Way-Too-Early Big 12 Predictions Part One

Several teams have a legitimate shot at the 2013 Big 12 title. Who has the best shot after the NFL Early Entry deadline? Here's a way-too-early look.

1) Texas (2012 Record: 9-4)

S&P+: 27 (Offense: 21, Defense: 33)

Texas fans have been pointing toward 2013 for what seems like a couple seasons now. The Longhorns return just about everybody from a year ago, losing just Marquise Goodwin and tight end D.J. Grant on offense, and Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro off the entire defensive two-deep. The latter two may seem like bigger losses, but remember that the Longhorns also get back top linebacker Jordan Hicks, who received an injury redshirt for the 2012 season, and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who missed the last several games of the season. Getting a healthy Malcolm Brown back doesn't hurt either, especially when he's paired with Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron. David Ash took a (mostly unnoticed) leap forward in 2012, and could do so again in 2013 while throwing to Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. And all five starters return from the 2012 offensive line, though the Longhorns are trying to upgrade a spot or two there. The defense ended the year playing better than it started the year, with the injuries to Hicks and Jeffcoat fostering much-needed depth. Texas also gets Oklahoma State in Austin this season, while the game with Oklahoma (as always) is a neutral-site contest. Can the defense take a step back to where it was in 2011? If it can, with the Longhorns' improved offense, this squad looks like the team (or at least one of the teams) to beat. One really huge caveat: If this is going to be the year Texas "is back", the Longhorns have to get over whatever mental block comes with playing the Red River Shootout.

2) Oklahoma State (8-5)

S&P+: 24 (Offense: 24, Defense: 28)

The Cowboys could use a blindfold to pick their quarterback for next year and still wind up with an experienced option who won games in 2012. Last time they were in competition, Wes Lunt won the battle, though J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf were both steadier in game action. Losing Joseph Randle early to the draft hurts, as he really had the feet and vision to slice apart defenses spread thin by the Cowboy passing attack, one that returns receivers Josh Stewart and Charlie Moore. Stewart might just be the top returning receiver in the Big 12. Mainstay Lane Taylor is gone from the offensive line, but the Cowboys have had success replacing players at that spot over the past several years, with Parker Graham potentially being the next all-league candidate. Defensively, Oklahoma State could make a leap forward, with defensive tackles Calvin Barnett and James Castleman returning in front of talented linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis. Add in the return of Justin Gilbert and the continued development of Kevin Peterson at cornerback, then Daytawion Lowe at safety, and Oklahoma State has some great pieces. A loss that few will talk about: Quinn Sharp graduates after spending multiple years as arguably the Big 12's best kicker and punter.

3) TCU (7-6)

S&P+: 37 (Offense: 80, Defense: 13)

The Horned Frogs appeared poised to have an easy and indisputable claim as the Big 12's top returning defense before Stansly Maponga elected to go pro. He was largely banged-up in 2012, ushering in the outstanding season for Devonte Fields, but it helped having two elite pass-rushers up front. Still, with Fields, Chucky Hunter, Joel Hasley, Jason Verrett and Sam Carter back, the Horned Frogs have playmakers at just about every level and should again field an outstanding defensive unit. And that's without adding in any of the talented young talent stockpiled by coach Gary Patterson. The question then turns to the Horned Frog offense. Sure, Trevone Boykin returns at quarterback, but so does Casey Pachall. Pachall is the better player, but would Boykin's mobility and legs in the running game be the better fit, especially after losing star receiver Josh Boyce to the draft? Brandon Carter certainly had his moments a year ago, while B.J. Catalon and former five-star transfer Aaron Green should hold down the running game. The Horned Frogs did lose some key players along the offensive line, including Blaize Foltz and James Fry, but they've recruited well at those positions. Don't be surprised if TCU makes a run at the Big 12 title, especially with a schedule that has both Texas and Oklahoma State coming to Fort Worth.

4) Oklahoma (10-3)

S&P+: 12 (Offense: 20, Defense: 14)

You can't ever count out the Sooners in a Big 12 title hunt, and I think that teams 1-4 all have a great shot to win the league. The Sooners have had more losses than any of the three teams above them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Using the latest Sooner depth chart, Oklahoma must replace seven starters on that side of the ball, including all of their depth at defensive tackle. But the loss that hurts the most is playmaker Tony Jefferson jumping to the pros, leaving the Sooners awfully young in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Aaron Colvin and nickel back Gabe Lynn are the only returning starters there, though Colvin should contend for All-Big 12 honors. With weak spots in front and in the back, it could be a long season on that side of the ball. Offensively, Oklahoma must replace quarterback Landry Jones, his two top receivers in Kenny Stills and Justin Brown and left tackle Lane Johnson. But whoever wins the battle between Blake Bell, Drew Allen and Trevor Knight will have plenty of weapons. A running back group that includes Damien Williams, fullback Trey Millard and top recruit Keith Ford should be excellent, as should a receiving corps that brings back Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard. And other than Johnson, the offensive line is in-tact with All-Big 12'er Gabe Ikard leading the charge. If Oklahoma can overcome its defensive issues, watch out.

5) Baylor (8-5)

S&P+: 32 (Offense: 11, Defense: 76)

Baylor was one of the hottest teams in the Big 12 at the end of the season, and a big part of the reason why was the emergence of Lache Seastrunk as possibly the Big 12's most explosive back. And with the Bears losing quarterback Nick Florence and receivers Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson to graduation, expect to see Seastrunk, and running mate Glasco Martin, get the ball more next season. Especially considering the Bears have a quarterback who could be a physical runner in Bryce Petty, and an offensive line that returns three starters, including All-Big 12 guard Cyril Richardson. But the Bears won't be running the Wishbone or anything, with explosive receivers like Tevin Reese back, it makes sense to keep airing the ball out some. Defensively, Baylor took a big jump forward at the end of the year, and they return both defensive ends and an excellent linebacker core of Bryce Hager, Eddie Lackey and Ahmad Dixon. The Bears will have to replace both defensive tackles, as well as a cornerback and a safety, but Baylor returns a number of young prospects who got their feet wet a year ago and who could improve the defense further. If Baylor can continue its run of strong quarterback play, this team has a dark horse look about it.

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