For all the drama and shattered playoff dreams coming from the end of last season, the Big 12 really is in a good spot.
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
To be totally and completely fair to the conference, you’ll have to forgive the Big 12 higher-ups if they feel a wee bit jilted after having teams hovering around or in the top four of the entire playoff process – and with TCU seemingly entrenched in the top four just before the final rankings. But there’s no need to panic or make massive changes.
Had there been any blip among the four Power 5 conference championship games – if Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama or Oregon had lost their respective title matchups – the Big 12 would’ve had a team in. Had there been two championship game upsets, the Big 12 might have had a case for both Baylor and TCU getting a call.
So there’s no need to expand just to have a conference championship game. Now that the Big 12 is going to adhere to the true One True Champion concept, the league’s current format helps take the fluke factor out of the equation – an upset in a conference title game over the league’s powerhouse would be a disaster. The odds are strong that the other four Power 5 conference champions won’t finish the year unbeaten or with just one loss as was the case last year, so as long as the Big 12 champ can go 11-1, there’s a better-than-average chance that it’ll be in the playoff.
However, there’s a reason that Baylor will always be the answer to a trivia question as the No. 5 team in the first four-team playoff year. The league just wasn’t that good.
Oklahoma fell off the map as last season went on, and Texas was mediocre the whole way. Big 12 apologists who complained – erroneously – that last year’s playoff discussion would’ve been different had it been the Longhorns and Sooners in the discussion instead of the Horned Frogs and Bears were right in one respect. The league’s two biggest stars not being up to normal snuff did make a difference in the perception of the Big 12 as a whole.
Oklahoma State has grown into a solid power under Mike Gundy, but it stunk last year. The same goes for a normally solid Texas Tech, while Iowa State and Kansas were punching bags. When almost half the league is just okay, and considering Baylor’s non-conference schedule was a joke, it’s hard to raise too much of a stink considering someone had to be left without a chair when the music stopped.
This season, the conference should be ready to bounce back with far more depth from top to around the No. 8 team.
Baylor and TCU come back loaded and more experienced than last year. The expectations will be high now, and rightly so.
Oklahoma has the running game and defense to be back at a Big 12 championship level, while Texas has the D to be far more competitive.
West Virginia will bring a defense this year to go along with its normally great offense, Texas Tech gets just about everyone of note back, Oklahoma State has rebuilt after a down year, and Kansas State has the pieces in place to be Kansas State again.
Iowa State might have a rough time again, but at least the offense has the firepower to be dangerous with a sneaky-great receiving corps to work around. Kansas is … a few months away from basketball season.
It’s the way conferences should be. Everyone should have to play everyone else, and the Big 12 champion really is true. This year, it should have its shot at the national title, too.
– Where’s all the next-level talent? Texas is usually a farm system for the NFL, but it’s not that way at the moment, and Oklahoma doesn’t have its normal array of top-shelf pro prospects. Kevin White was the first Big 12 player taken in the 2015 draft going seventh to the Bears. The next Big 12er didn’t get selected until New England grabbed Malcom Brown out of Texas with the 32nd pick. They were the only two selected in the top 50, and just five were taken in the first 96 before a bunch started to come off the board late in the third round. That’s a problem.
– Between OT Spencer Drango, DE Shawn Oakman, and NT Andrew Billings, Baylor will have a bigger impact on the early part of the 2016 NFL Draft than the rest of the Big 12 combined.
– Iowa State will have a hard time in the improved Big 12, but the offense should be interesting. The receiving trio of D’Vario Montgomery, Allen Lazard and Quenton Bundrage will make veteran QB Sam Richardson look great.
– Even so, the Cyclones will almost certainly be underdogs in the least eight games after starting out the Big 12 season against Kansas.
– New Kansas head coach David Beaty will come up with some great seasons – this won’t be one of them. With few veteran talents to rely on, and without the offensive playmakers to run the offense the way it’s supposed to – or the way it does at Texas A&M – it’s going to get ugly.
– The Oklahoma linebacking corps will be a terror, and the running backs should be among the best in the nation with Joe Mixon in the mix now to help out Samaje Perine. None of it will matter – at least to the level the Sooners would like – unless the quarterback situation is better.
– OU will beat Tennessee at Tennessee on September 12th on the way to a 9-0 record before going to Baylor in mid-November.
– There might not be a more important player in the Big 12 than Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph. This is a good Cowboy team no matter what, but Rudolph has the ability to put it in the Big 12 title chase.
– Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah is the best defensive end you probably haven’t seen. That’ll change.
– Kansas State needs to find a new quarterback, improve the running backs, replace receiver Tyler Lockett, and hope the O line can rebuild.
– And Bill Snyder will still have his team in Big 12 title contention.
– For all the fireworks and all the big things from the passing game, Texas Tech’s offensive strength should be at running back.
