The Oklahoma Sooners have won three consecutive Big 12 titles entering 2018. Like Clemson, the Sooners will be favored to extend their streak to four conference championships in a row, even after losing the Heisman Trophy winner from a historically great offense.
Although the Big 12 lacks great defenses and has only 10 teams, it is actually one of the deepest leagues in the country. Eight teams - all but Baylor and Kansas - are solid competitive teams. Last season, all but Baylor and Kansas ranked in the S&P+ top 64. Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Syracuse, and North Carolina all fell below this mark, so let’s get off our high horse and talk some Big 12 football.
In the table below, the consensus rankings from our staff members and our readership is compared against the Big 12 media and my own picks. The top two picks are highlighted, as they’re projected to play in the Big 12 title game.
A few things stand out about these projections. After Oklahoma, there appears to be consensus on who is in that next tier of contenders: TCU, Texas, and West Virginia. Things get a little muddled in the “middle class” of the conference. I’m a little higher on Iowa State and lower on Kansas State than most, which I’ll explain in the team-by-team analysis below. Lastly, we have the bottom duo of which all parties agree: Baylor and Kansas.
Teams are broken by their tiers and ordered based on my projected order of finish below.
Oklahoma: In 2017, the Sooners rose from “really good for a Big 12 team” to simply really good. They blew out Ohio State in Columbus, put up 62 at Oklahoma State, boat raced West Virginia, and beat a quietly strong TCU team twice.
They lose Heisman winning QB Baker Mayfield, OT Orlando Brown, and TE Michael Andrews - all taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft - from that Rose Bowl team. Fortunately, they’ve been in the top 2 of Big 12 recruiting (with Texas) for each of the past five cycles and will still have one of the better groups of players at QB, WR, and RB. Rodney Anderson is back at RB and is projected to be a top 10 RB in the nation (#10 - Athlon Sports; #8 - MarkRogersTV). With Lincoln Riley returning for his second year as the head coach, the offense should continue to roar, even if it takes a step back from the historically great 2017 unit that averaged 8.1 yards per play.
The defense is where Oklahoma could be vulnerable. They ranked 87th in passing yards allowed and were 76th in yards per play allowed (5.7) last season. For reference, that’s just a hair below Louisville, who even with Lamar Jackson couldn’t overcome their poor defense. That should lend perspective on just how weak Oklahoma’s defense was, but also how historically excellent their offense was to carry them into OT in the Rose Bowl.
Although the losses are significant and the defense may continue to struggle, it’s hard to pick against the talent and coaching in Norman. They’re not a great playoff pick, but they’re the surest bet in the Big 12.
The Main Contenders
TCU: In each of the past six seasons, the Texas Christian defense has ranked either 1st or 2nd in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed. They’ve established themselves, along with Texas, as the best defensive program in the conference. To that end, they return six starters on defense.
What’ll determine if they have the chops to challenge Oklahoma for the conference title is their offense. Kenny Hill is gone, but Shawn Robinson is ready to take over at QB. Robinson, a former four-star, received offers from Alabama and Clemson and will provide a dual-threat to the TCU offense. The true sophomore QB only threw 27 passes last season. They lost most of their offensive line, so that coming together and gelling quickly will be key.
Texas: The Longhorns went just 7-6 in Tom Herman’s inaugural season, but have reason for higher expectations in year two. Despite losing some of their best players on defense, the Longhorns return six starters on what will be a veteran unit. With Todd Orlando coordinating the defense, they should again battle TCU for the title of best defense in the conference.
The offense should improve with six starters returning, Sam Ehlinger slated to start at QB, and a new offensive line coach coming over from Auburn. Still, the Longhorns ranked 101st - just one spot above Michigan - in yards per play last season. In fact, Texas may be a poor man’s Michigan this year in that they’re both hoping their offense improves enough to win a conference championship, knowing their talented defense coached by an elite coordinator will be solid to great. I’m a bit higher on Texas than most and it’s because I see the talent and coaching combination is better than most in the conference.
