Who's going to be the 2011 version of the 2010 Oklahoma State Cowboys? Will there even be one? No one knows the answer to that but here are the three most likely candidates. But first, a little background.
Oklahoma State was predicted by nearly every outlet to finish fifth or sixth in the Big 12 South entering the 2010 season. The Big 12's media had them pegged for a fifth place finish, and Phil Steele had them coming in last. You get the idea.
The common perception was they lost a ton of talent (14 starters) and were in rebuilding mode. Their quarterback was unproven, they had no breakout receivers, Kendall Hunter was coming off an injury-plagued season, the offensive line was inexperienced, and there defense had holes all over it.
Not to mention they had a new offensive coordinator - some guy named Dana Holgorsen - who was hired from Houston to overhaul the Cowboys usually run first offense (they led the Big 12 in rushing in 2009) with his version of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense.
The next thing you know, the Pokes are putting 50 plus points on three of the first five opponents, Justin Blackmon emerges, Brandon Weeden proves he can still play some quarterback and Holgorsen's offense basically proves to be unstoppable.
So is there a team out there than can do the same thing in 2011? Well, let's take Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M out of the equation. Those are the three teams that are generally thought to be the contenders for the conference title so anything they do won't be all that surprising. And you can probably throw Missouri in that group, as well. The Tigers need to prove they have someone who can play quarterback, but basically everyone else returns from a very good 2010 team.
With all that said, here are the three most likely candidates to emerge from the preseason ashes and have the type of season Oklahoma State did in 2010. Keep in mind, you may laugh at these now, but you also would have laughed if someone told you Oklahoma State would finish 11-2 in 2010.
1. Texas Tech
Offensively, Texas Tech is very similar to what Oklahoma State was entering the 2010 season. Like OSU a season ago, Texas Tech will be breaking in a new quarterback. Seth Doege will likely open the season as the starter, and while he's not a former minor league baseball player or 27 years old as was the case with Brandon Weeden, he hasn't played much football over the past five seasons since he missed his junior and senior years of high school with injuries.
Texas Tech also will be looking for someone to break out at receiver with Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis both graduating. Nobody outside the state of Oklahoma knew much about Justin Blackmon before last season and he's now considered one of, if not the best receiver in the country. Does Texas Tech have someone on the roster capable of a Blackmon type season? Alexander Torres and Austin Zouzalik have some experience, and Eric Ward or Marcus Kennard could also step up to give Doege the targets he will need to put up big points in Neal Brown's offense.
The Bears finally made it to a bowl game last year and had their best season since the Big 12 was formed in 1996. Are they ready to take the next step? With eight starters returning on offense including Robert Griffin at quarterback, they just might be ready make that leap.
Can the Bears get to the ten win mark or better? Looking at their schedule, it doesn't seem probable, but that's the whole point here. It won't take long to learn a lot about Baylor with TCU being first up on their schedule.
The big question mark in Waco will be the defense. That's where former Pitt defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett, comes into the equation. If he can figure out how to plug the holes on a defense that gave up over 40 points six different times in 2010, the Bears could very well step up and surprise many people around the country.
Nobody is predicting Texas to finish last in the Big 12, but the Longhorns still have something to prove in 2011. Most pundits have predicted Texas to finish in the top half of the conference after last year's 5-7 debacle. Considering the talent on the roster, Texas is probably the most likely team to make a run like Oklahoma State did in 2010, but since the surprise factor won't necessarily be there, the 'Horns fall to number three on this list.
The biggest question mark for Texas in making a turnaround is getting the new systems of Bryan Harsin on offense, and Manny Diaz on defense, installed and everyone on the same page. That can often times be easier said than done and Texas has to do it on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
The second question mark; does Texas have a quarterback capable of running the offense the way Weeden did in Stillwater a season ago? Without Garrett Gilbert playing much better in year number two as a starter (or whoever wins the job this fall), it'll be tough for Texas to finish in the top three, even with a defense that figures to be one of the best in the Big 12. But then again, if you're not giving up a lot of points, you don't necessarily have to score a lot, either.