As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, AAC, Independents, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and ACC. Today, we complete the series with 20 things to know about the Big 12.
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1. Until proven otherwise, the Big 12 belongs to Baylor and TCU. It's amazing how quickly the balance of power has shifted. Oklahoma and Texas, the two remaining flagship teams of the Big 12, dominated the conference in the 2000s, with the Red River Rivalry constantly at the forefront of the national title race. From 2000-10, Oklahoma won seven Big 12 championships, Texas won two and the Big 12 North won two. During that time, TCU played in three other conferences and Baylor posted 10 losing seasons in a row. Less than 10 years ago, suggesting that TCU-Baylor would be the defining rivalry of the Big 12 would be preposterous. But here we are, the two teams going 23-3 last year and finishing in the first two spots out of the playoff race. They're both in the top four of the preseason polls, with Black Friday circled on the calendar as we get a rematch of a thrilling 61-58 Baylor comeback win from last October, ideally with a playoff spot on the line.
2. Oklahoma has an outside chance of reclaiming a throne at the top of the Big 12. Despite the mild sense of panic in Norman during their identity crisis after failing to meet expectations last year, they are still in decent shape. They're potentially deep at the skill positions for new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley -- a highly successfully Air Raid-centric coach at East Carolina -- with proven receiver Sterling Shepard and tailback Samaje Perine, plus juco transfer slot receiver DeDe Westbrook, redshirt freshman tailback Joe Mixon (coming off a season-long suspension) and speedy all-purpose back Alex Ross. While there's rebuilding to do on the offensive line and a transition to a new quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who beat out incumbent Trevor Knight, there's plenty to like here from a unit that, despite the issues last year, averaged 36 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. Three of the Sooners' five losses were by a total of eight points, and part of the reason everyone is so down on them is because of their dreadful 40-6 Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson. As with last year's positivity, we should never get too carried away reacting to a bowl result.
3. Bob Stoops' brother, Mike, is still in charge of the Oklahoma defense, and overall it's fair to say the Sooners underperformed on that side of the ball last year. The overall numbers aren't terrible, but perhaps what will most be remembered from the 2014 season was the hopeless defense played against Baylor, which toyed with the Sooners' coverage in a blowout. The Oklahoma defense will be built around the best linebacking corps in the Big 12, led by Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander, with the rest of the defense doing some rebuilding. There are holes to fill along both lines and in the secondary, but it's not as if Oklahoma is lacking elite talent overall: Perine and Shepard are stars on offense, and Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez are stars on defense. Alexander, center Ty Darlington, defensive end Charles Tapper and others are experienced and proven players. Despite recent turmoil, there's little reason to believe that Oklahoma can't contend for a major bowl, but then again that turmoil also leads us to believe that something is always going to go wrong. That's a strange feeling, given that Stoops has been so consistently good, including an 11-2 season in 2013.
4. Oklahoma is in much better shape than rival Texas, which is still attempting to figure things out under Charlie Strong. It's frustrating, because it seems like a team like Texas should never have to go through such a massive rebuild, but Strong is trying to rebuild the foundation. It's not all going smoothly. The offense, which had no clear identity last year, is unlikely to stabilize enough this year to allow Texas to improve significantly. Junior Tyrone Swoopes -- pressed into action before he was ready last year -- and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard may split time at quarterback until someone emerges, and the good news is that the line in front of them should be more stable after a patchwork line was on the field most of last season. Texas is likely to embrace the skill sets on its roster more this year, running up-tempo and spread looks to put the quarterbacks in the best position to succeed, and tailback Johnathan Gray could finally break out. There's certainly more to like this year, but there is no quick fix for what the Longhorns put on the field in 2014.
5. With Notre Dame, California, Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma on the schedule in the first six weeks, the results might not look pretty for Texas to start. The first half of the season is all about survival for the Longhorns, who, unlike last year, stand to improve as the season wears on. Escaping the first half of the season with a 3-3 record would be a victory, as painful as that sounds for a program with the stature of Texas. Strong can be trusted to put a stingy defense on the field, and that's exactly what the Longhorns had last year, for the most part. Only five starters return, but with tackle Hassan Ridgeway, cornerback Duke Thomas and potentially even freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson leading the way, this is bound to be a good unit, even if there are growing pains. For Texas, this season is all about trying to remain patient. Last year was really ugly at times, and given the first-half schedule, there could be some rough weeks if answers at quarterback don't present themselves. Hold serve at home early in the season, and the second half could look a lot brighter.
