By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven  on Twitter)
Very Early 2012 Big 12 Predictions
Key Returnees: QB Landry Jones, RB Roy Finch, FB Trey Millard, RB Dominique Whaley, WR Kenny Stills, LG Gabe Ikard, RG Tyler Evans, LB Corey Nelson, LB Tom Wort, CB Demontre Hurst, S/LB Tony Jefferson, K Michael Hunnicutt
Key Losses: WR Ryan Broyles, LT Donald Stephenson, DE Frank Alexander, DE Ronnell Lewis, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming
The Sooners began 2011 as one of the favorites to win the national title, but closed with losses in two out of their final four games and instead of playing in a BCS bowl, they finished with a trip to the Insight Bowl against Iowa. Although Oklahoma was a disappointment last season, this team still looks like the favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012.
When receiver Ryan Broyles went down with a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M, Oklahoma’s offense and quarterback Landry Jones was never the same. Jones threw only one touchdown pass in his final four games, while tossing six interceptions. With more time to prepare for life without Broyles, the Sooners should have more answers on offense. Kenny Stills will become the go-to target after catching 61 passes for 849 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. However, the Sooners need more production from Jaz Reynolds, Kameel Jackson and Trey Franks next year. Trey Metoyer did not qualify as a freshman last year, but is a name to watch in the receiving corps. The offense will benefit from a full year from running back Dominique Whaley, along with four starters returning on one of the top offensive lines in college football.
Oklahoma led the Big 12 in scoring defense, but had its share of struggles last year. Coach Bob Stoops hopes he can rectify some of the question marks in the secondaryby adding his brother Mike Stoops from Arizona to the defensive staff. In addition to shoring up some of the issues from the defensive backfield, the Sooners have to replace ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, who combined for 14 sacks in 2011. Although the linebacker corps will miss Travis Lewis’ leadership, Corey Nelson and Tom Wort should both challenge for All-Big 12 honors in 2012.
Key Returnees: QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley, RG Mason Walters, DE Alex Okafor, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Carrington Byndom, CB Quandre Diggs, DB Kenny Vaccaro
Key Losses: RB/RS Fozzy Whittaker, LG David Snow, DT Kheeston Randall, LB Keenan Robinson, LB Emmanuel Acho, S Blake Gideon
Are the Longhorns back? There’s enough talent to contend for the Big 12 title, but whether or not it is ready to win the conference crown is uncertain. After finishing 5-7 in 2010, Texas made steady improvement to finish 8-5 with a Holiday Bowl win over California in 2011. While the Longhorns have a ways to go, there’s enough talent to expect another one or two victory jump next season.
David Ash wrestled control of the starting quarterback spot away from Case McCoy in the Holiday Bowl, but needs to continue to improve for the Longhorns to challenge Oklahoma for the conference title. Even with better quarterback play, the offense will continue to lean on the rushing attack. Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and incoming freshman Johnathan Gray will form one of top running back trios in the Big 12 next season. The offensive line must replace only one starter, with guard Mason Walters - honorable mention All-Big 12 lineman in 2011 - anchoring the group.
In Manny Diaz’s first season as the coordinator, Texas finished No. 1 in the Big 12 in rushing, total and pass defense. And this group could be even better in 2012, especially with Jackson Jeffcoat, Jordan Hicks, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom going through another offseason. Replacing linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho will be the biggest question mark for this unit.
3. West Virginia
Key Returnees: QB Geno Smith, RB Dustin Garrison, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, NT Jorge Wright, LB Jewone Snow, CB Pat Miller, S Terence Garvin, S Darwin Cook
Key Losses: LT Don Barclay, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Julian Miller, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith Tandy, S Eain Smith
Where will the Mountaineers play next season? That’s the big question surrounding the Big East and Big 12 early 2012 predictions. With West Virginia’s 2012 conference home up in the air, Athlon will include the team in both articles (Big 12 and Big East) until the court case is sorted out.
If the Mountaineers are in the Big East, they will be the preseason favorite once again. Quarterback Geno Smith and one of the nation’s top receiving corps will anchor a high-scoring offense. The biggest question mark facing West Virginia’s offense next year will be the offensive line, which loses tackle Don Barclay and struggled to open up rushing lanes in 2011.
