PTBN College Football 2014: The Big XII

Big 12

Bob Stoops found himself in hot water last year after he publicly dismissed the SEC as being invincible and stood up for what had become an oft berated Big XII. By season’s end, Oklahoma had won eleven games, finished sixth in the nation and stunned many by beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. What better way to stick it to the SEC than to topple its most symbolic program and head coach? The Sooners would only share the Big XII title, still without a championship game, the 11-2 finishes for both Oklahoma and Baylor meant both got to wear the t-shirt and hats. Baylor spent most of the season firmly in the national title picture, building off of the monumental success Art Briles has had in building the Bears into a legitimate football powerhouse. It wasn’t until the Bears were beat down by Mike Gundy’s Cowboys in November that the high flying Baylor Bears had to concede a national title shot and settle for a disappointing loss to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. The Mack Brown era died a slow, painful death in Austin after another disappointing season that saw an opportunity for the Big XII title slip out of the Longhorns’ hands. Much of the off-season was centered around the coaching vacancy at UT, namely the pursuit of Nick Saban, before the Horns eventually offered Charlie Strong of Louisville.

The bottom of the Big XII continued to fall into irrelevancy, as four of the league’s ten programs failed to win five games in 2013. New kids on the block TCU and West Virginia continue to struggle, while Kansas is routinely among the worst teams in FBS. This fall, Oklahoma enters the AP Top 25 at #4 with an excellent shot at a playoff spot and Baylor (#10) is not far behind. Will the Sooners be in the national title hunt come January? Or will Baylor be the last team standing? All this and more in PTBN’s 2014 Big XII preview!

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Oklahoma v Alabama
Trevor Knight could have the Sooners in the national championship game this January.

1. Oklahoma Sooners

Outside of Florida State, no team may have benefited from the four team playoff more than the Oklahoma Sooners. The Sooners will enter the season as the nation’s #4 team, meaning they could control their own destiny in securing a playoff spot, regardless of what goes on around them. Playing in Oklahoma’s favor is their strength compared to the rest of the Big XII this fall. Last season, the Big XII finished fifth in Sagarin rankings by conference and with a coaching change at Texas, and what looks to be a rebuilding year at Oklahoma State, it could come down to a two team race yet again between OU and Baylor for the conference championship. What’s better for the Sooners is getting Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State all in Norman. The team will return nine starters on defense, including all-conference DE Charles Tapper. Coach Stoops recruits the offensive and defensive lines well and this year is no exception. The team should have the best defensive line in the conference and in the Big XII, defense is often a luxury many other programs can’t seem to afford.

Most of the offensive line is returning to school this fall, but there are significant questions at quarterback. Blake Bell has been announced the starter…at tight end which means for now, the program will run under Trevor Knight at quarterback. Trevor Knight had a coming out party against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl where he threw for four TDs, but Knight has yet to be the regular starter for an entire season. The team might depend on Knight a little more with the departure of Joe Mixon, the freshman running back could have helped replace the production Oklahoma lost in its backfield, where all three of last year’s leading rushers are gone. Mixon was an elite talent out of high school and was widely regarded as the best tailback in the 2014 recruiting class. If Knight can live up to his billing, the Sooners are in good shape, so long as players like Keith Ford can keep the school’s reputation of stellar running backs alive. Given the state of the conference as a whole, it could be interesting to see where OU ranks among the big boys if they do make it into the four team playoff. Much is said about the new Big XII, could Oklahoma end up its savior once again?

Key Players: If Trevor Knight is going to be the next great Sooner quarterback and build off of his Sugar Bowl legend, he’s going to need some help from his receivers. Now is the time for Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal to live up to their potential. Both were among the best recruits out of their respective states in high school, Shepard was the top recruit in all of Oklahoma in 2012 and Neal was second in Missouri, behind only ineligible Sooner WR Dorial Green-Beckham. The decision by the NCAA to deny “DGB” a waiver means the targets just got bigger on Shepard and Neal’s backs.

