2017 College Football: Big 12 Conference Preview

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Featuring two Oklahoma powerhouses

Three years into the playoff system and the Big 12 has only one blowout loss to their name. That could change this year with two powerhouses in the state of Oklahoma. Trouble is brewing in Austin as Tom Herman settles into his role as the head of the Longhorns. We’ve got two sneaky good teams in West Virginia and Kansas State and even Kansas has a superstar in the making.

There are a lot of storylines to watch this season in the Big 12. Before we start kick off the season, we’re here to catch you up on all the action in the conference so you know what to expect.

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Baylor Bears

Last Season: 7-6 (3-6); T-6th in Big 12

Post-Season: Won (31-12) in Cactus Bowl vs. Boise State

Departures: HC Jim Grobe, LB Aiavion Edwards, C Kyle Fuller, S Orion Stewart, WR K.D. Cannon

Pressing Concerns: Stopping the run will be a major focus of Baylor’s defense. Opposing runners had a field day against Baylor’s porous front. Will the drastic change of styles thrive in Waco? Former Temple head coach Matt Rhule will look to win the time of possession, especially with two talented running backs at his disposal, and not as many playmakers under center and split out wide. His style of offense is less catered to the spread and more dedicated to conservative, steady football. It’s a different style than the Big 12 is used to, but can the Bears adjust in Rhule’s first year?

Biggest Strengths: The two headed rushing monster of Williams and Hasty should be quite formidable as long as the offensive line, with little depth, stays healthy. The Bears’ defense struggled last season, but returns seven of its top ten tacklers, while adding an old-school coach in Matt Rhule. His focus on clock management and detail oriented defense could be just what this team needs.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Terence Williams, WR Chris Platt, RB JaMycal Hasty

Defensive Players to Watch: DE KJ Smith, LB Taylor Young, S Davion Hill

Make-or-Break Factor: Getting production out of their QB will be paramount. Zach Smith and Charlie Brewer are currently battling for the starting role with Arizona transfer Anu Solomon. But beyond who leads the offense, Baylor will have to find some receivers to play with Chris Platt, the only deep threat and known weapon on the team. Making the Big 12 defenses respect the pass will be necessary for Matt Rhule’s philosophy to be implemented. Otherwise, defenses will stack the box against the run, putting even more pressure on the offensive line that is severely lacking in depth.

Key Games:

  • 9/30 @ Kansas State–The Matt Rhule era of Baylor football begins conference play with a home game at Oklahoma followed by two road games in Manhattan and at Oklahoma State. The Sooners and Cowboys figure to be the class of the conference, so the Bears will need to avoid the 0-3 conference start. Beating Kansas State is the only realistic option for this team.

2017 Prediction: 6-6 (3-6); 7th in the Big 12. There will be an adjustment period under the new coach, new system, and new culture of Baylor. The talent doesn’t match what Rhule needs, but there is enough there for him to work with and maybe squeeze a bowl birth out of his first season in Waco.

Iowa State Cyclones

Last Season: 3-9 (2-7); 9th in Big 12

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: CB Jomal Wiltz, DT Jhaustin Thomas, OL Nick Fett, DT Demond Tucker

Pressing Concerns: Iowa State needs to handle their turnover problem. Their margin was atrocious last season. They had a -10 turnover margin in their nine losses, and were 0-8 when they did not get more than one takeaway. They will also need to sure up their offensive line, a unit with just one returning starter.

Biggest Strengths: The Cyclones’ secondary, while going through struggles last season, has almost all its starters back, and should be a strength of the unit. There’s also no more question as far as the quarterback position is concerned. It is Jacob Park’s team and he has the weapons around him at running back and receiver to prosper. Allen Lazard is one of the most underrated receivers in college football and will leave Iowa State with his name cemented in history as one of the best wideouts to come out of Ames.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Allen Lazard, QB Jacob Park, RB Mike Warren

Defensive Players to Watch: S Kamari Cotton-Moya, LB Joel Lanning, LB Willie Harvey

Make-or-Break Factor: Iowa State has its QB, two running backs, and a go-to wide receiver threat. All of this can be rendered useless without a brand new offensive line unit not stepping up. Even with a good unit last season, the pass protection was sub-par. It starts with OT Jake Campos. Campos missed last season hurt, but was supposed to be a starter. So his return will be a much needed veteran presence for a line consisting of three underclassmen.

