21. Oklahoma State
2011 record: 12-1 (8-1 Big 12), first in Big 12, Fiesta Bowl champions
Key returners: S Daytawion Lowe (Junior), RB Joseph Randle (Junior), RB Jeremy Smith (Junior)
The challenge of replacing quarterback Brandon Weeden will be placed on the shoulders of a true freshman, 18-year-old Wes Lunt. Head coach Mike Gundy decided to name Lunt his starting quarterback heading into camp, and according to Yahoo! Sports, it will be the first time the Cowboys start a freshman at the position since 1950.
But the pressure isn’t on Lunt as much as it is saddled on the defense to keep Oklahoma State competitive until their young quarterback can get up to speed in a tough Big 12 Conference. Luckily, the defense will return seven of the top 10 tacklers from the 2011 season, so that unit will not need much learning time.
It’ll be fun to see if the Cowboys can exceed expectations despite losing their 28-year-old quarterback in the offseason, as well as star wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The first three games on their schedule (Savannah State, at Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette) will be good opportunities for Lunt to get real-time experience before a big showdown with Texas on Sept. 29.
(MORE: Top 25)
20. Kansas State
2011 record: 10-3 (7-2 Big 12), second in Big 12, Cotton Bowl appearance
Key returners: QB Collin Klein (Senior), LB Arthur Brown (Senior), DB Nigel Malone (Senior)
The Wildcats overachieved in 2011 and with head coach Bill Snyder leading the way, there’s a very good chance they do the same this season. A slew of players start the season on award watch lists, as many of those guys who were on last season’s Big 12 runner-up are another year older and wiser.
Running a plodding and deliberate offense, quarterback Collin Klein will look to capture the same magic in 2012, relying heavily on its rushing attack. Good news — the Wildcats return the two main components of that running game: Klein, who led the team in rushing with 1,099 yards, and junior John Hubert, who added 933 yards of his own.
K-State starts the season with three home, non-conference games before a road game at Oklahoma on Sept. 22. One of those first three games is against the Miami Hurricanes, so we’ll see a pretty good gauge for where the Wildcats stand before the first month of the season ends.
2011 record: 11-2 (7-0 MWC), first in Mountain West, Poinsettia Bowl champions
Key returners: QB Casey Pachall (Junior), RB Waymon James (Junior), DE Stansly Maponga (Junior)
The Horned Frogs finally decided to man up and join the Big 12 after years of having only Boise State as real competition in the Mountain West Conference, and inquiring minds want to know how they will fare against the colossal names and legacies of the Big 12.
Remember that slew of drug arrests that shook the football team in the offseason? Yeah, they’re going to be hurting on the depth chart for that one. And they can’t really play the role of the fiesty underdog anymore, because they’re supposed to be grown-up like every other team in their conference.
The Horned Frogs are built to have a successful season, even after all the distractions. Pachall is a solid quarterback who stepped up last season in the wake of Andy Dalton’s graduation. In 2011, Pachall threw for 2,715 yards and 24 touchdowns, and if he improves on those numbers in 2012, TCU could even be talking about a third- or fourth-place finish in the Big 12. That would surely send a message to the rest of the conference!
Head coach Gary Patterson has a situation that is hand-crafted for success in the coming years, and as the opponents get better, so can his own program. Their final five games of the season — at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, Kansas State, at Texas and Oklahoma — will be a very tough test, but the Horned Frogs should enter that stretch with a ranking, possibly as high as No. 15.