The more things change, the more the Big 12 Conference stays the same.
Oklahoma owns three consecutive Big 12 titles and the league’s only two College Football Playoff appearances. And despite last year’s retirement of iconic coach Bob Stoops — and this year’s graduation of the Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield — the Sooners are prohibitive favorites to win again.
In his first year replacing Stoops, Lincoln Riley took OU to within a whisker of the national title game, and things (i.e., recruiting) have only gotten better. Until someone else (West Virginia?) steps up and takes it, the Big 12 still belongs to Oklahoma.
Sporting News makes its predictions for the Big 12 in 2018. We have the league’s Heisman hopefuls, biggest games, X-factors, sleepers and a conference champion:
Big 12 predictions
2. West Virginia
4. Oklahoma State
5. Kansas State
7. Iowa State
8. Texas Tech
The Sooners might have the Big 12’s best offensive line, running back group and receiver corps. That’s a lot of weapons for Baker Mayfield’s replacement, no matter who wins the job (baseball savant Kyler Murray seems to be the leader over Austin Kendall). Now, if Mike Stoops’ defense will just hold up its end — the Sooners ranked 60th in the nation in defensive efficiency, 70th in yards allowed per play and 82nd in percentage of possessions that yielded points.
Big 12 X-Factor: WVU’s D-line
The Mountaineers might have their best offense yet under Dana Holgorsen — and might have the best offense in the Big 12. But a defense that last season allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game needed to get better, and did so by adding a couple of grad transfer defensive tackles. Jabril Robinson, 6-2, 273 pounds, comes from Clemson; 6-4, 307-pound Kenny Bigelow transfers from USC. Both could also play strong-side end. Brenon Thrift, who transferred last year from Penn State, will be called on as well.
Big 12 sleeper: Iowa State
Matt Campbell showed serious progress between his first and second years in Ames. He went 8-5 in 2017, securing top-five wins over Oklahoma and TCU before beating 19th-ranked Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. But that team had Allen Lazard and Joel Lanning to go with phoenix-like quarterback Kyle Kempt and running back David Montgomery, who led the nation with 104 missed tackles and led the Big 12 with 828 yards after contact. Kempt and Montgomery are back to lead the offense — so will the Cyclones contend for the title? No, but they can break some hearts during a rugged early-conference schedule (OU, at TCU, at OSU, WVU).
Biggest Big 12 games
TCU at Texas (Sept. 22): Is Texas “back?” Is TCU still a contender? This early game will reveal a lot about those questions. Both teams will be coming off nonconference slugfests (the Horned Frogs vs. Ohio State in Jerry World, the Longhorns at home against USC). The winner gets the inside lane the rest of conference play.
Oklahoma vs. Texas (Oct. 6): Both teams go into the season with a likely leader at quarterback — Kyler Murray at OU, Sam Ehlinger at Texas — but neither has won the job yet. We’ll know a lot more in September; will Murray’s unique skill set integrate seamlessly into Riley’s offense? Will Ehlinger rein in his swashbuckling? The Red River Rivalry is as good as college football gets, and that won’t change in 2018.
Oklahoma at West Virginia (Nov. 23): It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the Friday before the Big 12 championship game. If OU does what’s expected, if Will Grier stays healthy and if WVU’s defense holds up, this clash in Morgantown could be a preview of the title game. If a possible Playoff berth is at stake, things could very interesting. And remember: The Sooners are 3-0 and averaging 50.3 points per game in Morgantown since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12.
Big 12 Heisman hopefuls
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia. In his first season at WVU after starting his career at Florida, Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns. He’s the Big 12’s best hope for another Heisman, as he’ll put up huge numbers against outgunned defenses. If the Mountaineers contend, Grier will be in New York.
Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma: Anderson rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns in the Sooners’ final eight games last season, including a 201-yard, two-score performance in the Rose Bowl loss to Georgia. He also caught five touchdown passes. As long as OU contends in the Big 12 title chase, Anderson will be in the spotlight.
Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State: Hill led the Big 12 last season with 1,537 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns to go with 31 catches and 190 receiving yards. With Mason Rudolph, James Washington and all those receivers off to the NFL, Hill might get even more offensive touches. OSU may need to manufacture some wins to keep Hill in the hunt.
MORE: Ranking Big 12 coaches
Big 12 coach on hot seat: David Beaty, Kansas
What good is firing Beaty going to do, right? How good will the next guy be? Regardless of how far Kansas football has fallen, Beaty needs to show some real progress in 2018 after going 3-33 through three seasons. Kansas has a $350 million fundraising campaign underway, the Jayhawks have a new president (Douglas Girod took over last summer) and new athletic director (Jeff Long, formerly at Arkansas). Another 11-game losing streak (the average margin of defeat was 28.7 points) will wear everyone’s patience paper-thin.
Big 12 stat that matters: One
That’s how many defensive All-Americans — first- or second-team — the Big 12 has this season, according to Sporting News, Lindy’s, Athlon, Street & Smith’s and Phil Steele preseason magazines. Combined. The league was better last year and still had only eight defensive players drafted (by comparison, the ACC and SEC had 51 defenders picked combined). It’s no secret: to win a national championship, the Big 12 absolutely must get better defensive talent.
Biggest question: Is Kyler Murray ‘Athletic’ enough?
Well, technically, yes. He was drafted No. 9 overall and has signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics that paid him a $4.6 million bonus. But the fourth-year junior, who started his career at Texas A&M, will play just one season in Norman. Riley is one of college football’s most gifted offensive minds, but he’s never had a quarterback who can scoot like Murray. Assuming Murray beats out Kendall to win the job, will Riley take the reins off his 5-star thoroughbred and let him run wild? Consider for a moment: America’s fastest quarterback in Riley’s hands.