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Top 10 Players
1. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
2. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
3. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor
4. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
5. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
6. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
7. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
8. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
9. Karl Joseph, West Virginia
10. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
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6. Texas Tech has the opposite problem as their rivals in Austin. The Red Raiders are in desperate need of fixes on defense. It's not like Texas Tech has to suddenly become Alabama on that side of the ball; it was never close to that during the successes of the Mike Leach era. But the defense has to be able to force some turnovers and get occasional stops, which were nonexistent last year. Texas Tech ranked 120th in third-down defense, 95th in tackles for loss per game, 124th in run defense, 111th in defensive passer rating and 126th in points allowed (you may remember TCU dropping 82 points). In steps former Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs, whose defenses put an emphasis on forcing turnovers. This will never be a shutdown unit, but if more players can be counted on to make big plays aside from just pass rusher Pete Robertson, then the Red Raiders can give their offense a chance.
7. With improvement on defense, Texas Tech can easily get back into the bowl mix and pull off an upset or two. The Kliff Kingsbury era has been bumpy thus far, with a 2-12 record in the last 14 Big 12 games, but the defense can't get worse, and the offense may find some stability after playing musical chairs at quarterback for two years. Kingsbury is a fine offensive mind, and with players like tackle Le'Raven Clark, receiver Jakeem Grant and underrated tailback DeAndre Washington, plus two viable options at quarterback in sophomore Patrick Mahomes and junior Davis Webb, Texas Tech will start doing what we expect it to do: Score plenty of points and put up huge passing numbers. It won't mean contending for the Big 12 title, but it can lead to enough improvement to placate a fan base that was blindsided by last year's 4-8 debacle.
8. Four of Kingsbury's seven Big 12 wins -- including the only two last year -- were, not surprisingly, against Iowa State and Kansas. It's hard to imagine either Iowa State or Kansas closing the gap on the rest of the Big 12 this year. Over the last three years, the Cyclones and Jayhawks have won a total of seven Big 12 games between them, with Kansas going winless in 2012 and Iowa State going winless last year. These are two of the most difficult jobs in major college football, and while Iowa State went to bowl games under Paul Rhoads in 2009, '11 and '12 and Kansas is still less than a decade removed from the Orange Bowl, both face steep challenges in attempting to reverse their fortunes and catch up in a league in which the other eight teams all stand a good chance of getting to the postseason.
9. Iowa State has more immediate hope than Kansas. Despite a 5-19 mark over the last two years, there is still always the expectation that an Iowa State team under Rhoads will play fundamentally sound football, and that Jack Trice Stadium can be a tricky place to play. Under offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, the passing combination of quarterback Sam B. Richardson and receivers Allen Lazard, Quenton Bundrage and D'Vario Montgomery is promising. The bigger problem is fixing a defense that has tanked the last two years, with a front seven that struggled to make any plays in the backfield and was trampled by most opposing run games. This team can certainly improve in 2015, but with a tough five-game road schedule in the Big 12, plus landmines against Northern Iowa and Toledo surrounding the Week 2 rivalry game vs. Iowa, Rhoads is in a tough position to stage a truly satisfying turnaround.
10. Kansas really needs to avoid a Week 1 upset loss to South Dakota State, a ranked FCS team. The Jayhawks are in an even tougher position than the Cyclones. Texas A&M receivers coach and recruiting coordinator David Beaty steps into his first head coaching job against a schedule that will likely see the Jayhawks as underdogs in 11 of 12 weeks. The other game is an opener against South Dakota State, an FCS playoff team whom the Jayhawks beat 31-17 in 2012 for their only win in Charlie Weis' debut season. Since running Mangino out of town, Kansas has gone 12-48 in five seasons, with only eight wins against FBS opponents and three wins in the Big 12. Retaining interim coach Clint Bowen as defensive coordinator is big, but with Weis' rash of juco transfers moving on, only seven starters return. Beaty's recruiting energy could pay off down the road, but it's hard to see much happening in year one.