Key Games:

  • 9/28 vs. Texas – Cyclones get Texas to visit Ames on a Thursday night after the Longhorns start the season with a difficult out of conference schedule. Iowa State needs this upset to make a dent in a very talented Big 12. This game will provide an early indication of whether they can be an upset threat each week in the conference.

2017 Prediction: 3-9 (1-8); 9th in the Big 12.

Kansas Jayhawks

Last Season: 2-10 (1-8); 10th in Big 12

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: CB Brandon Stewart, S Fish Smithson

Pressing Concerns: The defense will be an issue for the Jayhawks. Top of the defensive concerns should be addressing the run defense. They need to be able to stop the run this year. Their inability to do so last season really cost them. They also struggle on offense with turnovers. Protecting that ball is the first step in KU’s journey to football relevance. The quarterback position is also a question mark with three players seeing significant time last season. One of those three, Carter Stanley, is back, competing for the starting role with junior college transfer, Peyton Bender.

Biggest Strengths: Kansas does have a very solid WR corps. Steven Sims and all of his 859 yards and 7 TDs are back. Along with LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot. On defense, Dorance Armstrong is a legitimate pass rusher. With him and Daniel Wise, the Jayhawks’ strength is disrupting the passing game.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Steven Sims, WR LaQuvionte Gonzalez, OT Hakeem Adeniji

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Dorance Armstrong, DT Daniel Wise, S Mike Lee

Make-or-Break Factor: Creating turnovers on defense. KU is definitely a bend-don’t-break defense. They have a couple of playmakers up front and a couple in the secondary with safety, Mike Lee and junior college transfer cornerback, Hasan Defense. Turnovers could spell upset and the Jayhawks not being Big 12 bottom feeders. At this point Kansas might even just settle for losing close games as opposed to getting blown out by teams like Ohio and Memphis.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 @ Ohio – Conference victories are slim pickens for Kansas. To finish with a few more victories, the Jayhawks need to win all three of their out of conference games, including a couple against MAC teams. Ohio should be one of the classes of the MAC, so this one’s no cupcake.

2017 Prediction: 1-11 (0-9); 10th in the Big 12. Dorance Armstrong could have a huge year this season. The rest of the Jayhawks aren’t looking so hot though. Don’t despair Paul Rudd and Jayhawk fans, basketball season coming soon enough.

Kansas State Wildcats

Last Season: 9-4 (6-3); 4th in Big 12

Post-Season: Won (33-28) in Texas Bowl vs. Texas A&M

Departures: DE Jordan Willis, LB Elijah Lee, S Dante Barnett, RB Charles Jones

Pressing Concerns: K-state is built for a bruising run game. The issue has always been getting defenses to respect the pass. 2017 is no different. Jessie Ertz will have to get the ball downfield to open up the run game. On the other side, Bill Snyder’s team will have to get better against the pass. They gave up big games to the Big 12’s top offenses. And the same quarterbacks that torched them last year are back again this year.

Biggest Strengths: After realizing the weaknesses on both sides of the ball, it becomes apparent that they exist because the other facets are such obvious strengths. The Wildcats have the offensive line to continue their running game successful. Their defensive front should help Kansas State replicate their effectiveness against the run. Defensive coordinator, Tom Hayes helped the defense limit opponents to 115 yards per game. However, in 2017, they’ll have to attempt to do so again with brand new starters at linebacker.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Jessie Ertz, OT Dalton Risner, C Reid Najvar

