State of Big 12 looks stronger than ever

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas coach Mack Brown has been around college football long enough to know about how a conference's national perception can be shaped even before a season begins.

Brown has taken the bully pulpit all summer that the Big 12 is at its strongest level that he's ever seen heading into his 11th season coaching the Longhorns.

"This will be the best balanced league since I've been here," said Brown, the league's current dean of coaches.

Coaches voting in the USA Today poll released last week appear to agree with Brown. Five Big 12 teams are ranked among the top 14 teams in the country. That concentration at the top is more than any other conference in the country. It's also the most Big 12 teams ranked that highly in the history of the conference.

A boatload of returning quarterbacks has made most observers think the Big 12 again will be an offensive league. That will come after conference teams averaged a record 31.2 points and 428.7 total yards per game in conference play last season.

Because of that, a serious case could be made that any of five returning starters -- Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Kansas' Todd Reesing -- could have a legitimate chance for a trip to the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City in December. That is, if they can combine a big statistical season with luck and team success.

But Brown says the Big 12 will be better for other reasons.

"Everybody is better," Brown said. "And it's not only because of the quarterbacks, but also because all of the coaches have done such a great job. Everybody in this league has got a good football team now. And because of that, you can no longer just plan on winning a game in this league. You're going to have to earn the right to win it."

The offensive swing should continue as 10 teams return starting quarterbacks from last season. Only Iowa State and Nebraska are looking for a new starter. And although Nebraska lost Sam Keller, all backup Joe Ganz did was pass for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final three starts last season.

That offensive firepower and the lack of defensive depth across the conference should result in a lot of shootouts again this season.

The Sooners made history last season by claiming the league's first back-to-back championship. It marked Coach Bob Stoops' fifth Big 12 championship in the last eight seasons. But another stumble in a BCS bowl -- the Sooners' fourth-straight BCS bowl-game loss -- has diminished some of Stoops' luster and made the Sooners hungry for redemption on a larger scale.

Missouri is picked to be the Sooners' biggest challenger for the title, despite losing twice to them last season. Daniel and most of his offense is back. The Tigers also won't have to potentially face the Sooners this season until the championship game - which will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Texas Tech, Kansas and Missouri all have the highest expectations in more than 30 years as each looks for its first Big 12 championship. All will be looking for their first Big 12 title as they try to break up the Oklahoma-Texas logjam that has resulted in six of the conference's eight last championships.

Another trend to watch will be seen as three of the conference's top five contenders will be breaking in new defensive coordinators. Fiery Will Muschamp arrives at Texas from Auburn. Wily veteran Bill Young left Kansas for Miami, paving the ascension for his protégé Clint Bowen as his replacement. And Ruffin McNeill was hired as Texas Tech's permanent defensive coordinator after serving as the Red Raiders' interim defensive coordinator most of last season.

With all of the league's elite seemingly so strong on offense, defense will likely determine the conference winner. Oklahoma and Missouri appear to have the best defensive units from those five power teams heading into the season.

Whether that strength will enable the Big 12 to make a forceful assertion as the nation's strongest conference will be determined as the season plays out. LSU was able to make its claim for a shot at the national championship with two regular-season losses and a couple of narrow escapes in 2007.

A Big 12 team has never been able to lose that many games and still be in the national title hunt. It will be interesting if Brown's early spinning and similar comments from other league coaches sell that notion to enough balloters that it could become a reality in December.