OMAHA — Texas ran away with the Big 12 regular-season title by eight games last season, came within a win of going to the College World Series and has a team long on pitching and defense.
Yet it's Oklahoma that wears the favorite's label this season, according to a vote of the coaches.
The Sooners are loaded with seven returning everyday players, a lineup that features plenty of pop and an experienced pitching staff. The conference runners-up won 50 games last season, including one in Omaha at the CWS.
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said the Sooners better be ready for everyone's best shot. He said it seems his program is getting more attention than it did even in 1995, when the Sooners were defending national champions.
"There are a lot of distractions," he said. "We need to get on the field and not forget what it's all about."
Golloway, whose team is ranked no lower than No. 6 in national polls, benefited from a number of players turning down pro offers to return to school. Among them is Garrett Buechele, who led the Sooners with a .359 average, 17 homers and 65 RBIs. He committed only five errors at third base.
First baseman Cameron Seitzer, like Buechele the son of a former major-leaguer, is among four other OU players to hit 10 or more homers. The Sooners also have proven pitching in Michael Rocha (8-2), Bobby Shore (10-5), Jack Mayfield (5-0) and closer Ryan Duke (3-2, 12 saves).
While Oklahoma sits atop the preseason poll, Missouri is predicted to finish tenth, last in the Big 12. The Tigers went 29-26 overall last year and 10-16 in the Big 12, an eighth-place finish.
Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said he feels good about his team even though newcomers will fill roles all over the field.
"If we're the 10th-best team in the league," he said, "it's a pretty damn good league."
Texas is picked second in the league and, like Oklahoma, a consensus Top 10 team nationally.
Longhorns coach Augie Garrido will take runs any way he can get them after losing three players who accounted for 34 of the team's 81 homers.
Big 12 pitcher of the year Cole Green (11-2) and Taylor Jungmann (8-3) head the staff. Garrido's biggest concern is finding a replacement for first-team All-America reliever Chance Ruffin (1.11 ERA in 64 innings).
Garrido said he plans to run four pitchers in and out from the seventh to ninth innings.
"That's how we're approaching it unless someone emerges like a Ruffin," Garrido said. "We don't have that exceptional attitude in one of the relievers and exceptional pitching skills in any one of our relievers."
Baylor returns solid experience throughout the lineup. One of the keys will be the development of Joey Hainsfurther at catcher, where he hasn't played since high school.
Texas A&M, which lost two of its top three hitters, needs to improve offensively to take pressure off what figures to be a strong group of pitchers. The Aggies were last in the Big 12 in scoring.
Kansas State returns Big 12 player of the year Nick Martini and five other everyday players. But the Wildcats have a big hole to fill at shortstop, and they need to find quality depth among the pitchers.
Oklahoma State brings back all-conference second baseman Davis Duren and four other everyday players who will be complemented by a strong recruiting class. The Cowboys hope Randy McCurry, who set the school saves record in 2009, can come back after missing last season after having Tommy John surgery.
Texas Tech should have plenty of offense, but pitching is a major question after second-round draft pick Chad Bettis (Colorado) and fourth-rounder Bobby Doran (Houston) signed pro contracts.
Nebraska, entering its last Big 12 season before heading to the Big Ten, hopes to make the conference tournament for the first time in three years. The Cornhuskers' pitching staff will get a big boost if freshman Logan Ehlers is activated.
The NCAA is looking into whether rules covering contract negotiations were violated after Toronto drafted him in the eighth round last year. Anderson pegs Ehlers as a weekend starter when and if he's cleared.
Kansas brings back weekend starters in T.J. Waiz, who has 20 career wins, and Tanner Poppe. Left fielder Jimmy Waters tied for the Big 12 lead with 34 RBIs in conference games.
The coaches generally favor the new regulations governing bats, whose sweet spots have shrunk from about 22 inches to about five. The bats are designed to mimic their wooden counterparts, with reduced exit speeds giving players more time to react and protect themselves.
Coaches predict the toned-down bats will lead to shorter games, with fewer home runs and less scoring.
"I literally think we have our game back," Baylor coach Steve Smith said. "A lot of players of this generation don't even know how to play the game. The bat has been so lively, you can make numerous mistakes running the bases and defensively and it can get covered up in a hurry."
"The last 10-15 years, you sat in the dugout hoping your pitcher could miss the bat and you just waited until you hit one up in the wind and it went out," Smith said.