Key Games: The Sooners can check their pulse early against Tennessee at home. The Sooners will get quite the home schedule this year for their season ticket holders to enjoy, hosting Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Last year, Boomer Sooner was embarrassed in Waco losing 41-12. Baylor will be the biggest threat to the Big XII crown, but there’s no doubt Bob Stoops will have his boys razor sharp when the Bears are in town and Gaylord Stadium will be rocking. The bitter loss to Texas last year at the Cotton Bowl was a head scratcher, this year, Oklahoma will be looking for revenge and new Longhorn coach Charlie Strong will want to send a message on October 11th. The biggest chance for an upset? Watch out for Bill Snyder and Kansas State, who come to Norman on Oct 18th. The Sooners are 77-4 under Stoops at home…one of those four losses? The Wildcats two seasons ago.

2. Baylor

Head coach Art Briles has proven himself to be one of the best in the nation, building the Baylor Bears into not only conference title hopefuls, but within a game or two from a shot at a national championship. Last season Baylor was one of the most exciting teams in the nation to watch, lighting up scoreboards across the Big-XII with scores that looked more like Pac-Man than college football. Baylor failed to grab the brass ring and close out the Big-XII title, sharing with Oklahoma and ended the season with a loss to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl in which they conceded 52 points to an AAC team. With the return of Heisman hopeful and video game character come to life Bryce Petty under center, the Bears could repeat as the nation’s highest rated offense in 2014. The Bears will score and score a lot, last year their 52 PPG was tops in the country. The Bears put up 70 on West Virginia and Iowa State and bested OU by 29 points. Leading WR Antwan Goodley is back and could get All-American considerations by season’s end.

The loss against UCF highlighted the one major critique of Briles and the new look Baylor program: 42 points isn’t always enough when defense is a dirty word. Although the team’s defense has quietly improved, there are still times when they seem to be on the field just to give the offense a water break. This year, the Bears are having to break in new players throughout the secondary and in the Big XII, where the ball will fly freely though the air every Saturday, the new crop of defensive backs will have to find their bearings quickly. All Big-XII linebacker Bryce Hager is back for his senior year, where he’s on the watch list for a handful of postseason awards. Barring another disaster like last year’s loss to Oklahoma State, the Bears will be right in the conference title picture until the last whistle.

Key Players: Bryce Petty is among the best quarterbacks in the country and will likely earn an invitation to the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City. Protecting Petty this year will be a stable of unproven starters, except for star tackle Spencer Drango, who earned All-Big 12 honors last season and has a chance to find a spot on a second or third All-American team this fall.

Key Games: The Bears get a nice test in week one against SMU at home. The trip to Austin against Texas on Oct 4th will be an early test of Baylor’s form on the road, a tune-up for their pivotal game against Oklahoma in Norman on November 8th. The biggest chance for an upset? Watch out for Baylor’s trip to Lubbock against the Red Raiders on November 29th.

Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett could push the Wildcats into the conference title picture.

3. Kansas State

As long as the Wildcats are led by head coach Bill Snyder, KSU will be a contender, year in and year out. Immune to recruiting rankings, facilities, or scheduling, Snyder has built a program of eternal forward momentum in Manhattan, KS. Every year, there’s reason for fans to be optimistic of their team’s chances at a conference title run and this year is no different. A down Big XII means the conditions are ripe for Snyder and the ‘Cats to strike, as Oklahoma and Baylor look toward the four team playoff, K-State is more than happy to fly under the radar. The return of senior quarterback Jake Waters is right in Snyder’s wheelhouse as his best performing teams are those chock full of experience. While Waters has yet to prove himself to be a star in the mold of Collin Klein or Josh Freeman, he’s proven himself to be smart, responsible with the football and as he’s gained experience, the talent has slowly emerged. Waters ended the season with three TDs in a bowl win against Michigan capping a season in which he helped the team do a complete 180 from their disappointing 2-4 start, including an embarrassing loss to North Dakota State at home.

It’s helped that as he’s matured, Waters gets to stare down All-American hopeful WR Tyler Lockett, the next of Snyder’s unheralded high schoolers turned college football superstar. Lockett is a game changer in a league where passing is key and there’s not many receivers better suited to bring out your senior quarterback’s full potential. On defense, the Wildcats will be led by pre-season All Big XII defensive end Ryan Mueller who will give the team a serious threat on the pass rush. Kansas State will have opportunities this year to find their way into the top ten should they take care of business, but as it stands, there’s every reason to be hopeful they reach the nine win mark.

