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January 18, 2011

Big 12: Having an identity crisis

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The Big 12 has an identity crisis. The defections of Nebraska and Colorado leave the Big 12 with just 10 teams and in need of a new name.

The Big Ten is a natural name, but it's taken -- by a league with 12 teams.

Confused? That's almost as confusing as last season's race, in which Texas did not reach a bowl game but Baylor did, and Texas A&M failed to play in the conference championship game despite beating Oklahoma and Nebraska -- the two teams that did.

Yet, there figures to be less confusion in the years ahead. With Colorado and Nebraska moving on, the Big 12 is left with only four teams -- Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and Kansas State -- that have won titles in the conference's 15-year history.

And the league's teams no longer are separated into different groups, so North teams don't have to be seen as part of an inferior division. But the teams in Oklahoma and Texas still will be identified as the strength of the conference.

Biggest surprise: Oklahoma State. The general consensus in the preseason was that Oklahoma State would finish fifth in the Big 12 South. Maybe sixth. Instead, the Cowboys posted a school-record 11 victories. First-year starting QB Brandon Weeden excelled, WR Justin Blackmon emerged as perhaps the best in the nation at his position and TB Kendall Hunter came back from injury and showed his '08 form. The Cowboys tied for the South Division title.

Biggest disappointment: Texas. The Longhorns, who had a streak of nine consecutive seasons with double-digit victory totals, opened the season ranked fifth. But by Oct. 3 they were out of the Top 25. Texas managed only five victories, its first losing record in 13 seasons under coach Mack Brown. The Longhorns couldn't even blame a tough schedule for their demise: They lost to Baylor and Kansas State, which both finished 7-6, and also fell to UCLA and Iowa State, which had losing records. Yet, they found a way to beat Nebraska again.

Best postseason performance: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys came up short of reaching a BCS bowl, but took out any frustration they might have had on Arizona. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead less than halfway through the first quarter and went on to overwhelm the Wildcats 36-10. Blackmon caught two touchdown passes and the defense forced four turnovers.

Worst postseason performance: Nebraska. Apparently, the Huskers lost interest after they fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. Early in the season, Nebraska routed Washington by five touchdowns in Seattle. But in a Holiday Bowl rematch, the Huskers fell behind in the first quarter and never recovered -- nor appeared to care -- in a 19-7 loss. Nebraska rolled up 533 yards of offense in the first game against Washington, but the lethargic Huskers gained a mere 189 yards in the Holiday Bowl.

Underclassmen going pro early: Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri DE Aldon Smith, Texas CB Aaron Williams.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Oklahoma RB Roy Finch. Injuries sidelined him for the first half of last season. But once he returned, the diminutive true freshman demonstrated some flashy moves and rushed for 398 yards in a backup role to DeMarco Murray. Murray has moved on, so the loaded Sooners need someone to step in and replace his production at running back. Finch should be the guy.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Texas DE Jackson Jeffcoat. He was one of the gems of the Longhorns' 2010 recruiting class. He showed flashes of his great ability last season, but also missed four games with injuries. He had 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks in a backup role. Look for him in the starting lineup as a sophomore. And look for his tackles and sacks totals to spike, too.

Player most on the spot next season: Texas QB Garrett Gilbert. He was inconsistent in his first season as Texas' starting quarterback, and that's putting it kindly. He threw for 2,744 yards, an impressive total. But he had trouble finishing drives and committed far too many turnovers. He had seven more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (10). Gilbert must show significant improvement for Texas to return to national prominence. And if he doesn't, the Longhorns have youngsters Case McCoy -- Colt's brother -- and Connor Wood waiting in the wings.

Next season's conference champion: Oklahoma. In 12 seasons under coach Bob Stoops, Oklahoma has won seven Big 12 championships. That includes three in a row from '06 to '08. But OU has much more going for it than history. QB Landry Jones heads a list of nine returning starters on offense, and nine starters also return on defense. Texas A&M and Oklahoma State could be threats, but the Aggies must travel to Norman, where OU rarely loses.

National title contender: Oklahoma. When WR Ryan Broyles and LB Travis Lewis announced they would remain in school, Oklahoma immediately became a favorite to reach the national championship game. Broyles and Kenny Stills will form one of the best receiving duos in the country, while Jones is a proven passer who will work behind a line with four returning starters. The defense is solid, too. OU has played in four BCS national championship games under Stoops. Don't be surprised if the Sooners reach a fifth.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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