One of the best times of the year tips off later Thursday as March Madness gets underway.
A Cinderella team is likely to emerge to grab the attention of the entire nation this weekend.
The exact same thing could happen in the Big 12 this fall. TCU and Baylor are clear favorites to win the conference with uncertainty reigning behind the returning co-champions. Yet it wouldn't be a surprise to see a Cinderella team rise into the Big 12 title fight. Here's a look at three teams that could become a Cinderella Big 12 champion in 2015:
Outside observers will look at the departures of Tyler Lockett, B.J. Finney, Jake Waters and Ryan Mueller and assume the Wildcats can't put themselves in Big 12 title contention for the fourth time in five seasons.
Bill Snyder's program is like an undeterred train that just keeps cruising down the track with minimal impact from its surroundings. It doesn't matter who is the conductor, it doesn't really matter if there are new parts in the engine room, the train just keeps on moving forward. No matter what the scenario, the odds are the Wildcats are going to be difficult to beat and will not beat themselves.
Joe Hubener is the favorite to replace Waters at quarterback and KSU has several options at receiver to help mimic the production of Lockett. Even with plenty of offensive questions, the Wildcats promise to have a creative attack that puts the ball in the hands of its best players in unique ways. Defensively, safety Dante Barnett, defensive tackle Travis Britz and cornerback Danzel McDaniel return to be among the best in the Big 12 at their positions and sophomore linebacker Elijah Lee has star potential.
The Cowboys are the easiest Cinderella pick of the bunch after a strong finish to the 2014 season and a roster full of talented returnees. Mike Gundy's program has made people take notice, even being projected as a College Football Playoff participant by ESPN insider Brad Edwards.
Last season, OSU was like a lion cub. It was readily apparent they would eventually be dangerous but just as apparent they weren't quite ready to hunt. Then came Bedlam. The Cowboys notched their first "big game" with a 38-35 road win over Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, transforming from potential predator to bonafide killer. This fall presents the opportunity for Gundy's squad to show they're established hunters and ready to become among the nation's most dangerous teams.
Sophomore quarterback Mason Rudolph is the spark plug who has ignited the preseason praise for the Pokes. But he still has just three total games under his belt, meaning there could be potholes ahead as he learns what it takes to consistently perform at a Big 12 title level. Luckily for the Cowboys, Rudolph's relative inexperience is overridden by eight returning starters on each side of the ball including All-Big 12 defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
It's easy to forget how close the Mountaineers were in 2014. Fresh off the heels of wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State, WVU entered November with the Big 12 title within reach. Three losses in their final four Big 12 games and turnover-filled performances followed to erase the memories of the Mountaineers in the Big 12 title chase.
After two up-and-down seasons in the conference, WVU was like a long-distance traveler in 2014. Nearing the end of a long journey, which included plenty of new roadside views and unexpected turns in the road, the Mountaineers stumbled as they neared the destination as if they forgot to stop for gas. Committing 13 turnovers in the final four regular season games ended Mountaineer dreams of a first Big 12 title.
Heading into the fall, WVU has the speed and athleticism on its roster, from top to bottom, to compete with anyone. The Mountaineers' two games against the Big 12's best resulted in a win over Baylor and narrow one-point loss to TCU in 2014. Dana Holgorsen's team could have the Big 12's best secondary, one of the Big 12's best groups of running backs and plenty of experience at linebacker. If WVU finds a pass rush and a playmaking quarterback, the Mountaineers could rise up the Big 12 standings in a hurry.