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Big 12 Week: Binding Picks, South Division

   1. Texas
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Peter Bean has posited the Colt McCoy Conjecture as the grand unifying theory of 2007 Longhorn football (we've been talking about this season for so long now, I almost typed "2008"), and I tend to agree - its occasional short-yardage struggles notwithstanding, there is every expectation that Texas will be able to run the vast majority of the time, that its front seven will be as strong against the run as any in the country and that its secondary, through sheer athleticism, will revert to the very impressive mean under Mack Brown after an historically bad 2006. The receivers, save maybe Oklahoma's, are the envy of the Big 12. For all the lingering questions in that lineup, the overall talent level makes Colt's development the real either/or between the BCS championship and the Holiday Bowl.

Elementary: So goes McCoy, so goes Texas.
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We start there because that's where UT really left off last year: McCoy still had the styrofoam packaging falling off him for the first month and a half, obviously in the short screen fest against Ohio State and practically in the mistake-magnifying tug-of-war with Oklahoma, but it should have been clear by the end of the Nebraska game that he was taking the reigns from the the most lax ground game in Mack Brown's tenure. From the start of conference play through his shoulder injury at K-State, McCoy's TD:INT was 23:3; in the same span, he was the catalyst of the comeback in Lincoln, then in Lubbock, and had his best game against Oklahoma State. Trashing OSU's defense is nothing new for Texas quarterbacks, but for a supposed paragon of within-the-offense stewardship as McCoy, it was a revelation that was only solidified when he went down at KSU and played like a gimpy shadow against A&M. Texas would still be holding its breath over this kid if he hadn't lit up Iowa in the bowl game, but behind that confidence lay fears not only of injury but also of the dreaded sophomore slump, that maybe he is just a limited manager who briefly caught fire. Because unless the offense suddenly, very unexpectedly becomes the Jamaal Charles Show in the three or four games that will really matter, the `Horns really need the quarterback of last October to be the, ahem, real McCoy. Thank you. Too kind, really.

Anyway, as with everywhere else, it requires some conjecture based on what we know about the average Texas team of the last four-five years - namely, that the offensive line/running game and secondary will be much better, or at least less consistently mediocre at the worst moments - but those are safe enough assumptions for me to call the Big 12 the Horns' conference to lose.

   2. Oklahoma
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As far as the available, title-defending resources go, all of the above applies equally well to Sam Bradford. Except the optimism. OU, too, will be able to run with near impunity behind a big, veteran line, has an enviable cadre of receivers and knows few equals to its back seven on defense. Its new defensive tackles, DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy, were both PS#1 out of high school. The difference in OU and UT is the extreme un-likelihood that both would strike gold with a redshirt freshman quarterback - or, with Keith Nichol in the mix for the Sooners, a true freshman - ready to contribute to a championship run in consecutive seasons - what expectations accompany the Sooners into the season do so in spite of the quarterback, with his potential to crack looming large. Remember Rhett Bomar, Oklahomans. Even if Bradford was to end the coming season with the same sort of momentum McCoy brings from his debut, remember also that McCoy came along slowly through the Red River Shootout, and his team finished in the Alamo Bowl rather than the BCS. Riding with freshmen quarterbacks is generally an untenable position.

Few quarterbacks of any class are blessed with a defense on the level of Oklahoma's, though, or the kind of running game that will dramatically limit the need for all but the most mundane contributions from the air; if Oklahoma can make a BCS trek with Bradford (or Nichol), it will almost certainly be because he has to do very little in the process besides not throw ill-timed interceptions. The returning backfield crew of Allen Patrick, Chris Brown, et al. did the work on the seven-game, post-Shootout streak to the BCS last year, but the best chance for a transcendent, self-sustaining, championship level running game through games with Miami and Texas is with the fulfillment of the shallow breathing that follows DeMarco Murray, who wasn't needed last year but apparently is Reggie Bush with a redshirt? If I knew that was the case, with the other resources here, I'd forget about the quarterback. Until I leave a Murray highlight with scorched eyeballs, though, I can't forget about the quarterback.

