Enough looking back. Let’s look forward.
The handwringing that ensued in Big 12 Conference circles over the makeup of last season’s College Football Playoff was understandable, given the overwhelming attention paid to the new postseason format, but flawed in one respect: it drew conclusions from only one year of results.
It’s too soon to claim the sky is falling, in other words, and too early to assume that being left out of the inaugural Playoff field demands a substantial shift in how the Big 12 as a whole goes about its football-playing business — adding a conference championship game, for instance.
It might be wise to add one final game to cap the regular season, if only to even the playing field among the other leagues among the Power Five landscape; it might be even wiser to add another two teams, in fact, to create the matching six-team divisions that stood as the conference’s blueprint during its first 15 years of existence.
Let’s consider a few names. Boise State brings the sort of on-field pedigree that doesn’t ask whether it can fit in the Big 12, but states calmly its odds of making an immediate mark along the top half of the conference standings. But the Broncos have a small stadium, if unique, and the university as a whole wouldn’t support the league’s academic reputation. That matters to more than a few power programs inside the Big 12, believe it or not.
Brigham Young brings a national audience, a dedicated fan base, historic and active success, a strong brand and very solid academic credentials. The Cougars and Broncos share one issue, however: they are located to the west, not the east, and present scheduling concerns to go along with the fairly standard issue of being outside major media markets.
Cincinnati brings a larger media market but doesn’t control that market; the Bearcats are low on the Ohio totem pole. Likewise with Houston, where the Big 12 is already entrenched. Connecticut? Yeah, right.
Yet adding any two teams — outside of Alabama and Ohio State — wouldn’t immediately address a larger issue in play than just one season without a berth in the Playoff: The Big 12 hasn’t played for the title since the 2009 season, when Texas lost to the Crimson Tide in the BCS National Championship.
In other words, worrying about the Big 12’s place in the championship conversation just based off of last season is wasteful; worrying about the league’s title chances based off the past five seasons, however, is a more constructive use of time. Each of the four other power conferences have at least played for the title during this span, while three have won championships.
Hope comes in the form of programs once overshadowed by Texas, Oklahoma and other Big 12 powers. The next championship claimed by this conference won’t be won by the Longhorns or Sooners; it will be won by Baylor, once the league’s annual laughingstock, or TCU, which has made the most of its opportunity to enlist in a power conference. The growth of these two programs provides the best case for Big 12 expansion.
Projected order of finish
(With 1-128 ranking)
- Baylor (No. 2)
2. TCU (No. 6)
3. Oklahoma (No. 15)
4. Texas (No. 25)
5. Oklahoma State (No. 29)
6. Texas Tech (No. 52)
7. Kansas State (No. 57)
8. West Virginia (No. 65)
9. Iowa State (No. 115)
10. Kansas (No. 124)
No googling allowed
By reading this sentence, you have agreed to a strict no-Googling rule in finding your answer.
Texas has won seven outright conference championships and one national championship during the past 40 years. In comparison, Texas A&M has won the same number of conference titles during the same span — but the Aggies don’t have a national title, as members of the Texas fan base might point out in daily conversation.
How about that national championship? Since the start of the 1975 season, 11 programs have been awarded just one national championship by either the Coaches Poll or the Associated Press. Texas is one, but can you name the others?
National conference rank
Where does the Big 12 rank among FBS conferences?
4. Big 12 Conference
5. Atlantic Coast Conference
6. Mountain West Conference
7. American Athletic Conference
8. Conference USA
9. Mid-American Conference
10. Sun Belt Conference
Best case, worst case
Each team’s range of possibility
Best case: The Bears go unbeaten during the regular season, earn a spot in the College Football Playoff and win the national championship.
Worst case: Baylor loses to TCU, Oklahoma and Texas.
Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine
(Photo: Mark D. Smith, USA TODAY Sports)
Best case: The Horned Frogs beat every team on the regular-season schedule and leave no doubt for the Playoff selection committee.
