Daniel, Maclin make Tigers an early favorite

A caste system exists as the Big 12 heads into spring practice. Five teams -- Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas -- have legitimate shots at the conference title and a BCS appearance. All of the others with the exception of Baylor should have bowl hopes.

Missouri returns two Heisman Trophy candidates in Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin. Texas Tech has the most returning talent. Kansas has confidence developed by its surprising 12-1 record in 2007, but the Jayhawks will be facing a significantly more difficult schedule. Usual conference favorites Oklahoma and Texas have talent, but questions to answer. OU is the two-time defending conference champion, but how will the Sooners recover from a second straight Fiesta Bowl loss? Texas endured the biggest staff transformation in Mack Brown's tenure.

Here's how the Big 12 teams rank heading into spring practice.

1. Missouri Tigers

What we know: The Tigers lost few key players and return the conference's best quarterback (Chase Daniel) and most explosive receiving/return threat (Jeremy Maclin).
What we don't know: If the Tigers will find one replacement for tailback Tony Temple or have to rely on a rotation of players.
How the Tigers can get to Kansas City: By continuing the defensive improvement that marked the second half of their 2007 season.

2. Oklahoma Sooners

What we know: The Sooners will be angry coming off their second straight Fiesta Bowl loss and use that embarrassing defeat as motivation.
What we don't know: If brittle LB Ryan Reynolds really can fill the huge void left by Curtis Lofton's surprise departure for the NFL.

How the Sooners can get to Kansas City: Keeping QB Sam Bradford healthy and developing playmakers to replace Lofton, wide receiver Malcolm Kelly and corner Reggie Smith.

3. Texas Longhorns

What we know: Spring practice will be a lot more animated for the Longhorns' defense with the arrival of new coordinator Will Muschamp.
What we don't know: Whether Vondrell McGee or another back will emerge as Jamaal Charles' replacement. Whoever wins the job will be running behind one of the best lines in college football.
How the Longhorns can get to Kansas City: By responding to the tougher edge that will be a mantra from Brown's retooled coaching staff. Beating Oklahoma wouldn't hurt, either.

4. Texas Tech Red Raiders

What we know: With the return of 18 starters, expectations are shooting through the roof in Lubbock.
What we don't know: If the defense can take another step forward under new coordinator Ruffin McNeill. The Raiders' defense played better down the stretch last season, but it must take another step forward to move from good to great.
How the Red Raiders can get to Kansas City: If the defense keeps improving and Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree both produce another monster season.

5. Kansas Jayhawks

What we know: Mark Mangino's orchestrated the most dramatic turnaround in the nation. It will be interesting to see how the Jayhawks respond to last season's success.

What we don't know: How the Kansas defense will respond to the switch from veteran former coordinator Bill Young to Clint Bowen, who will be making calls for the first time in his career.
How the Jayhawks can get to Kansas City: By handling the increased expectations, while navigating through a significantly more difficult schedule.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

What we know: New coach Mike Sherman inherited one of the nation's most potent starting backfields in QB Stephen McGee and running backs Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson.
What we don't know: Whether new defensive coordinator Joe Kines can find replacements for the front seven.
How the Aggies can get to Kansas City: Kines needs to return the Aggie defense back to its Wrecking Crew roots.

7. Nebraska Cornhuskers

What we know: New coach Bo Pelini's biggest recruiting catch was convincing I-back Marlon Lucky to return for his senior season.
What we don't know: If the Cornhuskers will ever get their swagger back on defense. Hiring Pelini is a big start.
How the Cornhuskers can get to Kansas City: If Pelini's presence pumps some new life in the Blackshirts and QB Joe Ganz continues playing like he did in November.

8. Colorado Buffaloes

What we know: Colorado coach Dan Hawkins has the Buffaloes steered in the right direction and has a lot of talented players returning.
What we don't know: If the offensive firepower can be substantially boosted in the spring. But that problem should be alleviated as soon as heralded tailback Darrell Scott arrives on campus this summer.
How the Buffaloes can get to Kansas City: If linebacker Michael Sipili fills the void left by Jordon Dizon and Scott has a Herschel Walker-like freshman season.

9. Oklahoma State Cowboys

What we know: The arrival of six juco defensive players among the Cowboys' recruiting class should provide an immediate impact for a unit that often struggled in 2007.

What we don't know: If heralded juco running back Beau Johnson can fill the void left after Dantrell Savage's departure.
How the Cowboys can get to Kansas City: With marked improvement defensively, continued improvement from QB Zac Robinson and a couple of upsets along the way.

10. Kansas State Wildcats

What we know: That Ian Campbell is a more productive player at defensive end than at linebacker. He'll get his chance to return there this spring.

What we don't know: If QB Josh Freeman will respond to the philosophy of new coordinator Dave Brock, who will also be searching for playmakers to replace Jordy Nelson and James Johnson.
How the Wildcats can get to Kansas City: By getting a huge boost from their juco heavy class, particularly on defense after last season's late collapse.

11. Iowa State Cyclones

What we know: Coach Gene Chizik is more confident about the talent on hand than might be expected. The Cyclones signed only one juco player in their recent recruiting class.
What we don't know: How athletic the Cyclones can be. Losing WR Todd Blythe and QB Bret Meyer has played a premium on developing playmakers.
How the Cyclones can get to Kansas City: A trip to ISU's first Big 12 championship still is a huge reach, but returning to a bowl isn't out of the question. The players have gravitated to Chizik's philosophy and ISU will be facing an easier schedule in 2008.

12. Baylor Bears

What we know: The Bears' quarterback battle will be the conference's most interesting this spring. Competition will be fierce between returning record-breaking 2007 starter Blake Szymanski, Miami transfer Kirby Freeman and heralded recruit Robert Griffin.
What we don't know: If new coach Art Briles' big-play offense will work at a program without many playmakers.
How the Bears can get to Kansas City: By buying tickets to watch the Chiefs play. But Briles' team should build some confidence during an accommodating early schedule featuring five of its first six games at home.

Tim Griffin is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.