Big 12 looks to build on banner 2008 season

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The conference that pushed the pregame flyover taunt into vogue last season -- along with some pretty neat aerial numbers once the games began -- is back for much more this season.

The Big 12's controversial South Division title race grabbed the attention of college football last season with an unprecedented three-way tie that eventually pushed Oklahoma into the Big 12 title game over Texas and Texas Tech on the fifth tiebreaker.

Understandably, that tempest prompted angst among rival fans that left them with frayed feelings as the excruciatingly tight battle between the three blood rivals played out.

That controversy almost overshadowed a memorable Big 12 season that featured a Heisman Trophy winner, a Heisman runner-up, two teams in BCS bowls, another participant in the BCS national championship game, four schools with 10 wins and more offensive records than any in the league's 13-season history.

Defensive struggles in bowl games were a different matter. But who needs to worry about defense, particularly when the league's national profile skyrocketed along with the South Division's wild race?

Seemingly every week became bigger as points and passing yardage mushroomed to record levels. The NCAA's conference-by-conference statistics indicated the Big 12 led the rest of the nation in total yards (439.6 per team), total points (35.6 per team), yards per play (6.19) and total plays (71 per game per team).

The conference had five of the nation's top eight passing offenses last season, seven of the nation's top 17 teams in pass efficiency, five of the nation's top nine scoring offenses and six of the top 12 teams in total offense.

And the scary thing is, those pinball numbers might just be a warm-up for this season.

With Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy of Texas back for another season, the conference has two of the nation's top quarterbacks back to lead their teams in a national championship charge.

And with quarterbacks like Zac Robinson of Oklahoma State, Robert Griffin of Baylor, Todd Reesing of Kansas across the conference, no conference can boast the depth of top passing offenses as the Big 12. In another year when Bradford and McCoy weren't playing, any of those quarterbacks would have a legitimate claim for all-conference honors. In all, eight starting quarterbacks are back.

"I don't know of a league that can boast having better quarterbacks," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "You don't even have to be prejudiced to make that statement."

Texas coach Mack Brown raised eyebrows last season when he said the league had never been balanced. It didn't exactly play out that way as the South Division claimed another Big 12 title -- the division's fifth straight -- among a 16-3 edge that ranked as tied for the most one-sided between the two divisions in league history.

But Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy points out that consistent improvement across the league should make it more balanced this season.

"I don't see much SEC football, Pac-10 or anybody else," Gundy said. "But one thing that people don't talk about much is the 'lower half,' whoever that may be depending on the preseason polls. And in this conference, you better be careful playing those teams because they have guys who all can make plays."

The three power teams from the South Division -- Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State -- seem to be at another level from the rest of the conference. But the North Division looks legitimately balanced with any of three or four teams capable of challenging for the title, depending on who gets hot.

Missouri will be rebuilding as its tries for its third straight North title game appearance. Nebraska looks primed for a charge at the divisional title under second-year coach Bo Pelini. Kansas appears to have the best talent, but also faces the toughest schedule. And Colorado is the mystery team, even as coach Dan Hawkins claimed after last season that his team will win 10 games in 2009.

All of the Big 12 teams are chasing the Sooners, who made history last season by becoming the Big 12's first school to win three consecutive conference championships. It marked Stoops' sixth Big 12 title in the past nine seasons. No other Big 12 coach has won more than one.

Some of the national luster of that dynastic performance was dimmed by Oklahoma's 24-14 loss to Florida in the BCS title game. It was the Sooners' fifth straight BCS loss and third since 2004 in the national title game.

To get back there again, the Sooners will have to navigate the Big 12 South Division that is arguably the toughest in college football.

Whether the rest of the conference ranks with that stature is debatable. But Big 12 games still will be a lot of fun to watch as that argument plays out.