Key Players: Much of Snyder’s success at K-State is built off of his savvy use of junior college transfers. This year, he’s snagged some notable names in the JUCO ranks like DT Terrell Clinkscales and LB D’Vonta Derricott. Clinkscales and Mueller pairing well together could make the KSU defensive line one of the best in the conference and Derricott has the tools to be a star linebacker. As with any transfer, you’re passing up time to develop in the program for instant production. If Snyder’s transfers can produce right away, the team’s defense will be well rounded and keep the team competitive week in and week out. If players like Derricott continue to have off the field transgressions like his arrest in January, or fail to produce, they could be the difference between a Big XII title and another eight win season.

Key Games: Auburn’s Guz Malzahn should be losing sleep thinking about Auburn’s trip to Manhattan on September 18th. A packed, raucous crowd on a Thursday night in Manhattan will be the least of the Tigers’ worries as the Wildcats have built their program off of games like this. A win for Kansas State against Auburn gives them a shot at being in the playoff picture by winter. In conference, the Cats will have to travel to Norman on October 18th and will play in Waco against Baylor on the final weekend of the season.

Longhorn faithful have high expectations for Charlie Strong.

4. Texas

There’s no denying it, each year Mack Brown remained the Texas coach, the worse the breakup would inevitably become as the Horns dug themselves deeper and deeper into mediocrity, and quite frankly, irrelevance. It seemed as though the program hit rock bottom, winning 5 games in 2010, and while the Horns have hovered around eight wins each year since, they have mostly remained out of the conference and national title picture by November. Charlie Strong was named the successor to Mack Brown, to little fanfare, and much controversy. Strong had done a commendable job turning Louisville into a Cinderella-esque/dark horse pick for the national title a la Boise State, but as always, the Texas brand had called for a much more prestigious (and proven) name. The biggest target the entire time was Alabama’s Nick Saban and while it was probably a pipe dream, Strong’s arrival was enough to upset one big money booster into publicly denouncing the hire. So far, the new ball coach has been committed to changing the culture of Texas football, one that became increasingly irresponsible, messy and disorganized under Mack Brown. While at Louisville, Strong was known for his exciting offense and stars like Teddy Bridgewater, but defense is the coach’s calling card. Under Strong, the Cardinals finished with the nation’s second ranked defense in 2013 and the coach seems dead set on turning around the historically bad Texas defense of last fall. There’s no shortage of heavy hitters in and around the state of Texas, and virtually all will listen if UT comes calling, so it’s not a huge deal that superstar Jackson Jeffcoat has left for the NFL. Returning for the Longhorns are stars in the making like DT Malcolm Brown and DE Cedric Reed, both of which find themselves already on Mel Kiper Jr.’s hot board as juniors.

At quarterback, the picture isn’t as rosy. Starting QB David Ash has struggled with injuries throughout his time at Texas and there’s little depth behind Ash should he get injured yet again. At wide receiver, the Longhorns are young and inexperienced, meaning the team will have to rely on pounding the rock as its focal point. Unlike the passing attack, Texas is set at running back, with returning players like Jonathan Gray (and Malcolm Brown, not to be confused with the DE) Texas has one of the conference’s best ground games. If the defense can deliver, the team doesn’t have to ask Ash (or his backup) to do too much as most of the load will be carried by the running backs. This is the formula for success in Strong’s first year, and in the Big XII, there’s no reason to believe the Horns can’t feast on the have-nots and hope to muster up another surprise win against rival Oklahoma en route to another bowl.

Key Players: The injury to Jaxon Shipley means WR Marcus Johnson could be called upon to take the job as number one receiver until Jaxon returns. Shipley is the most proven receiver on the Texas roster with 10 career TDs. Corner Quandre Diggs has earned a spot on the media’s pre-season All-Big XII team. Many questioned whether Diggs would return to the program instead of taking a shot at the NFL, but it seems Diggs has built quite the relationship with Strong and his staff, perhaps a good sign for things to come on defense for the Horns.

