Overview: The Sooners appear, on paper, to be the nation's strongest team. Offensively, they're loaded with Landry Jones back at quarterback and an excellent group of receivers to throw to, led by Ryan Broyles. Four of five offensive linemen also return. Defensively, they bring back nine of the 12 players listed as starters heading into the bowl game. That includes a high-level edge rusher in Frank Alexander and an emerging defensive tackle duo of Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland. The back end must replace both safeties.
Position Battle To Watch: Running back. Gone is DeMarco Murray, who graduated with his name adorning the Sooner record books. Mossis Madu also used up his eligibility, leaving sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay as the top backs. Just a junior, Jermie Calhoun has yet to live up to his potential. Incoming freshman Brandon Williams should also factor in.
Newcomers: Brandon Williams, Trey Metoyer, Jordan Phillips. Sooner coach Bob Stoops finds a way to get the best players on the field, and Metoyer and Williams could play from day one at receiver and running back, respectively. Phillips is one of the top players in the Sooner class, an agile and disruptive defensive tackle.
Way-Too-Early Prediction: There are several potential trip-ups on the Big 12 slate, so don't expect the Sooners to run roughshod over every opponent. Having said that, Oklahoma has the talent and experience to take care of business and get back to the National Championship game.
2) Texas A&M
Overview: The Aggies were twice a surprise team in 2010, first for how poorly they played, then for how well they rebounded. Ryan Tannehill, Cyrus Gray and Jeff Fuller give the Aggies a nice offensive base to work with, as do offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Defensively, Texas A&M must try to replace the irreplaceable, Von Miller, who was a one-man wrecking crew, as well as Michael Hodges, the leader of the defense. But with eight returning defensive starters, along with Damontre Moore, who had 5.5 sacks in relief of Miller a year ago, the Aggies should continue to get better on that side of the ball.
Position Battle To Watch: Nose tackle. The Aggie defense improved dramatically a year ago, but still allowed opponents to rush for 130.2 yards per game. Part of that problem came from nose tackle, where both Jonathan Mathis and Eddie Brown Jr. weigh less than 300 pounds. To fix the problem, Aggie coach Mike Sherman went to the JUCO ranks for LaMarc Strahan, a mammoth 350-pound nose tackle who could aid things just by clogging up the middle of the line.
Newcomers: Strahan, Howard Matthews, Devonta Burns. Strahan should play a role at nose tackle immediately. Both Matthews and Burns were highly regarded safeties who are coming in at a need position for the Aggies. Don't be surprised if one, or both of them find their way onto the two-deep.
Way-Too-Early Prediction: The Aggies have a few playmakers to replace defensively before someone can get comfortable with them as a challenger to Oklahoma. But this was the Big 12's hottest team at year end, one that discovered stability with Tannehill at quarterback and the multi-talented Gray at running back. The Aggies return a number of key players, as well as a wealth of overall starters — nine on offense, eight on defense — as well as a ton of experienced depth (backup QB Jerrod Johnson is the only graduated backup listed on the two-deep). That should be enough to enjoy a double-digit victory season.
Overview: Kendall Hunter is gone, but the biggest loss offensively is probably coordinator Dana Holgorsen. How Oklahoma State fills that vacancy could tell volumes about their staying power. Whoever gets the job will have nice toys in quarterback Brandon Weeden, running backs Joe Randle and Jeremy Smith and receiver Justin Blackmon. All five offensive linemen also return, led by right tackle Levy Adcock. Defensively, it's not nearly as rosy with the Cowboys losing six starters, including five in the front seven. Still, Shaun Lewis is a good young player at linebacker, and Markelle Martin and Johnny Thomas make up a good safety duo.
Position Battle To Watch: Middle linebacker. Defensive coordinator Bill Young has a history of churning out linebackers who play at a high level. Graduated senior Orie Lemon was his most recent example, a tackling machine who led the defense with his strong play. Sophomore Caleb Lavey is the most experienced candidate, and he had just 10 tackles a year ago.
