Today, we'll start a new series.
Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.
No. 1 on the list is no surprise. We'll begin with the favorites: Oklahoma.
Why the Sooners will win the Big 12
1. They've been there before. Don't underestimate the importance of experience on the big stage. Look back at Oklahoma's four biggest stages of 2010. All came away from home, and Oklahoma answered the bell all four times to win the Big 12 and the Fiesta Bowl. The Sooners jumped on Texas early and held on to win. Facing a third-and-long with a charging OSU team in Stillwater, Oklahoma threw a 76-yard touchdown pass. OSU answered by returning the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, but Oklahoma iced the game with an 82-yard score. The Sooners erased a 17-0 deficit in the Big 12 title game against Nebraska to win. And against UConn, Oklahoma didn't play down to its opponent. Sure, the Sooners tripped up against A&M and Missouri on the road, but neither cost them the Big 12. I won't make this an entire point, but the truth is simple, too: Oklahoma is the best team in the Big 12 entering the season.
2. They can afford to lose a game. If anyone in the Big 12 gets through this year undefeated, it's going to be Oklahoma. Oklahoma hosts Texas A&M, and goes to Oklahoma State (who hasn't beaten the Sooners since 2002, despite being ranked five times since then, and ranked at home against OU three times) for a rematch of last year's classic. It's hard not to like Oklahoma's chances of holding a tiebreaker against fellow contenders OSU and A&M, which would allow for a possible stumble into a Big 12 road loss.
3. It cured its biggest weakness late in 2010. The problem with Oklahoma on the road in 2009 and the better part of 2010 wasn't so much "losing" on the road. It was playing way, way below its usual self on the road. That's why the dominant win over Baylor that preceded Bedlam was such a welcome sign for Sooner fans. Improving to 20-0 all-time against Baylor was no accomplishment, but beating it 53-24 was. It meant Oklahoma had found a way to take its top game on the road, which it did the following week at Oklahoma State and again against Nebraska, and once more in the Fiesta Bowl against UConn. I'd expect that to carry over into this year, and the Sooners will get a chance to prove it against Florida State in Tallahassee in its second game.
Why the Sooners won't win the Big 12
1. The secondary is young and unproven. Both safeties, Jonathan Nelson and All-American Quinton Carter, were NFL draft picks. Javon Harris slides in and will be joined by Aaron Colvin, a converted corner. Both earned rave reviews during the spring, but the fact remains: both have almost no experience at the position and will have to learn a lot as first-time starters. Harris played well against Oklahoma State in relief of an injured Nelson, and Colvin got a start at corner against Texas, but neither has shouldered the kind of weight they will face in the Big 12 this year. With the kind of passers they'll see in the Big 12, this possible weakness could be a problem. Demontre Hurst is solid at corner, but the status of All-Big 12 corner Jamell Fleming, arguably the Big 12's best returner at the position, is in doubt. If he's not back, Gabe Lynn, a sophomore with almost no experience, will start.
2. The pool of contenders is deep. Oklahoma may hold a tiebreaker against A&M and OSU, but what about the rest of the league? Despite what some believed after the Big 12 lost Nebraska, the entire league won't hinge on the Red River Rivalry -- at least not in 2011. There are a handful of other games that will have a heavy influence on the league. Oklahoma's won seven Big 12 titles in 11 years, but just beating Texas or Texas A&M or Oklahoma State won't be enough. Oklahoma's going to have to show up every week.
3. Special teams is uncertain. Oklahoma's punter Tress Way is one of the Big 12's best, but the Sooners could encounter problems elsewhere. Placekicker Jimmy Stevens was solid last year (19-of-23), but Oklahoma tended not to attempt deep kicks. The Sooners attempted just four kicks from beyond 40 yards last year, and none from beyond 50 yards. Stevens was 3-of-4 from 40 yards or longer, but his long was just 41 yards. Additionally, Oklahoma gave up key kickoff returns for touchdowns in losses against Texas A&M and Missouri and another in the fourth quarter that kept Oklahoma State alive. Sooner fans were clamoring for a special teams coordinator hire this offseason, but coach Bob Stoops didn't make one.