College Football Preview 2016-2017: Previewing the Big 12
2015 In Review: The Big 12 as a whole entered the 2015 season with a chip on their shoulder. Last year, the conference had been left out all together of the inaugural College Football Playoff, despite TCU and Baylor being firmly in the mix. As they charged into '15, both programs were eager to prove what they could do, while traditional powers like Oklahoma and Texas, were hoping to rebuild after disappointing seasons. TCU and Baylor both started off flaming hot but their seasons soon fell apart as injuries ravaged both sides of the ball. The Horned Frogs still rebounded by winning their bowl game in miraculous fashion to finish off 11-2, while Baylor also ended their season on a high note by running all over North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The big story of the conference in 2015 however wasn't those two schools. It was the Oklahoma schools, who ruled the conference for much of the year. The Sooners used their explosive offense to build a strong resume that earned them a spot in the Playoff, while Oklahoma State won ten games and was in the Playoff mix after a hot start.
Big 12 Rankings
1. Oklahoma Sooners National Rank: 4
Things fit together nearly perfectly last season in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners entered last year with a quarterback competition between incumbent starter Trevor Knight and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, a job that soon went to Mayfield. The former walk-on at TTU quickly shined under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's aggressive spread system, and was in the Heisman mix until late in the season when he was banged up. The ground attack was also lethal, as Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon provided a lethal combo. All three of those are back, giving Oklahoma one of the nation's most talented backfields. The Sooners still have some holes, however. The wide receiver position will need to be figured out after top target, Sterling Shepard, graduated and the defense must replace dynamic linebacker Eric Striker and top corner Zack Sanchez. Those things may be concerning but the Sooners have unbelievable talent on both sides of the ball. If they can survive a tough schedule that includes non-conference dates with Ohio State and Houston, they could earn themselves a spot in the Playoff for the second straight year.
2. TCU Horned Frogs National Rank: 17
Many people were excited about what TCU could do entering last season (I had them ranked No. 2 in my College Football Preview 2015-2016), mainly because of their offense. That offense returned 10 starters to a dominant unit in '14, and looked like it could be even better. While it ended up being terrific, the defense was the problem, something rare in Gary Patterson's tenure. There was a ton of youth and injuries, and it left the offense needing to work some magic to win football games. The good news is that the defense should be extremely improved heading into 2016. The defensive line possesses two All-Conference talents in Josh Carraway and James McFarland, and corner Ranthony Texada is back to guide the secondary after missing all of last season. The offense will be without much of their star-power from last year, mainly QB Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson. However, Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill has shown flashes of stardom at quarterback, and sophomore receiver KaVontae Turpin is among the most electrifying athletes in college football. While TCU doesn't have the raw talent of Oklahoma, they are a strong, well-rounded football team. They could very well be a dark horse Playoff contender.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys National Rank: 18
Oklahoma State began last season 10-0 and rose as high as sixth in the College Football Playoff power rankings. However, they had yet to hit the real teeth of their schedule and once they did, their weaknesses showed. The Cowboys lost their final three games, including a four-touchdown loss to Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. While last year's ending was disappointing, Oklahoma State had plenty of promise as they enter 2016. Junior quarterback Mason Rudolph made big strides last year (3,770 yards, 21 touchdowns) and should get even better with more experience. He will be joined by one of the Big 12's best receiving combos in James Washington and Marcell Ateman. The ground attack could be greatly improved with the addition of Stanford transfer Barry Sanders Jr. Defensively, OSU has some holes, but returns stud junior linebacker Chad Whitener and dynamic safety Jordan Sterns, which should keep them afloat in Big 12 play. The Cowboys may not be on the level of Oklahoma, but they should still be in the mix for a conference crown, particularly if they end their year much better.
