Four years into college football’s playoff era, only one Big 12 team has earned a semifinal slot: Oklahoma.
This probably doesn’t qualify as a major issue, especially for a conference that faced an existential crisis earlier this decade. Still, the assumption even after Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M fled the league was that Oklahoma and Texas would do their part to hold it up. Oklahoma, with its 10.4 victories per season over the past seven years, has. Texas? Not so much.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does a football conference. And as impressively as Texas Christian has performed since entering the league (seriously, the Horned Frogs have about maxed out as a program), a simple fact remains: In the playoff era, no Big 12 team has beaten Oklahoma more than once. (The only school in the nation to do it is Clemson.)
This year could bring more of the same for the Sooners, who have gone 26-2 against conference opponents since 2015. Oklahoma is the league’s most viable playoff contender by a healthy margin, and that’s even after losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
1. Oklahoma (No. 6 nationally, 12-2 in 2017): No surprise here. The Sooners fielded elite offenses the past three years with 2017 Heisman winner Baker Mayfield running the show, and even if there is some drop-off to Texas A&M transfer (and Oakland Athletics first-round pick) Kyler Murray, Oklahoma will still be a force. Marquise Brown was a 1,000-yard receiver last year. Fellow junior Rodney Anderson rushed for 1,161 yards. It’s a good situation.
Mayfield’s absurd productivity allowed the Sooners to get by with defenses that were middle-of-the-road even by Big 12 standards. How so? Oklahoma went 5-2 in the past two years when it allowed 40 points. The Sooners are a bit untested in the secondary, and that could be a concern in an offense-centric league. They will be a bit more vulnerable than the last few years, but should be the league’s top team over a full season.
2. TCU (No. 20, 11-3): For anyone ready to bury the Horned Frogs after a single run-of-the-mill season, perhaps a lesson was learned last year. TCU went 11-1 against everyone other than Oklahoma last year, just as it did in 2015.
While Coach Gary Patterson has a new quarterback to break in, the defense brings back six starters from a unit that was the best in the Big 12 across the board last year after an uncharacteristic down season in 2016. The defensive line, led by end Ben Banogu, will be a strength for a bunch that held five league opponents to 14 points or less. The Horned Frogs are capable of doing the same this season.
- Before 2010, they’d pieced together three 10-win seasons in team history. Since then, they have six in eight years.
- Before 2008, they had posted seven nine-win seasons. Since then, they have eight in 10 years.
Even after factoring in the longer seasons of the 21st century, Oklahoma State football is enjoying its golden age under Mike Gundy. It is best not to underestimate the Cowboys, which is tempting to do after the pitch-and-catch combination of Mason Rudolph and James Washington departed after last season. But tailback Justice Hill is back, and Oklahoma State rarely dips much on offense. No one should be surprised by a 9-3-or-better season, especially with a favorable first-half schedule (five home games and a trip to Kansas).
4. West Virginia (No. 24, 7-6): It never hurts to have the best quarterback in the league, and that’s how things look for the Mountaineers with Will Grier. Of the Big 12’s top six leaders in passing efficiency in 2017, only Grier is back — and West Virginia certainly needs him.
The tail end of last season provides all the evidence necessary to support that argument. After Grier was sidelined by surgery on his throwing hand in the next-to-last game of the regular season, West Virginia lost its remaining games to Texas (28-14), Oklahoma (59-31) and Utah (30-14). The Mountaineers simply weren’t the same team without him.
They’ll also lean on Grier plenty this season, too. The Mountaineers slipped defensively last season, and if things don’t stabilize (or improve), they will find themselves in plenty of Big 12 shootouts in the next few months.
5. Texas (No. 26, 7-6): How soon will fans be restless deep in the heart of Texas? One could argue that’s a semi-permanent state; the Longhorns have lost at least twice in their first four games in five consecutive seasons. It’s a program with considerable resources that has played its way out of the national title conversation before October every year since 2013.
