BY MICHAEL LEESE
TEXAS I believe this is the year of the “Longhorn!” Mack Brown has perhaps his best team in his 15 year regime, as the Horns are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball! Ten starters return on offense, including two experienced quarterbacks in David Ash and Case McCoy. Ash will start and he brings with him solid numbers from last season, when he threw for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns, while completing 67% of his throws. McCoy also brings starting experience and will be one of the premier backup QBs in the country. The entire offensive line is back and is rated No.1 in the country. They will pave the way for a trio of very talented tailbacks! Johnathon Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron form one of the best running back corps in the Country! The two leading receivers, Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, return. The Horns averaged 35.7 PPG last year, and I expect a big jump this year! Brown welcomes back nine starters on a defense that allowed 29.2 PPG. Last season, the Longhorns were hit extremely hard by injuries and many younger players received significant playing time. That bodes well for this years squad as not only did those players gain valuable experience, but most of those hurt last year are back! They lose two big-time performers in leading tackler Kenny Vacaro, who is now a New Orleans Saint and Alex Okafor who led the team with 12 sacks. Everyone else returns to a defense that should be one of the most improved in the country! The schedule sets up well, with the horns hosting Mississippi and traveling to BYU in non-conference play. They get key conference games with Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home. I look for the Horns to go 12-0 and punch a ticket to Pasadena!
- KEY GAME……OCTOBER 26 AT TCU
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Kendall Sanders, DE Cedric Reed, DB Josh Turner
- MY PREDICTION 12-0, 9-0
OKLAHOMA STATE Last season the Cowboys dropped to a 5-4 mark in conference play. Looking back, they had only four returning starters back, but still managed to average 45.7 PPG last year. This year, eight starters return including two quarterbacks with experience, but the loss of the Big 12’s leading rusher will hurt. I don’t see them reaching that total again, but they could come close. Seven starters return on the defensive side, including one of the top ranked secondaries in the country and an experienced linebacking corps. The defensive line loses two, but will be anchored by the BIG 12 newcomer player of the year, Calvin Barnett. They should improve on last year’s mark of 28.2 PPG. Mike Gundy enters his ninth season at the helm of the Cowboys, with one of his best teams and I see the Cowboys jumping out to a 9-0 start. They close the season with three tough games, including a trip to Austin, followed by home games against Baylor and Oklahoma. Watch out for a flat spot if they are coming off a loss to Texas!
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 16 AT TEXAS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Jeremy Smith, LB Ryan Simmons, DL Tyler Johnson
- MY PREDICTION 10-2 OVERALL, 7-2 CONFERENCE
OKLAHOMA Landry Jones, a four-year starter at quarterback, has moved to the NFL leaving giant shoes to fill. Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight steps in as the starter, but he’ll be protected by one of the best offensive lines in the country. The Sooners also boast a talented running back corps, with 1,000 yard rusher Darien Williams, and Roy Finch and Brennan Clay coming back. They lost two outstanding receivers, but several highly touted recruits are waiting for an opportunity to shine! But with a new quarterback and receivers, I think it might be hard to match last years 38.3 PPG. The Sooner defense struggled against the run last season, giving up 5.2 yards per carry last year. Only four starters return from last year’s squad, and four of the top five tacklers are gone! Despite losing so many players, I actually expect big improvement on this side of the ball. There are several highly touted recruits ready to play. The schedule is tough with road games at Notre Dame, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
- KEY GAME…..10/12 VERSUS TEXAS IN DALLAS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Blake Bell, DE D. J. Ward, DT Jordan Phillips