Defensive Players to Watch: CB DJ Reed, DT Will Geary, S Kendall Adams

Make-or-Break Factor: Pass defense. If K-state gets off the field on passing downs, their recipe of clock control on offense is most effective. Without stopping opposing quarterbacks, the Wildcats are forced out of their comfort zone and must play catch-up, something they aren’t typically good at. They’ve got one of the best cornerbacks in the conference in DJ Reed. Given the amount returning players and Elijah Walker, a promising JUCO transfer, there is reason to be hopeful in this secondary. Though they’ve got to get after the quarterback better.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 @ Texas – There will be a lot of hype around Texas and new head coach, Tom Herman. The Longhorns will be looking for a victory as Kansas State visits Austin for their first road game of the season. The Wildcats follow this game up with Oklahoma and TCU, so they’ll need this one for a shot at the Big 12 title game, a prospect that isn’t as far-fetched as you may think.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (5-4); 6th in the Big 12. Kansas State looks to be fighting for the top of the second tier of the Big 12 with Texas, TCU, and West Virginia, but will fall just short of them in conference standings. Herman proved himself to be an elite coach in Houston while TCU and West Virginia are simply more up-tempo and can exhaust opposing secondaries.

Oklahoma Sooners

Last Season: 11-2 (9-0); 1st in Big 12

Post-Season: Won (35-19) Sugar Bowl vs. Auburn

Departures: HC Bob Stoops, RB Joe Mixon, RB Samaje Perine, WR Dede Westbrook, LB Jordan Evans

Pressing Concerns: Getting pressure up front will be paramount for the Sooners’ defense to not get taken advantage of by talented, high-scoring Big 12 offenses. Beyond Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who will be used in a hybrid role on the line and at linebacker, they are relatively unproven. While Baker Mayfield will have time, can newcomers fill the big shoes left behind by running backs and number one receiving target and Heisman candidate, Dede Westbrook?

Biggest Strengths: Anytime you have a Heisman candidate returning at quarterback, you’re set up for a good year. Baker Mayfield loses skill position players around him, but has a phenomenal offensive line and effective system to give him time to spread the ball around. The secondary will be their strongest unit on defense. Jordan Thomas has a future in the NFL, which makes him all the more dangerous against Big 12 offenses, which are not accustomed to NFL caliber corners. Even though Bob Stoops stepped down as head coach, former offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley keeps the Sooners in good hands.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Baker Mayfield, TE Mark Andrews, OT Orlando Brown

Defensive Players to Watch: CB Jordan Thomas, DE/LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

Make-or-Break Factor: Baker Mayfield finding a go-to target is a concern. Gone is Dede Westbrook and his 16 TDs and over 1,400 yards of receiving. Beyond big target Mark Andrews, Lincoln Riley’s offense will need to continue their air attack to complement what should be a successful run game. Though they are lacking the talent they had in the Mixon/Perine tandem. The likely candidates outside of Andrews are Jeffrey Mead and transfer, Jeff Badet. As long as they get open, Mayfield should have plenty of opportunity to get them the ball.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 @ Ohio State – Getting a win in Columbus and revenge for last year’s early loss would prove big in making OU part of the CFP semi-final conversation at the end of the season. This is quite the task for the Sooners in week two. If they come through, there’s a good chance they’ll be playing for a national title.
  • 10/14 vs. Texas (Dallas, TX) – For the first time since 1937, both sides of the Red River Rivalry will feature new coaches. Anything can happen in rivalry games and Oklahoma, the better team, needs to make sure that ‘anything’ doesn’t. This will be a necessary win to ensure the Sooners’ stay in the top two spots and earn a trip to the Big 12 championship.
  • 11/4 @ Oklahoma St. – These two teams are the preseason class of the conference. It seems like these two teams will be meeting again in the conference title game. Whoever loses this one will have a tougher road ahead of them, though their season would be far from lost. It is, however, a good indicator of who belongs in the national spotlight.

