Big 12 Football is an interesting beast, but non-conference matchups should provide a solid glimpse as to where teams could perform throughout the season.
In the world of Big 12 Football, you have a team on one hand that just can’t seem to find its rhythm regardless of athletic dominance in other sports, and on the opposite side of the spectrum, you have teams that are used to competing for the conference title. In the middle, are a stable of teams that just can’t break into the top of the conference, and it’s leaving a lot of room for discussion on the coaching carousel grab and dump we see every offseason.
With two coaches in the conversation for the hot seat, and several programs trying to plug in specialists to take over for dynamic playmakers, the conference really comes down to a few metrics this season. But for all 10 teams, those metrics are going to be particularly difficult to overcome, as several of the top production teams are starting new quarterbacks.
Kansas faces an interesting situation this weekend against Nicholls State, which ranks No. 17 in the FCS preseason poll. The Colonels return the majority of its playmakers from last season, and has earned notoriety for pinning FBS teams against the wire, as was the case with Texas A&M last season, and Georgia in 2016.
For David Beaty’s Jayhawks, this should be intimidating, especially considering that Kansas’ only won one game last season. With the majority of Kansas blogs expressing more interest in discussing Beaty’s replacement in 2019, it could be a long season.
Baylor is led by sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer, and has a stable of receivers that could have a break out season under second-year head coach Matt Rhule. The defensive side of the ball, however, is kind of a wild card. The Baylor defense ranked 111 nationally last season in total defense, and few playmakers emerged. While the Bears could get back to bowl contention this season, it might have to rely heavily on one side of the ball for that to happen.
As for Week 1, Baylor faces Abilene Christian in Waco, and already appears to hold an advantage, as ACU seems slightly enamored at the size of the atmosphere they’re entering on Saturday. While stadium capacity is a significant adjustment, ACU’s biggest obstacle against Baylor will be the speed of the Big 12, which is notorious for scoring fast and frequently. If Brewer gets in a rhythm early, perhaps defensive deficiencies won’t matter.
Is Texas back? Who knows, but that’s been the question for over a decade now, and yet the Longhorns continue to break into preseason Top 25 polls with little merit, aside from brand recognition. Ask most true Texas fans that, and they’ll agree.
The No. 23 ranked Texas Longhorns face a Maryland team that’s been embroiled in unfortunate incidents and storylines this Summer. With key members of the Terrapins’ staff (including the strength and conditioning coach) resigning or being investigated throughout Fall Camp, it makes you wonder if Maryland will be organized on Saturday. This could be advantageous to the Longhorns, which have two quarterbacks in Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, compared to Maryland, which hasn’t quite figured that out.
Herman is looking for a revenge game, and if Texas wins, they should move up. But all things considered with Maryland right now, let’s keep the ‘Texas is back” conversation in the bag for a few more weeks.
7. Iowa State
Iowa State has been a fun team to watch in recent years, and 2017 set the bar incredibly high for the Cyclones. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to quarterback Kyle Kempt, the offense shouldn’t have skipped a beat.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has done an exceptional job figuring out Big 12 offenses, and might have found a way to flatten production–a feat few teams have been able to accomplish. With confidence higher than ever for the Cyclones, it’s in the best possible position to make a serious run for the conference title.
Unfortunately, head coach Matt Campbell had to suspend four freshmen last week for poor conduct, but that shouldn’t impact depth. As for Iowa State’s placement in this preseason ranking, it’s difficult to see where South Dakota State at home helps to make the case for mind-blowing metrics early on. SDSU finished last season at 11-3, losing in the semifinal round of the FCS Championship. While that’s impressive, it’s also a reminder that in order to truly measure talent, strength of scheduling among Power 5 conferences should be the standard. (Looking at you, SEC…)
6. Texas Tech
Texas Tech returns 10 of 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball, and has plenty of depth under fourth year defensive coordinator David Gibbs. While Texas Tech’s biggest issues last season were on special teams, first-year special teams coordinator Adam Scheier brings a lot of talent which will hopefully fix the kicking issues people suspect took the wind out of Tech’s momentum on several winnable games last season.
While Kliff Kingsbury’s notoriety as the “QB Whisperer” will perhaps, be tested the most this season, quarterbacks and receivers don’t step foot in Lubbock without knowing what’s expected of them, and in his sixth year as head coach, Kingsbury certainly knows which prospects will work in his system.
