The South has also been dominant in recruiting. The average class position between 2002 and 2006 is 23.5. When one takes into account the woes experienced by Baylor and its subsequent recruiting problems, that average position becomes even more impressive.
We will begin an examination of the Big 12 South by taking the first three teams in alphabetical order, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Baylor football is like the child in the Jackson family who's not musical. They play in arguably the toughest division of the toughest conference in all of college football and do so in a football crazy state. And yet, for the last several years, the Bears have been woeful. The hiring of Guy Morriss in December of 2002 hoped to end years of futility and there are signs, albeit subtle ones, that Morriss and Baylor may be turning the corner. After posting no more than three wins in any season since 1999, the lads from Waco posted a 5-6 record in 2005. Those five wins included two in the conference. That doesn't sound too impressive until one considers that since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996, Baylor, until last year, had only recorded a total of six conference wins in nine years.
Baylor recruiting has seen its share of ups and downs over the last five years. From a high of Scout.com's #21 ranked class in 2002 to #89 in 2004, the Baylor coaching staff has clearly been unable to consistently woo top-flight players from the talent-rich state of Texas to Waco. Still, there are several players from that 2002 class on the roster and they should give the Bears at least a chance to go bowling.
Baylor will debut a new spread offense dubbed "Bear Air" this season. It is based on the highly successful Texas Tech offense. Morriss's first order of business is to find a starter at quarterback. Not once in his tenure has Baylor made it through an entire season with the same signal caller. Hopefully, this year, Shawn Bell will break that streak. He threw for 1,925 yards last year but an injury forced him out for the final two games. He'll be throwing to his top two receivers from last year, Dominique Ziegler and Trent Shelton. The two combined for 93 catches and nearly 1000 yards. Top running back Paul Mosley also returns. The offensive line brings back three starters though they may all be battling to hold their starting spots. The offense averaged less than 100 yards rushing per game and the line gave up 32 sacks.
Defensively, Baylor returns several starters but that's not necessarily a good thing. The Bears gave up 37 points and 421 yards per game. Baylor plays a 4-2-5 and two of the three safeties are the true stars of the defense. Safeties Maurice Lane (104 tackles) and Willie Andrews (67 tackles) are all-conference-type players. They're going to need more help from the other nine though if Baylor hopes to improve its overall and conference records. The projected starters on the defensive line recorded only four total sacks last season and the two projected linebacker starters had only eight tackles for loss.
Baylor does have one of the best punters in the game. Daniel Sepulveda won the Ray Guy Award in 2004 as the nation's best punter. Ryan Havens, who handled kickoffs, will also get his shot at placekicking.
Baylor has a very accommodating non-conference schedule with home games against TCU, Northwestern State and Army and a road game at Washington State. If the Bears can emerge 3-1 from the non-conference schedule then another five-win season could be in the offing. If the Bears win six and earn a bowl bid, pencil in Guy Morriss's name for coach of the year.
The big questions facing the Sooners this season is whether last year was the beginning or the end of the decline. An 8-4 record and a bowl win may play well in many university towns, but not Norman. Will the 2006 version of the Oklahoma football team return the Sooners back to the pinnacle of the Big 12 or be yet another step in the wrong direction?
Oklahoma recruiting has certainly provided coach Bob Stoops with the necessary ammunition to reclaim the Big 12 South title. Between 2002 and 2006, the Sooners finished no lower than seventh in the Scout.com final team recruiting rankings with a high of two in 2002.
Unquestionably, Oklahoma's offensive star is Adrian Peterson. Because of a high ankle sprain that plagued the Sooners' Heisman candidate, he "only" rushed for 1,207 yards and 14 touchdowns. Of course, a 1,925 yard and 15 touchdown true freshman year can create very high expectations, hence the perception that last year constituted a down year for Peterson. Peterson may be the star but the guy taking the snaps may well be the most important cog in the Sooner offense. After taking over as the starter last year, quarterback Rhett Bomar often struggled but his year-long improvement gives the coaching staff much hope that he will have a breakout year. In order for that to happen, a group of talented but green sophomore receivers must come through and uncertainties on the offensive line must be resolved.