2017 Prediction: 10-2 (8-1); 2nd in the Big 12. Visiting Columbus in the second week of the season is a tall task; one they may not be prepared to handle. Their regular season match-up will be the one misstep the Sooners make in conference play. OU and their in-state rival seem destined for the resurrected Big 12 Championship game. They can afford to surrender that one game so long as they make up for it when it really counts.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Last Season: 10-3 (7-2); T-2nd in Big 12

Post-Season: Won (38-8) Alamo Bowl vs. Colorado

Departures: DT Vincent Taylor, RB Chris Carson, CB Ashton Lampkin

Pressing Concerns: The defense is the big question mark. While the Cowboys have the talent on offense to win shootouts, their defense will be the thing keeping their opponents on their tail. There is a lot of uncertainty at the cornerback position, though they have a pair of quality safeties. Their interior line is also a call for concern.

Biggest Strengths: The offense is a major strength, with Mason Rudolph and James Washington sure to serve as this year’s Mayfield/Westbrook. Oklahoma State gets back nearly all of its production from last year, including Heisman candidate Mason Rudolph. Wide receivers James Washington and Jalen McCleskey combined for over 2,000 yards and 17 TDs, while Justice Hill looks to follow up his 1,142-rushing yard freshman campaign. Rudolph and company will need everything they can get to outscore opponents and help keep their defense off the field.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington, WR Jalen McCleskey

Defensive Players to Watch: S Tre Flowers, LB Chad Whitener

Make-or-Break Factor: The effectiveness of the run game will be a much-needed balance to the Cowboys’ offense. It will also be imperative to use some clock to keep Mike Gundy’s subpar defense off the field. Mason Rudolph and the WR corps should get their stats and scores; however, quick scoring drives may lead to more offensive shootout games. Mike Gundy has a lot of athleticism on his defense. This could be one of the best defensive units he’s ever fielded. The potential is there, it’s just a matter of if they can live up to it.

Key Games:

  • 10/28 @ West Virginia – Oklahoma State has to follow up a trip to Austin with a game in Morgantown. West Virginia has a talented team and are dying to prove they belong in the conference conversation.
  • 11/4 vs. Oklahoma– A rivalry game with a lot of hype surrounding it. These two teams are the most talented teams in the conference on paper, but proving it on the field will go a long way in bolstering resumes for CFP discussion. This very well could be a preview of the Big 12 Championship.

2017 Prediction: 11-1 (8-1); 1st in Big 12. Oklahoma State has a much easier out of conference schedule than their rival, with Pittsburgh highlighting their competition. They also have a harder road to face prior to their regular season match-up against the Sooners so they come into that game more adjusted to playing competitive teams.

TCU Horned Frogs

Last Season: 6-7 (4-5); 5th in Big 12

Post-Season: Lost (23-31) Liberty Bowl vs. Georgia

Departures: DE Josh Carraway, OT Aviante Collins, DT Aaron Curry

Pressing Concerns: Re-tooling their defensive line is a major concern. The Frogs were already poor against the run in 2016, so they will need newcomers to make an immediate impact. On offense, Kenny Hill needs to minimize mistakes. He threw a lot of interceptions and the offense did not convert enough. That won’t fly if TCU wants to get back to the success of the Trevone Boykin-era.

Biggest Strengths: TCU has the experience to make a splash in the conference. However, they will need to be more consistent and less mistake-prone. QB Kenny Hill has the talent and pieces surrounding him to thrive, but needs to lead his offense to more scores in the redzone. The defense should be sound, especially in their back seven. Linebackers, Travin Howard and Ty Summers should be flying around the ball in the Horned Frogs’ 4-2-5 alignment. Plus, they have a versatile playmaker in Kyle Hicks, who is the team’s leading rusher and receiver.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Kenny Hill, RB Kyle Hicks, WR Taj Williams

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Travin Howard, S Nick Orr, LB Ty Summers

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of Kenny Hill. This team will go as Hill goes. He’s shown he has the talent and ability to lead TCU. Though his decision making is also poor enough to sink them. His ability to efficiently lead the Horned Frogs offense will be the difference between them finishing near the top, or competing for the conference championship.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 @ Arkansas – Big 12 vs. SEC. TCU is representing their conference in a game featuring two teams with a lot to prove.
  • 11/4 vs. Texas – The match-up between TCU and UT should be somewhat of a glimpse into the near future of Big 12 title contests. It very well be a match-up of teams on the rise, but a few big upsets the rest of the conference season, and this could have real, current Big 12 Championship implications.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (6-3); 4th in the Big 12. TCU should prevail over most of the Big 12. However, they can’t get past the conference elites due to inefficiency and lack of playmakers on defense.

