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College Football Preview: Big 12 Title Race

Is it a new day in the Big 12? Will the presence of TCU and West Virginia affect the conference's power structure or it will all come down to the Red River Shootout again? The third in a four-part conversation about the 2012 season.

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A response to this post about Texas football on Tuesday.

Considering how close the Big 12 came to extinction in each of the last two off-seasons, it's pretty crazy how strong the conference looks headed into 2012. Texas A&M and Missouri may have bigger names, but TCU and West Virginia clearly have the superior football programs. The conference added two schools with a 4-1 record in BCS bowls and dropped two schools that went 0-1 (Texas A&M lost the 1998 Sugar Bowl to Ohio State).

And with only 10 schools and a true round-robin schedule, there's no ducking anyone in the Big 12. Compare that to the mighty SEC, where Georgia misses Alabama, LSU and Arkansas during the regular season. Look at the five toughest games on Missouri's schedule -- Georgia, at South Carolina, Alabama, at Florida, at Tennessee -- are they really going up a level of competition this year?

There's only three games -- Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas -- you can pencil in as wins on the Big 12 schedule. For that matter, the Cyclones (OSU) and Red Raiders (OU) both got a huge scalp last year, while the Jayhawks will now have a "schematic advantage" against their opponents due to the presence of Charlie Weis and Dave Campo.

Baylor and Oklahoma State should both take a step back after sending QB's to the first round of the NFL Draft, but Art Briles and Mike Gundy have proven their systems are bigger than any one player. It seems unlikely that Bill Snyder can squeeze 10 wins out of Kansas State again, but the middle of the conference has three legitimate programs with a puncher's chance of beating anyone, especially at home.

I think that's going to be the biggest test for West Virginia and TCU this year. They've proven they can match up with the upper class of college football in a one-game scenario, but do they have the depth to survive being tested by the middle class of the Big 12 over a three-month season?

They both already play like Big 12 teams, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where they use the same type of high-octane spread attack that has taken over the conference in the last decade. I'm old enough to remember when throwing the ball 40-50 times a game made you a contrarian. Now it's just the norm.

The only team at the top of the conference who can't air the ball out is Texas. But while David Ash isn't winning any shootouts with Geno Smith, Casey Pachall or Landry Jones, the Longhorns may have the most talented defense in the country. With the explosion of the passing game, DE is the most important defensive position on the field, and Texas has two guys (Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat) projected to be first-round picks next year.

In their three losses last year, West Virginia gave up 47 points to LSU, 49 points to Syracuse and 38 points to Louisville. Archie Barberio, our NFL scouting guru, picked them to win the conference but that defense doesn't exactly inspire fear. It's hard to see Gary Patterson fielding such a mediocre defense two years in a row and Mike Stoops is back in Norman, but there are serious questions surrounding every contender in the Big 12 this year.

That's why, for all that has changed in the Big 12, I still think the conference will come down to the same game in Dallas (and I don't mean Tech/Baylor) that it always has before. Stoops will try to rattle the Texas QB's, because the Longhorns aren't equipped to play from very far behind in a game like that. But if Ash can avoid any critical turnovers and Harsin can conjure up a few trick plays to get ahead early, Texas will be able to run the ball on offense and send waves of pass rushers to tee off on Jones.

What's your take on the conference race this year? You think the Big 12 can get a team into the BCS title game or are we doomed for another year of endless SEC hype and a 15-12 title game? Long-term, is this a stable alignment for the conference or is 12 teams and a conference championship game now a necessity to stay in the big leagues?

Check back tomorrow for a look at whether the Big 12 should stay at 10 teams.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.