Worst case: A season-opening loss to Minnesota sets a poor tone in a four-loss season.
Best case: Oklahoma’s offense explodes under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley, leading the Sooners to a surprise Big 12 championship.
Worst case: OU goes 8-4, and the malaise continues.
Best case: Texas finishes tied for second in the Big 12 standings with nine wins.
Worst case: Non-conference losses to Notre Dame and California precede setbacks against Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Best case: Despite remaining among the more youthful teams in college football, Oklahoma State rides talent and athleticism to a second-place finish.
Worst case: Another six-win regular season proves that the Cowboys aren’t quite ready to take the next step.
Kansas State offensive tackle Cody Whitehair
(Photo: Scott Sewell, USA TODAY Sports)
Best case: Tech survives an early gauntlet — Arkansas, TCU and Baylor in successive weeks — and turns it on in the second half in a nine-win finish.
Worst case: The slide that began in the second half of the 2013 season continues in 2015.
Best case: Kansas State far exceeds expectations to net nine wins, again proving the folly of counting out Bill Snyder and the Wildcats.
Worst case: A troubling lack of experience rears its head in a five-win finish.
Best case: West Virginia wins nine games and flirts with a national ranking, making the Mountaineers the league’s biggest success story of the regular season.
Worst case: The offense is potent but the defense lags behind the curve, leading to just two wins in conference play.
Best case: The Cyclones try very, very hard, and even win five games to reach the doorstep of bowl eligibility.
Worst case: The year’s only win comes against Kansas.
Best case: KU knocks off Iowa State to avoid a winless season.
Worst case: The Jayhawks are the worst team in the history of the Big 12.
Preseason all-conference team
The best at each position
West Virginia center Tyler Orlosky
(Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)
QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU
RB: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
RB: DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech
WR: Corey Coleman, Baylor
WR: K.D. Cannon, Baylor
TE: Glenn Gronkowski, Kansas State
OL: Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech
OL: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, TCU
OL: Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia
OL: Sedrick Flowers, Texas
OL: Spencer Drango, Baylor
DL: Shawn Oakman, Baylor
DL: Pete Robertson, Texas Tech
DL: Andrew Billings, Baylor
DL: Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
LB: Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma
LB: Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia
LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
CB: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma
CB: Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State
S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State
S: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
K: Josh Lambert, West Virginia
P: Taylor Symmank, Texas Tech
RET: Alex Ross, Oklahoma
Position by position
Quarterback: TCU and Baylor (tie). The Horned Frogs have the more experienced starter in Trevone Boykin, but Seth Russell will be supremely productive at the controls of Baylor’s offense.
Running back: Oklahoma. The Sooners’ Samaje Perine stands out in a largely devoid of award-caliber running backs.
Wide receiver and tight end: Baylor. The Bears’ receiver corps is the nation’s best.
Offensive line: Baylor. Though this line might not be the best in all of college football, Baylor’s group is at least in the conversation — and perhaps among the top five. The unit’s size and physicality are overlooked nationally.
Defensive line: Baylor. To call this the best line of Art Briles’ tenure with the program is a massive understatement.
Linebacker: Oklahoma. The Sooners have two clear-cut all-conference picks in Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander. Getting Frank Shannon back from a one-year suspension gives OU enough talent, depth and experience to stack up with any group in the country.
Secondary: West Virginia and Oklahoma (tie). An unheralded secondary — outside of safety Karl Joseph — gives West Virginia’s defense reason for optimism against conference competition. The Sooners’ secondary has more overall talent but needs to prove itself after a disappointing 2014 season.
Special teams: West Virginia. It’s a close call between a few teams, but kicker Josh Lambert gives the Mountaineers the edge.
What to watch for
USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down the Big 12, including the game of the year and which player is going to break out in 2015.