Defensively, Oklahoma is loaded. They feature four defensive ends, any of which could probably start for most teams in the nation. Calvin Thibodeaux didn't earn the starting job last year until starter John Williams tore his ACL in the first game against TCU. All Thibodeaux did was record ten sacks and seventeen tackles for loss. JUCO transfer C.J. Ah You not only has one of the great names in college football but also a very solid game. He finished the year with seven sacks and twelve tackles for loss. Larry Birdine and Williams both started prior to season-ending injuries and should be dynamic back-ups. The defensive tackles look good but young and will need to grow up quickly. They will. At linebacker, the Sooners feature Rufus Alexander, a probable Butkus Award finalist. The secondary is a bit unsettled but if Reggie Smith can successfully make the move to cornerback, many of those questions may be resolved. D.J. Wolfe, the other corner should be solid, perhaps even All-American caliber.
Oklahoma has a championship level defense and that should keep them in every game, probably even win a few for them. The uncertainties on the offensive line and at receiver, though, will cost them against Texas in the Red River Shootout. Oklahoma is definitely not in decline but will fall one game short. Watch out for 2007.
After experiencing considerable success under Les Miles, Oklahoma State fell to 4-7 last year in Mike Gundy's first year as head coach. The decline probably had less to do with Gundy versus Miles's coaching ability than to the fact that Miles left the cupboard bare. Improvement in 2006 may also be slow. In addition to a very mediocre recruiting class in 2005, the Cowboys lost two key defensive players to disciplinary issues and a third, Vernon Grant, to a tragic automobile accident. Still, OSU appears headed in the right direction under Gundy. He brought in a new offensive coordinator, Larry Fedora from Florida, who will spread out the offense and throw the ball much more. The 2006 recruiting class ranked #16 in the nation according to Scout.com and there were some key players returning from injury or transferring in from other programs.
Oklahoma State's recruiting has remained fairly consistent over the last five years. In 2002, 2003 and 2004, their classes came in at 32, 29 and 33 respectively. The 2005 class fell precipitously to 64 but the 2006 class rebounded nicely to 16. There should be ample talent on campus for the coaching staff to mold into a solid football team.
The quarterback is the key to any spread option offense and Cowboy signal caller Bobby Reid is no exception. He possesses a strong and accurate arm, a high football IQ and is a quick and shifty runner. The real question mark surrounding Reid is whether he can stay healthy. Gundy and Fedora apparently feel quite good about Reid because his performance in the spring prompted the staff to move last year's starter, Donovan Woods, to free safety. Catching Reid's passes will be D'Juan Woods and a cast of thousands. Woods has big play ability and should profit from Fedora's system. The Cowboys will need several other receivers to step up or teams will blanket Woods with double coverage all day long. One who could definitely provide Reid with a viable second option is Adarius Bowman. North Carolina dismissed Bowman for an infraction of which he was later found innocent. Though the Tar Heels asked him to come back, he instead enrolled at OSU. At running back, Mike Hamilton is a workhorse back who should fare well in the spread option. The real question with Hamilton is whether his pass catching skills will improve enough to make him effective in the new offense. The offensive line struggled last year and looks to be shaky again this year. Guard Corey Hilliard is a bona fide star but the rest of the line will have to improve for the OSU offense to better its #92 ranking from a year ago.
On defense, Oklahoma State is moving from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3. No player should benefit more from this than middle linebacker Paul Duren. Duren's lack of speed severely inhibited his playmaking ability in the 4-2-5 but he will have the opportunity to flourish in the 4-3. If he doesn't get the job done, Rod Johnson, who is both bigger and faster, could easily step in. The defensive line has largely unfulfilled potential. Only JUCO transfer Ryan McBean has emerged as a playmaker. The secondary is a complete mess. With the death of Grant, the dismissal of two players primed to contribute, Gundy will rely heavily upon very young players. If those players don't grow up quickly, look for teams to pass at will on the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State should be improved from last year's 4-7 squad, but only if Reid can stay healthy and they can at least slow the pass. They have a fairly light non-conference schedule with Division IAA Missouri State and Florida Atlantic, a Division IAA team in Division IA clothing. They face Arkansas State and Houston, both bowl teams last year, on the road. A 3-1 non-conference record could translate into a six-win season and a bowl bid. With Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor all on the schedule, the Cowboys could find the wins to go bowling. Don't bet on it though.
The next part of this series will look at the final three schools in the Big 12 South, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.