Texas Longhorns

Last Season: 5-7 (3-6); T-6th in Big 12

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: RB D’Onta Foreman, QB Tyrone Swoopes, S Dylan Haines

Pressing Concerns: Last season, Texas struggled on third down, even with NFL running back D’Onta Foreman. Now, they don’t have him or their short yardage specialist Tyrone Swoopes. The good news? Tom Herman. He is one of the best offensive minds in the game and should make an immediate impact. His Houston Cougars were one of the best on third down last season despite a weaker line and less talented runners.

Biggest Strengths: The Longhorns return a ton of players on both sides of the ball. While the players returning were part of an unsuccessful campaign leading to their head coach being fired, they now have a talented, proven, effective trio of head coach, offensive coordinator (Tim Beck), and defensive coordinator (Todd Orlando). So combining the trio with experience should bode well. Can the offense have a balanced attack and spread the ball? The offensive line is talented, and should give them every chance to. Herman is an elite offensive mind and should be able to get everything he can out of his skill players.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Shane Buechele, OT Connor Williams, RB Chris Warren

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Malik Jefferson, DE Breckyn Hager, LB Anthony Wheeler

Make-or-Break Factor: Quarterback play. Shane Buechele is talented, but he’ll feel the pressure with true freshman and Tom Herman-recruit, Sam Ehlinger waiting to take the helm. Whoever plays QB for Texas will have a lot of pressure and expectation riding on their shoulders. Tom Herman has hit the big time in Austin. There isn’t any room for excuses.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 @ USC – Tom Herman-led teams made big splashes in premiere national match-ups like this one. Topping a pre-season favorite led by top NFL-candidate Sam Darnold would be a hell of a start to the Herman-era.
  • 10/14 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas, TX) – The first of two consecutive tough games, and rivalry with two brand new coaches. An upset over the Sooners could be gigantic for recruiting.
  • 10/21 vs. Oklahoma State– Follow up the Red River Rivalry with the other Big 12 powerhouse of 2017. Lucky for Tom Herman and company, they get the Cowboys at home.
  • 11/4 @ TCU – This game can help the Longhorns return to glory quicker than expected. Both of these teams figure to be the next teams up for Big 12 contention, so this one could be a pseudo-3rd place game in the conference.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (6-3); 3rd in the Big 12. Tom Herman, like the impact he made at Houston, will do the same for the Longhorns. They’ll be just a step away from returning to their historical success, battling for top of the second tier in the conference.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Last Season: 5-7 (3-6); T-6th in Big 12

Post-Season: Did Not Qualify

Departures: QB Patrick Mahomes, DT Breiden Fehoko

Pressing Concerns: For as good as the offense is, the defense is just as bad. Last season they allowed over 550 yards per game and 43.5 points per game, making them last in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. The defensive line is brand new, and needs to generate more pressure and the secondary has only one way to go after an abysmal 2016. Despite scoring a bunch, the Red Raiders need to improve their run game. They relied on the arm and legs of Patrick Mahomes last season. Mahomes is now being groomed as an NFL starter, so the Red Raiders will have to bounce back from his departure. Kliff Kingsbury will need to also revamp the running game that helped Tech reach a bowl in 2015. De’Leon Ward has the talent to fill those shoes.