Key Games: Like many other fallen blue bloods, Texas recruits at a level that gives them a realistic shot in every game, even when they’re not favored. Last season, the BYU Cougars ran for a season’s worth of yards on the Longhorns and I’m sure coach Strong wants to make a statement in week two against the Cougars in Austin. Things get interesting for Texas when they face top ten UCLA in a “neutral” site game at Jerry World in Dallas (Sep 13). They’ll get to host Baylor at home on Oct. 4th in a possible upset special. The Red River Shootout against rival Oklahoma is a week later on Oct. 11th.

5. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys quietly won 10 games last year, but no team may have lost as many players to the NFL and eligibility than the Cowboys this fall. The team will be breaking in a new quarterback, J.W. Walsh, the next signal caller to step up and hopefully continue OSU’s tradition of exciting quarterback play. For the first time in an eternity, the team looks thin at wide receiver, losing most of last year’s production outside of WR Jhajuan Seales who leads all returning wideouts with 571 yards. What’s worse for the Cowboys is they’re getting thrown into the fire early, facing national champions Florida State in week one. The game against FSU could be a barometer of just where this team in 2014, having lost a great amount of talent on both sides of the ball.

The question for Oklahoma State this year is whether or not Mike Gundy has built a program that’s immune to the dumpster fire in a rebuilding year. Oklahoma State has won 10 or more games three out of the last four seasons, but most of the cornerstones of that generation of Cowboy football are gone. This year’s OSU squad is puzzling, there’s enough talent to not predict a total disaster and separate themselves from the bottom feeders of the conference, but too much is unknown to pencil in eight wins.

Key Players: Desmond Roland ran for over 800 yards last season and returns to Stillwater as one of the few proven commodities on offense. The Cowboys had a formidable secondary led by Justin Gilbert, who, you guessed it, left for the NFL. Not to worry, as OSU’s next generation of corners like Kevin Peterson saw plenty of experience last year getting balls not thrown at Gilbert.

Key Games: Things could get off to a rough start with an ugly result against Florida State on opening weekend. Of course, the inverse is a win against FSU instantly makes Oklahoma State a contender in the Big XII and gives them incredible momentum moving forward. The Big XII schedule isn’t favorable for Oklahoma State, they travel to KSU, to Baylor and to Oklahoma.

Davis Webb and Kliff Kingsbury could be on to big things in Lubbock.

6. Texas Tech

Texas Tech shocked the college football world when they lured in Kliff Kingsbury, one of the game’s hottest young coaching prospects to Lubbock. Last year, Kingsbury had the Red Raiders in the top 10 before a disappointing and ugly five game skid ended the season. The team still made a bowl and beat a very good Arizona State team in the process, surprising many who had written Tech off. It was QB Davis Webb’s four touchdowns against ASU that has fans salivating over their chances this fall. Per usual, Tech will be one of the better passing teams in the conference, but the team lacks a reliable running game to even the offense if the quarterback has an off day. It’s yet to be seen whether it was by design, or because of talent, but Texas Tech was anemic on the ground last year, ranking 107th in the nation, behind Iowa State and Kansas. The team’s leading rusher, Kenny Williams is now…a linebacker. This means the pressure is on for DeAndre Washington to carry the rock when and if the ball is grounded.

On defense, there are even bigger concerns. Texas Tech was also among the bottom of Big XII teams defensively and on paper, it seems the team will still be defensively challenged. If players like Webb take a step forward, the defense won’t have to be good, just passable for the team to win eight games, or have another stellar bowl performance. The end result will likely be somewhere in between last year’s catapult into the top ten and the horrid losing streak.

Key Players: Jakeem Grant is the team’s leading receiver with 796 yards last season, he’s joined by Bradley Marquez, who nabbed six TDs. Marquez has an interesting story, he’s tip toed the line between football and baseball for most of his time at Texas Tech. A prospect in the New York Mets farm system, Marquez maintains he’s ready for the best year of his career in Lubbock and together with Grant, the duo could bring the most out of their budding star quarterback in a major way.

Key Games: The week three matchup with Arkansas can give the Raiders an opportunity to beat an SEC opponent in the non-conference and get the season rolling quickly. The back-to-back road trips at Oklahoma State (Sep. 25) and Kansas State (Oct. 4) are cause for concern. As is the road trip to Fort Worth against TCU on Oct 25th. Texas Tech gets rival Texas at home on November 1st in a game that very well could go either way if Webb is firing on all cylinders.

