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The Big 12 title won't be determined by quarterbacks alone
The conventional thinking in the Big 12 may be that the team whose quarterback takes the reins will win the league.
Indeed, only one of the top six passers, Texas’ David Ash, in the Big 12 returns for 2013.
But in our exercise in picking the pivotal players to a Big 12 championship, we tended to look more toward the defensive side of the ball, and specifically the front seven. Part of that is intentional: It’s clear teams like Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State won’t have a chance at the conference title if their new starting quarterbacks don’t perform.
What may be overlooked, though, is that four of the top six teams in the Big 12 need a player in the front seven to adjust to a full-time job, return from an injury or simply clear academic hurdles to help their teams to a Big 12 title.
Our criteria for pivotal players:
1. He plays for a conference or division contender.
2. He is an unproven commodity in some way.
3. He plays at a position his team needs to perform in order to win a division or conference title.
We’ve looked at pivotal players for contenders in the ACC, the American and SEC, and now we turn our eye to the Big 12.
Joel Hasley, LB, TCU
It’s tough to imagine TCU going back-to-back seasons where linebacker is an issue, but the Horned Frogs enter another year where this is the primary concern. Hasley was second on the team with 79 tackles, but the guy ahead of him, Kenny Cain, is gone. With the stable of quality running backs in the Big 12 (plus LSU in the opener), it’s tough to see the Horned Frogs competing for a conference title if its linebackers struggle for a second consecutive season. Hasley is under pressure with converted safety Jonathan Anderson competing for his spot at middle linebacker. Despite linebackers being a weak link, TCU allowed 3.3 yards per carry last season, best in the Big 12.
Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
Texas waited and waited for Hicks to return after he went down in the third game of the season, but the outside linebacker never returned. The Longhorns run defense unravelled in Big 12 play, allowing 215 rushing yards per game in conference play. Hicks is back for 2013, and Mack Brown hopes his run defense will be back, too.
Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State
The easy answer for Kansas State’s pivotal player is either Daniel Sams or Jake Waters replacing quarterback Collin Klein. Nearly as critical is rolling with the changes in the front seven. All four starting defensive linemen are gone, including ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis (who combined for 16.5 sacks). Mueller showed flashes as a pass rusher, but the junior has never been a full-time player.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
Around this time last season, no one projected much out of Nick Florence, and he passed for a school-record 4,309 yards. Petty has far less experience than Florence did when he took over as the starter last season, but Petty also has the running back duo of Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin in tow. Petty, a junior with 14 career pass attempts, will have time to grow into his role before the Bears’ critical stretch in November and December.
Quincy Russell, DT, Oklahoma
For most pivotal players in this series, performance and health are the most pressing concerns. For Russell, it’s if he’ll be around to make an impact. The junior college transfer is still waiting to be cleared academically. Whether or not he’s available, defensive line is Oklahoma’s most pressing question other than quarterback. At 6-4, 315 pounds, Russell is one of the biggest bodies on the offensive line, especially considering his linemate at tackle is converted defensive end Chuka Ndulue.
Jeremy Smith, RB, Oklahoma State
The potential stability at quarterback — provided Clint Chelf starts all season — will be a change for the Cowboys. But we’re watching the change at running back where Joseph Randle hands the baton to Jeremy Smith. Oklahoma State has had a 1,200-yard running back for six consecutive seasons. Smith has averaged 6.2 yards per carry during his career, but he’s deal with nagging injuries through his career. His durability could determine if Oklahoma State has the balanced offense it craves.