Tech opens the season at Reliant Stadium in Houston against Ole Miss on Saturday–a team that is tested and has a stout offense. This is a weird juxtaposition because it’s usually Tech’s offense that makes headlines, but this time, its defense appears to be the backbone while Tech figures out the QB situation. Tech certainly gets points for scheduling a dynamic SEC team, but Kingsbury is 1-1 against the SEC, and last season, Tech started a perfect 3-0. If Tech can pull off the W this Saturday, many of the questions about Texas Tech this season should be answered.
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5. Kansas State
Kansas State signed head coach Bill Snyder to an extension this summer, which gave the Wildcats confidence in leadership–a vital recruiting tool considering how shaky college athletics can be. With calm waters, it’s allowed K-State to focus on things that mattered, like developing the QB tandem in Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton, and fine-tuning its offensive line, which is slated to be the best in the conference, next to Texas Tech.
K-State faces another FCS team to open the season, in the South Dakota Coyotes, which finished at 8-5 overall last season. It’s advantageous for FCS teams to play Power 5 schools for several reasons, including money and exposure, but considering the contention to make it to the Big 12 Football Championship, teams like K-State should strive to schedule as many tough Power 5 teams as possible.
I anticipate Snyder will use this game to work kinks out, but so far, many of these Big 12 Preseason betting lines have Big 12 teams poised for some serious blowouts.
4. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State opens its season against the Missouri State Bears, which only won three of its last five games last season. Another FCS opponent, and another anticipated blowout should give Cowboys’ head coach Mike Gundy plenty of time to figure out his quarterback situation, with the departure of Mason Rudolph to the NFL.
While Oklahoma State has plenty of talent at specialty positions like running back and receiver, the explosiveness and depth of the offense this season rides on whether a quarterback emerges who can truly command the team. If Rudolph’s successor emerges, anything is possible this season.
3. West Virginia
Quarterback Will Grier is the only quarterback in the entire Big 12 Conference that had a Heisman campaign launched in the Summer. That’s kind of crazy considering just how many playmakers have emerged in the conference as a whole throughout the last 4-5 seasons. You have to believe that had coach Dana Holgorsen is riding that momentum, as West Virginia also has Biletnikoff Award finalist David Sills returning at wide receiver, as well as Gary Jennings.
The offensive line could be another story, but with WVU opening the season in Charlotte, N.C. against Tennessee, the Mountaineers won’t have an FCS dress rehearsal as an advantage. Considering how long the Tennessee coaching search lasted in the offseason, it could work to the Mountaineers’ advantage, but the win probability dial is more neutral, especially considering this game isn’t in Morgantown.
The Horned Frogs could emerge as a team to beat this season. Then again, when years of player and talent development come together the way they have for TCU in recent years, it makes you wonder when offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie will leave for a head coaching job, or perhaps, if head coach Gary Patterson leaves for the NFL.
In any event, TCU is stacked this season. Next to Texas Tech, TCU is the only program in the conference that has people talking defense in a typically formidable offensive league. Returning, are the majority of its defensive line, including senior defensive end Ben Bonagu, who earned the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award last year.
Like many teams in the conference this season, TCU’s biggest red flags come in the form of untested quarterbacks, and an offensive line that hasn’t been proven. Thankfully for the Horned Frogs, they start the season against the SWAC’s Southern Jaguars, which finished at 7-5 last season. This should give Patterson’s team plenty of plays to shuffle the OL, and try to find that QB-receiver synergy.
Baker Mayfield is now with the Browns, but it didn’t take very long for his backup, Kyler Murray to earn his spot leading the Sooners’ offense. Despite a failed run to the National Championship last season, head coach Lincoln Riley did what few first-year head coaches can, but he did so with a roster and coaching staff that was championship-caliber. With the same mechanisms in place for 2018, this season should be no different, regardless of position switch ups.
Oklahoma starts its season against Lane Kiffin’s FAU, who already said, “These are the guys you want to play the least.” While FAU finished the 2017 season at 11-3 with some monster numbers offensively, Kiffin might not want to play teams like Oklahoma, but it certainly provides both teams with fairly substantial talent to square up against.
The level of difficulty is certainly there, but the scoring potential could also provide Big 12 opponents a solid litmus test as to where the Sooners’ defense is this season.