Defenses can't be overlooked in Big 12
MORGANTOWN - The Big 12 Conference has a reputation for outstanding offenses, quarterbacks and receivers that is as earned as it is impressive.
The teams combined for the country's highest scoring average last season. Since beginning play in 1996, five Big 12 players have won the Heisman Trophy. The Biletnikoff Award has been won four times by Big 12 receivers. Half the league's 10 starting quarterbacks are up for the 2012 Davey O'Brien Award.
West Virginia's healthy reputation in the same areas is as good a reason as there is to explain why the Mountaineers are expected to do so well in their first year in the conference.
Yet in a league with such prolific offenses, a defense can make the difference and one person, or a few of them, can make it happen. When the Walter Camp Award preseason watch list came out and listed nominees for college football's player of the year, four of the Big 12's 11 candidates were defenders. Only the Southeastern Conference, steeped in a defensive tradition, could match that number.
"My first year in the league back in 2009 there was a lot of negative talk about how the Big 12 doesn't play defense and the Big 12 has poor defensive talent," said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. "But let me tell you what, in 2008, the year before I got into the league, you want to talk about offensive firepower?"
Oklahoma led the country in scoring at 51.1 points per game in 2008. Texas Tech (No. 3), Texas (No. 5), Missouri (No. 6) and Oklahoma State (No. 9) were in the top 10. Rankings for Nebraska (No. 17), Kansas State (No. 20) and Kansas (No. 22) meant half the offenses were comfortably inside the top 25.
The conference's quarterbacks provided the explanation. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell led the nation with 393 passing yards per game. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy, threw an NCAA-best 50 touchdown passes and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Colt McCoy set a NCAA record by completing 76.7 percent of his passes at Texas, won the Walter Camp Award and was second to Bradford in the Heisman voting.
It could also be explained by the receivers: Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State, Jeremy Maclin at Missouri, Jordan Shipley at Texas and two-time Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech.
"It hasn't diminished since," Rhoads said. "You look at the Heisman Trophy winners and the Biletnikoff winners recently and there is all kinds of offensive talent in this league, but I think that connotation carries over.
"Because of that, people think the Big 12 doesn't have good defensive players or good defenses overall and I don't think that's accurate."
Since 1996, the Big 12 has had five defensive backs win the Jim Thorpe Award, five linebackers win the Butkus Award and five players win the Nagurski Award for the defensive player of the year. No league has won more. Only the Big Ten's six Bednarik Awards, for the country's best defensive player, eclipses the Big 12's three during that span.
"It all depends what perspective you look at it from and who you talk to," said Kansas State linebacker Art Brown, a preseason all-conference pick and one of the four Big 12 defenders to make the Walter Camp watch list. "There are a lot of offensive players, but there are also a lot of defensive players. It depends on where your eyes are focused and people will always look at the offensive players here."
Perspective matters in other areas, too. Oklahoma State was in every conversation about the BCS championship game last year - before losing to Iowa State - but the Cowboys often were devalued because they surrendered a lot of points.
Then again, no one was better in turnover margin and forcing turnovers - and good luck finding a coach who doesn't want to be No. 1 in either, let alone both. Oklahoma State was No. 61 in scoring defense (26.8), but no other contender had to play four of the top 22 scoring offenses in the country, either. Those were conference games, too.
"The defensive stats can get so skewed, but at the same time, it comes down to the individual level and we still have people who stand out," said Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, the 2011 Big 12 co-defensive player of the year. "As far as overall defensive statistics, they're going to get run up a little bit unless you have just an absolute powerhouse, but guys here do excel in different areas."
The Big 12 had 14 players on the Bednarik preseason watch list and 13 on the Nagurski watch list. Only the SEC was better, with 19 on each list. The SEC had five on the Thorpe watch list, one more than the Big 12. Only four Big 12 players made the Butkus preseason watch list, but being a linebacker in the Big 12 is "hard because you have to be so versatile and cover so many things," according to Klein.
Yet the Cyclones have two of the conference's best in Klein and fellow senior Jake Knott. Defensive end Alex Okafor was the Big 12's preseason defensive player of the year and made the preseason Walter Camp list. The preseason all-conference secondary represents four schools - Oklahoma State's Brodrick Brown, Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson and Kansas State's Nigel Malone, who was also on the preseason Walter Camp list.
The 11-player preseason all-Big 12 team has seven first-team 2011 players and two second-team players, plus TCU's Stansly Maponga, who was all-Mountain West Conference last season.
"I think I'm fairly similar to everyone else who plays on these teams," Knott said. "I like it and I accept the challenge on the defensive side. It's not that we're not trying, like, 'Oh, the defense is going to let the offense score so we can get the ball back.'
"It's fine that people think like that, but that's not what goes on here. As long as people in the conference know there's defensive talent, that's all that matters."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.