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 was the favorite: Oklahoma.
And now, we'll tackle the fifth and final team that I could realistically see winning the Big 12.
And yes, it's the team racking up good will from its conference brethren at a record rate.
Why the Longhorns will win the Big 12
1. They're Texas. You've heard it before, and cliche or not, it isn't meaningless. "They're Texas" simply means the Longhorns aren't short on athletes. Defensively, that was true even last year. Offensively, did Texas recruit a handful of guys that either a) haven't panned out or b) haven't fit into the offensive scheme well? The answer to that was pretty obvious after Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley checked out for the NFL. But Texas has the athletes on defense, and 2010 struggles aside, the potential for big years is there for running back Malcolm Brown and receiver Mike Davis. If Garrett Gilbert can bounce back from last year, or whoever Texas puts out there at quarterback plays well, and the offensive line can at least be decent, Texas will look radically different.
2. Last year's team was a lot better than 5-7. Mack Brown has repeatedly emphasized it, but he's not blowing smoke. Combine two simple stats from last year and Texas likely would have won 7-8 games. In 2009, when Texas went to the national title game, it turned the ball over 28 times and forced 37 turnovers. Last year, it turned the ball over just two additional times, totaling 30. The Longhorns, though, forced just 18 turnovers, including a big drop from 25 interceptions in 2009 to just eight in 2010. That margin put the Horns ahead of just three teams in all of college football. There's a lot of reasons for the drop in forced interceptions (not leading games and forcing teams to pass, weak pass rush, etc.) but there's no way that number will be as low in 2011. Manny Diaz's defense has emphasized forcing turnovers since Day 1, including pre-practice drills the Longhorns hadn't previously done. Additionally, Texas lost four games by one possession, and a couple bounces of the ball could have landed the Longhorns in the postseason, making the chasm between last year's last-place finish in the Big 12 South and a first-place finish in the Big 12 this year look much less imposing.
3. There's a renewed sense of purpose. Texas restocked its staff with rising talents in the coaching profession and guys eager to make a name for themselves. Additionally, Mack Brown has lauded his team's offseason efforts, no doubt aided by having to stare at the garish 5-7 record in 2010 next to all those double-digit totals for almost a decade before them. You're crazy if you don't think that's major motivation for a team that should have good leadership behind guys like Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho, Blake Gideon and Fozzy Whittaker. That will manifest itself on the field.
Why the Longhorns won't win the Big 12
1. There isn't enough offensive production. For now, Texas has an underwhelming offensive line to block for a corps of running backs with two seniors who have never topped 600 yards in a season. Much-hyped incoming freshman Malcolm Brown won't join the team until fall camp, though he's on campus this summer. Texas has no receivers who have ever topped 550 yards in a single season or caught more than two touchdown passes in any given year. And there's an uncertain quarterback competition between three guys with no meaningful career snaps and another with 12 starts, 17 picks and just 10 touchdowns. Not exactly the recipe for a Big 12 champ.
2. The list of contenders is deeper than most years. This isn't your favorite college football-glossing fan's Big 12, which hinges on the Red River Rivalry every year. Texas can't hope to best Oklahoma in Dallas and cruise to a Big 12 title. If Texas does knock of OU, it's still going to have to beat Oklahoma State, Texas A&M (in College Station, by the way) and Missouri (in Columbia). If it can't do that, or at least finish with 1-2 losses, the Longhorns won't have a chance. There is zero chance the Big 12 champion will have three losses.
3. Players won't have either new system down in time. We haven't seen much from Texas, outside of its spring game, but this postgame quote from Diaz, the new defensive coordinator, definitely raised my eyebrows: "We are a defense that has to do everything right to be successful, and on the plays when 11 guys lock in and do their job, we are hard to move against. But we still have very little margin of error when we don't play within our technique or we don't play within our assignments." So what, pray tell, happens when all 11 guys aren't doing everything right? It's reasonable to suggest that in a new system, that might happen, and combined with the offensive issues we discussed earlier, 2011 could be another tough year for Texas. Of course, if things do come together and that potential becomes production, Texas might end up back on top of the Big 12.