenge last year’s blowout defeat.
8. Iowa State – The Cyclones barely missed out on a bowl appearance last year, finishing 5-7 overall and 3-5 in Big 12 play. For Iowa State to get to six wins in 2011, quarterback play will be crucial. Jerome Tiller left spring practice as the No. 1 passer, but was ruled academically ineligible late in fall camp. Junior college transfer Steele Jantz will get the nod under center. Also providing hope is sophomore running back Shontrelle Johnson, who could be one of the Big 12’s breakout players. The defense returns seven starters and boasts one of the Big 12’s top linebackers in junior Jake Knott. Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa in Week 1, ranked No. 10 in Athlon’s 2011 FCS poll.
9. Kansas State – No matter where they are slotted in the preseason ranks, the Wildcats seem to overachieve under Bill Snyder. Is a similar scenario about to play out in 2011? Kansas State is Athlon’s pick to finish ninth in the Big 12, but there are reasons to believe this team can contend for a bowl appearance. The Wildcats will need to see quick development from quarterback Collin Klein and running back Bryce Brown. The defense needs a lot of work, especially after allowing over 400 yards a game last season. The Wildcats open with FCS foe Eastern Kentucky (6-5 last year). Expect the Wildcats to get off to a quick start in Week 1, before an open date next Saturday (Sept. 10).
10. Kansas – The Jayhawks hope their 2011 opener goes much better than last season’s first game. Kansas dropped a 6-3 effort to North Dakota State last year, arguably the lowpoint of Turner Gill’s first season. The Jayhawks should show improvement this year, albeit baby steps. Quarterback play remains a question mark, although Jordan Webb seemed to take control of the position in fall camp. The defense is in the process of transitioning to a 3-4 scheme, which should benefit junior end/linebacker Toben Opurum. Although the Jayhawks would like to make a bowl, winning the opener and starting the year 1-0 would provide some momentum going into Week 2 against Northern Illinois.