2017 Big 12 Football Preview

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Welcome to the Big 12, where after months of speculation and presentations to start last season, the conference decided not to expand after all. Instead, they added back the championship game despite having just 10 teams in the conference. This season, there are five teams that could make a run at a title game appearance, which could make this season a lot of fun.

Contenders

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Baker Mayfield #6 of the Oklahoma Sooners. Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners only lost two games last season, but they both came early in high-profile showdowns against Houston and Ohio State. That left them basically out of the playoff picture in people’s minds before conference season began. However, they went on to rip off nine straight victories including a 35-19 pasting of Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. This year, they have a new head coach after Bob Stoops decided to retire, but Lincoln Riley has 16 guys back to work with.

The biggest boost to this team was Baker Mayfield deciding to forgo a chance to enter the NFL Draft and coming back for his senior season. The Sooners need him to guide a set of skill position guys that will be breaking in some new names. Having all five starters back along the offensive line should help as well. Despite the losses of Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and DeDe Westbrook, it’s not like the cupboard is barren at RB/WR. Sophomore backs Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams are former four and three-star recruits respectively while receivers Jeffrey Mead (Sr.) and Marquise Brown (So, JuCo) were both four-star guys. While they are relatively inexperienced, there’s plenty of talent led by a veteran QB and offensive line. This unit should be explosive once again, though may fall short of the otherworldly 43.9 PPG they averaged last season.

The defense was disappointing last year allowing nearly 30 points per game (28.8), though some of that can be explained by the significant injuries they suffered along the defensive line. This year, DC Mike Stoops has three starters back in the secondary (including 1st team Big 12 CB Jordan Thomas), two in the linebackers group and two along the line. I’d expect some improvement as long as they stay healthier than last year.

Lincoln Riley’s first year as head coach features a road game against Ohio State as well as road contests against K-State and Bedlam in Stillwater against Oklahoma State. Those three games stand out as significant tests as does the always heated Red River rivalry with Texas (hosted in Dallas). The Sooners have the talent to push for a playoff spot once more and that’s what I’d expect. Over 9.5 wins

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Quarterback Mason Rudolph #2 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Credit: Brett Deering/Getty Images

Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys and their fans are still seething over that Central Michigan loss that shouldn’t have been a loss last season. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter, but it kept the Cowboys from 11 wins. Mike Gundy and his glorious mullet has a talented team ready to challenge for the Big 12 title again.

Mason Rudolph, like Mayfield at Oklahoma, decided to forgo the draft and return for his senior year. His return, combined with explosive receiver James Washington (1,380 yards 19.4 YPC! 10 TD) and sophomore running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards 6 TD) makes for a group that should once again be among the country’s elite (38.6 PPG last year). The offensive line gets a boost from the return of guard Larry Williams and the addition of Cal grad transfer Aaron Cochran to make it a veteran group. The Cowboys are annually one of the better offenses in the FBS and this year will be no different.

The defense, was actually pretty solid by Big 12 standards where everything is more wide open due to the prevalence of spread offenses. The Cowboys gave up just 26.5 PPG and the biggest concern was the run defense allowing 193.5 YPG. That could still be a problem considering the loss of both defensive tackles from last year’s unit. DC Glenn Spencer in fact loses a pair of starters at each level of the defense which will likely lead to a drop in that PPG number. The guys to watch are 3rd team Big 12 S Tre Flowers and MLB Chad Whitener, who both return.

The biggest factor in the Cowboys favor is the schedule. They get TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State at home in Stillwater, with the lone big road game coming against Texas (10/21). The out of conference slate isn’t too tough, but don’t overlook a good Tulsa team in Week 1. The Cowboys should win that game, but Tulsa could make it interesting. Over 9 wins.

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Kenny Hill #7 of the TCU Horned Frogs. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson’s group took an expected step back last season after an 11-2 record in 2015. Still, they made a bowl game, and this year, they have 17 starters returning. The Horned Frogs should be right back in the thick of things in the Big 12.

