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The Big 12 has been the antithesis to the SEC, and proud of it.
In the Big 12, an offense-first style of football is preached. There are higher scoring games with more wide open offenses. The spread is king. Defense is all about getting stops. There's no such thing as a shutdown defense in the conference.
The Big 12 has been hoping for the chance to pit its best offenses against the SEC's top defenses and see which comes out on top. There are three contenders in the Big 12 to make that happen this season.
The Big 12 now only consists of 10 teams, but the addition of TCU and West Virginia in place of Texas A&M and Missouri keeps the league very competitive. It doesn't replace the revenues the two departed schools could bring in, but the conference is all about the revenue Texas and Oklahoma are capable of drawing anyway.
With two new members anxious to figure into the conference race, the Big 12 should prove to be as competitive as it ever has been. Here's the team-by-team breakdown of the conference:
1. Oklahoma (Projected: 11-1, 8-1 in conference)
Top players: QB Landry Jones, LB Tom Wort, WR Kenny Stills, RB Dominique Whaley, OL Gabe Ikard, DT Jamarkus McFarland, DL Casey Walker, LB Corey Nelson, CB Demontre Hurst, OL Tyler Evans, DB Tony Jefferson, WR Trey Metoyer
Bowl projection: Fiesta
Analysis: Last season was considered a disappointment for the Sooners. They entered the year with BCS Championship aspirations, but didn't even qualify for a BCS bowl. Championship aspirations return to the Sooners once again this season and much of the pressure is on the arm of Landry Jones. Perhaps no one in the country drew more ire for his play last season than Jones. He entered the year as a Heisman hopeful, but was quickly an afterthought, despite throwing for more than 4,400 yards and 29 TDs. More than anything, injuries took a heavy toll on the Sooners. Injuries have already hit them this year, particularly on the OL. If the fragile Sooners can hold it together, they should be the favorite to win this competitive conference.
2. Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2)
Top players: RB Joseph Randle, OG Lane Taylor, CB Brodrick Brown, LB Shaun Lewis, OT Michael Bowie, DE Nigel Nicholas, LB Alex Elkins, LB Caleb Lavey, CB Justin Gilbert, DT Calvin Barnett, WR Tracy Moore, QB Wes Lunt
Bowl projection: Sugar
Analysis: There are some considerable pieces to replace on what was arguably the nation's best offense last season. QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon were both first-round NFL draft picks in April. Weeden is being replaced by true freshman QB Wes Lunt, while the Cowboys hope to utilize a plethora of receivers to make up for Blackmon's production. Making Lunt's job easier is RB Joseph Randle, who scoring 24 rushing TDs last season. Randle will be made the focus of the offense early as Lunt gets used to the speed of the college game. The Cowboys return several playmakers on defense, and are capable of getting enough stops to allow the offense to get ahead. This is a team capable of repeating as Big 12 Champions, and should be considered for a BCS at-large bid at the very least.
3. West Virginia (10-2, 7-2)
Top players: QB Geno Smith, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, OC Joe Madsen, LB Terence Garvin, DT Jorge Wright, OT Josh Jenkins, OG Jeff Braun, LB Jewone Snow, DT Will Clarke, DB Darwin Cook
Bowl projection: Cotton
Analysis: Don't count the Mountaineers out in the bid for a BCS bowl or the conference title. The Mountaineers are a great fit for the Big 12 with their wide open offense. Geno Smith is arguably the best QB in the conference and Dana Holgorsen calls as good an offensive game as anyone in the Big 12. WR Tavon Austin might be the conference's most exciting player to watch, too. Expect a lot of points on the board when the Mountaineers hit the field. On both sides of the ball. I doubt West Virginia will be holding many teams to less than 30 points. That's why I can't put them at the top of the division.
4. Kansas State (9-3, 6-3)
Top players: QB Collin Klein, RB John Hubert, TE Travis Tannahill, LB Arthur Brown, CB Nigel Malone, DE Meshak Williams, DT Vai Lutui, DE Toben Opurum, LB Tre Walker, DB Ty Zimmerman
Bowl projection: Insight
Analysis: Collin Klein is the most under-appreciated player in the country. I'm convinced of that. He's deserving of a lot more national attention than he gets. Klein is a winner. He doesn't throw a pretty pass, but he consistently keeps the Wildcats in a game regardless of who they're playing. He's the original "Honey Badger" too. As long as Klein is on the field the Wildcats have a chance of winning.
