With the season upon us and precious few opportunities for Big 12 teams to make statements outside of the conference, we're taking a closer look at the biggest 8 games on that slate. We looked at numbers 8 through 5 in Part 1, now we'll look at the top of the heap with the four most important Big 12 cross conference matchups of 2013.
Again, big shout-out to Bill Connelly for his excellent team previews. They were a huge help to me, I recommend them highly and I provided a link to each team's preview in the heading.
#4: Texas vs. Ole Miss
Texas bears the distinction of being the only Big 12 team to play a pair of BCS conference foes as part of its nonconference slate. A lot of attention will be on the Longhorn’s trip to Provo, Utah to play BYU in the second week of the season, but things don’t get a lot easier when the Ole Miss Rebels come to town 7 days later.
It’s no secret that the heat on Mack Brown is as high as it’s ever been in Austin and the 17 games his Longhorns have won in the last two seasons have done little to dig him out of the hole he created with a disastrous 2010 campaign. In the eyes of many this year will be make or break for Brown.
The Longhorns sport a roster long on talent and depth and need up and down signalcaller David Ash to be more of the former and less of the latter. Sharing the backfield with Ash is a running backs corps that was young last year but will be experienced this year, returning its 3 leading rushers. Things look similar with a receiving crew returning 3 of its top 4 from 2012 including Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. On the defensive side the ‘horns will have to do more to stop the big play than they did last year, but with the returning talent (basically everyone not named Okafor and Vaccaro) and Manny Diaz’s track record, improvement is a safe wager.
Ole Miss turned quite a few heads last year as they finished 7-6, including giving teams like LSU and Texas A&M all they could handle (even thought they lost). On the heels of that success they signed a top 10 recruiting class including #1 overall recruit in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche. Quarterback Bo Wallace showed flashes of brilliance finishing as the team’s second leading rusher with 571 yards as well as throwing for nearly 3,000. Unfortunately he seemed to find trouble as often as he avoided it, tossing 17 picks against 22 TDs. Whether or not Ole Miss can improve upon last season will depend largely on his ability to improve on those numbers.
The good news for Texas is that Ole Miss is insanely young and while that youth brings with it an imposing collection of stars from the recruiting rankings, it’s difficult to see them putting their best effort forward when they make their first real road trip of the season to Darrell K Royal Stadium in Austin. Yeah they emerged victorious in an opening game conference road test against Vanderbilt and that's not insignificant, but last I checked 40k doesn’t prepare you for 100k. Working in the Rebels’ favor is the fact that they were blown out by the visitnig ‘Horns last year and history tends to show teams blown out by an opponent one year tend to fare much better the next.
I expect Texas to hold serve at home and win by a touchdown or two but Ole Miss will make them work for it.
We just covered the Longhorns, so let's move on to the Cougars. BYU was one of the hard luck stories of last season, losing 4 of 5 games they played in that were decided by a single score. To make it even worse they only lost one other game in addition to those 4, so they were just a couple plays from a special season. The hope is that returning QB Taysom Hill can provide stability at a position that was a revolving door last year. He should have plenty of help from a receiving corps returning basically everybody who caught a ball last season, including Cody Hoffman who caught 100 of them for 1,248 yards. Add to the mix a defense that retains many parts from what was a nasty, nasty unit last year and you have a hungry Cougar squad that will be looking to make up for last season and is due to get some breaks.
As we said, expectations will be high for a Texas team that will enter this game as a top 15 team. Longhorn fans have been their version of patient (much like my wife waiting on me to finish this post and mow the lawn) and expect to be in the national title conversation at least into October. The mountains of Provo will provide an imposing speed bump for the burnt orange (BYU is 16-3 at home over the last 3 years) and could derail any hopes of a title run before they even begin.
This may be a mountain too far for the 'Horns. BYU steals a close one and Mack hires a food taster.
#2: Oklahoma @ Notre Dame
While the lasting image many had of Irish last year was their unimpressive display in the BCS title game or lucky escapes from Pitt and BYU, their trip to Norman where they thoroughly whipped the then-8th ranked Oklahoma. It was the point at which many of us had to confront the unfortunate reality that this Notre Dame team wasn't simply a construct of a media dying to prop them up and harvest web hits like wheat, but was instead an actual real life top 10 football team. They could run and they could pa--. Well they could run at least. They played good defense and ground you into dust and rode that special rich-guy-finds-a-$20-bill-on-the-street brand of luck that characterizes all great Irish teams.