This season, Texas will meet Southern Cal and TCU at home in the season’s first month. Manage a split, and there’s signs of progress in Austin. Win both, and there might be some premature giddiness. Lose both, and Texas is probably headed toward another forgettable season.
The guess here is the Longhorns will be more consistent in Coach Tom Herman’s second season. Defensively, Texas was quite good in the second half of the season and enjoys some continuity on that side of the ball. If the offensive ground game bounces back, the Longhorns should take a step forward and perhaps even contend for a spot in the Big 12 title game.
6. Kansas State (No. 34, 8-5): Are you ready for some one-possession games? The Wildcats played six of them in 2015 (going 3-3), another half-dozen in 2016 (4-2) and then seven last year (3-4). It’s a team tethered to tight contests.
Football sorcerer Bill Snyder’s teams generally play good defense and take care of the ball, with a little extra offensive explosiveness making the difference in their best seasons. With all five starters back on the offensive line, things are set up for Kansas State to improve a bit on last year’s 8-5 showing.
7. Iowa State (No. 38, 8-5): Now for the encore. Matt Campbell proved his coaching chops at Toledo, and amplified his credentials with an 8-5 run last season that included victories over Oklahoma and TCU. His will be a popular name during the coaching carousel season in the years to come, but for now he has an intriguing team in Ames.
The Cyclones are set at quarterback with efficient sixth-year senior Kyle Kempt, but they’ll need to do better on the ground to create some balance. Defensively, nose guard Ray Lima is the critical piece in a unit that was revamped on the fly last year and became one of the stingiest groups in the Big 12. If Iowa State can avoid getting buried by a tough early schedule (Iowa, Oklahoma, TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the seven weeks before an open date), it could match or even surpass last year’s success.
8. Texas Tech (No. 59, 6-7): While no one is going to suggest the Red Raiders’ defense is suddenly elite, it made substantial progress last year that had been absent throughout Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure. Under normal conditions in Lubbock, Texas Tech has enough offensive power to do quite nicely when it allows 32.2 points per game and 443.8 yards a contest. But last season, the offense dipped to merely good and the Red Raiders sneaked into the postseason at 6-6 and then lost to South Florida. Struggles in the kicking game didn’t help matters.
While the defense returns largely intact, Kingsbury must replace his top passer, rusher and receiver from 2017. Whether the Red Raiders find solid answers at those spots probably will determine if Kingsbury (30-33 at his alma mater) is back for a seventh season.
9. Baylor (No. 67, 1-11): It can’t be worse than last year, when Coach Matt Rhule had to wait until November to earn his first victory after arriving from Temple. Given the contemptible off-the-field issues in Waco, Rhule had more right than most new coaches to emphasize “culture change” and did so both when he arrived and as the shorthanded Bears struggled.
This will be an older, more tested team, and it at least has a chance to get off to a decent start. Baylor will face Abilene Christian, Texas-San Antonio, Duke and Kansas before descending into the maw of the Big 12 schedule. A 3-1 or 4-0 start is possible, and the combination of quarterback Charlie Brewer and wideout Denzel Mims makes the Bears a decent bet to pull a surprise or two in league play. A bowl bid isn’t a sure thing, but this group will fare better than 1-11.
10. Kansas (No. 109, 1-11): David Beaty’s task at Kansas was basically an impossible one, and it’s easy to empathize with coaches and players who haven’t had much of a chance at success. Since a 5-0 start in 2009, the Jayhawks are 15-88. When they take the field Sept. 8 at Central Michigan, they’ll be four days shy of the nine-year anniversary of their last victory away from home.
Now the truly sobering part: Kansas regressed on both sides of the ball last season. It played only two Big 12 foes to margins of less than three touchdowns (Kansas State and Texas). Even with a ton coming back, there’s simply a massive amount of ground to make up. With a new athletic director (Jeff Long) in place, Beaty might not get a fifth year.
That decision could be determined relatively soon. The direction of the season will be set quickly in Lawrence; the season’s four most winnable games (Nicholls State, Central Michigan, Rutgers and Baylor) lead off the schedule.