Re: Reggie Bush and scorched eyeballs, though, there is some tentative precedent:

So we'll see.

   3. Oklahoma State
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As far as my tastes are concerned, in anything - music, food, depressingly hypothetical celebrity romances - you can take this to the bank: once affection for the perceived "underdog" reaches critical mass, I'm off the ride. My patience is short and bubbles burst quickly. Alone, stripped of its cultural settings, I may be able to appreciate, say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force in and of itself, within its specific role in the cultural hierarchy. But attempts to elevate the merely appreciable, the slightly above average, to a status even worthy of a cult inevitably chafes. In football terms, my reaction to the bubble around South Florida, for instance, probably makes me more cynical about the Bulls than if I happened to be the only one recognizing their "surprise" potential. Clearly, though, their status as "don't look now" darlings is no surprise, and therefore is boring and of no value to me, nearly to the point that the risk of being wrong about them pales against the greater but far less likely rewards of effectively resisting the conventional unconventional wisdom du jour.

Occasionally, though, there's an exception, when I come across someone or something with an obviously outsized critical and popular reception that I just like anyway, damn the bandwagon. In that regard, Oklahoma State is the football equivalent of Office Space, or the White Stripes, in that I don't mind the bubble. I'm aware of the bubble, and I'll bail if it looks like it's getting a little too inflated, but man, it's still a pretty sweet bubble while the fun lasts. So, slippery speed on special teams=possible Big 12 title? Whatever. As long as OSU looks like it could suddenly hang 40 on anybody at any point, by any and all means at its disposal, that's a pretty sweet bubble.

Georgia, of course, could pop it instantly, the way it did a couple years ago when would-be upstart Boise State was trashed in Athens in week one. Because of his production as a first-year starter and the likelihood he might live up to his recruiting hype, I like emerging quarterback terror Bobby Reid more than I ever did Jared Zabransky, and don't expect him to blow the Cowboys' chances at UGA or elsewhere with a barrage of interceptions. The, uh, chance-blowing will be done by the defense, thank you, and the Cowboys will lose a couple wild shootouts. They'll win a couple, too, hopefully, because if over-investing in a wild shootout bubble is wrong, I don't want to be right.

   4. Texas Tech
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Well, ibid, I guess. Ditto, etc. The defense is even less experienced here than it is at OSU and probably will struggle at least as much. As long as we're trading in gut-level  of points! points! POINTS!, though, might as well give the benefit of the doubt to the master - especially when he's won at least eight games five years in a row with .500 level talent (Phil Steele tells us the Raiders' 11 straight winning seasons is the longest streak in the conference). Tech returns fewer starters than it has at any other point in the Mike Leach Era, in possibly the toughest overall division in that span, but I'm not convinced it will matter because his offense has never been anything but a high-flying, plug `n play success, regardless of any intangible external factors like "talent." The buzz on these Raiders, despite their relative youth, is that they actually possess greater bodily-kinesthetic intelligence than any other Leach menagerie, and at least they're the first in five years with the benefit of a returning starter at quarterback, which worked pretty well for Kliff Kingsbury the last time. Tech hasn't been worse than 4-4 in the conference since Leach's first season back in 2000, and has just as often been better than that, so this pick is a nod to that consistency.

   5. Texas A&M
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Ah, now, see, it's fine to love the fly boys at Okie State and Tech, but here those picks have consequences, namely that I'm stuck with a team most everybody else (very reasonably) thinks is going to be pretty good again way down here on the fringes of even qualifying for a bowl. Risky business, more the result of the good vibes I'm getting from the teams in front of A&M than any specific hesitation about the Aggies. There's maybe a little less hesitation with this team, actually, than I'm feeling towards their peers. It's just that there's also less to really love about it, as far as taking the next step in competitiveness, and historically Dennis Franchione's teams here and elsewhere have shown little propensity for fluid transitions year-to-year. I have to live with the lusty scorn and possible year-end crow-serving of some partisan, optimistic fan base, in any case, so here we go.