Tidbits, notes and numbers
Three Oklahoma coaches have defined the program’s run as one of the truly elite programs of the poll era: Bud Wilkinson (1947-63), Barry Switzer (1973-88) and Bob Stoops (since 1999). As a threesome, these coaches have combined to go 470-102-8 and claimed seven national championships.
First-year Kansas coach David Beaty
(Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
Kansas’ 12-1 finish in 2007 remains one of the most impressive and inexplicable seasons in recent college football history. In comparison, the Jayhawks have won just 12 games since the start of the 2010 season — and lost 48.
Which Big 12 team owns the longest active streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft? That would be Kansas State, which brings a streak of 22 seasons in a row into the 2015 season. That’s one year more than second-place Oklahoma, 14 more than third-place TCU and 21 years longer than Texas.
Only once since 1946 has Iowa State won a game when compiling fewer than 26 rushing attempts. That came on Nov. 12, 2005, when the Cyclones topped Colorado, 30-16, despite having just 25 carries.
For Mike Gundy-led Oklahoma State, one-year dips in the win column typically precede a major breakthrough. The program’s last seven-win season prior to last fall came in 2007; it was followed by back-to-back nine-win seasons and 23 combined victories from 2010-11. After winning eight games in 2012, the Cowboys went 10-3 in 2013. Given the talent on this roster — even if it’s young — there’s reason to think OSU is set to make a similar climb in the near future.
There are a few ways to put Art Briles’ work with Baylor into proper perspective. Let’s try comparing the Bears’ Big 12 existence prior to Briles’ arrival: Baylor won just 11 conference games from 1996-2007, had zero winning seasons and three All-America selections. Since 2008, however, Baylor has won 33 league games, won at least 10 games three times in the last four years and had 23 All-America picks.
National award candidates
Best of the best
Heisman Trophy: Trevone Boykin, TCU. Boykin has the built-in name recognition that comes with last year’s breakthrough. At the same time, I think Seth Russell might have the numbers — and the team success — to work his way into the conversation during the second half of the season.
Doak Walker Award (best running back): Samaje Perine, Oklahoma. There’s really no other contender for this award in the conference.
Texas Tech offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark
(Photo: Michael C. Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)
Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver): Corey Coleman, Baylor. The only issue for Coleman’s candidacy is Baylor’s depth at the position, which should prevent the junior from putting up the eye-popping numbers that normally grab voters’ attention.
Outland Trophy (outstanding interior lineman): Spencer Drango, Baylor and Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech (tie). This pair’s decision to return for their senior seasons puts them in line for All-America status and national-award contention.
Rimington Trophy (best center): Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia. For some reason, Orlosky isn’t viewed unanimously as the best center in the conference — let alone one of the very best nationally.
Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end): Shawn Oakman, Baylor. This may be the tip of the iceberg for the Bears’ star end, who will also be in the running for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi.
Lou Groza Award (best kicker): Josh Lambert, West Virginia. A finalist last fall, Lambert should again be given heavy consideration as a junior.
Most likely to …
Have 1,000 yards receiving: Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon, Baylor (tie). Both should repeat as 1,000-yard receivers in Baylor’s deep-ball-heavy offense. For a third option, consider TCU’s Josh Doctson.
Throw for 3,500 yards: Trevone Boykin, TCU and Seth Russell, Baylor (tie). Barring injury, these two all-conference favorites should exceed this total with room to spare.
Baylor wide receiver K.D. Cannon
(Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)
Lose his job: Paul Rhoads, Iowa State. There’s pretty good job security throughout the Big 12, and it’s only fair to keep in mind Rhoads’ very solid four-year stretch before losing 19 games during the past seasons. Another 10-loss season might force the school’s hand, however.
Be coaching in the NFL in 2016: Art Briles, Baylor. But only if the Dallas Cowboys are looking for a new head coach.
Have 1,500 yards rushing: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma. The Sooners’ new offense might ask more from their quarterbacks, but there will be plenty of touches for the league’s best back.