- MY PREDICTION – 9-3 OVERALL, 7-2 CONFERENCE
KANSAS STATE Head coach Bill Snyder just continues to amaze me. In addition to being the oldest coach in the coaching ranks, Snyder is a master at bringing in top talent from junior colleges. Two years ago, no one had heard of Colin Klein, and all he did then was lead the Wildcats to 20 victories in two seasons! This year, I doubt many of you know of Jake Waters — he was the National Junior College player of the year last year! He threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns last season,,while completing 73% of his tosses, breaking the old junior college mark of 66% set by Cam Newton! Making the transition easier will be an offensive line that will return all five starters. Running back John Hubert also returns after running for 995 yards last season. Snyder’s biggest challenge will be to find a couple of receivers to fill the void of losing both Chris Harper and Travis Tannahill. It might take a few weeks for it to get in-sync, but i expect the offense to come close to last years 38.8 PPG. Last year the defense allowed only 22.2 PPG. The defense was decimated by graduation, as nine starters departed, so that number will skyrocket this season. Snyder will again rely heavily on incoming JUCO transfers! Despite all this, I still see the Wildcats having a very successful season. The non-conference games are soft, so this will give the team a chance to forge an identity.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 12 HOSTING BAYLOR
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Jake Waters, DE Devon Nash, DB Nate Jackson
- MY PREDICTION – 9-3 OVERALL, 6-3 CONFERENCE
TCU Last year was a struggle for a Horned Frogs team that had only nine returning starters and then lost quarterback Casey Pachall to suspension and personal issues. This year, the Frogs will have a dynamic QB under center, as Pachall returns this year, along with Trevone Boykin who started the last nine games. The Frogs leading rusher B.J.Batalon is back, and they add bigtime transfer Aaron Green from Nebraska. Replacing two offensive linemen will be a priority, but the Frogs should easily top last years 28.3 PPG. On defense, nine starters return from a unit that allowed 22.6 PPG. The Frogs return the entire secondary and need to replace just one lineman and one linebacker. The Horned Frogs also have a couple of players coming back from injuries that saw them miss all of 2012. This defense could be the best in the conference. Over the last 13 seasons, Gary Patterson has built a very nice program in Ft. Worth. The schedule is what concerns me. They face LSU in the season opener, and they have two huge road games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. I think that this Horned Frogs team could really surprise, but I just don’t have the guts to call for a double-digit win season.
- KEY GAME…..AUGUST 31 VERSUS LSU IN DALLAS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Aaron Green, WR Cam White, DE James McFarland
- MY PREDICTION – 8-4 OVERALL, 6-3 CONFERENCE
BAYLOR Let me introduce you to Bryce Petty who takes over the reins on offense, and should be an immediate success. Petty has a big frame at 6’3”, 235 lbs. and an even bigger arm! He’ll be coached by Art Briles whose tutelage of RG3 and then Nick Florence last year has everyone taking notice. The concern for me on offense is that three linemen need to be replaced, along with two of the top three receivers. Running back Lache Seastrunk is poised to have a breakout season, after leading the team in rushing last year with 1.031 yards averaging 7.7 YPC. The offense scored 44.5 PPG last year, and despite the loss of Florence and others, I predict similar numbers. The Bears should also improve on the defensive side of the ball, after giving up 37.2 PPG last year. They get back seven starters, including the top four tacklers and entire linebacking crew. Replacing three defensive linemen will be key, and Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman comes in, along with two highly recruited tackles. to join the mix. . Baylor should start 4-0 with a soft non-conference slate, and a win at Kansas State could vault the Bears to 7-0. Art Briles is another phenomenal young coach that is making his mark. He has put the Baylor program on the map, as they are NO longer a pushover in conference play!