5. TCU (8-4, 5-4)
Top players: QB Casey Pachall, WR Josh Boyce, DL Stansly Maponga, LB Kenny Cain, OT Blaize Foltz, DE David Johnson, WR Skye Johnson, RB Waymon James, RB Matt Tucker, WR Brandon Carter, DE Ross Forrest
Bowl projection: Alamo
Analysis: TCU is in the conference where it feels it has always belonged. The Horned Frogs were the first team out from the SWC when the Big 12 was formed. Baylor made the cut over the Horned Frogs for reasons that went beyond on-field performances. TCU has a lot of key pieces to replace on defense this season, but should be able to keep up offensively with its Big 12 brethren. The biggest adjustment for TCU is playing a higher quality opponent in longer stretches. For example, TCU's final five games are against Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma. The Frogs never saw anything like that in Conference USA or the Mountain West.
6. Texas (7-5, 4-5)
Top players: RB Malcolm Brown, RB Johnathan Gray, OG Mason Walters, WR Jaxon Shipley, DE Alex Okafor, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, DE Ashton Dorsey, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Carrington Byndom, DB Kenny Vaccaro, CB Quandre Diggs
Bowl projection: Holiday
Analysis: The Longhorns have the best defense in the Big 12. It's the only defense capable of being a shutdown unit in the conference. That said, the offense puts the Longhorns in a lot of bad situations. More than even this defense can overcome. Texas has the potential to have the best running game in the conference as well, but it's hard to trust Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to realize the talent they have in Malcolm Brown and true freshman Johnathan Gray. When the Longhorns focused heavily on running the ball last year, they looked their best on offense. If the coaching staff can be satisfied with being a run-heavy squad instead of even a balanced offense, then the Horns could surprise in the conference race. Case McCoy and David Ash aren't winning any games with their arms.
7. Texas Tech (6-6, 3-6)
Top players: DB Cody Davis, QB Seth Doege, OT LaAdrian Waddle, WR Eric Ward, LB Will Smith, RB Eric Stephens, DB DJ Johnson, DB Terrance Bullitt, WR Alex Torres, RB DeAndre Washington
Bowl projection: Meineke Car Care
Analysis: This might be the most optimistic projection I could give the Red Raiders. It seemed at one point last season things were finally starting to click under coach Tommy Tuberville. Then Tech lost its final five games. There's no doubt the Red Raiders will continue to score a lot of points. There's also little believe they will have learned how to defend much better than they traditionally do. Bowl eligibility should be likely, but is just barely qualifying for a bowl game enough to keep Tuberville around?
8. Baylor (6-6, 3-6)
Top players: QB Nick Florence, WR Tevin Reese, WR Terrance Williams, OT Cyril Richardson, TE Jordan Najvar, OC Ivory Wade, DB Ahmad Dixon, CB KJ Morton, RB Jarred Salubi
Bowl projection: Pinstripe
Analysis: The Bears lost Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin, but still have a team good enough to compete with the top squads of the conference. Nick Florence takes over at QB and has his own fair share of experience. Plus, he has an experienced OL and seasoned weapons around him including WRs Tevin Reese and Terrance Williams. Defense is still going to be a major shortcoming for the Bears, who will have to beat each opponent in a high scoring game. It would be shocking to not see Baylor in a bowl game for a third straight season.
9. Iowa State (4-8, 2-7)
Top players: LB Jake Knott, LB AJ Klein, DT Jake McDonough, RB James White, TE Kurt Hammerschmidt, OG Tom Farniok, QB Steele Jantz
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: For the record, I believe Paul Rhoads is as good as any head coach in the Big 12. Rhoads just has the deck stacked against him this season. The Cyclones have some god players, particularly at LB with Jake Knott and AJ Klein. Both guys are first-team All-Conference picks. It's hard to look at the Cyclones schedule and find six wins. They're going to pull off at least one upset this season, though. They always do.
10. Kansas (2-10, 0-9)
Top players: OT Tanner Hawkinson, LB Darius Willis, OG Duane Zlatnik, TE Mike Ragone, DE Toben Opurum, DB Bradley McDougald, QB Dayne Crist
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: There's a considerable dropoff from Baylor to Kansas. The Jayhawks do have Charlie Weis coaching the team and his own hand-picked QB in Dayne Crist, who was a fifth-year transfer from Notre Dame. That's got a least some buzz around the football program. Will those two be enough to get Kansas into a bowl game? Chances are they won't even sniff the postseason. A winless conference campaign wouldn't be shocking, either.