Be a first round pick in 2016: Shawn Oakman, Baylor. A number of players could fit into the first round — I can make the case for as many as seven or eight, as of today — but Oakman’s rare blend of size, speed and athleticism has him in the running for No. 1 overall.
Lead the conference in scoring offense: Baylor. This is what Baylor does.
Lead the conference in scoring defense: TCU. The Horned Frogs remain the safest bet despite facing some personnel concerns at linebacker. I also think Texas is set to take another step forward in its second season behind Charlie Strong.
Exceed expectations: Texas. Seeing that expectations are fairly low for the Longhorns, I think this team can surprise a number of teams inside and out of conference play.
Disappoint: TCU. It’s been the Horned Frogs and Baylor, seeing that both teams are trendy picks for the Playoff, and I think the Bears are the more complete team.
The numbers, team by team
Ranking the starting quarterbacks
A league of future household names
Not every program in the conference has a clear-cut starter in advance of fall camp. Bonus points for those schools without a major competition, let alone those with an accomplished and trustworthy returning starter.
Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph
(Photo: Matt Kartozian, USA TODAY Sports)
1. Trevone Boykin, TCU. I can go one of two ways with the TCU senior. On one hand, he’ll be more comfortable in his second season in the Horned Frogs’ system and second season as the full-time starter. On the other, last year’s breakthrough does give coordinators a book on how to deal with the Heisman Trophy candidate.
2. Seth Russell, Baylor. The Bears are in very, very good shape if quarterback play is viewed as their biggest question mark heading into the start of the regular season.
3. Pat Mahomes, Texas Tech. I expect Mahomes to not just win the starting job over Davis Webb but stand as the third-best quarterback in the conference as a sophomore.
4. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. His best football stands a year or two down the road, but I think Rudolph will give the Cowboys their best production at the position since Brandon Weeden’s senior season in 2011.
Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes
(Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)
5. Skyler Howard, West Virginia. He doesn’t necessarily look the part, but Howard has worked hard since arriving on campus to grasp the nuts and bolts of Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Statistically, look for Howard to sit among the top three or four in the conference in most major categories.
6. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. Mayfield, the former transfer from Texas Tech, gets the keys to Lincoln Riley’s system, which has the potential to make stars out of any quarterback.
7. Tyrone Swoopes, Texas. Swoopes will never be a star, but a move toward a spread-based offense should take greater advantage of his skill set.
8. Jonathan Banks, Alex Delton, Jesse Ertz or Joe Hubener, Kansas State. The four-man competition remains undecided as the Wildcats head into the home stretch of fall camp. Banks, a recent junior-college transfer, might be the most intriguing name in the bunch. Delton, a true freshman, is the long-term answer at the position. But how likely is Bill Snyder to roll the dice with a rookie?
9. Sam B. Richardson, Iowa State. Richardson has more than earned the opportunity to be the Cyclones’ clear-cut starter. While the staff should trust in his ability to limit mistakes, it’d be nice to team the senior with a more productive running game.
10. Montell Cozart, Kansas. He’s the best option for the Jayhawks, but don’t look for fireworks out of this passing game.
Plus potential breakout players
West Virginia OL Yodny Cajuste. At the very least, West Virginia’s coaching staff is convinced that the redshirt freshman is heading in the right direction. He could be more than just an up-and-coming line prospect: Cajuste may end up as a very valuable piece of the Mountaineers’ line rotation, a testament not just to his long-range potential but his ability to handle the load in his first season of on-field eligibility.
Baylor LB Grant Campbell
Texas running back D’Onta Foreman
(Photo: Michael C. Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)
. It won’t be easy for Baylor to replace former middle linebacker Bryce Hager, a multiple-year starter and multiple-time all-conference honoree. But Campbell, a former junior-college transfer, has fared well in a starting role throughout the offseason.