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Top 10 Games
1. Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27
2. Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 14
3. TCU at Oklahoma, Nov. 21
4. Baylor at Oklahoma State, Nov. 21
5. TCU at Oklahoma State, Nov. 7
6. Oklahoma at Tennessee, Sept. 12
7. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 27
8. Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 10 (at Dallas)
9. TCU at Minnesota, Sept. 3
10. West Virginia at Baylor, Oct. 17
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11. Expectations are down for Kansas State with a long list of questions. Given his history, this is exactly when we should expect Bill Snyder to pull off some magic, upset Baylor or TCU and win nine games. It helps that Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma all come to Manhattan in a five-game conference home schedule, but Kansas State has a long way to go right now. Receivers Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton are gone -- taking 185 catches with them -- and so is quarterback Jake Waters, who quietly threw for 3,500 yards and made plays with his legs. The running game was stagnant last year, and now Kansas State will need to lean heavily on what's mostly a veteran line (beyond losing star center B.J. Finney) to improve and open things up for tailback Charles Jones and the new quarterback, whether it's freshman Alex Delton, sophomore Jesse Ertz or junior Joe Hubener. With a terrific secondary, reliable special teams play and Snyder's typical attention to detail, this Kansas State team could absolutely exceed expectations if it finds a running game. The last thing I want to do is doubt Snyder. Still, in a conference that could have a lot of parity in the middle of the pack, it's hard not to see this year's Kansas State roster being a small step behind.
12. After its incredible start to 2012, West Virginia still hasn't hit its stride in the Big 12, with an 18-20 record overall over the last three years. At times it felt like the Mountaineers turned a corner last year, but they still went just 7-6 with a pair of wins coming on last-second field goals. While the Mountaineers can't match the explosive offense they had in 2012, this could be the most complete West Virginia team since the program joined the Big 12. The defense made significant strides last year, with a loaded secondary led by Karl Joseph and Daryl Worley and a solid group of linebackers featuring K.J. Dillon and Nick Kwiatkoski. Nine starters return to the unit, which gave up 5.43 yards per play -- not spectacular, but decent by Big 12 standards -- and still has room to grow if it finds a more potent pass rush. The West Virginia offense should be fine, but this season is a rare case of a Dana Holgorsen-coached team boasting a defense with fewer questions than the offense. Surprisingly, the biggest question might be at receiver, where the Mountaineers must somehow replace 2014 breakout star Kevin White, in addition to Mario Alford, who quietly had 945 yards. With five Big 12 road trips -- including Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State -- the Mountaineers could easily tread water around .500 if they don't find answers at receiver to aid the progression of promising junior quarterback Skyler Howard, who flashed ability in limited action last year. But there's enough to like on both sides of the ball to believe that West Virginia can take another step forward.
13. We shouldn't get too excited about a couple wins at the end of the season, but Oklahoma State is a different team with Mason Rudolph at quarterback. An injury to J.W. Walsh derailed the Cowboys, as the offense became far too inconsistent under Daxx Garman (now at Maryland). When Garman got hurt, Oklahoma State decided to burn the redshirt of the touted Rudolph, who put up a solid effort in a loss to Baylor, then led Oklahoma State to wins over Oklahoma and Washington. In three games, Rudolph completed 57 percent for 853 yards (9.9 per attempt) with six touchdowns and four interceptions. The Cowboys do need weapons to step up around Rudolph, as the run game struggled last year and top playmaker Tyreek Hill was kicked off the team. The top option is senior Brandon Shepherd, who excelled once Rudolph took the field late. It's a small sample size, but Oklahoma State averaged 6.12 yards per play in three games with Rudolph as starter, after being held under five yards per play in five of its previous six games. This offense could turn around in a hurry, especially if juco transfer Chris Carson boosts the ground game.
14. Oklahoma State's midseason downfall last year wasn't only about a maddeningly inconsistent offense. After finishing second in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed two years in a row, the Cowboys dipped to seventh last year, allowing nearly 3,500 passing yards for the season. There are reasons for hope, though: Assuming he's healthy after undergoing knee surgery last week, cornerback Kevin Peterson is one of the best in the Big 12, and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah is one of the nation's best players. The Cowboys were painfully young on defense last year, losing eight of their top nine tacklers. That's not the case this time. With a more experienced defense and an improving secondary, Oklahoma State will play a significant role in the Big 12 race, even if it can't quite win the league. Given that TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma all come to Stillwater in November, there will undoubtedly be a lot of attention on Boone Pickens Stadium late in the season.
15. TCU is a national darling now. After an painful fall to 4-8 in 2013 in the team's second year in the Big 12, TCU revamped its offense, bringing in co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie to install an Air Raid style system. It worked brilliantly. Part-time wide receiver Trevone Boykin became a Heisman candidate at quarterback (3,901 passing yards, 707 rushing yards, 41 total touchdowns), and the offense jumped from 88th in scoring to second. Ten starters return to the unit, including underrated tailback Aaron Green (7.1 yards per carry), an outstanding receiving corps led by Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee and four starters on the offensive line. Duplicating last year's absurd success will be difficult, but given the coaching and the quality of players returning, don't expect much regression, if any, from the TCU offense. This is a team with a clear identity now, one of the nation's best quarterbacks and a wealth of talented athletes.