West Virginia’s defense was dealt a huge blow when defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel decided to join Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Casteel was one of the nation’s most underrated defensive minds and will be missed next year in Morgantown. Replacing defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller will be the top priority for coach Dana Holgorsen and the new defensive coordinator, but overall, this unit should suffer much of a drop-off next season.
Key Returnees: QB Casey Pachall, RB Ed Wesley, RB Matthew Tucker, RB Waymon James, WR Josh Boyce, WR Skye Dawson, RG Blaize Foltz, DE Stansly Maponga, DT D.J. Yendrey, LB Tanner Brock, LB Kenny Cain, CB Jason Verrett
Key Losses: LT Jeff Olson, OG Kyle Dooley, LB Tank Carder, CB/KR Greg McCoy, S Tekerrein Cuba, S Johnny Fobbs, K Ross Evans
The Horned Frogs could be a rude newcomer to the Big 12 party next season. Despite having only six returning starters in 2011, TCU finished 11-2 and won the Mountain West title in its final year in the conference. Moving to the Big 12 is definitely a step up in competition, but TCU is more than ready for the challenge, and could be a surprise contender for the conference crown next year.
Quarterback Casey Pachall was terrific in his first year as the starter, finishing with 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns to only seven picks. Pachall has plenty of weapons to choose from in the passing game, and Josh Boyce or Skye Dawson could contend for All-Big 12 honors next year. Running backs Ed Wesley, Waymon James and Matthew Tucker combined for 2,303 yards in 2011 and all three will return in 2012. Losing Jeff Olson and Kyle Dooley on the left side of the offensive line is a setback, but center James Fry and guard Blaize Foltz is a good duo to build around.
Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s specialty and this unit should be stout in 2012. End Stansly Maponga recorded 8.5 sacks in 2011 and will be one of the Big 12’s top pass rushers next season. Linebacker Tank Carder will be tough to replace, but the defense gets a boost from the return of Tanner Brock, who missed nearly all of 2011 due to injury. The secondary is the biggest question mark on this unit, as three starters need to be replaced after finishing 60th nationally against the pass.
5. Kansas State
Key Returnees: QB Collin Klein, RB John Hubert, WR Chris Harper, WR Tyler Lockett, C B.J. Finney, DE Meshak Williams, LB Arthur Brown, LB Tre Walker, CB Nigel Malone, S Ty Zimmerman
Key Losses: LT Zach Hanson, RG Colten Freeze, RT Clyde Aufner, DE Jordan Voelker, NT Ray Kibble, LB Emmanuel Lamur, CB David Garrett, S Tysyn Hartman
The Wildcats were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2011. After being picked near the bottom of the conference in the preseason, Kansas State finished with a 10-3 record and second place in the Big 12 standings. The Wildcats won’t sneak up on anyone next season, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2012.
Quarterback Collin Klein carried the offense, averaging 235 total yards per game, while reaching the endzone 40 times. The senior will be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12 next season, but the rest of the offense needs to step up around him. Running back John Hubert returns after rushing for 970 yards and three scores in 2011, while the receiving corps should be a strength with the return of Chris Harper, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson. The offensive line was one of the best in the conference in 2011, but must replace three starters, including All-Big 12 selections in Clyde Aufner and Zach Hanson.
The defense was a major question mark going into this year, but the Wildcats showed progress on this side of the ball, finishing 72nd in total defense and 68th in points allowed. Miami transfer Arthur Brown earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors after leading the team with 101 tackles and picking up two sacks and one interception. Brown will anchor the defense next season, while end Meshak Williams is back after leading the team with seven sacks. Replacing nose tackle Ray Kibble and cornerback David Garrett will be the top priority for the defensive staff in spring practice.