Biggest Strengths: Texas Tech’s offense is high-powered and high-scoring under Kliff Kingsbury and offensive coordinator, Eric Morris’ system. Despite losing gun-slinging Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech should not take a step back with a new quarterback, especially since their top four receiving targets, running backs, and solid offensive line are all back. Jonathan Giles, KekeCoutee, Dylan Cantrell, and Cameron Batson all registered 55 catches, 640 yards receiving, and 7 TDs or more last season. New quarterback, Nic Shimonek has an embarrassment of riches on offense and the playbook to thrive.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Nic Shimonek, WR Jonathan Giles, OT Terence Steele

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Jordyn Brooks, DT Broderick Washington

Make-or-Break Factor: Find a way to get some stops on defense. The defense couldn’t create pressure, force turnovers, or even be a bend-don’t-break unit. They need to find a way to get off the field. Texas Tech’s offense will put up points but it will all be for nothing if their defense continues to give up drive after drive. Everything doesn’t need to be better – just find something. A pass rush, more interceptions, anything.

Key Games:

  • 9/30 vs. Oklahoma State – Texas Tech has a pretty tough out of conference schedule, facing Arizona State and Houston. They open their conference schedule with a Big 12 favorite. The Red Raiders are looking for revenge from last year’s close loss to the Cowboys, and must do so to set the tone for their conference schedule. Although this is the only home game before a tough road stretch, a win against Oklahoma State could start the Raiders off hot before taking on Kansas and Iowa State.

2017 Prediction: 3-9 (2-7); 8th in Big 12. With other conference teams taking a step forward, the downswing of Texas Tech will continue. A record near the bottom of the Big 12 won’t make Kliff Kingsbury’s seat any colder as the offensively skilled coach continues to show he’s incapable of fielding a tough defense.

West Virginia Moutaineers

Last Season: 10-3 (7-2); T-2nd in Big 12

Post-Season: Lost (14-31) Russell Athletic Bowl vs. Miami (FL)

Departures: CB Rasul Douglas, WR Shelton Gibson, QB Skyler Howard, LB Justin Arndt

Pressing Concerns: West Virginia’s offensive line was effective, but there’s been a lot of shuffling over the offseason. They have the talent, so the right combination of assignments may turn this concern into a strength. With a lack of depth and unproven skill, the corners remain an area of concern for the Mountaineers. Their brand new front three on the defensive line will be good eventually, but it’s a matter of how quickly they develop.

Biggest Strengths: Even though the Mountaineers got a lot out of the departed Skyler Howard and their top two wide receiver targets, the expectation is that West Virginia’s offense will build upon that success under Florida-transfer QB Will Grier. On top of that, Justin Crawford proved he is one of the best running backs in the conference, with dominant performances including 331 yards against Oklahoma and 209 against Baylor. West Virginia’s balanced and diverse offense should be one of the best in the conference, though their defense will need to step up and prove they can win games.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Will Grier, RB Justin Crawford, OG Kyle Bosch

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Al-Rasheed Benton, S Kyzir White

Make-or-Break Factor: Florida transfer Will Grier hasn’t seen the field for a year and a half. He made a splash in 2015, starting 6-0 for Florida before being suspended a year for testing positive for PED’s and then sitting out a season for transferring to Morgantown. He has a lot of hype and expectations surrounding him, so WVU finishing near the top of the Big 12 will mean he lived up to it.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 @ TCU – West Virginia will be battling to stay near the top of the Big 12 like they did last season. In order to do so, they must beat teams like TCU, to afford dropping games against talented squads like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. WVU is on the road, but they get a bye week in preparation.
  • 10/28 vs. Oklahoma State – This really seems like the perfect opportunity for an upset. The Mountaineers get Oklahoma State in Morgantown, a week after the Cowboys have to face the Longhorns in Austin. This game could be the difference between Big 12 title contention and getting lost in the pack.

2017 Prediction: 8-4 (6-3); 5th in Big 12. West Virginia is a team that should be in every game they play this season. They are good enough to compete at that level. But their defense is not consistent enough to stop them from dropping some games they should’ve won. Their offense, on the other hand, might just be potent enough to take down someone like Oklahoma State.

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