QB Kenny Hill is back for his senior season after an up-and-down year as the starter last year. He had flashes of brilliance, but plenty of bad moments as he was pulled mid-game four times. He led the Big 12 in interceptions with 13, and will need to be better this season as there’s no experienced QB like Foster Sawyer behind him this season. Luckily for Hill, the top nine receivers are back from last year’s team as is 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Hicks. With a veteran offensive line that brings back four starters, this group is poised for a big year if Hill cuts down on the mistakes.

Defense has always been Patterson’s calling card, but in the last couple of years, the Horned Frogs have fallen off a bit allowing 27.2 PPG in 2015 and 28 last season. This year, he’s got a more veteran group back as a pair of All-Big 12 LBs and the entire secondary returns. They do lose three guys along the offensive line including leading sack master DE Josh Carraway. But, Patterson has recruited well, with seven three-star or better guys along the defensive line from previous years along with three-star true freshman DE Ochaun Mathis. The numbers should improve this year.

The Horned Frogs have to play OK State, Kansas State, and Oklahoma on the road, which makes for a tough path to winning the conference. It can be done, but they’ll have to pull off some big wins on the road. Regardless, I have them beating the Vegas number. Over 7.5 wins.

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Shane Buechele #7 of the Texas Longhorns. Credit: Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns started off 5-4 before dropping their final three games including a stunning OT loss to Kansas to finish 5-7. That led to Charlie Strong’s ousting and in comes Tom Herman from Houston. Herman guided the Cougars to a 22-4 mark in his two seasons at the helm and he’s got some good talent to get his tenure started here.

Last year, true freshman QB Shane Buechele won the job with senior Tyrone Swoopes seeing time in the “18 Wheeler Package” that was designed as a power running formation. Buechele acquitted himself well enough for a freshman completing 60.4 percent of his passes for 2,958 yards 21 TDs and 11 INTs. With a veteran offensive line (four starters back) and his top three receivers returning, those numbers should go up with Herman at the helm. The Longhorns do lose workhorse back D’Onta Foreman who left early for the NFL (Texans 3rd round pick), but Chris Warren should be able to pick up some of the slack with the solid line in front of him. In Herman’s two years at Texas, the Cougars scored 40+ points and 35 points respectively, so I’d expect this unit to improve on last year’s 31.9 PPG from last year.

The defense was bad to start the season allowing 47, 50, 49, and 45 points in the first five weeks (gave up 7 to UTEP). Then, Charlie Strong took over and the group improved allowing an average of 25.7 PPG over the final seven games. This season, new DC Todd Orlando inherits 10 starters from last year’s unit, but they switch to a 3-4 so there will be some adjustment. Overall, the returning experience leads me to expect a performance in line with the last seven games of last year.

The schedule has a crucial five week stretch that will determine whether the Longhorns are contending for the Big 12 title or just a bowl team. Starting on October 7th, Texas faces Kansas State, Oklahoma, OK State, Baylor and TCU with the final two games being on the road. How Herman navigates that five game stretch will determine the level of success he has in Year 1. Over 7.5.

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Jesse Ertz #16 of the Kansas State Wildcats. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder returns for his ninth year in this go round with the Wildcats and his 26th year overall with the program with a team that is one of the most experienced groups he’s had. 14 starters are back including eight on offense and the Wildcats are once again going to be a tough out in the Big 12.

Jesse Ertz returns for his second season as the starting QB after leading the team in passing and rushing last season. His completion percentage left something to be desired (57.6%) but, his effectiveness as a runner is unquestioned (5.5 YPC, 1,012 yards). The Wildcats took a running back by committee approach to the ground game last year and everybody but Charles Jones (596 yards 2 TD) returns. Three of the top four receivers are back and the offensive line has four starters back too. Last year, they averaged 32.2 PPG and they should easily match that number this year.

On defense there are a couple of key losses as DE Derek Willis (3rd round pick Bengals), LBs Elijah Lee (7th round pick Vikings) and Charmeachealle Moore, and S Dante Barnett depart. That said, the defensive line returns everyone but Willis and the secondary has everyone outside of Barnett back. Despite the losses, Snyder always has a solid defense, and I’d expect more of the same this year.

