Quiet spring in Big 12 could set up loud fall

April, 28, 2011
Dominance last April meant irrelevance this January for the Big 12.

The NFL draft is just hours away, and this time last year, the league was bracing for a historic night. By the end of the night, nine Big 12 players were first-round draft picks and five of the draft's first six selections were from Big 12 programs.

But last season, the Big 12 paid the price for the talent drain.

[+] EnlargeRyan Broyles
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles is among the long list of stars returning to the Big 12 next season.
Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Gerald McCoy left school early. As did Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant. All three were first-round picks.

Heading into 2011, the league looked like it would be lacking a real national-title contender. By Halloween, it proved it.

Missouri trailed 24-0 after the first quarter of a loss Nebraska on Oct. 30.

With five weeks still left in the season, the Big 12 didn't have an undefeated team remaining, left far on the outside of a national-title race that ended with three undefeated teams heading into the bowl season.

No team finished with fewer than two losses, and just one team earned a BCS bowl bid. Oklahoma's 48-20 trouncing of UConn was easily the least attractive matchup on the BCS docket, too.

For a league that had a participant in the national-title game in five of the past seven seasons, even the parity that produced five top 25 teams by season's end did little to prevent 2010 from being cast as a down year nationally.

That likely won't be the case next season.

Tonight, the Big 12 could have as many as five first-round picks. Of those five, though, just three left school early, and of those three, none came from the favorites to win the Big 12 crown in 2011.

Texas A&M will say goodbye to a program legend in Von Miller. Missouri will do the same for Blaine Gabbert, who left after his junior season.

But besides that pair, the league returns nearly all its premier stars.

Oklahoma's Travis Lewis and Ryan Broyles decided to stick around for their senior seasons, giving the Sooners a pair of four-year starters bent on making a second appearance in the national-title game during their careers--and winning it this time. They'll likely start the season atop the polls.

Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, the Big 12's first-team all-conference quarterback, and his top receiver, Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon, returned to give the Cowboys' high-powered offense a good shot of starting inside the top 10 and possible national-title hopes.

Texas A&M receiver Jeff Fuller followed his teammate Miller's lead, returning for his senior season to help the Aggies offense chase the Big 12 title that narrowly eluded them last season -- and perhaps more.

Gabbert and Miller could both be gone in the top five picks on Thursday, but the real story for the Big 12 this time around is who isn't in the draft.

Next fall -- or January, rather -- those decisions could pay off for everyone.
Texas A&M will say goodbye to a program legend in <a href="http://insider.espn.com/nfl/draft/player/_/id/27009/von-miller">Von Miller</a>. Missouri will do the same for <a href="http://insider.espn.com/nfl/draft/player/_/id/27028/blaine-gabbert">Blaine Gabbert</a>, who left after his junior season.



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