With Missouri and Texas A&M’s departure to the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12 is entering its new era. Out with the old, in with the new, as TCU and West Virginia are officially enlisted as the ninth and tenth members of the remodeled alliance. With new teams come new match-ups, and with new match-ups come new potential games of the year. Here is a preseason look at five of the best games on the docket for 2012:
1. West Virginia vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 17, Morgantown, W. Va.)
Many might not be familiar with the West Virginia football program, which has spent the past 21 seasons in the Big East Conference. However, many might be familiar with the Mountaineers’ style of air-it-out spread offense, tailored by head coach Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen has had a couple of stints in the Big 12 already at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Mountaineers will score points and a lot of them, led by senior quarterback Geno Smith (7,451 yds, 56 TDs) who holds numerous passing records at West Virginia and was named to the 2011 First Team All-Big East roster. But Oklahoma can also play pretty sound defense. The secondary of the Sooners is the advantage of their three returning starters, four if you include linebacker-turned-safety Tony Jefferson. Factor in quarterback Landry Jones (12,379 yds, 93 TDs) and a wealth of returning talent on the offense, and you’re looking at a back-and-forth game of quality, high-scoring football. The Nov. 17 match-up could very well decide the Big 12 champion, if not the national champion.
2. Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 13, Dallas)
It seems almost every year the Red River Rivalry is one of the top games in the conference, and that’s because every year it is. This season is no different. In fact, the meeting between the Longhorns and Sooners in October, like the West Virginia-Oklahoma game, could go a long way in deciding how conference standings shape up at the end of the season. You can expect a more defensive match-up as the Longhorns return seven starters on a defense that ranked 11th nationally in 2011. Don’t expect Oklahoma to drop 55 points on Texas like last year, for the growing pains have somewhat subdued and the Longhorns have become a more sound group all around.
3. Kansas State vs. Everybody (Every weekend)
Kansas State stands for everything Big 12 football isn’t. When faced with a third and six, the Wildcats run. On second and twenty-two, quarterback Collin Klein will take the snap in the shotgun and, you guessed it, run. In a conference of pass-happy teams, Kansas State plays methodically by wearing down defenses and taking precious time off the clock. Head coach Bill Snyder, coming into his 21st season with the program, knows the Wildcats will need to rely somewhat more on Klein’s arm than his legs. However, you don’t just shut down the back that rushed for 27 TDs — setting an FBS record for quarterbacks — en route to a 10-3 season with six of those victories coming by a touchdown or less. The reason Kansas State versus everybody will be the game of the year is the Wildcats could have easily gone 4-9 last season and are an injury away from potentially meeting that mark in 2012.
4. Texas vs. West Virginia (Oct. 6, Austin)
The Longhorns get the benefit of hosting both of the newest members of the conference in 2012. Look for this match-up with the Mountaineers to resemble what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The 2012 Longhorn defense could be one of the best ever, just like the West Virginia offense. Texas should be able to match the speed Mountaineer receivers, Stedman Bailey (1,279 yds) and Tavon Austin (1,186 yds) bring to the 40 Acres. The real question is going to be whether Texas will be established or healthy enough on offense to match West Virginia point for point if things on the defense go awry. Quarterback David Ash (1,068 yds, 4 TDs, 8 INTs) might not have to be relied on as much if the “three-headed monster” at running back (Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray) goes K-State on the Mountaineers.
5. TCU vs. Baylor (Oct. 13, Waco)
The Robert Griffin III era has ended at Baylor but not without developing a mass of talent in Waco first. The last time these two squads met up, fans witnessed a 50-48 thriller in which quarterback Robert Griffin III flashed early signs of his Heisman campaign (359 yds passing, 5 TDs) and shocked the Horned Frogs. This season might prove no different as venerated senior quarterback Nick Florence takes the reins of the Bears’ offense. Florence replaced Griffin III for much of the 2009 season due to injury and in a vital spot versus Texas Tech last season. He has proven himself as not flashy but able to lead an offense. Baylor returns one of the deepest offensive lines in the country and a wealth of talent at running back and wide receiver. TCU returns a load of skill as well. Quarterback Casey Pachall established himself quickly post-Andy Dalton (2,921 yds, 25 TDs) and led the Horned Frogs to an 11-2 season last year. Add in four more returning starters at skill positions alone on the offense, and it’s hard to say who will win.