Oklahoma State: What can the Cowboys do for an encore?
The Cowboys have improved seemingly every year in the Mike Gundy era, but it will be difficult to top last year's results that saw Oklahoma State win 11 games and finish in a three-way tie for the Big 12 South crown.
Talent-wise, the Cowboys should be as good as they've ever been. Back are key passing duo Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, the Big 12's best offensive line and a stable of running backs. Defensively, six starters return with a potential talent upgrade along the defensive line.
But what's next? Oklahoma State's results last year were impressive, but they beat Troy and Texas A&M by a combined six points and accomplished their results by finishing second in the league, and 11th nationally, in turnover margin.
Will those breaks continue to go the Cowboys' way? And while the Cowboys are upgrading their talent, so too is the rest of the Big 12. Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas all have the talent to take a bite out of the Cowboys, and only one of those games is at home.
Many very good programs have had to take a step back before they take a step forward. The question is: will Oklahoma State take a step back in 2011? Or will the Cowboys make a run at sole possession of the league title?
Baylor: Sure, you can score, but can you stop teams from putting up points?
At the heart of the Bears' success last season was the offense. Blessed with speed on the outside, Robert Griffin III at quarterback and Jay Finley at running back, Baylor put up 21.2 points per game. But still, the season wasn't what it could have been, thanks in large part to a defense that allowed 30.5 points per contest, fourth-worst in the Big 12 and the worst of any team hoping to compete for a Big 12 title.
Replacing Finley is a concern. But a bigger concern is building a strong defense after losing arguably the two most effective players from last year's group. Much like in baseball, a strong football defense is typically one that is sturdy up the middle. That's bad news then for the Bears, who lost top-notch nose tackle Phil Taylor as well as gifted safety Byron Landor, who made 127 tackles a year ago.
And so the Bears find themselves in a similar, if not even more precarious spot than they did a year ago: with what looks like another explosive offense and a defense that could struggle to keep up.
Missouri: Can James Franklin get the job done?
OK, so the Tigers' season will likely come down to more than one man. But Missouri expects to have arguably its best and most athletic defense under Coach Gary Pinkel, and offensively, seemingly everyone returns but quarterback Blaine Gabbert and longtime center Tim Barnes.
While Barnes won't be easy to replace, his absence is negated somewhat on a line that brings back four starters. And Franklin will be surrounded by experienced and talented running backs, an All-American at tight end and a deep receiving corps. So if any quarterback in the league is in "please, just don't beat us" mode, it would be Franklin.
But Franklin is also important in that his spot in the starting lineup could signify something of a philosophical shift for the Tigers. While he can throw, he's especially gifted as a runner, when his athleticism and physical running style can come into play. That means that, contrary to recent throw-the-ball-all-over-the-yard seasons, Missouri could employ more of a physical, zone-read scheme for a large portion of its offense.
The Tigers have the offensive line and the running backs to do so, and Franklin's size serves as a direct contrast to that of the typically quick-but-undersized Missouri running backs. He could, it would seem, play the fullback role and grind out the tough yardage between the tackles.
And that's why Franklin is so important, both from a schematic standpoint and as the signal caller for the offense that seems to have everything else.
Texas: What's the goal for 2011?
A bit vague? Sure. But so is any perception of how the Longhorns will perform this season. On one hand, Longhorn coach Mack Brown said this spring that Texas was the thinnest squad he'd had since arriving in 1998. On the other, Longhorn upperclassmen were reared on 10-win seasons, and players like Keenan Robinson, Blake Gideon and Emmanuel Acho aren't likely to be content with an eight-win year and generating positive momentum.
One thing is for sure: this is a team packed with young talent, a group that's good enough to make a more serious run in 2012. So the largely new coaching staff will need to balance a small but strong group of seniors against a roster largely stocked with unproven youngsters. A result better than last season's 5-7 is a must. But after that obvious metric, what exactly should Texas shoot for?
With a brutally tough schedule, Texas will have to weigh the desire to win now with the need to get its young nucleus up-to-speed for 2012. And how the staff handles that could determine the results of both seasons.
Texas A&M: What's it like to have expectations?
Historically, the A&M program is used to high expectations by virtue of the always-high (some would say overly high) standards of Aggie fans. But when was the last time the Aggies went into the season as bona-fide top-10 contenders?
The last time the Aggies entered the season as a top-15 team in either the AP or ESPN preseason polls was all the way back in 1999, so it's not like Coach Mike Sherman and the current A&M crop are used to entering the season in this kind of pressure cooker. In fact, last season saw Sherman hit with a different kind of pressure. After a slow start, many people thought that his seat was growing hotter than a College Station summer. But the team rallied behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Cyrus Gray, one of the country's top runners over the last six or seven games.
Now, the Aggies must adjust to being the hunted, rather than the hunters. While Oklahoma is considered to be the general favorite, most people have A&M and Oklahoma State right on the edge (either in or out) of the top-10. But with that lofty ranking, and a bevy of returning starters, comes expectations, ones that could be difficult to reach without defensive superstar Von Miller, a playmaker who made everyone around him better.
The pressure to perform is always on the Aggies. But this year, it's going to be a bit stronger than it has been recently.