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1. Baylor 11-1 (8-1)
2. TCU 10-2 (7-2)
3. Oklahoma 9-3 (6-3)
4. Oklahoma State 9-3 (6-3)
5. Texas Tech 7-5 (5-4)
6. West Virginia 7-5 (4-5)
7. Texas 6-6 (4-5)
8. Kansas State 6-6 (3-6)
9. Iowa State 4-8 (2-7)
10. Kansas 1-11 (0-9)
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16. TCU has often fielded exceptional defenses under Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs ranked second in yards per play allowed three years in a row from 2008-10, and they were sixth last year. Patterson has proven to be one of the finest defensive minds in the country, and it's unlikely that TCU will experience a huge drop-off. Still, TCU's defense is bound to regress some in 2015. Six of the top seven tacklers are gone, five of whom earned first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors. Paul Dawson was the Big 12's defensive player of the year, Sam Carter was the quarterback of the defense and Chris Hackett intercepted seven passes. With only five starters back -- a solid group led by safety Derrick Kindred and tackle Davion Pierson -- we can't just assume that TCU will continue to play like a top-10 defense and replicate the success of last year, when it forced 40 turnovers in 13 games. None of this is to say that TCU is going to take a giant step back or anything. This is a playoff contender, with a ton of talent and great coaching. But returning a proven quarterback and experience on offense doesn't make a playoff bid or a Big 12 title a slam dunk.
17. We can't talk about Baylor right now without acknowledging what's happening off the field. A cloud currently hangs over the football program and the university, and it doesn't appear that it's going to lift anytime soon. Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu, who never played a down for Baylor, was found guilty of sexual assault last Thursday. The charges stayed quiet for over a year, and Ukwuachu stayed in the mix to contribute to the Bears in 2015, should he have been cleared. He was not. The university appears to have poorly handled its own investigation into the rape, and there has been uncertainty about coach Art Briles' knowledge of Ukwuachu's past at Boise State, where he was kicked off the team before finding a second chance at Boise State. Based on what we know now, it's clear that Ukwuachu did not deserve another chance to play college football, but neither Baylor nor Boise State appears to have known the full extent of Ukwuachu's troubles when he made the move. The questions aren't going to go away.
18. On the field, Briles is still Baylor's coach, and the Bears will begin their season on Sept. 4 at SMU, with perhaps the highest expectations ever for on-field success. Baylor returns nine starters on both sides of the ball, with perhaps fewer roster questions than any team outside of Ohio State nationally. The Bears led the nation in scoring last year, and they have showed substantial progress on defense. Baylor can be better on both sides of the ball, even after the loss of quarterback Bryce Petty, and that's a scary thought. Every Briles offense is prolific, and the transition to junior quarterback Seth Russell should go smoothly, especially with a ridiculously easy first-half schedule. Baylor has one of the nation's best offensive lines, with all five starters returning, and it has the nation's top receiving corps, led by Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. Shock Linwood ran for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, and there's depth behind him at tailback. Defensively, Baylor is loaded up front with Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings leading the charge. Linebacker Taylor Young, cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Orion Stewart are all rising stars. Briles' scheme produces big numbers, but now he also has the high level of talent, at nearly every position, to take the team to another level.
19. It feels like a pivotal year for the Big 12. After having the dishonor of being the only major conference left out of the first-ever College Football Playoff, the Big 12 has spent the offseason in the news. Given that it's the only major conference without a conference title game (and thus a 13th game for the champion), and that Ohio State jumped into the playoff with a blowout win in its league championship game, it's been easy to create hysteria around the situation, wondering if the Big 12 is putting itself at a disadvantage. It was only one year, though, and a playoff bid this season could do a lot to calm people down -- temporarily, at least. Given what TCU and Baylor return to teams that just missed the playoff after one-loss regular seasons, the feeling should be optimistic, despite the offseason of panic.
20. Baylor will win the Big 12. No, there are never guarantees with a new quarterback. But reviews of Russell have been glowing, and the supporting cast is filled with proven All-Big 12-type players. The Bears have stumbled each of the last two years on the road, at Oklahoma State in 2013 and at West Virginia last year. With a tough second-half schedule -- at Kansas State, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, at TCU, Texas -- it's not hard to see this season playing out a similar fashion. Given the nonconference schedule, Baylor fans can justifiably be worried about getting left out of the playoff again. But if the Bears beat TCU, don't expect them to get left out again.