6. Oklahoma State
Key Returnees: RB Joseph Randle, WR Tracy Moore, WR Josh Stewart, RG Lane Taylor, DT Nigel Nicholas, LB Alex Elkins, LB Shaun Lewis, LB Caleb Lavey, CB Brodrick Brown, K/P Quinn Sharp
Key Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, WR Justin Blackmon, WR Hubert Anyiam, WR Josh Cooper, LT Levy Adcock, LG Nick Martinez, C Grant Garner, DE Jamie Blatnick, DE Richetti Jones, LB James Thomas, S Markelle Martin
With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s hard to see the Cowboys replicating the 2011 win total (11) and Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford. However, Oklahoma State isn’t going to completely fall off the map, as it should be a contender for a spot in many preseason top 25 lists.
The battle to replace Weeden is wide open, with Clint Chelf expected to have the inside track. However J.W. Walsh and incoming freshman Wes Lunt will have a shot to unseat Chelf in spring practice. With Blackmon and Cooper departing in the receiving corps, the Cowboys will need Josh Stewart and Tracy Moore to become the go-to threats in the passing game. Running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith should get more work in 2012, but the offensive line must replace three starters, including All-American tackle Levy Adcock.
The Cowboys gave up a lot of yards on defense (456.8 per game), but made up for that by forcing 44 turnovers. Coordinator Bill Young will have some key holes to fill in the preseason, especially on the line where Oklahoma State must replace ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones. The duo combined for 12 sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps will be a strength with Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis returning. The Cowboys ranked 107th nationally in pass defense, but allowed only 15 touchdowns and picked off 24 passes. The secondary will miss safety Markelle Martin's punishing hits, but three starters return to this group in 2012.
7. Texas Tech
Key Returnees: QB Seth Doege, RB Eric Stephens, WR Alex Torres, WR Darrin Moore, WR Eric Ward, LT LaAdrian Waddle, DT Kerry Hyder, LB Daniel Cobb, S Terrance Bullitt, S Cody Davis, S D.J. Johnson
Key Losses: WR Tramain Swindall, LG Lonnie Edwards, C Justin Keown, DE Scott Smith
After an 8-5 season and a top 25 recruiting class, all signs pointed to another big year for the Red Raiders in 2011. Not so fast. After pulling one of the top upsets of the season against Oklahoma, Texas Tech lost its final five games to finish with its first losing season (5-7) since 1992.
There’s a lot to like about the Red Raiders in 2012, starting with an offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in 2011. Quarterback Seth Doege threw for 4,004 yards and 28 scores this season and should be better with another offseason of work under his belt. The receiving corps is solid and will benefit from a full season from Darrin Moore. Running back Eric Stephens suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October and still finished as the team’s leading rusher. Assuming Stephens returns to full strength, it will be a significant boost to an offense that ranked as the worst rushing team in the Big 12.
While the offense has never been a question in Lubbock for the last decade, the defense always seems to be struggling to find the right answers. The Red Raiders didn't have many positives on defense last season, ranking last in the Big 12 in rush defense and ninth in scoring defense in 2011. Chad Glasgow was canned as the team’s coordinator after one season, allowing coach Tommy Tuberville to bring aboard Art Kaufman – an old friend from his days at Ole Miss – as the Red Raiders’ new defensive coordinator. The good news for Texas Tech? Nearly everyone is back on defense. The bad news? The defense was awful last year and may not be much better in 2012.
Key Returnees: RB Jarred Salubi, WR Terrance Williams, WR Tevin Reese, LT Cyril Richardson, LG Cameron Kaufhold, DE Tevin Elliott, LB Rodney Chadwick, LB/NB Ahmad Dixon, CB K.J. Morton, S Mike Hicks, S Sam Holl
Key Losses: QB Robert Griffin, RB Terrance Ganaway, WR Kendall Wright, C Philip Blake, RG Robert T. Griffin, NT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, LB Elliot Coffey
Without quarterback Robert Griffin and running back Terrance Ganaway gone, there’s no question Baylor is going to take a step back next season. However, these Bears aren’t going to slip back to being a doormat in the Big 12. Coach Art Briles has recruited well, and the Bears landed a key transfer in running back Lache Seastrunk that will be able to contribute next season.
All eyes will be on the quarterback battle in the spring, with the likely frontrunner being Nick Florence. The senior isn’t short on experience, starting seven games in 2009 when Griffin was sidelined with a knee injury, but does not add much to the offense as a runner. Florence is expected to be pushed for playing time by Bryce Petty. Losing receiver Kendall Wright is a big blow for the passing game, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson combined to catch 152 passes in 2011. Cyril Richardson, Cameron Kaufhold and Ivory Wade return to form a solid trio to build on the offensive line.
