Despite the absence of Nebraska, and to a much lesser extent Colorado, the Big 12 will be a gruesome gauntlet in 2011. Three teams in this conference have national championship potential and a couple more are capable of notching double-digit wins. The reality, however, is that these teams will beat up on one another and likely prevent the Big 12 from producing a national champion in what could well be its final season of competition.
1. Texas A&M Aggies: Mike Sherman's Aggies should be good enough to win the Big 12 championship in their final season. And if they do, they will carry a ton of momentum into their new SEC home. The Aggies are loaded on offense, with a very good quarterback, two stellar running backs, an extremely talented receiving corps, and a rapidly improving if still young line. Texas A&M will need to play better defense than they did last year to win the Big 12, but they return everybody except for Von Miller.
2. Missouri Tigers: Mizzou looks just as good as Texas A&M. Unfortunately for the Tigers, however, they travel to College Station to play what will prove to be a contest for all the marbles. Missouri loses overrated quarterback Blaine Gabbert on offense, but welcomes back everybody else including Plainview's Michael Egnew who is merely the best tight end in the nation. The Tigers have always played stout defense, and if they can fill some holes in the secondary, will be as good as ever here.
3. Oklahoma Sooners: OU is a popular favorite to win the national championship, but I suspect that will not happen. Sure, Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles may be the best quarterback-receiver combo in the land, and the Sooner offense will be strong up front, but Roy Finch still has something to prove at running back. Moreover, the Oklahoma defense does not intimidate. The defensive line won't be much more than adequate, and the secondary is in mid-overhaul.
4. Texas Tech Red Raiders: The surprise team of the Big 12 is right here in Lubbock. Look for Seth Doege to emerge as a borderline elite quarterback, and for the Tech offensive line to be one of the nation's best. But the real story will be on the defensive side of the ball, where Chad Glasgow is building a young but fast, deep and talented unit.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys: Mike Gundy's bunch was one of the nation's best on offense in 2010, and while they'll be good again this year, offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's absence will be felt. And defensively the Cowboys have very little to offer. Given OSU's glaring weaknesses on this side of the ball, it is amazing that the Cowboys have gotten so much preseason love.
6. Texas Longhorns: Texas' 5-7 mark in 2010 was no fluke; the Longhorns have severe deficiencies and they don't appear to have been entirely remedied. Starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert was one of the Big 12's worst last year, and there are questions about whether his confidence was permanently undermined. And it's not like Gilbert is surrounded by tremendous players. There are problems along the line, at running back and at receiver. The Longhorn defense has some serious talent in the front seven, but that won't be nearly enough to return Texas to top-dawg status.
7. Baylor Bears: The outfit from Waco is all about quarterback Robert Griffin, a talented stable of receivers, and a solid offensive line. But Baylor has no running game outside of Griffin, and the defense, abysmal in 2010, looks little better this time around.
8. Iowa State Cyclones: Paul Rhoads' squad is not outstanding in any single area, but it does have decent players scattered across the roster. Three solid starters return to the offensive line, outside backers A. J. Klein and Jake Knott are two of the conference's best, and Leonard Johnson is a shut-down cornerback. If Rhoads can find a quarterback, the Cyclones could surprise.
9. Kansas Jayhawks: Turner Gill and the Kansas brass found out the hard way that there's a world of difference between the Big 12 and the MAC where Gill coached at Buffalo. And 2011 won't be much more enjoyable than 2010. Still, Kansas returns starting quarterback Jordan Webb, talented back James Sims, and seven starters on defense. Plus, they get Kansas State in Lawrence, and that should be just enough to keep the Jayhawks out of the cellar.
10. Kansas State Wildcats: KSU will pin its entire offensive hopes on Tennessee transfer Bryce Brown, who was everybody's high school All American. Unfortunately, Brown was a bust in Knoxville and may be an overrated prospect. And he'll get little help from Bill Snyder's offensive personnel. K-State's defense returns eight starters, but this is the group that allowed enemy ball carriers to average six yards per tote last year.