For the first time in three years, the Big 12 Conference has the same teams coming back from the previous season.
While the seven-time defending national champion SEC and the Pac-12, among other leagues, have expanded during all the shuffling of conference affiliations the past few summers, the Big 12 has settled into a 10-team league.
There is no league championship game in early December to determine the Big 12 champion. Instead, every team plays the other nine league schools in a round-robin schedule that stretches over three full months — from West Virginia going to Oklahoma on Sept. 7, until two final regular-season games Dec. 7.
The title is seemingly up for grabs in the league that has lost four teams and added two since 2010.
Consider the curious case of Texas, whose coach Mack Brown responded "Who knows?" when asked about being picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll by media who cover the league and as high as fourth nationally by at least one national magazine.
"I do think that we have the most balanced league in the country right now, top to bottom," Brown said. "Everybody else can beat anybody else in the league on a given day, and that's not happening across the country. ... People are confused on who they think may win this conference championship, and that's a compliment to our league."
Oklahoma State is the media's choice to win the league this time around. Kansas State and Oklahoma shared the title last year, with the Wildcats getting the league's automatic BCS berth because of their head-to-head victory over the Sooners.
With Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Collin Klein gone, K-State is a preseason pick to finish in the bottom half of the league — just like the last two years, when the Wildcats instead finished in the top two.
"I said last year that, if I were given the opportunity, I would have picked us 99th" K-State coach Bill Snyder said. "As I look at it this year where we stand, I'd probably echo the same thought. It's precarious trying to make those kinds of decisions as the season gets started."
5 THINGS TO WATCH
1. QB QUANDARY: Seven of the 10 teams had senior quarterbacks last season, so change is in the air. One of the most experienced QBs in the league hasn't even taken a Big 12 snap: Before transferring to Kansas and sitting out last season, junior Jake Heaps started 16 of his 22 games at BYU. Texas junior David Ash has started a league-high 18 games while going through plenty of ups and downs. TCU senior Casey Pachall has 17 starts, but played only the first four games last season before leaving school for a substance-abuse program. Even Oklahoma State had two freshman quarterbacks who started multiple games last season, and a third who has since left the team. Iowa State provided Sam Richardson a head start, letting him start a couple of games late in his freshman season.
2. SOPHOMORE SEASONS: West Virginia and TCU both had their Big 12 debuts last season, when each were the reigning champs of their previous leagues. Both started the season in the Top 25 and got through September undefeated. But both finished 4-5 in league play, part of a four-team tie for fifth place. "It's as competitive a conference as there is in college football," said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen, whose team lost QB Geno Smith and nine other offensive starters. TCU returns nine starters from a defense that led the Big 12 in total defense — a staple for coach Gary Patterson's teams through all the conference-hopping the Frogs did after being left out of the original Big 12 lineup in 1996. "I don't think there's any magic formula, but you can't allow offenses to dictate," he said.
3. SPEED FREAKS: Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma each ran more than 1,000 offensive plays last season, while West Virginia and Texas Tech were within 10 of reaching that plateau. All averaged more than 37 points a game. Expect more of the same up-tempo offense this season. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy is talking about going even faster and Oklahoma, even without 50-game quarterback starter Landry Jones, doesn't anticipate much difference. Texas, which had only 891 offensive snaps, plans for co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, the former Longhorns quarterback, to help turn up the tempo there.
4. BACK HOME: Kliff Kingsbury excited Texas Tech fans with his big-passing ways as a quarterback from 1999-2002. Now he's back in Lubbock as head coach after spending last season as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M , helping tutor Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. Kingsbury will be 34 when the season begins, the youngest head coach in any BCS-automatic qualifying conference. Kingsbury joins Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy as a former standout quarterback now coach at his Big 12 alma mater. Gundy took over as the Cowboys' head coach 16 years after his last game; Kingsbury is back 11 years later.
5. WHEN DOES BASKETBALL START?: The Kansas football team has lost 21 consecutive Big 12 games since 2010. For his second season, Charlie Weis has more than 20 junior college transfers on the roster. That's not a long-term fix, but more a short-term necessity for a coach who has dismissed 29 scholarship players for a variety of off-the-field issues. "Not one of those players did I get rid of because they weren't any good. You can't do it for that reason," said Weis, who was 1-11 his first season. "So now I took a team that already wasn't very good, and I made them worse talent-wise. So that led to we need to fill the holes right now." The Jayhawks basketball team shared its ninth consecutive Big 12 title earlier this spring.
Predicted order of finish:
3. Oklahoma State
6. Kansas State
7. Texas Tech
8. West Virginia
9. Iowa State