Oklahoma State DT Vincent Taylor and Vili Leveni. Both will play, as part of the Cowboys’ fairly deep interior rotation, but look for Taylor to get the starting nod over Leveni. That both are sophomores — and that Oklahoma State has just two seniors in its likely rotation — bodes well for the defense’s production moving forward.
TCU LB Mike Freeze. That Freeze has made a strong push for the starting spot at middle linebacker is surprising for three reasons: one, he’s a true freshman just months into his college career; two, he was a safety in high school; and three, he missed his entire senior season with a shoulder injury. That hasn’t prevented the rookie from making an extremely solid case to be the Horned Frogs’ starter in the middle of Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 attack.
Texas RB D’Onta Foreman. The Longhorns have discovered in the little-used sophomore a pounding and physical back to team with senior Johnathan Gray, the unquestioned starter. He could mesh well as a bigger back teamed with Gray’s burst.
Texas LB Malik Jefferson. The freshman phenom has been as good as advertised through the first few months of his college football. Then again, this was to be expected: Texas expected the five-star recruit to be a star — and he may not be as a rookie, but those days are coming soon.
Assistants on the rise
Coaching names to know
Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. He’s been a solid addition to the Cowboys’ coaching staff since coming over from Shippensburg University prior to the 2013 season. We’ll see this fall what Yurcich can do with a talented and very promising young quarterback.
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley
(Photo: Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press)
West Virginia special teams coordinator and safeties coach Joe DeForest. Since arriving prior to the 2013 season, DeForest has done a commendable job with the Mountaineers’ kickers and safeties. His top pupils: Josh Lambert, a potential All-America pick at kicker, and all-conference safety Karl Joseph.
TCU offensive line coach Jarrett Anderson. Three linemen earned all-conference accolades a season ago, Anderson’s first working with the position after four years as the Horned Frogs’ coordinator.
Oklahoma defensive line coach Diron Reynolds. The Sooners’ first-year line coach assumes some big shoes — on the field and in a recruiting role — as the replacement for NFL-bound Jerry Montgomery. A longtime NFL assistant in his own right, Reynolds spent last season as the assistant line coach at Stanford.
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The former Texas Tech and East Carolina assistant is now in line to take over his own program in the near future.
Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs. Gibbs’ arrival from Houston may end up being the biggest hire of the offseason in the conference. His force-turnovers approach will not only help Tech’s defense right the ship but give more possessions to a potentially explosive offense.
Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. The coach’s son enters his first year as the Bears’ coordinator, replacing Tulsa’s Phillip Montgomery. I can easily envision a scenario where Art Briles puts in another decade with the Bears before turning the ship over to his son.
Games of the year
The Big 12’s appointment viewing
TCU at Minnesota, Sept. 3. The always-underrated Golden Gophers are going to give TCU a game.
Texas at Notre Dame, Sept. 5. We’ll have a good idea by the end of the opening weekend whether the Irish truly are a Playoff contender, and whether Texas might be an under-the-radar Big 12 contender.
Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12. The Volunteers are improving with each season under Butch Jones, but a non-conference loss in Knoxville would be devastating for the Sooners.
California at Texas, Sept. 19. If I’m the Longhorns, the idea of playing Sonny Dykes’ pass-happy offense would keep me awake at night.
Texas Tech at Arkansas, Sept. 19. As if taking on Arkansas’ physical offense wasn’t bad enough, the Red Raiders follow this with dates against TCU and Baylor.
Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas), Oct. 10. The annual rivalry could either be another showcase for an OU team hungry to move beyond last season or a potential breakout moment for Charlie Strong and the Longhorns.
Oklahoma at Baylor, Nov. 14. Having to travel to Waco doesn’t help the Sooners’ chances, obviously, but Oklahoma has the talent and depth along the back seven of its defense to hang with Baylor’s wealth of options on offense.
TCU at Oklahoma, Nov. 21. By Nov. 22, OU should either be back in the national conversation or headed toward another dreary offseason.
Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27. This is the league’s game of the year and one of the defining games in all of college football in 2015.
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 28. This game may or may not decide the conference championship, but this rivalry needs no excuse to be pure bedlam. Here’s something to consider: OSU hosts Baylor, TCU and the Sooners in November.
Texas at Baylor, Dec. 5. This might be Baylor’s last chance at impressing the selection committee. The Bears have won four of five in the series.
All-time all-conference team
The ultimate fantasy roster
For the efforts of this exercise, let’s play under the following rules:
Though the Big 12 made its debut in 1996, technically speaking, this list will also include teams and players from the Big Eight Conference era, which ran from 1907-95. That seems only fair, even as this broadens my list of eligible players to a soul-crushing length.
Please remember the following: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor were members of the Southwest Conference, not the Big Eight, prior to the formation of the Big 12. As such, this list will not include Earl Campbell, John David Crow, Mike Singletary and others.
In addition, if any conference shift occurred during a player’s career — as in the case of Nebraska, Colorado or A&M, for example — he will be considered for the league in which he had his greatest or most memorable success. Not that this has an impact on our list, since these conference shifts occurred within the last five years.
(Not pictured: Oklahoma DB Rickey Dickson)
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The question, in shortened form: Can you name the 10 programs other than Texas to win just one national championship during the past 40 years, either via the Coaches Poll or the Associated Press? It’s an easier one this time. Those programs are …
Pittsburgh in 1976. Georgia in 1980. Clemson in 1981. Brigham Young in 1984. Colorado and Georgia Tech in 1990. Washington in 1991. Michigan in 1997. Tennessee in 1998. And Auburn in 2010.
Best chance at the Playoff
The team circling Dec. 6 on the calendar
There are two Big 12 teams at the forefront of the league’s College Football Playoff push: Baylor, which brings into 2015 the strongest team in program history, and TCU, with its enormous confidence on offense and the basic foundation of another elite defense. On paper, each is wholly deserving of being counted among the best teams in college football.
I can’t shake the suspicious feeling that Oklahoma is going to factor into the conversation. The Sooners are aided by a marquee non-conference matchup at Tennessee; while TCU takes on Minnesota — and Baylor again faces no non-conference foes of consequence — a win in Knoxville would boost Oklahoma’s national credibility heading into conference play.
Nor can I ignore this: Oklahoma State gets all three of these teams in November — and at home, no less. While the Cowboys would need to piece together a strong start behind a younger cast, it’s easy to believe in a scenario where OSU will be playing its best football of the season during the year’s final month. If so, the Cowboys may either challenge for the Big 12 title or — and here’s where things get dicey — knock one or two teams out of the Playoff mix.
At the very least, the consensus is that the Big 12 has four viable contenders for the conference title; I even think Texas will be better than expected, giving the league five contenders, but most don’t agree with that assessment.
LaQuan McGowan (80) and Co. give Baylor one of the most talented rosters in FBS.
(Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
One team stands above the rest: Baylor. The Bears will land outstanding quarterback play from Seth Russell, who fits perfectly into a vertical passing game reliant upon big-play ability. The running game has averaged at least 200 yards per game in each of last four years; that shouldn’t change in 2015, not when the offensive line touts size, experience and a mean streak.
The defensive line is the strongest of Art Briles’ tenure with the program, and may very well be among the best in the entire country. Shawn Oakman is one of the nation’s premier talents. Andrew Billings is a block-occupying, pressure-causing havoc in the middle. The back seven is the team’s greatest concern, but Baylor coaches believe the secondary to be dramatically improved.
Perhaps the only sticking point is that road trip to TCU in November. Road games are an issue for the Bears; 11 of the program’s last 12 losses — dating to the start of the 2012 season — have come away from home, either in true road games or at a neutral site in postseason play.
The past is the past — and no program in the country knows this as well as Baylor. Perhaps winning a marquee road game in November is the next hurdle the Bears must overcome on the road to the national championship.