Newcomers: Herschel Sims, Ryan Simmons, Matt Green. Sims is listed as a soft verbal and could well go elsewhere. If he stays put, he'll factor into a deep and talented running back group. Simmons is outstanding at finding the football and would fill a need at middle linebacker. Green is one of two kickers on roster with a chance to replace Lou Groza Award winner Dan Bailey.
Way-Too-Early Prediction: It's tough to get too bully about a team with the defensive losses that Oklahoma State had. Sure, the offense is great to look at, but will it be as explosive without Holgorsen? Only time will tell. And even the most explosive offenses have off days, meaning the Cowboys will have to stop somebody eventually. When that time comes, will they have the personnel to do it? Still, the Cowboy offense should be enough to get the Cowboys at least eight wins, maybe more.
Overview: The Longhorns were low on wins in 2010, but should be high on talent in 2011. Additionally, positions that took their lumps a year ago: running back, receiver and offensive line, especially, should be in much better position to excel this year. Defensively, Texas can build around front seven players like Jackson Jeffcoat, Kheeston Randall, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. The defensive backfield could be a weakness, as Texas loses its top three cornerbacks from a year ago. Experienced depth at defensive end is another concern. But the biggest question mark may be on the coaching staff, with the Longhorns replacing six of nine assistant coaches in the offseason. How they'll work together is a big unknown.
Position Battle To Watch: Quarterback. Garrett Gilbert took plenty of criticism for his first season, some deserved, some not. He struggled with turnovers and put up much of his stats after games were already decided, but also had to fight through personnel issues at other positions. He'll get a clean slate for 2011, but so will his competitors, Case McCoy, Connor Wood and true freshman David Ash, who enrolled for the spring. Wood appears to have the best shot to unseat Gilbert, though Gilbert's added experience could give him a leg up, even in a new system.
Newcomers: Malcolm Brown, Jaxon Shipley, Cedric Reed. Brown is one of the top running backs in the class of 2011, and he steps into an ideal running back situation with no proven go-to-guy. Shipley fits perfectly in the slot, another position of need for the Texas offense. And Reed will be playing on a spot that is light in depth. One of the cornerbacks could also play early on opposite Carrington Byndom.
Way-Too-Early Prediction: Texas should be better than it was a year ago, when the Longhorns went 5-7. How much better remains to be seen. It's worth noting that, even with the poor season a year ago, Texas still caused problems for Oklahoma and Texas A&M, the South's top two teams, and beat Nebraska in Lincoln. So there's potential there. It might be too early to go penning the Longhorns for 10-win seasons again, but they aren't that far off, and could see that point again in 2012.
Overview: The Tigers beat both Oklahoma and Texas A&M a year ago, and figured to factor into the Big 12 race in 2011. But that was before Blaine Gabbert and Aldon Smith declared early for the NFL Draft. James Franklin will take over for Gabbert, and he'll get to work with a talented backfield, receiving corps and offensive line as his reward. Defensively, Missouri must replace Smith, who made the whole unit better, though Brad Madison can get to the quarterback. The Tigers must also find a way to replace three of four starters in the defensive backfield, along with Andrew Gachkar at linebacker.
Position Battle To Watch: Cornerback. Never a position of strength for the Tigers under Gary Pinkel, cornerback has often been a target of criticism. The Tigers do have some nice young athletes at the position like Kip Edwards, Trey Hobson and E.J. Gaines, but those players will need to grow up in a hurry to keep Missouri from having too many track meets in 2011.
Newcomers: Sheldon Richardson. Missouri returns enough starters from a year ago that not many members of their small 2011 class figures to play right away. Richardson is an exception. He's still somewhat raw, but has outstanding measurables for the position. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, Richardson actually played defensive end at College of the Sequoias last year, but projects as a tackle at Missouri. He has exceptional quickness and closing speed.
Way-Too-Early Prediction: Missouri still has the talent to make some noise, and the Tigers will probably look a little bit different with Franklin, who is more of a running threat, lining up in the shotgun. But the Tigers are in need of a couple players to step up as playmakers on both sides of the ball. Without that, it would be hard to envision them moving up any higher than this spot. As is, the Tigers should fight to win eight games or so, with a winning record in league play.
Stay Tuned for Part Two.