The schedule doesn’t feature a stretch as rough as Texas’ but it does have the Wildcats facing Texas (away), TCU (home) and Oklahoma (home) in consecutive weeks to start October. That stretch will be tough, but a veteran offense should be able to pull out a win or two and get this team back to nine wins. Over 8 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Quarterback Zach Smith #4 of the Baylor Bears. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Baylor Bears

At this point, you should be well aware of the turmoil surrounding the Baylor program. The Bears are trying to change the culture that led to all of the off-field issues and the man they’ve tapped to do so is former Temple coach Matt Rhule. Rhule worked magic at Temple getting the program to back-to-back 10 wins seasons and bowl games for the first time in school history. He’ll hope to bring his tough, defensive minded approach to this Baylor team while keeping players out of trouble off the field.

Rhule will have good talent to work with as he brought in a solid recruiting class (39th nationally, 5th Big 12) and some good returnees on the roster. Sophomore QB Zach Smith finished the season as the starter after Seth Russell got hurt against Oklahoma in November and he’ll battle Arizona transfer Anu Solomon for the starting job. Top running back Terrence Williams (1,048 yards 11 TD) and No. 3 rusher JaMycal Hasty (623 yards 3 TD) are back, but the top two receivers in KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora are gone. The offensive line loses two starters and the offense will likely be more pro-style under Rhule. That could mean a dip in the numbers, but the unit should still be solid.

Defense has been a problem the last two seasons for the Bears as they allowed 28+ in both 2015 and ’16. New coordinator Phil Snow helped Rhule put together some of the best defenses in the country in terms of points allowed over the last few years at Temple. He inherits a group that allowed over 200 yards per game rushing but was pretty solid against the pass (54.9%). The defensive line has all four starters back, with two linebackers, but only one starter is back in the secondary. This unit should improve under the tutelage of Rhule and Snow, but the secondary could be an issue early.

Baylor faces K-State, OK State, and TCU on the road with home games against Oklahoma and Texas. The Bears have enough in terms of returning talent to make me believe they can beat the number. Over 7.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams

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Wide receiver Dylan Cantrell #14 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders tries to break away from cornerback Roland Dunn #40 of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Credit: John Weast/Getty Images

Texas Tech Red Raiders

The Red Raiders have been a roller-coaster under Kliff Kingsbury going 8-5, 4-8, 7-6, and 5-7 since he took the reigns in 2013. Judging by the trend, you might expect them to bounce back to a bowl game, but it could be tough to do this year with how the schedule lays out.

Prolific QB Patrick Mahomes departed for the NFL (1st round Kansas City), but Nic Shimonek performed well in limited action last year (464 yards 6 TD 1 INT) and the offense is QB friendly, so Shimonek should do well. But, it’ll be hard to surpass Mahomes’ 5,000+ yard season. The running game wasn’t particularly effective as the Red Raiders averaged just 104 yards per game on the ground. While both running backs are back, the offensive line loses two starters and wasn’t particularly effective last year, so the run game is a question mark. Three of the top four receivers return however, and TTU hasn’t averaged less than 30 PPG in Kingsbury’s four seasons. This unit will still put up points.

The question is whether the defense will finally begin to stop opponents. TTU has allowed opponents to average 40 points or more in each of the last three seasons. They were particularly bad against the run, allowing 238.6 YPG (5.7 YPC) and lose three starters along the defensive line. There are a few transfers that could help the unit improve like the Hill brothers (Kolin and Kaleb), but it’s still a question mark. Two starting linebackers and three members of the secondary return, so the numbers should, in theory improve. But, after three straight years allowing 40+ points, it’s a guess as to how much.

The schedule is tough as both Arizona State (home) and Houston (away) come calling in the out of conference. Then they face Oklahoma and Texas on the road with OK State, K-State and TCU at home. It’s a rough slate to navigate with an inexperienced group especially since they have a bye in Week 2 and then play 11 straight games, which is why I’m taking the under. Under 5.5 wins.

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Justin Crawford #25 of the West Virginia Mountaineers. Credit: Justin Berl/Getty Images

West Virginia Mountaineers

Dana Holgorsen’s squad has improved their win total in each of the last three years going 7-6, 8-5 and 10-3. This season looks like a more difficult coaching job however, because the Mountaineers have just eight starters back from last year. This season will almost certainly be a step back from 10 wins, it’s just a matter of how far.