7. TCU

Hampered by injury, the season that was supposed to be the Horned Frogs’ coming out party in a BCS conference never came to fruition. Casey Paschall seemed destined to bring the program back to the prominence it had enjoyed in the Mountain West, regularly crashing the BCS party. Instead, there have been not only the troubling injuries to stars like Paschall, but many of the program’s biggest stars are regularly on the wrong side of the law. Paschall, who was the Big XII’s first team all-conference quarterback last pre-season held no punches earlier this year, telling the press there was “zero leadership” inside the program. If the fallen star quarterback throwing the struggling football team under the bus wasn’t enough, there was Devonte Fields this August. The pre-season defensive player of the year in the Big XII, Fields was shown the door after a nasty sexual assault allegation in the off-season. In one calendar year, the team has lost a potential all-conference quarterback and defensive end and has a 4-8 season to show for it.

Texas Christian had the conference’s best defense last year, and even without Fields, it looks to be just as dominant this year. Chucky Hunter will have to be the leader of the defensive line without Fields this season but that shouldn’t be a problem, Hunter will likely find himself not only on the all-conference team by year’s end. Sam Carter has found his way onto the media’s pre-season All-Big XII team alongside Hunter and could very well be the best safety in the Big XII. There’s serious questions on offense that make it hard to expect a big year from TCU, but the defense will surely be good enough to separate them from the bottom feeders in the conference.

Key Players: QB Matt Joeckel will take the reigns this fall after transferring from Texas A&M. The TCU offense has been anemic since joining the Big XII and a lack of consistent play from the quarterback has been a key reason. A solid year from Joeckel could spark some life into a ho-hum receiving corps.

Key Games: A good out of conference test presents itself against Minnesota in week three before taking a trip down the road to Dallas to face SMU on Sep. 27. TCU gets Oklahoma State at home on Oct. 18th in what could be a good chance for an upset, and if not, Texas Tech on Oct. 25th could be vulnerable as well. The school should have surefire wins at West Virginia, at Kansas and hosting Iowa State at home. If the Frogs struggle with the doormats, it could be a long season.

8. Iowa State

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads had taken the Cyclones to back-to-back bowl games before a dismal three win season in 2013, with lone conference wins against Kansas and West Virginia. To put the team on the right track, Rhoads looked to a familiar name for help, former Kansas head coach Mark Mangino is returning to the conference as the offensive coordinator in Ames. Widely regarded as an offensive genius, Mangino could pump some new blood into what’s become a stagnanting program. With the new coordinator could come big things out of skill position players like WR Quentan Bundrage who gained 676 yards receiving last season. In the backfield will be senior Aaron Wimberly who’s 567 yards last season on the ground leads all returning players.

Where the Cyclones will struggle greatly is on defense, where the team is breaking in a slew of new starters. On paper, it seems as though nobody sticks out as a potential all-conference player and it’s indicative of the struggles Rhoads has had in bringing top flight defensive players to Ames. Iowa State will go as far as its defense allows, which isn’t likely very far, at least this year. Give some of the young Cyclones on defense a chance to take their licks and mature and maybe the team is going bowling again in 2015. For now, a five win season would be a great success and a sign of good things to come.

Key Players: Although Mangino gets an established group of WRs and tailbacks to work with, he’s going to have to go with his intuition as the starting quarterback job is wide open. Grant Rohach spent most of the spring and fall practicing with the first string and could be the starter when ISU kicks off against North Dakota State.

Key Games: West Virginia and Kansas are the best shots at conference victories. Don’t overlook North Dakota State on opening day, their 24 game winning streak includes fellow Big XII team Kansas State.

West Virginia will go as far as QB Clint Trickett takes them.

9. West Virginia

In some circles, the argument was made that the Big XII had gotten stronger with the additions of West Virginia and TCU. While the departed Big 12 members have scurried off to varied success, West Virginia lost to Kansas and Iowa State in the same season in 2013. A combination of poor defense (9th out of the Big XII’s 10 teams) and an average offense (5th) hasn’t made the Mountaineers the same must-see TV they were just a few years ago. Always unpredictable, WVU is just as likely to score 70 points against Oklahoma as they are to give up 30 to Iowa State at home, but in the end, Dana Holgerson hasn’t seemed to put it all together in the Big XII. Another disappointing season, or worse, a skid towards the bottom of the conference could cost Holgerson his job, something that seemed unfathomable when the Mountaineers were racing to the top of the Big East.