– The Red Raiders will win one of the three big early showdowns against Arkansas, TCU and Baylor.
– There will be a quarterback controversy at Texas all season long.
– This won’t be a Big 12 title season, but there will be a point when the Charlie Strong era really and truly kicks it into high gear. This might be a relatively no-name defense, but it’s about to rock.
– West Virginia is going to win games on defense and the kicking game. The offense will be along for the ride at times after carrying the mail in the Dana Holgorsen era.
– The Mountaineers are going to be more dangerous running the ball than throwing it.
– The spotlight might be on Trevone Boykin, but it’s the line that’ll make the TCU offense roll. The front five should be among the best in the Big 12.
– The TCU offense – even with all the talent returning – isn’t going to come up with the same production twice. That’s where the Horned Frog D will be a factor.
– There are so many playmakers across the board that Seth Russell can’t help but come up with huge numbers as Baylor’s new main man at quarterback. There are too many weapons to utilize.
– The Big 12 will get a team into the playoff.
Team That’ll Surprise
West Virginia – It’s a reach to call the Mountaineers an afterthought in the Big 12 world, but it’s still the relative new guy and it’s hard to rise above the fray when TCU and Baylor are rocking and Texas and Oklahoma are still Texas and Oklahoma. Even after a good year, West Virginia is still somewhat lost in the attention shuffle, but that might change this season with what should be Dana Holgorsen’s best team yet. Karl Joseph and Nick Kwiatkoski anchor a solid defensive back seven – led by one of the Big 12’s best secondaries – while the offense is always going to work just fine under Holgorsen’s watch. Going to Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State and TCU is a problem, but this is still a good enough team to potentially finish in the league’s top four.
Team That’ll Disappoint
TCU and Baylor – This is only because the expectations are going to be jacked through the roof. Both teams are going to be more experienced than last year, and both are expected to be stronger, but both of them are going to be at a Playoff of Bust level. They’ll both deserve to be ranked in the preseason top five – top ten at worst – but they each have to deal with an improved Big 12 including a better Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas. However, setting the bar even higher will be workable schedules for each with most of the big games at home. Of course …
Game of the Year …
Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27 – Oklahoma has a slew of big games that matter, and just about every Big 12 game other than involving Iowa State or Kansas will be interesting and potentially important, but if things go according to plan, the showdown between the Bears and Horned Frogs should mean really, really big things in the conference and playoff chases. Can it be the classic that last year’s matchup was? That’s asking for way too much, but being played on Thanksgiving weekend, the spotlight will be on.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight …
1. DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Jr. Oklahoma State
2. OT Le’Raven Clark, Sr. Texas Tech
3. SS Dante Barnett, Sr. Kansas State
4. FS Derrick Kindred, Sr. TCU
5. S Jordan Sterns, Jr. Oklahoma State
Coach on the Hot Seat
Charlie Strong, Texas – While he won’t be fired with a bad year, Kliff Kingsbury had better come up with a decent campaign at Texas Tech, and Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads is all but gone without a miracle, but in terms of pure pressure, it’s all on Strong. He’s still rebuilding up the program, and he’s not going to get canned unless he goes 1-11, but Texas is expected to rise up quickly and be a player no matter who’s the coach. It’s Texas – Strong is bound by nothing. After doing what he needed to last year to change around the culture, this season there has to be at least a two-win improvement or else 2016 will likely turn into a make-or-break year.
5 Non-Conference Games the Big 12 had better take very, very seriously
1. Georgia Southern at West Virginia, Sept. 5
2. Oklahoma State at Central Michigan, Sept. 3
3. Iowa State at Toledo, Sept. 19
4. Louisiana Tech at Kansas State, Sept. 19
5. South Dakota State at Kansas, Sept. 5
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Jr. Oklahoma State
2. OT Spencer Drango, Sr. Baylor
3. DE Shawn Oakman, Sr. Baylor
4. NT Andrew Billings, Jr. Baylor
5. LB Eric Striker, Sr. Oklahoma
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. WR Deante Burton for Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
2. WR Daikiel Shorts for Kevin White, West Virginia
3. LB Mike Freeze for Paul Dawson, TCU
4. LB Kyron Watson for Ben Heeney, Kansas
5. DT Hasaan Ridgeway for Malcolm Brown, Texas
|2015 Team Previews
|Ten Best Big 12 Players
|1. QB Trevone Boykin, Sr. TCU
|2. RB Samaje Perine, Soph. Oklahoma
|3. OT Spencer Drango, Sr. Baylor
|4. DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Jr. OSU
|5. LB Eric Striker, Sr. Oklahoma
|6. DE Shawn Oakman, Sr. Baylor
|7. S Karl Joseph, Sr. WVU
|8. NT Andrew Billings, Jr. Baylor
|9. LB Pete Robertson, Sr. TT
|10. LB Nick Kwiatkoski, Sr. WVU