1. Build on the momentum
From teetering on the brink to bowl eligibility, to contending for a top 25 spot, few teams finished the 2012 season as strong as Baylor. The Bears rolled off four straight wins to go from sub-.500 to 8-5. Among them were routs of nationally ranked Kansas State and UCLA.
BU opens with a very manageable schedule, not leaving Waco until Oct. 12 and seeing Wofford, Buffalo and UL-Monroe in that time. West Virginia visits in a rematch of last year’s 70-63 shootout. Should the Bears handle business in that stretch, they will go to defending conference champion Kansas State 4-0.
2. Put it together on defense
As noted above, Baylor gave up 70 points. In one game. That’s bad by college basketball standards these days, and even in the grassketball-playing Big, it’s unacceptable.
BU showed glimpses of improvement down the stretch, holding K-State and UCLA both below the 30-point threshold, but the Bears need to be much better on a weekly basis this season. There’s a bevy of talent on that side of the ball, like Bryce Hager and Ahmad Dixon, and it’s up to Phil Bennett to unlock the potential.
3. Ground and pound
BU’s offense has been among the most explosive in college football the last few seasons, so don’t expect Art Briles to implement a Wing-T. However, the 2013 Bear backfield is one of the most talented in the conference, if not the nation, with Glasco Martin and Lache Seastrunk in it.
The Bears have the ability to come at opposing defenses frequently and efficiently with the one-two combination, thus setting up the defense for the haymaker pass from Bryce Petty.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES
1. Turnover creation
Look at the three most significant wins of Iowa State’s 2012 season: Tulsa, Baylor and TCU. A common characteristic is that the Cyclones forced at least three turnovers in each contest.
ISU was one of the top 32 turnover-forcing teams in the nation last year with 26, 14 of which were interceptions. Exploiting the pass-heavy nature of the conference’s offenses can work to Iowa State’s advantage.
2. Trust the pistol
Cyclone offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham is installing a Pistol offense, which should make better use of the tight ends and deep running back corps ISU returns. Sam Richardson’s ability to run the Pistol will dictate Iowa State’s offensive success, but regardless it’s a much needed change in Ames.
3. Start 4-0
Paul Rhoads has led ISU to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons, and just the fourth time in program history. Iowa State has been to the postseason now three times in four seasons under Rhoads’ guidance. In 2013, Rhoads pursues a milestone the program has reached just once: three consecutive bowl games.
The Big 12 is top-heavy once again, and the Cyclones play a difficult schedule. Potentially winnable games like Texas Tech, Baylor and West Virginia are all on the road. That puts a heavy burden on ISU to start strong as an insurance policy for its postseason aspirations. It’s no easy feat: perennial FCS contender Northern Iowa and rival Iowa visit in the first two weeks, then the Cyclones travel to Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane pasted ISU in December’s Liberty Bowl.
Capping this four-game run is Texas, which travels to Ames. This is a big one because it’s a key conference home game. It’s also vital for ISU’s mindset, as the Longhorns typically have the Cyclones’ number.
KU went 1-11 in Charlie Weis’ first season — a worse record than any of the previous two that cost Turner Gill his job. The Jayhawks had the dubious distinctions of going winless against FBS competition, and ending the year on an 11-game win streak.
Kansas was not without opportunities though, yet played the role of Big 12′s Shelley Levene: unable to close. Rice outscored Kansas 9-0 in the fourth quarter to win 25-24; Northern Illinois outpaced the Jayhawks 14-3 in the final frame for a 30-23 decision. KU had Texas (and Mack Brown) against the ropes, until a 14-3 last 15 minutes saved the Longhorns, 21-17.
Flip those three games, and KU is sitting at 4-4 going into the final month. Add a fourth tough loss, in which the Jayhawks’ torrid final quarter rally against Oklahoma State fell short, and Kansas is 5-3 and needing just a single win to reach the postseason. The final straw was an overtime defeat to Texas Tech. Yes, Kansas was almost as many wins away from a bowl bid as a team can be, but only 25 points separated it from its first postseason foray since 2008.