The offense gets a big helping hand from the addition of Florida transfer QB Will Grier, who should ease the transition from Skyler Howard. Grier was great in his first five games at Florida (65.8% 1,204 yards 10 TD 3 INT) before he got suspended for a positive PED test. Grier will have both Justin Crawford (1,184 yards 4 TD) and Kennedy McKoy (472 yards 4 TD) back at running back, but the losses are heavy along the offensive line with three starters departing. The Mountaineers also lose top receivers Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts, so the passing game could take a little while to kick into high gear with a new QB and new receivers. Still, the numbers (31.2 PPG 485 YPG) should be similar.

The defense is hit hard by departures after a year in which they allowed just 24 PPG. All three defensive linemen (they run a 3-4), LB Justin Arndt, and the entire secondary depart, leaving just three starters back from last year’s unit. They do get safety Dravon Askew-Henry back after he missed all of last season, which should help the secondary, but still there’s a lot of new faces and likely a step back from this group this year.

The Mountaineers open with a tough game in Landover, MD against Virginia Tech and then in-conference they draw TCU, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma all on the road with home games against OK State and Texas.  Under 7 wins.

Rebuilding

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Head coach Matt Campbell of the Iowa State Cyclones celebrates with defensive back Kamari Cotton-Moya #5. Credit: David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa State Cyclones

The Cylcones have had four straight seasons of three or fewer wins. Matt Campbell’s first year saw the Cyclones be much more competitive, with four losses coming by a touchdown or less. The problem is, last year’s team was more experienced and this season, they will be underdogs in four of their six home games.

Junior QB Jacob Park returns after taking over for Joel Lanning at the tail end of last season (Lanning is moving to LB) and will get the chance to start for the full season this year. He’ll have the benefit of the top three running backs and top two receivers returning, but the offensive line is a huge question mark as four starters depart from last year’s group. Campbell was very good in putting together offensive lines while at Toledo and he does get Jake Campos back from injury, while adding Michigan transfer David Dawson. Still, this unit needs to prove it can live up to and surpass last year’s 163 YPG (4.3 YPC). However, thanks to the skill position talent returning, they should experience a slight bump in their averages from last year.

On defense, coordinator Jon Heacock has just one starter back on the defensive line but the rest of the unit should be solid. The secondary brings back star safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and LB Willie Harvey (3rd team Big 12) returns as the leading tackler (78 tackles 4.5 TFL 3 sacks). With six starters back, the numbers should improve from last year’s 31.3 PPG and 452.9 YPG they allowed.

The rivalry game with Iowa will be played at home in Ames, and they do get Texas, TCU and OK State at home as well. Road games come against Oklahoma and Kansas State and while the Cyclones should be improved, it’s tough to see six wins, which is what would be required to hit the over. Under 5.5 wins.

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Carter Stanley #9 of the Kansas Jayhawks. Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Kansas Jayhawks- 2-10

The Jayhawks last winning season was in 2008 (8-5) and the last time they won more than three games was the following year in 2009. That should give you an idea of the level of futility this program has experienced in the last eight years. Entering the third year of David Beaty’s regime, Kansas seems to be making incremental improvements and could once again improve their win total.

Last year, the Jayhawks started three different QBs and the passing game averaged 240.4 YPG. Two of those QBs are gone, but sophomore Carter Stanley returns to compete with Washington State transfer Peyton Bender. The Jayhawks do lose top rusher Ke’aun Kinner, but the two backs behind him return along with an offensive line that has four starters back and adds an Alabama transfer in Charles Baldwin. The receiving corps returns its top two guys and the combination of this experience with the addition of OC Doug Meachem and his new “Air Raid” system points towards improvement on last year’s 20.2 PPG.

The defense is a little more suspect with four defensive backs departing (they run a 4-2-5), one of the two LBs and DE Damani Mosby (25 tackles 6 TFL). This was one of the worst units in the country in PPG allowed at 37.3, and Beaty’s started to get better recruits to believe that this unit will improve.

Despite the improving recruiting and experience, Kansas is still at the bottom of the conference. They should pick up a couple of wins early and could surprise in the conference, but I’m not confident in them getting more than three wins. Push 3 wins.

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