The Big 12 enters 2014 as a conference full of paradoxes. It is foremost a league with 10 teams that has rebranded itself with the Roman numeral for 12. Its new motto is "One True Champion," but it can -- and possibly will this season -- have co-champions. The league's longtime doormat, Baylor, is the defending champion.
None of the conflicting statements about the Big 12 might be as important as the one between the yin and yang of college football, however; in a conference in which the spread offense is king, it might come down to defense for somebody to emerge as champion.
Oklahoma, buoyed by its Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, enters the season very much in the College Football Playoff race. Trevor Knight's play in that game last season is one reason why many believe the Sooners will be OK on offense despite losing their top passer (who is now a tight end), top three rushers and five of their top seven receivers. Bob and Mike Stoops' defense has a chance to be elite in 2014 with players like Eric Striker and Charles Tapper. If the latter unit can live up to expectations, Oklahoma could easily end up in the final four even if the offense experiences some early-season growing pains.
Further south, reigning champs Baylor are widely recognized as one of the best offenses in college football. As good as Bryce Petty and his compatriots are, however, if the Bears are to defend their title successfully and get through a deep league, the defense will have to continue to improve. The secondary remains the biggest question mark, but the front seven has drawn enough high praise that it might have just enough. Defensive end Shawn Oakman has to live up to his oversized personality (and frame) this year, and the unit's leader, linebacker Bryce Hager, needs to stay healthy. Meet or exceed expectations on defense and the Big 12 crown can remain in Waco given how difficult the offense is to stop.
While Baylor and Oklahoma are the two main contenders, don't count out Bill Snyder's Kansas State team. The Wildcats likely have the best shot to challenge the Big 12's top two, but might not be alone in creating havoc in one of the deepest conferences. Everybody -- save for perhaps Texas and TCU -- sports an offense that will be trouble, while their question marks remain on the defensive side of the ball. Charlie Weis' Kansas squad should continue to remain the league pushover no matter what the order is above them, however.
So in the middle of the country this season, expect the offenses to generate all the headlines, but a good (or, at least, good enough) defense is probably what one team needs to capture the Big 12 championship.
1. Oklahoma: Their big finish probably inflated the Sooners' reputation heading into 2014, but this remains the most talented team in the Big 12 with one of the best head coaches in the country.
2. Baylor: The Bears' offense will be tough to stop but not impossible, especially if any key injuries happen like they did late last season. Continued improvement on defense will be a determining factor in beating Oklahoma and others.
3. Kansas State: Plenty of starters return for Bill Snyder's squad and the Wildcats might even sport the Big 12 Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.
4. TCU: The defense, as usual, will be good. Whether the new Air Raid offense bears any fruit remains the question. The schedule is certainly set up for the Horned Frogs to have their best season in the Big 12 either way.
5. Texas Tech: Kliff Kingsbury will naturally have a team that puts up points and yards in bunches, so winning shootouts will be the Red Raiders' way once again.
6. Texas: Charlie Strong has some talent on the roster and is a terrific coach, but being consistent from week to week might be a challenge.
7. Oklahoma State: Most of the two-deep is inexperienced and facing Florida State in the opener doesn't help. One might need to watch out for the Cowboys by the end of the year, though.
8. West Virginia: Some continuity on offense should help Dana Holgorsen in the win column compared to last year, but it remains to be seen if they can slow opponents down.
9. Iowa State: Mark Mangino will provide a steadying hand on an offense that has a number of talented pass catchers. They'll have to overachieve on defense if they want to stay ahead of Kansas in the standings, however.
10. Kansas: Depth remains an issue for Charlie Weis, and losing your top two running backs -- while starting a sophomore who was shaky last season -- is not a great recipe for success.
