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It's game week: Top question facing each Big 12 football squad
This time of year — more specifically this week — holds a certain amount of special sports significance across the country.
Perhaps you'll feel an added jolt of enthusiasm this week as you go about your daily routine.
College football is upon us. The seven-month drought is over, and thankfully, we're pretty much done hearing about fall practices and anything pertaining to the offseason.
Yes, we've officially hit game week.
The Big 12 will take part in its first game Friday, when Baylor plays host to No. 14 TCU, one year after the Horned Frogs destroyed the Bears, 45-10, in Fort Worth, Texas. Eight conference teams will jump into action Saturday, while Texas A&M will open its season Sunday.
In the meantime, here are my top questions facing each Big 12 team before the season starts.
No. 1 Oklahoma
Week 1: Saturday vs. Tulsa, 7 p.m.
Biggest question: How will the absence of Travis Lewis, chosen as preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, affect the Sooners and their quest for a national championship?
Lewis, who broke his toe on Aug. 8, is expected to miss eight weeks. If that timetable holds, eight weeks from the time of injury would be Oct. 3.
The good news: OU faces archrival Texas on Oct. 10 in Dallas. The bad news: The Sooners have a front-heavy schedule, with games at No. 6 Florida State on Sept. 17, and a home tilt against No. 21 Missouri on Sept. 24. Can OU remain undefeated in the time Lewis misses?
Oklahoma is a factory for producing above-average Big 12 players at virtually every position on the field, but this injury came at an inopportune time. The Sooners are still trying to cope with losing senior linebacker Austin Box, who died in May because of a toxic mix of pain pills.
No. 8 Texas A&M
Week 1: Sunday vs. SMU, 6:30 p.m.
Biggest question: How many games would the Aggies win in the SEC this season?
Texas A&M reportedly notified the Big 12 late Monday night its intentions of withdrawing from the conference. Today, Texas A&M denied that it sent the withdrawal letter. This will be a long, dragged-out process that should still result in A&M bolting.
In a similar manner to Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) last year, A&M's announced departure should make for some super-awkward matchups this season with the Aggies still in the Big 12. A&M may take the heat off Texas for one season as the Big 12's most despised team. Maybe not, but we'll see.
If greener pastures await the Aggies in the SEC, then best of luck, but their path to any kind of BCS appearance will take a mammoth hit. A&M figures to be the second- or third-best team in the Big 12 this season. Without a Big 12 championship game, the Aggies will be legitimate contenders to take the Big 12 crown and an automatic berth to a BCS bowl game.
But what if A&M played in the SEC this year? Eight of 12 SEC teams are ranked to begin the season. Add an SEC Championship game to the mix, and the path to a BCS game just became a whole lot more difficult for the Aggies.
More long-term stability in the SEC? Probably. But I'm not expecting the Aggies to play in many BCS games coming out of their new conference.
No. 9 Oklahoma State
Week 1: Saturday vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 6 p.m.
Biggest question: Can OSU finally take the next step and win its first-ever Big 12 Championship?
The Pokes never won or even represented the South in the Big 12 Championship game (back in the good old days when there was one).
The Cowboys took a significant step last year by going 11-2 and capturing the most victories in a single season in program history. Clearly, though, they want more.
This year seems to be as good a year as any to accomplish something bigger. Senior quarterback Brandon Weeden and junior wide receiver Justin Blackmon are the most dangerous pass-catch combo in America, the offensive line returns everyone and is known as the best in the conference, OSU's defense returns six starters and the Cowboys draw Oklahoma in Stillwater this year. What's not to like?
"It's very motivating. We all are striving to get there," Blackmon told me last month at Big 12 media days in Dallas, about breaking through and winning the conference. "We all look at the big picture. We think about it every time we're in the weight room. We have a big sign that says Big 12 champs. That's what we want to do. And that's where we're trying to get."
No. 21 Missouri
Week 1: Saturday vs. Miami (Ohio), 11 a.m.
Biggest question: How ready for the big-time is James Franklin?
The sophomore will follow a list of successful MU quarterbacks that went on to have careers in the NFL (Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert).
Franklin, though, doesn't have to be the focal point of the offense with the Tigers' returning talent. Losing left tackle Elvis Fisher to season-ending knee surgery certainly hurts, but Missouri will still return three of five starters on the offensive line, to go along with receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew.
If Franklin steps in as a caretaker who doesn't turn the ball over, MU has a shot at double-digit victories this season. But is he up to the challenge?
Week 1: Saturday vs. McNeese State, 6 p.m.
Biggest question: Who knows what state McNeese State is in?
OK, I'll move on to a serious question (the answer is Louisiana for those who didn't know. I sure as heck didn't before looking it up).