West Virginia: QB Will Grier and WR David Sills look to become this year’s version of Rudolph-Washington (2017 Oklahoma State) lighting up scoreboards and giving them a chance in any game. The Mountaineer offense should burn hot as coal with that duo returning along with four offensive linemen and senior WR Gary Jennings.
The defense could be problematic though. They’ve been struck with attrition, transfers, and injuries in waves. They were just 96th in yards per play allowed (6.1) and return only four starters. One of them, leading returning tackler, RS junior LB David Long, is recovering from shoulder surgery.
WVU’s offense will ensure they’re at least solid, and if their defense can improve they’ll have a chance to compete for the Big 12. I’m a little lower on the Mountaineers than most, primarily because I don’t see good reason to expect defensive improvement.
With Tennessee, NC State, and a nine game conference schedule on the docket, they’ll be one of the most fun teams in the country to follow.
A Thriving Middle Class
Oklahoma State: QB Mason Rudolph threw for a ridiculous 4,904 yards in 2017 - a mark that led the nation. It was 207 more yards than Baker Mayfield, 761 more than Sam Darnold, and 2,102 more than Kelly Bryant. A Rock Hill native, Rudolph was awarded the Blanchard-Rogers Trophy by the SC HOF, which is given to the best collegiate player playing in SC or who played high school in SC. Now he must be replaced. Additionally, James Washington, who caught 1,549 of those yards must be replaced. Both players are now on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Fortunately, Justice Hill, who ran for 1,467 yards in 2017 returns and seven starters return on defense. They should be remain solid under Gundy, but it’ll be hard to replace such program greats. They’ll need major defensive improvement to fight their way into the conference championship game, but they’ll have nine games to prepare for the final three-game stretch of Oklahoma, West Virginia, and TCU that will decide their season.
Iowa State: The Cyclones went 8-5 last season, posting their most wins in a season since 2000 (9-3) and fewest losses since 2005 (7-5). It was Coach Matt Campbell’s second year in Ames, and he’ll have a good group coming back to prove it was no fluke and even build upon it.
Seven starters return on offense including QB Kyle Kempt and RB David Montgomery. On defense, six starters return. They get Oklahoma and West Virginia at home. They had some positive turnover luck last year and won’t sneak up on OU again, but with Matt Campbell leading the program, they should be much better than their historical pedigree would lead one to believe.
Kansas State: The Wildcats return their entire starting offensive line and finished 2017 on a 3-0 run with wins over Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and UCLA. Still, I’m less optimistic than most. They don’t return a 1,000 passer, rusher, or receiver and haven’t recruited at a high enough level to feel good about the unproven skill position players who have to fill the void (Rivals - 2015: 44th, 2016: 80th, 2017: 61st, 2018: 58th). Three of those recruiting classes rank below Vanderbilt, a team that beat them last season. Their 2018 S&P+ projection of 61st is above only Kansas in the Big 12.
Texas Tech: Coach Kingsbury enters his sixth season on the hot seat. They’ve routinely had strong offenses during his tenure, but the defense has been problematic. Last season, the defense got a bit better and they managed to a bowl berth. Now they return nine starters on defense and will likely need to win with a salty defense as they do not return any starting skill position players (though their entire offensive line returns). It will be interesting to see if this coaching staff can win in a different way.
A Couple Steps Behind
Baylor: It would not surprise me one bit if Baylor ends up in the tier above and makes a bowl game. Last season, 28 of the 44 players in their two deep were freshmen and sophomores (Stat Credit: Athlon Sports). They’ll improve immensely, but given they finished 1-11 with losses to Liberty and UTSA, that likely still means just three to five wins and a spot towards the bottom of the conference.
Kansas: The Jayhawks should also be better as they return most of their production from a season ago. Will they improve enough to win a conference game? They went 0-9 with all but two of those losses coming with worse than 21 point margin. A mild improvement won’t be enough.