National title contenders
Oklahoma and Baylor: The Sooners will have a lot going for them when the College Football Playoff selection committee starts to meet in Dallas later this year. They're a massive name brand, they'll have a top defense, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and the schedule features a marquee name (even if they're not top-25 caliber) from the SEC in Tennessee. Baylor's schedule does them no favors outside of playing Oklahoma on the road, so the Bears will need to run the table to get into the playoff. With that offense, though, they're perfectly capable.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Bryce Petty, Baylor: The Bears' signal-caller has all the tools and talent around him to put up monster numbers for a second consecutive season. It might be hard to top 4,200 yards passing and a 32:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but Petty can boost those numbers after he slowed down in the last third of the season in 2013. He has looked terrific during summer workouts, and a loaded cast of playmakers make him an easy favorite for this award.
Defensive Player of the Year
Eric Striker, Oklahoma: Ex-TCU defensive end Devonte Fields might have been the media's pick, but he faced an uphill battle even before off-the-field issues forced him to leave the program. Kansas State's Ryan Mueller is a major contender, but Striker is likely the best player on the league's best defense. He dominated during the Sugar Bowl and should cause even more havoc this season with coaches moving him around to best utilize his pass-rush skills. Plus, he lives up to his last name when it comes to highlight hits.
RB/WR Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy has indicated that 15-20 touches will be the norm for Hill in the Cowboys' offense and that means plenty of opportunities to score some long touchdowns. The junior college transfer might be the fastest player in the Big 12 and brings plenty of talent to a team that is lacking playmakers. Think Tavon Austin at West Virginia from a few years ago in terms of impact.
Player on the spot
Three best non-conference games
Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18: The defending SEC champions head to Manhattan, Kan., on a Thursday night early in the season. The Wildcats have the talent to win at home in what should be a fantastic game.
Florida State vs. Oklahoma State, Aug. 30: Facing the defending national champion might not be pretty for Oklahoma State, but the Cowboys Classic has had some fun games in the past.
UCLA vs. Texas, Sept. 13: AT&T Stadium hosts another of the best teams in the country, and in this one it's not the team from the home state. Still, Charlie Strong game planning for Brett Hundley makes this one very intriguing.
Three biggest conference games
Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8: This should be for the Big 12 title and, at the very least, a hugely important game when it comes to tie-breakers among a pair of preseason top-10 teams.
Kansas State at Oklahoma, Oct. 18: This has trap game written all over it, as the Sooners are coming back from Dallas after playing Texas, and Kansas State is the league dark horse.
Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 11: This is one of the best rivalry games in the sport, and Bob Stoops will surely give Charlie Strong a warm welcome to the Cotton Bowl.
Preseason All-Conference Team
QB Bryce Petty, Baylor (6-3, 230, senior)
RB Shock Linwood, Baylor (5-9, 200, sophomore)
RB Johnathan Gray, Texas (5-11, 215, junior)
WR Antwan Goodley, Baylor (5-11, 220, senior)
WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (5-11, 175, senior)
TE E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State (6-3, 264, senior)
T Spencer Drango, Baylor (6-6, 310, junior)
T Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech (6-6, 313, junior)
G Adam Shead, Oklahoma (6-4, 339, senior)
G Quinton Spain, West Virginia (6-5, 332, senior)
C B.J. Finney, Kansas State (6-4, 303, senior)
DE Ryan Mueller, Kansas State (6-2, 245, freshman)
DT Malcom Brown, Texas (6-2, 320, junior)
DT Chucky Hunter, TCU (6-1, 305, senior)
DE Cedric Reed, Texas (6-5, 272, senior)
LB Eric Striker, Oklahoma (6-0, 211, junior)
LB Bryce Hager, Baylor (6-2, 235, senior)
LB Ben Heeney, Kansas (6-0, 230, senior)
CB Quandre Diggs, Texas (5-10, 195, senior)
CB Zach Sanchez, Oklahoma (5-11, 179, sophomore)
S Sam Carter, TCU (6-1, 215, senior)
S Karl Joseph, West Virginia (5-10, 196, junior)
K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma (6-1, 180, senior)
P Nick O'Toole, West Virginia (6-3, 220, junior)
KR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (5-11, 175, senior)
PR Levi Norwood, Baylor (6-2, 200, senior)