As we had into the last week of the regular season, here’s how I rank the Big 12 teams.
1. Texas: The Longhorns are aiming squarely ahead at the BCS title game. Victories over Texas A&M on Thursday night and against Nebraska next week will get them there. Their offense has developed a variety of weapons around Colt McCoy and the defense has gotten better as the season has continued. They haven’t been tested in any Big 12 game since the Oklahoma game. Maybe that challenge comes this week at Kyle Field.
2. Oklahoma State: A dramatic comeback orchestrated by third-stringer Brandon Weeden got them past upset-minded Colorado last week and kept their BCS at-large hopes alive. Zac Robinson is still a 50-50 proposition to play Saturday at Oklahoma. This game puts the Cowboys in the position that Oklahoma always has seemed to be in previous games in the series, having to win to keep to boost their BCS hopes. One underrated factor in the Cowboys' recent charge is that the Cowboys' defense is playing with determination and tenacity. But it’s hard to believe the Cowboys can go into Norman and give Bob Stoops his third career home loss unless Robinson plays -- and plays well.
3. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have wrapped up their fifth North Division title and first since 2006. This arguably might be the least talented Nebraska team to win a North title. But if the Blackshirts continue playing like they have down the stretch, they’ll have a puncher’s chance of stealing an upset victory from the Longhorns.
4. Texas Tech: New nicknames aside, Texas Tech quarterback Taylor “Nick” Potts might be the streakiest player in the league. When he’s on, the Red Raiders have the same kind of offense that has marked some of Mike Leach’s best teams. But when not or he’s been injured, the Red Raiders fall far behind that level. The biggest reasons the Red Raiders could soar as high as the Cotton Bowl in the conference's pecking order are because their defense has played with an edge and Baron Batch has evolved into one of the most valuable and versatile players in the conference.
5. Oklahoma: One of Bob Stoops’ biggest embarrassments in his Oklahoma coaching career took place Saturday in Lubbock when the Sooners were humbled by Texas Tech. For the first time all season, the Oklahoma defense struggled and appeared to give up on the Red Raiders' final scoring drive. Before that backbone collapsed, the Oklahoma offense crumbled along with it as the Sooners lost by 28 points. Despite the bitter disappointments that have marked the season, the Sooners can spoil Oklahoma State’s BCS bowl hopes by winning the Bedlam game. Will the Sooners’ pride enable them to defend their nation-best 29-game home winning streak? We’ll see on Saturday.
6. Missouri: The North’s second-best team down the stretch has been the Tigers, who are jelling behind the pass-and-catch combination of Blaine Gabbert and Danario Alexander. Their late run has been accentuated by the return of a running game that was dormant most of the season. If the Tigers can finish strongly, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Tigers could end up at the Cotton Bowl. An impressive victory over Kansas might get them there.
7. Texas A&M: The Big 12’s most underrated and perhaps most productive passer down the stretch has been Jerrod Johnson, who has orchestrated the Aggies’ late charge to a bowl game. Sure, his team has been streaky and the defense hasn’t played with a pulse at times earlier in the season. Some of that can be ascribed to the number of young players playing significant roles. Escaping the Big 12 South cellar and making a bowl game has been a positive step for this team. And beating Texas on Thursday night would qualify as a huge momentum surge heading into the bowls and recruiting season.
8. Kansas State: No bowl game for this bunch, but it still doesn’t diminish the coaching job that Bill Snyder did. Considering Grant Gregory and Daniel Thomas both didn’t arrive until fall practice began speaks to the huge transformation this team made. In the end, the Wildcats were bitten by a weak nonconference schedule and their lack of productivity against the North Division’s best teams. But putting things into perspective, this group might have overachieved more than any Big 12 team this season.
9. Iowa State: The Cyclones likely now will be assured of going bowling, and the extra practice alone will make this a worthwhile endeavor for Paul Rhoads’ team. Austen Arnaud kept ISU in the game at Missouri until its pedestrian secondary wore out against Missouri's athletic receivers. The biggest challenge for Rhoads will be to start attracting the kind of recruits that will enable his team to start narrowing that talent gap with the rest of the league.
10. Kansas: Coaching questions aside, the Jayhawks still could make a bowl trip with an upset victory over Missouri Saturday in Kansas City. It’s almost the same situation as last season, when the Jayhawks stunned the Tigers when most had given up on them. Can Mark Mangino rally his troops one more time as his direction of the program has never been under such duress?
11. Baylor: All Baylor fans will likely wonder what might have happened if Robert Griffin hadn’t gotten injured in the third game of the season. That malady doomed the Bears from that point forward as they skidded to a 4-7 record. Griffin will be back next year, but the loss of key defensive players like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake can’t be overstated. Art Briles had Baylor’s momentum shooting upward heading into the season. It’s taken a step back now. And in the South Division it will be a tremendous challenge for him to get his program pointed in the right direction.
12. Colorado: The Buffaloes’ loss at Oklahoma State was their season in a microcosm. This group isn’t bereft of talent and might have been a bowl team with a couple of breaks. But critical mistakes with turnovers and penalties doomed them over and over again. It sounds like Dan Hawkins’ status already has been determined. And if -- or when -- a new coach is hired, he’ll have some talent to mold. He just better work on fundamentals with this group.