Door wide open for any Big 12 team to take run at title

The Big 12 season is days away, and just like every year, 10 teams are still fantasizing about hoisting the trophy come December. This year, as many as seven or eight of could still be proven right. It takes a long look down the league lineup to find a true title pipe dream in a Big 12 stocked full of good teams but devoid of a great one. The result is an uncomfortable truth: Nobody knows anything that’s going to happen between Friday’s first two games of the season and the last two on the docket on Dec. 7.

Ask five people who’ll lead the Big 12 in passing and you’re liable to get a handful of different answers. The same’s certainly true about the league’s leading receiver and perhaps rusher (as long as those polled are located outside Waco city limits). Tally up the career starts from all those names and the answer’s bound to be frighteningly low.

Look no further than that number to answer the question of why six teams received first-place votes in the Big 12 preseason poll, including two for Baylor, who’d never gotten one before 2013.

Oklahoma State enters the season as the narrow favorite ahead of Oklahoma, TCU and Texas, but the truth of the matter is, anybody who says they know how the next four months will shake out is lying. Such is the beauty of the Big 12 season set to commence on Friday night.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had four or five guys in this league that were returning starters who had the ability to play in the NFL at the quarterback position, and I think that’s where your preseason rankings come from,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “There’s just not any experienced quarterback play, and I think that’s concerned people who have an opinion on who’s preseason favorite.”

That’s the simple answer, anyway. The Big 12 will kick off 2013 without a team in the top 10 of either major poll for the first time ever, but Oklahoma State leads a group of four teams from No. 13 or 14 to No. 20 in both polls.

What about Kansas State, though? The Wildcats returned 18 starters in 2012 from a 10-win team in 2011, including quarterback Collin Klein. They couldn’t crack the top 20 or even the top half of the Big 12 preseason poll. They’re back among the ranks of the, uh, unranked this season.

“I don’t know, (voters) probably think I’m too old to coach the game maybe,” said Bill Snyder, the Big 12’s awe-inspiring septuagenarian who can’t seem to do anything but win big games lately.

The Wildcats won 12 last season, enough to capture the program’s first Big 12 title since 2003 and crown the fourth different league champion in four years.  All Klein managed to do was earn a nod as a Heisman finalist.

Oklahoma and Texas haven’t been the programs fans grew used to cursing throughout most of the 2000s. Meanwhile, programs like Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor have been better than ever, evidence of a rising tide across the Big 12. That same tide, though, has drowned BCS title hopes with late-November upsets of undefeated teams (Iowa State over Oklahoma State in 2011, Baylor over K-State in 2012) that previously appeared en route to the national championship game.

“The coaching is better in this league than at any time during my 16 years at Texas. The players are better. The recruiting is better and the league is more balanced than ever before,” said Longhorns coach Mack Brown, adding that he hadn’t even looked at the preseason polls.

That balance means unpredictability. It means more teams have a legitimate chance to win a Big 12 title. It means even more preseason excitement. For the Big 12, though, it’s also meant more teams can ruin perfect seasons. It’s been a brutal reality for the Big 12, which has gone four years since placing a team in the BCS National Championship Game, its longest drought ever.

“I do think our league has not gotten near the credit nationally that it deserves, and I think as we keep looking at it over the next couple years, the Big 12 will gain that respect,” Brown said.

That same parity that pushed an FBS record 90 percent of the Big 12 into bowls last season is what’s pushed the league out of the national title game in each of the last two years. It makes for fun Augusts and heartbreaking Novembers. This year’s beginnings look unpredictable, but if anything is certain, it’s the final Big 12 standings featuring 10 teams that have all taken a knock or two.