With the offense expected to take a step back in 2012, the defense needs to show progress. Coordinator Phil Bennett had a rough first season at Baylor, with the Bears finishing 116th nationally in total defense. Although the Bears took their lumps on this side of the ball, eight starters are back in 2012, including linebacker/defensive back Ahmad Dixon and safety Sam Holl.
9. Iowa State
Key Returnees: QB Jared Barnett, QB Steele Jantz, RB James White, WR Josh Lenz, DT Jake McDonough, LB A.J. Klein, LB Jake Knott, CB Jeremy Reeves, FS Jacques Washington
Key Losses: LT Kelechi Osemele, RG Hayworth Hicks, DE Jake Lattimer, DE Patrick Neal, LB Matt Tau’fo’ou, CB Leonard Johnson, SS Ter’Ran Benton
No matter where you slot the Cyclones in the preseason picks, it always seems like you need to move them up a spot or two because of coach Paul Rhoads. In three years in Ames, Iowa State has recorded an 18-20 record with two bowl experiences. The Big 12 isn’t getting any easier, but the Cyclones will be a threat once again to finish with six or seven wins, along with making another bowl trip.
Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett both received playing time at quarterback for Iowa State in 2011 and will battle for the starting spot in the spring. Both players had their moments, but neither separated themselves as the clear No. 1 passer. Improved quarterback play could be the difference between a 5-7 or 7-5 season in 2012. Running back James White rushed for 743 yards and eight touchdowns, while garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2011. Darius Reynolds departs after leading the team with 43 receptions, but Josh Lenz, Aaron Horne and Albert Gary all caught over 20 passes this season. Left tackle Kelechi Osemele was one of the nation’s most underrated linemen the last few seasons and will be missed.
The Cyclones ranked sixth in the Big 12 in total defense and third in pass defense, and this unit figures to be solid in 2012. Jake Knott and A.J. Klein form one of the top linebacker combinations in the nation, while Jeremy Reeves and Jacques Washington are a good starting point to build in the secondary. The defensive line loses three starters, and coordinator Wally Burnham must find a replacement for cornerback Leonard Johnson.
Key Returnees: RB James Sims, WR D.J. Beshears, WR JaCorey Shepherd, RG Duane Zlatnik, RT Tanner Hawkinson, DE/LB Toben Opurum, LB Darius Willis, LB Tunde Bakare, SS Bradley McDougald
Key Losses: RB Darrian Miller, TE Tim Biere, OG Jeremiah Hatch, LT Jeff Spikes, LB Steven Johnson, CB Isiah Barfield, S Keeston Terry
Turner Gill brought a lot of hope to Kansas after turning around Buffalo, but he was fired after compiling a 5-19 record in just two seasons. The Jayhawks raised plenty of eyebrows around the nation with their hire of former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was hired as Gill's replacement. Weis is a solid offensive mind, but compiled a 35-27 record in five seasons at Notre Dame, with 19 of those victories coming in the first two years.
Weis’ offensive insight will be put to the test immediately. The Jayhawks ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring and total offense and managed just 167.4 yards per game through the air. One of Weis’ biggest recruits this year was landing Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist, who is eligible to play immediately. Crist is an upgrade over former starting quarterback Jordan Webb, but won’t be enough to turn Kansas into a Big 12 title contender. The rushing attack was a bright spot last season and James Sims is back after rushing for 727 yards and nine scores.
Struggling to move the ball through the air wasn’t Kansas’ biggest issue last season. The defense was historically bad, finishing 120th (last) nationally in scoring and total defense, while ranking 117th against the run. Weis hired longtime NFL assistant Dave Campo to coordinate his defense, but he hasn’t coached in college since 1988. The Jayhawks do have some nice pieces returning on defense, including end/linebacker Toben Opurum, safety Bradley McDougald and linebacker Darius Willis.
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What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012? 
What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012? 
2012 SEC Schedule Analysis 
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