Nine-win breakthrough? Still don't trust him.
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Back to the bubble analogy, the upset in Austin last November may have created one around the Aggies. For one, they have a troubling tendency under Franchione to struggle annually with a team like Baylor or Army. For another, Fran's teams are 3-14 against the ranked, and 1-7 against Oklahoma and Texas (self-aware hypocrisy alert: Leach is 2-12 against the division's rival il duces at Tech). More directly, I question how much better last year's nine-win team was over the five-win team in 2005. Statistically, the only area that reflects that sort of improvement is the secondary, which had no choice after allowing a national-worst 300-plus per game passing in `05, and even massive improvement there didn't prevent A&M from losing a game in which it allowed 39 yards passing (Oklahoma) or winning one in which it allowed 306 (Missouri). It's impossible not to love the running game, which remained in the top ten in the country with three viable threats (Stephen McGee, Mike Goodson, Jorvorskie Lane) of vastly varying skills on any play and has all the linemen back, but even there - as with every other area of the offense, including scoring - there was a slight regression, and unless Goodson is a burgeoning Darren McFadden, one-dimensionality looks like a perpetual concern with McGee, whose best asset as a passer is his ability to avoid mistakes (just two INT in `06). I think Goodson more closely resembles Jamaal Charles, actually, in that he's a blur in the open field but on the smallish side and despite gaudy freshman averages may not necessarily be ready to move out of the complementary `lightning' role alongside the thunderous Lane.

Then, Goodson might not need to be anything but a cog in the overwhelming whole, or he might lead the league in rushing - I should be clear now that even without much of a downfield passing attack, the offense should be able to run on a vast majority of defenses and hit around 30 points per game. But in that regard, TAMU is in the same canoe as OSU and Tech, each of which will probably be in the 35-38 ppg range in the process of bailing out the defensive leaks. The Aggies might make up the difference by being a little better than both on defense, but if the preceding nods to the Cowboys and Raiders were to those teams' lethal offensive balance and uncanny consistency, respectively, then this one is to A&M's recent irregularity.

   6. Baylor
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And now, after so much hemming and hawing, a bold statement: the Bears sleep with the fishes. Because they're going to be violently assaulted by opponents, I mean, not because they're hungry, though certainly bears if they had the technology would not only sleep among the fishes but also work, play and pay taxes among them, because bears love to kill and eat fish and are generally diabolical like that.

The number one threat to America, if by "America," you mean "the Big 12's revenue stream."
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As for Baylor Bears, they're less diabolical than just hapless, friendly fodder for the rest of the Big 12 and undersized but fundamentally decent stewards of the virtues of the Baptist church. I would specify that BU is fodder for the Big 12 South - the Bears hit three conference wins for the first time in eleven years by going 3-0 against the North last year - if I thought it had any chance of repeating that success. Given those wins came early in the year, though, before the worst running team in the nation tanked in November in the absence of now-departed quarterback Shawn Bell, the brief play at quasi-respectability is finished. I say that even if one of the two dueling transfers - interception-prone Kent State refugee Michael Machen or JUCO favorite John David Weed - is a reasonable facsimile of an adequate quarterback, or if the ground game somehow manages to crack three yards per carry for the season, because the defense was and will be again a wretched vagabond, stitched together only to be shredded again, repeatedly and without mercy. Over the final seven games last year, Baylor gave up a ghastly 259 per game rushing on 6.2 per carry, on top of being hit for 275, 215 and 507 passing; the per carry average goes up over six and a half in the last five games. They can cut that by a full third, and it would still suck.

It has to be tough to claw your way up from so far behind and have to start over at the bottom with so little, but here they are. This year will look a regression, but Guy Morriss still deserves every bit of patience he can get.