There’s still considerable speed and athleticism at the skill positions. WR Mario Alford will be the team’s number one unless one of his unproven and inexperienced teammates in the receiving corps dazzles. Alford is a dependable receiver, but like most of the offense, doesn’t seem to stick out as a game changing player on his own. Dreamius Smith almost put up 500 yards rushing last year behind starter Charles Sims who left for the NFL Draft. Smith showed signs last year of being more than capable of handling coach Holgerson’s offense, which asks a lot from its tailbacks. To help remedy a defense that nearly gave up 500 yards per game last season, this year’s defensive coordinator is Tony Gibson, the former safeties coach. Gibson is likely hoping transfer Shaquille Riddick gives the team some more push on the defensive line and many are expecting a breakout year for sophmore corner Daryl Worley. The team will need all of the help it can get on defense if it wants to avoid the Big XII basement.

Key Players: In the pass happy Big XII, returning starting QB Clint Trickett could find himself lost in the shuffle if he doesn’t learn from last year’s mistakes. Trickett only played half of the season last year before injuring his shoulder and the QB’s 7 TDs and 7 INTs made it hard to judge where the offense would go under his leadership. He threw for over 350 yards in the loss to Iowa State, but barely completed 50% of his passes on the year, seeming to take a step backwards just as it seemed he was comfortable as the starter. A serious injury that sidelined him for most of last year only complicates things this fall as many are unsure how the quarterback’s health will hamper his ability to run the offense.

Key Games: The first game of the year pits the underdog Mountaineers against powerhouse Alabama in Atlanta. The team will travel to play Maryland in week three, a shorter trip than some of their in-conference rivals. The team only gets Kansas and TCU at home out of the conference’s lower third, their best bets for sure wins in the Big XII.

10. Kansas

When trying to come up with expectations for Kansas football, you must first put last year into context. A three win season, with a lone conference win against a four win West Virginia team, was cause for mild celebration in Lawrence. The Jayhawks had one of the most notorious records in America with their conference winless streak and head coach Charlie Weis had finally delivered on at least one of his promises. Unsurprisingly, Weis has been a polarizing figure at Kansas, like he has virtually everywhere else he’s been employed throughout his career. A press conference gem, mostly for the opposition, Weis has gone back and forth between conceding the team’s futility to pumping up the new chic option at quarterback, none of which have worked out. It’s been hard for fans to rally behind the team, not only because they are one of the absolute worst in all of FBS, but because their coach has done a poor job of presenting the team as something they can be proud of and support.

Fans should be pleased with the team’s defense. While the Kansas defense isn’t going to be full of all-conference players, there are a few under the radar starters that should have nice seasons in Lawrence. Corner Dexter McDonald is one of the better CBs in the Big XII and up front the Jayhawks have a serviceable pass rusher in Michael Reynolds who had 6.5 sacks last year, despite being a marked man by most offensive lines. On offense, inexperience at QB will likely mean the team continues to heavily rely on the run. Unfortunately for KU, Traevohn Wrench, an explosive four star running back, will not be eligible to play this fall and has to enroll in junior college. Wrench’s absence makes the departure of last year’s leading rusher James Sims even more concerning. Kansas will likely rely on WR Tony Pierson to be the most electrifying man on the Jayhawk offense this fall. Pierson battled concussion issues late last year, but seems to be in good spirits and health entering the fall.

Key Players: The Jayhawks actually have a home grown starter at QB, Montell Cozart. Cozart breaks the cycle of transfers and one and dones at the position under Weis and could become a fan favorite. Only a sophmore, Cozart will have time to go through growing pains this fall on a team nobody expects to finish higher than last in the conference. The good news is Cozart’s growing pains this year could pay dividends in the future, if and when the team’s recruiting and talent picks up.

Key Games: Southeast Missouri State should be a win in week one for the Hawks. A trip to Duke won’t see KU favored, but a loss against the Blue Devils won’t sting as much as their loss to Rice last fall. Iowa State and TCU travel to Lawrence back-to-back in November for a chance at two conference wins.