Real question: How much maturity on the field will we see from quarterback Jordan Webb?
Webb went through his share of freshman mistakes in 2010. More interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven). Being sacked 21 times in nine games. Only averaging 132.8 passing yards per game.
How much difference will we see in 2011? With an expected boost from the running game and an experienced offensive line, Webb enters a more favorable situation this season. He has speedster Daymond Patterson back at receiver, along with a slew of promising, young targets looking to prove themselves.
KU receivers caught only six touchdown passes last year. That should change with a more developed and experienced Webb. Webb's maturation could be directly tied to how many more victories, if any, the Jayhawks see this year after a dismal 3-9 showing in 2010.
Week 1: Saturday vs. Eastern Kentucky, 6 p.m.
Biggest question: Will Bryce Brown exhibit a consistent enough work ethic to be able to take over the reins at running back from Daniel Thomas?
It seems foolish to even ask this question, based on Brown's sky-high ceiling. Naturally, the 6-foot, 220-pound Tennessee transfer seems to be the guy to replace Thomas, who led the Big 12 in rushing the previous two seasons. But Brown has not separated himself from the pack, which includes sophomore John Hubert and junior college transfer Angelo Pease.
Brown, a sophomore, was the No. 1-ranked high school recruit in the country by Rivals.com in 2009. Maybe he feels a sense of entitlement. Perhaps coach Bill Snyder is just pushing the motivation buttons. From the recent reports I've seen, Brown has not been the clear-cut No. 1 running back in practice KSU fans expected. Brown, for all we know, could view fall practice like Allen Iverson, only to explode on the scene once the season starts. Either way, he better start getting on Snyder's good side.
Week 1: Friday vs. No 14 TCU
Biggest question: How much has the defense improved from last year?
By now, Big 12 fans know that Robert Griffin can move the Bears offense down the field. But the Bears couldn't stop anybody last season on defense. BU ranked 114th out of 120 Div. I teams in pass defense with 265.08 yards allowed per game last year.
Over the offseason, Baylor hired new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who previously held the same position at Pittsburgh. Bennett installed a new system, the 4-2-5 defense, in an attempt to put more speed on the field. How well BU picks up the new defense will determine how much success it has in the win column after a 7-6 season in 2010 that saw the Bears make their first bowl appearance since 1994.
Week 1: Saturday vs. Northern Iowa, 6 p.m.
Biggest question: How much early success will quarterback Steele Jantz have in the Cyclones' system?
Jantz, a junior college transfer, recently won the starting quarterback job over Jerome Tiller, who was declared academically ineligible and won't play in 2011. Jantz is coming off a season in which he accumulated 3,676 total yards and 37 total touchdowns at City College of San Francisco.
Of course, the competition will be just a bit more fierce in the Big 12. Iowa State's non-conference schedule won't offer much down time for Jantz, either. After opening at home to Northern Iowa, ISU will play host to Iowa on Sept. 10 and travel to Connecticut on Sept. 16. Welcome to Div. I, Mr. Jantz.
Week 1: Saturday vs. Rice, 7 p.m.
Biggest question: The Longhorns' record should be better than their abominable 5-7 showing from last year. But how many more victories will that equal?
UT has new offensive coordinators (Bryan Harsin, previously at Boise State, and Major Applewhite will take over for Greg Davis), and a new defensive coordinator (Manny Diaz, previously at Mississippi State, will take over for Will Muschamp).
The coaching staff recently tapped junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert to be the starter. Gilbert must improve from his 10 touchdowns against 17 interceptions one year ago.
Gilbert's help on the perimeter took a hit over the summer when UT lost Malcolm Williams (left team to deal with family issues) and Marquise Goodwin (took redshirt to focus on track and field after winning national title in long jump).
Gilbert has a No. 1 receiver in the making in sophomore Mike Davis, and Jaxon Shipley, younger brother of UT career receiving leader Jordan Shipley, has turned heads in summer and fall camps. Freshman Malcolm Brown could be UT's best running back since Jamaal Charles, and could help take the pressure off Gilbert.
UT's defense will be solid. But how much progress will the offense make?
Week 1: Saturday vs. Texas State, 6 p.m.
Biggest question: How much more will the Red Raiders and second-year coach Tommy Tuberville run the football than previous Tech teams?
Tech's strength on offense, for a change, appears to come from pounding the football on the ground. All five offensive linemen return, and TTU boasts three solid running backs in junior Eric Stephens, senior Aaron Crawford and true freshman Ronnie Daniels.
The Red Raiders will still look to the air with junior quarterback Seth Doege and junior receiver Alex Torres, but TTU doesn't possess the same depth at receiver as it had in previous years.
That should be all for now, friends. As always, discuss.