When you’ve won three straight Big 12 championships like Oklahoma, you’re No. 1 until proven otherwise. But the gap between Oklahoma and the rest of the conference probably shrunk this offseason. The Sooners lost a legend in 2017 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield (formerly of Lake Travis). They also must replace unanimous All-Americans in left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. It’s safe to say Oklahoma won’t lead the nation in yards per play like it has the last two years. With a defense that hasn’t ranked above 70th during the same time frame, the time is ripe for someone else to take over the throne. But the Sooners are 26-2 in the Big 12 the last three years, and a run game that returns two preseason All-Big 12 offensive lineman with a preseason All-Big 12 tailback in Rodney Anderson (who rushed for 1,079 yards in his last eight games last year) could absolutely pummel a conference that’s isn’t exactly known for its defensive physicality.
Having the best quarterback goes a long way in the game of football, and that’s especially true in the Big 12. The first team all-conference QB has won the league each of the last six years, and this year’s best gunslinger hails in Morgantown. Senior Will Grier averaged nine yards per attempt last year. No other returning Big 12 quarterback averaged more than 7.7. Grier also has a bevy of weapons in senior wide receiver David Sills (who led the country with 18 touchdowns last year), senior slot-man Gary Jennings (fourth in receptions with 97) and two potentially high-impact transfers in former Alabama wideout T. J. Simmons and tight end Jovanni Haskins from Miami. There are certainly questions on defense and in terms of depth, but this offense has the potential to blow the Big 12 away. The Mountaineers also benefit from getting Oklahoma at home on Black Friday in conditions that could be mighty uncomfortable for a team from the south.
After a two-year adjustment period to get used to the Big 12, TCU has shown it can win against the big boys three top-ten finishes in the last four years. Recruiting has picked up with it. After averaging a 247 composite recruiting ranking of 39 between 2013-2015, the Horned Frogs have averaged a top 25 mark the last three seasons. Head coach Gary Patterson will say he doesn’t care about star ratings, but teams that recruit better typically have an easier time reloading. TCU will start a young quarterback behind an inexperienced offensive line, but the skill position talent has never been better. Senior Kavontae Turpin and sophomore Jaelen Reagor are home run hitters out wide, and the 1-2 punch of junior running backs Darius Anderson and Dewo Olonilua could be devastating if the offensive line opens up holes. Seniors Ty Sommers (a versatile DE/LB hybrid) and Ben Benogu (16.5 tackles for a loss) return to lead a defense that topped the Big 12 in scoring and yardage last year. The unit could be bolstered further by linebacker Jawuan Johnson, a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois who made 18 tackles for a loss last season.
There’s more uncertainty than usual in Stillwater, but with three ten-win seasons in a row – and six in the last eight years – it’s hard to see the Cowboys falling too far out of contention. The offense should trend more toward the ground game with 5-foot-10 dynamo Justice Hill returning from a 1,467-yard, 15-TD sophomore season. Who starts at quarterback is anybody’s guess after Mason Rudolph (4,553 yards, 35 TDs) graduated to the NFL. But whoever wins the job will have two sure-handed targets at wide receiver in senior Jalen McCleskey and sophomore Dillon Stoner, with plenty of potential breakout stars ready to emerge alongside them from a deep position group. Head coach Mike Gundy let go of defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer this offseason after ranking in the bottom half of Big 12 scoring defense for the third time in the last four years. He will be replaced by former Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, whose 4-2-5 scheme may be a better fit for the Big 12.
Long live Bill Snyder. The old wizard is still pulling wins out of his hat at age 78. His newest trick is a two-quarterback system with sophomore Skylar Thompson and junior Alex Delton. It’s sometimes said that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none. But Snyder brought both to Big 12 media days and each provides a different flavor to the offense, with Thompson being the better passer, but Delton the better runner. They both had their moments last year and will be aided by an offensive line that returns all five starters, including All-American right tackle Dalton Risner, and a strong running back core led by junior Alen Barnes. For the Wildcats to really contend, however, they need to get back to playing defense. Kansas State hasn’t ranked in the top half of the country in yards per play allowed for the last three years.