4. Baylor Bears National Rank: Unranked
It obviously hasn't been a fun off-season in Waco, Texas. A sexual assault scandal rocked a program that had been steadily climbing and molding into one of the Big 12's elite. That scandal led the Bears to fire head coach Art Briles and a number of other high-ranking members of the university. Interim head coach Jim Grobe (formerly at Wake Forest) then watched as much of the 2016 recruiting class opted to go elsewhere and talented QB Jarrett Stidham transferred. That leaves Baylor entering '16 with significant questions, but a lot of prime talent still remains. Senior QB Seth Russell should lock down the starting role as he returns from a serious neck injury that forced him out last season. He will be joined by senior back Shock Linwood and a talented receiver corps, even without Corey Coleman. Baylor's defense continues to make strides, and should be pretty good this season. Junior linebacker Taylor Young is one of the conference's best and the line should be very good, even without overrated defensive end Shawn Oakman. Baylor has some major long-term questions and the fallout from the scandal could continue to hurt them for a long time. Even so, they have enough talent still on their roster this year to contend for a conference title and fight for double-digit wins.
5. Texas Longhorns National Rank: Unranked
Traditionally, the third year of a head coach's tenure at a school is the year the team finally gets it going, when the recruits he has landed finally get on the field and his offensive and defensive schemes begin to fit the personnel better. Charlie Strong certainly hopes that is the case for the 2016 Texas Longhorns. In Strong's first two years, Texas has gone 11-14 and missed a bowl last year, a year that also included a 24-0 drubbing at the hands of Iowa State, who won three games. This season, Texas has the same question they have had since Colt McCoy left town years ago: who is their quarterback? Senior Tyrone Swoopes has long been trying to lock down the job but has struggled, Jerrod Heard showed potential last year but is moving to receiver, and highly touted true freshman Shane Buechele is in the mix. Whoever locks down the gig will have a lot to work with, as the Longhorns return a great 1-2 punch at back (Chris Warren III and D'Onta Foreman) and get a smart new offensive coordinator in Sterlin Gilbert. Defense has been Strong's bread-and-butter over his coaching career, but it wasn't great last season. That could change, as the Longhorns return one of the nation's best defenders in true sophomore Malik Jefferson, along with a much more experienced D-Line. If Texas is ever going to breakout under Strong this would be the year. They are the most experienced and talented they have been under the head coach and get much of their tough competition at home. If they can solve their quarterback woes, they would very well make a run at the Big 12 title, but that is a huge if.
6. West Virginia Mountaineers National Rank: Unranked
Long known for their aggressive and high-scoring offense, West Virginia switched things up last year. Instead of their offense solely carrying them, WVU played the best defense they have in years, which helped them improve to an 8-5 mark in 2015. However, that defense was hit hard this off-season by graduation and NFL departures, most notably first-round NFL selection Kaleb Joseph and talented linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski. That should leave the Mountaineers searching for answers on that side of the ball, but the offense will still put up points. Senior quarterback Skyler Howard is back after becoming just the fourth Big 12 quarterback since 2010 to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for 500 more in a conference that has its fair share of wonderful signal-callers over the years. He will miss running back Wendell Smallwood, who ditched for the NFL after leading the conference in rushing with 1,519 yards. Smallwood helped take the pressure off the passing game and made WVU very balanced. His departure hurts, but former Pitt transfer Rushel Shell has the talent to lock down the position he left. With plenty of firepower returning and getting Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor at home, the Mountaineers could surprise some folks and improve on their eight wins from '15.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders National Rank: Unranked
After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2014, Texas Tech and head coach Kliff Kingsbury were eager to show what they could do last season with a healthy team and reinvigorated offense. Led by gun-slinging QB Patrick Mahomes, the Red Raiders improved to 7-6, as the offense was dominant. Mahomes is back and could be a dark horse Heisman threat with the numbers he is supposed to put up, while running back Justin Stockton should bring much needed balance to the group and will operate behind an improved offensive line. The question is the defense, which hasn't improved at all since Kingsbury arrived and has been Texas Tech's issue since the Mike Leach era. Michigan transfer Ondre Pipkins gives the Red Raiders a physical defensive tackle up front, and the secondary includes talented safety Jah'Shawn Johnson. However, if that group doesn't improve wildly this year, it is hard to imagine TTU making much progress beyond .500 football.