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 7, HOSTING OKLAHOMA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Bryce Petty, WR Jay Lee, NG Andrew Billings
- MY PREDICTION – 7-5 OVERALL, 4-5 CONFERENCE
KANSAS Kansas has gone 0-18 in league play the last two years, but a closer look reveals that the Jayhawks were within four points of beating Texas, six points of beating Oklahoma State. and suffered an overtime loss to Texas Tech. Head coach Charlie Weis has brought in many transfers to immediately upgrade the roster. Quarterback Jake Heaps has transferred in from BYU. Heaps was one of the most highly coveted QBs in the country coming out of high school when Weis tried to recruit him to Notre Dame. Bigtime WR Justin McCoy transfers in from Oklahoma, and he should immediately become a favorite target of Heaps! Three offensive linemen needed to be replaced, but Weis brought in several JUCO All-Conference linemen to contend for starting positions. Kansas did run the ball well last season, and the top five backs return, led by 1,ooo yard rusher James Sims. The Jayhawks will soar past last years 18.3 PPG. I’m not quite so optimistic on the defensive side. Only four starters return from a defense that allowed 36.1 PPG. Middle linebacker Ben Heeney is back after leading the team in tackles with 111, and several highly regarded JUCO players transfer in. The Jayhawks could easily get two home conference wins this season and could be just a year away from a bowl.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5 HOSTING TEXAS TECH
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DL Curtis Martin, LB Samson Faifili, DB Kevin Short
- MY PREDICTION – 4-8 OVERALL, 2-7 CONFERENCE
WEST VIRGINIA What a roller coaster ride for the Mountaineers last year. They started the season 5-0, were ranked in the top 10, and then lost their next five games. Their high-octane offense averaged 39.5 PPG, but they lost QB Geno Smith, and wide receivers Stedman Bailey, and Tavon Austin to the NFL, along with three offensive linemen. Head coach Dana Holgorsen brings in Florida State transfer Clint Trickett to run his offense, and leading rusher Andrew Buie and his 914 yards will be back. They add Houston transfer Charles Sims at running back, but this is clearly a rebuilding year on offense, and they will come nowhere near last seasons numbers. The defense is in better shape as seven starters return and they should improve on last years 38.1 PPG. This unit will be key if the Mountaineers hope to reach a bowl game. The schedule is manageable with three winnable non-conference games. Oklahoma and Texas have to travel to Morgantown, but this looks like a long season. I believe Holgorsen will quickly reload for the future.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 28 HOSTING OKLAHOMA
- THREE NEWCOMERS TO WATCH…..WR Shelton Gibson, DE Kyle Rose, DB Terrell Chestnut
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 2-7 CONFERENCE
TEXAS TECH Tommy Tuberville left to take the head coaching job at Cincinnati, opening the door for the ever popular Kliff Kingsbury to become the youngest head coach in the FBS. He served as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M the past two years, helping Ryan Tannenhill get drafted and Johnny Manziel win the Heisman. The “Air Raid” offense will surely be alive and well this year, and while I think the offense will struggle early, Kingsbury will have this offense humming by mid-season. The Red Raiders are going to have to rely on the defense early on. Eight starters return to form a solid nucleus, bolstered by a couple of top-notch players who missed most of last season to injury. I think they should improve on last years 31.8 PPG. The schedule features three winnable non-conference games. I think they will struggle at least early in the conference part of their schedule but I look for Kingsbury to make a huge impact in Lubbock for years to come!
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 9, HOSTING KANSAS STATE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH….. WR Javon Bell, DB Tre Porter, DB Austin Stewart
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 1-8 CONFERENCE
IOWA STATE Head Coach Paul Rhodes has taken Iowa State to three straight bowl games, a very impressive mark for this program. This year, Rhodes will need to do his best coaching job ever. Only nine starters return overall including five back on offense. He does have some building blocks to work with. Quarterback Sam Richardson started the last four games and was impressive. Running backs James White and Shontrelle Johnson return in the backfield, along some of the offensive line. I think it’s probable that the Cyclones come close to last years 24.5 PPG from last year.
The defense really concerns me! This is a unit that allowed 4.3 YPC and had only 15 total sacks last year! Only DE Willie Scott and LB Jeremiah George return to the front seven, and I would be surprised to see the defense better last years 23.9 PPG. The schedule is also tough as they play most of the softer conference games on the road.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 14 HOSTING IN-STATE RIVAL IOWA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..LB Jevohn Miller, DT Collin Bevins, LB Jared Brackens
- MY PREDICTION – 2-10 OVERALL, 1-8 CONFERENCE