2. Develop a passing game
Weis was once praised for his ability to cultivate quarterbacks, but a sub-par year for Florida’s passers in 2011 and the abominable showing of Dayne Crist last season cast doubt on that belief. Jake Heaps is eligible after transferring in from BYU, where he was something of a season-saver in 2010 but regressed badly in 2011.
KU desperately needs a reliable passing game to draw defenses off of the ball carriers. James Sims is outstanding, but can be better if he is not shouldering a disproportionate workload.
3. Don’t lose heart
Numerous close calls early on seemingly took its toll on the Jayhawks down the stretch, and an 11-game losing streak is a cumbersome millstone to drag into a new season. Their schedule opens with South Dakota, a likely win. The rematch at Rice follows, with Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech visiting Lawrence in the subsequent weeks.
KU could realistically be 3-0 for that conference-opening tilt against TTU; it could also sit at 1-2. If it’s the latter, the Jayhawks have to mentally rally. The Red Raiders are beatable; KU nearly pulled it off in Lubbock last season.
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
1. Mature quickly
The reigning Big 12 champion K-State is one of the least experienced teams entering the 2013 season, especially on defense, where 10 starters are gone. The early portion of the schedule is going to be a baptism by fire for newcomers and former reserves alike. Leaders must emerge, and quickly — the first three conference games are against Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor, all of which are likely contenders to the ‘Cats’ crown.
2. Manufacture Klein’s lost production
Heisman finalist Collin Klein was such a vital part of the Wildcat offense the last two seasons. While a quarterback is important to any offense, Klein accounted for nearly 70 percent of K-State’s production. Daniel Sams doesn’t need to be Klein, especially if running back John Hubert breaks into the upper echelon of ball carriers. But Sams will need to give K-State a more dynamic passing attack to replicate some of the scoring for which Klein accounted.
3. Defend home field
K-State benefits from a favorable conference schedule. Though the Wildcats open with Oklahoma State and Texas on the road, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma all come to Manhattan. Bill Snyder has lost in the stadium that bears his name just once in the past two seasons. Those three wins are crucial in this year’s conference championship pursuit, as each team could factor into the race.
1. Regain some defensive swagger
The 25.5 points per game Oklahoma surrendered in 2012 were the most for a Sooner defense in well over a decade, outpacing the 24.5 the 2008 team allowed. The difference? In 2008, OU scored a nation-leading 51.1 points per game, which meant more opponent possessions. Last season’s Sooners averaged two touchdowns and an extra point less.
It was an underwhelming return for Mike Stoops, who guided the Sooner D in its glory years of the early 2000s. A move to a 3-4 base might be the remedy OU needs to reinvigorate and regain that old Sooner swagger.
2. Play to Bell’s strengths
Blake Bell isn’t Sam Bradford or Landry Jones, and he shouldn’t be asked to replicate their style. Now, Bell must prove he can pass — unless Josh Heupel plans to reinstate the Wishbone. Don’t bet on that. Bell may not be a quarterback who throws 600 times in a season like his predecessor, but his ability to run separates him from Jones.
Should OU play to Bell’s strengths, he can be the Sooners’ version of Collin Klein.
3. Bring back Big Game Bob
Recent Sooner teams are polar opposites of those in the early 2000s, when Bob Stoops earned the nickname “Big Game.” OU was nails against the top 25 during its championship run, but the 2003 Big 12 Conference championship and subsequent Sugar Bowl, followed by the 2005 Orange Bowl, started a trend that has kept the Sooners from returning to the pinnacle.
Stoops’ teams win, and win a lot. They win the big games, but not the colossal games. Last year was a good example, as the Sooners suffered defeats against Kansas State and Notre Dame (both BCS bowl participants) and Texas A&M.
OU faces a tough slate in the coming season. Every team from Weeks 1 through 6 played in a bowl game a year ago. Three won nine games or more. Oklahoma can shape its campaign in that first half, but Stoops must recapture that Big Game mojo.