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June 15, 2013

Roundtable: Big 12 surprises

Which Big 12 team will be the league's biggest surprise this season? Which will be its biggest disappointment?

Chris Level: I don't know why, but the media will likely repeat the same mistake they have made for years and years and shortchange Bill Snyder's Kansas State team. Surely they won't be as good or win as many close games as they did the season before? That's exactly what I said last summer. Oops. The Wildcats will likely be picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 and, based on that, I think they are the team most likely to surprise this year in the league. The funny thing is that this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

Most disappointing? You would have to pick either Texas, TCU or one of the Oklahoma schools based on where everyone will likely pick them. I don't feel good about this answer like I did with Kansas State but I'm going with Oklahoma State. At some point the turnover in coaches, specifically coordinators has to catch up to Mike Gundy's Cowboys, doesn't it? That's my pick anyway.

Aaron Dickens: I pretty much nailed this question last year. Let's see if I can duplicate the feat for 2013.

High external expectations have to be in place in order for a team to be a disappointment, so that rules out all but a few Big 12 teams heading into the 2013 football season -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU.

Out of that foursome, the Sooners are the only team that will take the field with a first-year starter this fall. I'm not as high on David Ash or Casey Pachall as most, and Clint Chelf doesn't have more than half of a season of experience, but OU's Blake Bell is a total unknown outside of the Belldozer gimmick.

Bell won't have much time to ease into the starting role, either. He'll open Big 12 play against West Virginia in his second start and, three weeks later, will face Notre Dame in South Bend. To top it all off, only two of Oklahoma's final seven games are in Norman. Gulp.

I'm tempted to pick West Virginia as my Big 12 team to surprise, but the Mountaineers' schedule is brutal -- no back-to-back home dates and a six-game stretch in conference play with four road games.

Instead, I'll reluctantly go with Kansas State. The Wildcats will likely be picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference (again) in the preseason and Bill Snyder has coached worse teams than this to top-half conference finishes, so why should we expect anything different this year? I'm done betting against him.

Adam Rosen: With the departure of 2012 Heisman finalist Collin Klein, along with numerous defensive standouts, Kansas State is expected to regress from last season's Big 12 championship in a major way.

The return of skill players John Hubert, Tyler Lockett, Tramaine Thompson and all five starters on the offensive line should help Daniel Sams or Jake Waters transition into the vacant quarterback position with ease. Both guys have the potential to enhance the offense's productivity this season.

The defense returns very few starters, and must rely on JUCO transfers, such as Dakorey Johnson, Devon Nash and Travis Green, to help fill the void. They may not dominate, but it's almost certain they'll be formidable under Bill Snyder.

Kansas State has been tabbed in the bottom four next season, but it wouldn't be shocking to see them surprise again with a top three finish.

Oklahoma State's ability to take the next step, and win games outside of Stillwater (Oklahoma), similar to the Weeden-to-Blackmon led squads that combined to go 10-1 on the road in 2010 and 2011, will decide if they're challenging for the conference title or merely just another competitive Big 12 football team.

Last season, the Cowboys went 1-4 on the road with their only win a six point squeaker against the lowly Jayhawks. The defense gave up 21 points and 166 total yards more per game on the road compared to home, and the Pokes' quarterback brigade combined for their five worst ratings on the road last season.

Oklahoma State was also -10 in the turnover battle in those five road games. The previous squads posted fortuitous turnover margins of +1 (2010) and +11 (2011) on the road in their conference title runs.

Eight conference wins has been the mark for the Big 12 champion since the conference went to ten teams, and seven conference wins could easily be the mark in what is expected to be a down year for the conference in 2013.

Oklahoma State could finish in the top half of the conference, but they won't have enough wins to be a title contender like the media and oddsmakers are projecting.

Zach DiSchiano: They thought Baylor was going to fall off when Robert Griffin went to the NFL. Then Nick Florence shocked the world with a stellar season, leading the BU offense to 44.5 points per game -- good for fourth in the nation. Now they're saying Baylor is going to fall off without Florence. I don't think so. Maybe Baylor figured out how to properly prepare quarterbacks to be successful, or maybe it's just the team's style of play that inflates quarterback's numbers, but either way, junior Bryce Petty is poised to have a great year. With the help of running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, the Bears offense should be as prolific as ever.

Baylor has a cupcake nonconference schedule, and its first two Big 12 opponents -- West Virginia and Kansas State -- are likely to have down years after the departure of their respective Heisman candidates. After that, the Bears face Iowa State at home and Kansas on the road, which should be another two wins. Realistically, the Bears have a legitimate shot at starting the season 7-0 before taking on Oklahoma at home.

Defensively, the Bears are starting eight seniors, who made strides of improvement during the last few games of the 2012 season. After giving up points in bunches for the majority of the season, the Bears moved into the top three in total defense in the Big 12. In their bowl game against UCLA, the Bears limited star running back Jonathan Franklin, a 1,700-yard rusher, to just 34 yards on 14 carries.

Baylor ended the season on a four-game winning streak, something that should continue through the first seven games of the upcoming season. The Bears finished fifth in the Big 12 last season, and after all the defensive improvements and consistency of their high-octane offense, I expect them to move into the top three in 2013.

As for the league's biggest disappointment, there's no one in the game better at picking up two yards and a touchdown than Oklahoma's Blake Bell. But now that he has taken the reigns from Landry Jones, he is going to have to learn to do a lot more than just fall forward. The 6-foot-6 quarterback is heading into his junior season without ever throwing a touchdown pass, which doesn't bode well for Sooner fans.

The schedule for Bell and the Sooners is no free ride to 10 wins this year -- the team has road games against the conference's top teams from 2012, including Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Notre Dame will look to take down Oklahoma at home after beating the Sooners on the road last season.

Along with Kenny Stills and star offensive tackle Lane Johnson, Oklahoma lost key players on the defensive line and secondary. The team depth chart is looking like it will start two true freshmen at both safety positions, which is a dangerous move in the pass-heavy Big 12. On the offensive side of the ball, the Sooners do return running back Damien Williams, whom they will have to rely heavily upon to stay competitive in the conference. However, as Kansas clearly demonstrated last season, winning in the Big 12 requires an elite passing game, not rushing. That's why the success of the Sooners next season is completely contingent upon the play of Blake Bell, and also why they are likely to go 7-5, finish in the middle of the conference and limp into an underwhelming bowl game.



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