On the other hand this game was the end of any title hopes for Oklahoma. They managed to win the rest of their regular season games but were embarrassed again the next time they ventured out of conference when Texas A&M blew them away in the Cotton Bowl.
This Sooner squad enters 2013 hoping to atone for those nonconference sins and will get its shot at revenge September 28th in South Bend. They will in all likelihood be 3-0 and looking to cement their spot in the top 10. The fall got off to a surprising start for OU when Blake Bell, the expected heir-apparent to all-time school leading passer Landry Jones, was informed he would remain in his specialized second string spot in favor of redshirt freshman Trevor Knight. How he fares in his first hostile environment will determine if he gets to keep that job. Defensively the Sooners lost a lot of their line - but it's hard to feel bad losing a line that was so ineffective. The secondary is something else entirely. This immensely talented unit loses nearly everyone. The good news is the returning unit is stocked with experienced seniors and juniors who should be able to keep things together.
The scariest thing about Notre Dame is they peaked a year early last year and almost certainly have more talent on the roster this year than they have for the last two. The fact of the matter is Brian Kelly's squad was exceedingly lucky last year (although in all fairness the opposite was true in 2011) but if he can use the talent he's recruited to offset a return to the luck mean, they could be there at the end again. The Irish offense is stocked with multi-star talent and if they can use the first 3 games to find themselves, could shred OU. On the other side the ND defense was the core of the team last year and by returning 5 of their front 7 (even with one of those gone being a Heisman finalist) they should still be effective. The secondary looks a lot like the offense - long on potential but short on experience.
Notre Dame is too tough at home and wear the Sooners down in the 4th. Again.
It's a testament to how far the TCU program has come that they occupy the top spot here and are looking down at blue-bloods Texas and Oklahoma. Whether they can carry the conference banner to a surprise win against an SEC behemoth could determine if they're able to occupy a spot in the top-tier of the Big 12 like they did in the Mountain West.
Gary Patterson's TCU squad took some lumps last season, finishing 7-6 in their first Big 12 season. Arrests, injuries and more injuries took their toll and led the Frogs to rely upon a ton of youth. In the short term that means you finish 7-6 and get run by Iowa State. In the long term it means you build depth that many are now envious of and forge the foundations of what could be a really, really good team.
QB Casey Pachall returns after a troubling 2012 clean, sober and ready to pick up where he left off as an all-conference signalcaller. The rushing corps was decimated early by injuries but could provide nice balance if it can stay on the field. The receivers lose a lot of production in Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson, but have playmakers waiting in the wings. On defense the Frogs bring back just about everyone, including what might be the deepest secondary in America. There is no reason to think Patterson and D coordinator Dick Bumpas won't mold this talent into one of the best - if not THE best - defense in the conference.
Hopefully that D will help them compete with an LSU squad stocked with the talent we've come to expect from the Bayou Bengals. Having said that, expectations are nowhere near where they've been the last few years and the Tigers start the season with a rare ranking outside the top 10 (12th AP, 13th USA Today). Zack Mettenerger leads an offense returning 2 of its top 3 tailbacks and all of its top 4 receivers. Based on this the Tigers will almost certainly rely on the air attack more than they have recently, but as we all know "3 things can happen when you throw it and 2 of them are bad."
The Tiger D will have a hole to fill that's basically the size of their entire defensive line. Luckily they're LSU and poised to do it with a deep pool of talent - think a great white's jaw. Lose some big front teeth and move up the back ones. The seal certainly doesn't detect drop-off. Behind them a crop of young DBs got enough experience last year that they should be ready for prime time. In short it's an LSU defense - it'll be pretty damn good.
TCU seems built to stop LSU's newfound affinity for the passing game and Les Miles provided a reminder in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson that he's an unreliable end of game clock manager. I say TCU rides a lively Texas crowd to the first big upset of 2013 - and sets the stage for the Big 12 to take a run at Goliath.