8. Kansas State Wildcats National Rank: Unranked
Kansas State under Bill Snyder has long been a team that overachieves, usually finishing off a lot better than most expect from the Wildcats. That really wasn't the case last year as K-State's offense struggled and they needed three straight wins to qualify for a bowl which they lost, leaving them at 6-7. They should be better this year, hopefully with stability at quarterback, where junior Jesse Ertz returns from an ACL injury that sidelined him all of last season. If he doesn't lock down the starting job, talented newcomer Skylar Thompson could push him. Senior back Charles Jones and sophomore full back Winston Dimel (son of OC Dana Dimel) should keep the ground attack rolling. On defense, K-State should be solid, led by safety Dante Barnett who was injury early and received a medical redshirt. A tough opener on the road against Stanford will be a great test for this young team, but Big 12 play will not be easy for a team still figuring out their offense in a conference known for being high-scoring. However, Snyder has surprised more than a few times before, and the Wildcats have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a bowl and finish in the conference's upper division.
9. Iowa State Cyclones National Rank: Unranked
After early success with the Cyclones, the Paul Rhoads era was becoming stale in Ames entering 2015. The Cyclones had been 5-19 over the past two years entering last year and while they had some bright spots they still limped to a 3-9 mark that ended Rhoads' tenure. New head coach Matt Campbell arrives from Toledo with plenty of energy and inherits a roster that has some legit playmakers. Sophomore back Mike Warren rushed for 1,339 yards last year and should be even better this year, while receiver Allen Lazard has a chance to set records at the school as he enters his junior campaign. Quarterback has been an issue for ISU over the past few years, but Campbell is hoping junior Joel Lanning can lock down the role after Sam B. Richardson graduated. Defensively, the Cyclones will lean heavily on an improving linebacker corps and a secondary that includes safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, a Freshman All-American two seasons ago that has struggled with injuries.
10. Kansas Jayhawks National Rank: Unranked
Kansas was completely and absolutely dreadful last season, and there isn't a whole lot of other ways to look at it. They went 0-12 and lost to FCS foe South Dakota State, and weren't competitive at all in conference play. That winless campaign leaves Kansas a lowly 9-51 over the past five seasons. By comparison, Oklahoma and Baylor, the two winning-est programs in the conference during that span, have won 50 games. Second-year head coach David Beaty has some pieces, namely sophomore QB Ryan Willis and junior LaQuvionte Gonzalez, a transfer from Beaty's old job, Texas A&M. Willis didn't have a lot of help last year but showed flashes, and Gonzalez is a speedster that should open up the offense. On defense, Kansas looks towards junior Joe Dineen Jr. for leadership, along with ball-hawking safety Fish Smithson, who led the Big 12 in tackles in '15, mainly because nobody else on the defense could stop anybody. Kansas still has a long, long road to respectability but first they need to win some games in Beaty's second year. If they don't win against either Rhode Island or Ohio to open up the year, they could realistically go 0-24 in the young head coach's first two seasons in Lawrence.
Big 12 Champion: Oklahoma Sooners
Projected All-Big 12 Team
QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
RB Mike Warren, Iowa State
WR James Washington, Oklahoma State
WR KaVontae Turpin, TCU
TE Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State
OL Kyle Fuller, Baylor
OL Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
OL Jonathan Alvarez, Oklahoma
OL Patrick Vahe, Texas
OL Victor Salako, Oklahoma State
DL Charles Walker, Oklahoma
DL Josh Carraway, TCU
DL Will Geary, Kansas State
DL James McFarland, TCU
LB Malik Jefferson, Texas
LB Jordan Evans, Oklahoma
LB Taylor Young, Baylor
CB Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma
CB Ryan Reid, Baylor
S Fish Smithson, Kansas
S Jordan Sterns, Oklahoma State
QB Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
RB Shock Linwood, Baylor
RB D'Onta Foreman, Texas
WR K.D. Cannon, Baylor
WR Allen Lazard, Iowa State
TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
OL Connor Williams, Texas
OL Austin Schlottman, TCU
OL Michael Wilson, Oklahoma State
OL Will Ash, Kansas State
OL Dom Desouza, Baylor
DL Byron Bonds, Baylor
DL Naashon Hughes, Texas
DL Ondre Pipkins, Texas Tech
DL Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State
LB Chad Whitener, Oklahoma State
LB Elijah Lee, Kansas State
LB Travin Howard, TCU
CB Ranthony Texada, TCU
CB Ramon Richards, Oklahoma State
S Kamari Cotton-Moya, Iowa State
S Dylan Haines, Texas