Texas is one of those blue blood programs that’s always one good coaching hire from being great. Is Tom Herman the guy? Some of the best coaches from the last 20 years made significant jumps in their second seasons at programs with similar stature to Texas. Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll and Nick Saban (at Alabama) went a combined 27-22 in their inaugural campaigns before going 50-4 in year two and embarking on dominant runs. For Texas to make that leap, it’ll have to replace some key players on a defense that carried a laggy offense to seven wins last year. But the Longhorns always have some talented dudes. Senior defensive end Breckyn Hager (from Westlake) and senior cornerback Kris Boyd both made the preseason All-Big 12 team. The offensive line was a disaster last year but will be helped by potential NFL left tackle Calvin Anderson, a graduate transfer from Rice (and formerly of Westlake). I’ll bet anybody sophomore Sam Ehlinger is the opening day starter at QB. He’s a better fit for Herman’s offense with his power running style, and if he cuts down on the turnovers, it could go a long way in Texas flipping its 1-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
One of the biggest surprises from the preseason All-Big 12 team was seeing three Texas Tech players on defense in senior linebacker Dakota Allen, junior nickelback Justus Parker and senior safety Jah’Shawn Johnson. But the Red Raiders were better than usual on defense last year and could improve further with 20 of 22 players returning on the two-deep. Texas Tech had a revolving door at defensive coordinator for a while (six in six years) before settling on David Gibbs in 2015. After two tough years of implementing his system and building a culture, Gibbs’ unit finally moved the needle in year three and could be poised for even better things this fall. The offense must figure out who it’s quarterback and wide receivers are, but that’s never been a problem in Lubbock. With an offensive line that returns all five starters, Texas Tech fans are optimistic their team could pull off it’s first winning record in conference play since 2009.
Iowa State shocked everybody with upsets of Big Championship Game participants Oklahoma and TCU on its way to an 8-5 record – its best mark since 2000. Can the Cyclones keep it going? According to Pro Football Focus, junior David Montgomery has the highest elusive rating of any returning running back in the country. Quarterback Kyle Kempt was granted a sixth year of eligibility after completing 66.3 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions last year. But he’ll miss playmaking wide receiver Allen Lazard, who graduated after making back-to-back All-Big 12 first teams. Iowa State caught the Big 12 off guard when it switched to a 3-3-5 defense right before conference play. The scheme was a better fit for their personnel and helped the Cyclones hold their league opponents an average of two touchdowns below their season scoring averages. Get that kind of production again, and last year can definitely be repeated.
Even though I have them ranked No. 9, I actually think Baylor has a lot of promise. If I were to separate the Big 12 into tiers, I would have OU/WVU/TCU as the contenders, Kansas as the lone punching bag, and the other six programs battling it out in a solid middle class. With good health, a few friendly bounces, and maybe some atrocious Big 12 officiating that works in its favor, I could see this team sneaking into the top half of the conference. I feel this way because quarterback Charlie Brewer played magnificently for a true freshman. The Lake Travis product completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,562 yards (7.7 yards per attempt) with 11 touchdowns and four picks. He’s arguably the second-best returning QB in the league. I also believe in head coach Matt Rhule’s ability to develop players, especially on defense. In his last two years at Temple, he had six players selected in the NFL draft, and five of those came from the defensive side. That’s more than any Big 12 member produced from its defense during that time.
The Jayhawks haven’t won more than one conference game since 2008. Of their last 66 Big 12 contests, they’ve lost 63 of them. They lost every game against FBS competition last year by double-digits. The average scoring margin in their nine Big 12 losses was 32.1. Head coach David Beaty inherited a dumpster fire when he stepped in before the 2015 season. Previous coach Charlie Weis’s reckless plan to invest heavy on junior college players backfired and left Beaty with only 38 returning scholarship players. Beaty’s been playing catch-up from day one and is, unfortunately, running out of time. Coaches typically don’t make it past year four without significant improvement and Kansas just hired a new athletic director who might want to bring in his own guy. If Beaty does save his job, it’ll be because an experienced squad that returns 91 percent of its production (second in the country) gels together and does much better in the turnover department, where its -17 mark was worst in Power Five last year.
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