With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 20 things to know about the Big 12.
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1. After a six-year absence, the Big 12 Championship Game has returned. The race to get there will have a different feel, with a 10-team conference, no divisions and a round-robin regular-season schedule that guarantees a rematch in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 2. Bedlam has decided the Big 12 two years in a row, games both easily won by Oklahoma. To try to avoid playing the same game in consecutive weeks -- there's a decent chance Bedlam will involve the best two teams again -- OU-OSU has moved up to Nov. 4, rather than playing in the final week. Oklahoma State has high hopes of winning the Big 12, but to do so, it's possible it will have to beat the rival Sooners not only once, but twice. For all the success of the Mike Gundy era, his Cowboys have won Bedlam only twice in 12 years.
2. Bedlam moved to center stage the past few years, but for much of the first Big 12 title game era, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry served as a play-in game out of the Big 12 South: Either the Sooners or Longhorns represented the South in each of the last 12 championship games. As it enters a new era, the possibility now exists for the Red River Showdown to decide the Big 12 as a whole, twice per year. For the first time since 1997, neither Mack Brown nor Bob Stoops will be involved in coaching the OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl stadium, after Stoops' unexpected mid-offseason retirement. The rivalry is left in the hands of two rising stars in coaching: 33-year-old Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and 42-year-old Texas coach Tom Herman. Elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach after back-to-back Big 12 titles, with a returning star quarterback, Riley steps into a better immediate situation, but Herman gives Texas confidence that it can catch back up to the Sooners quickly. A Red River rematch in Arlington probably won't happen in Year 1, but it's bound to happen very soon.
3. One of the baffling parts of the Charlie Strong era at Texas was how far the defense fell. Strong's first defense in 2014 finished eighth nationally in yards per play allowed despite the team's 6-7 record. Defense is Strong's specialty, and yet the Longhorns dropped to 70th and 60th the past two years. Yes, they were still in the middle of the pack in the Big 12, but it was unquestionably a disappointment. New coordinator Todd Orlando, who did a fantastic job under Herman at Houston, does inherit a potentially good situation, though. Texas' defense has been young, and the Longhorns return 13 of their top 15 tacklers, including standout LB Malik Jefferson. Texas' defensive front could quickly become excellent, but it will also be tested early with three of the first seven games against Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph -- three of the nation's top quarterbacks. The pairing of Orlando and the rising talent could result in a swift turnaround, but the schedule won't make things easy.
4. After showing an up-tempo spark to start the 2016 season, Texas offense ended up eighth in the Big 12 in yards per play, as Shane Buechele's debut season had predictable freshman inconsistency at quarterback and the offense revolved around feeding 2,000-yard rusher D'Onta Foreman as much as possible. Few coaches have a better reputation on offense than Herman, and while Foreman is gone and the line needs some improvement, there are also pieces in place for a fairly quick turnaround. Connor Williams might be the nation's top lineman, Chris Warren has flashed potential at tailback and Devin Duvernay is due for a breakout at receiver. Is Buechele the answer at quarterback in Herman's system? He completed 60.4 percent for 2,958 yards and 21 TDs and rushed for 161 yards as a freshman, and while new freshman Sam Ehlinger could push him, Buechele is a solid bet for a leap forward as a sophomore with Herman's guidance. For all the immediate excitement about Herman, realistically, Texas' goals should be trying to get back into the top 25 in 2017, then aiming for the Big 12 title in 2018. Herman can close the gap with Oklahoma, but snapping out of seven years of mediocrity won't happen instantly.
5. Texas Tech has become one of college football's most predictable teams, which is bad news for the future of the Kliff Kingsbury era. Kingsbury is 24-26 in four seasons. Over the past two years, the Red Raiders are 12-13 despite ranking second and fifth in scoring, as they've ranked 125th and 128th in points allowed. Bad defense has outweighed prolific offense: Four of those 13 losses came in games in which Texas Tech scored over 50 points. (Nobody else the past two years had more than one such game.) The Red Raiders have been burned both by opposing running games and passing games, and while they should improve at least a little bit this season, those gains could be offset by the loss of QB Patrick Mahomes on offense. Senior Nic Shimonek will surely put up big numbers and Texas Tech will continue to score plenty of points, but Mahomes was a first-round pick, and the Red Raiders also lost top receiver Jonathan Giles to a transfer. Making matters worse, the Red Raiders play both Arizona State (who scored 68 against them last year) and Houston in nonconference play. It's hard to be optimistic about significant growth on defense until we actually see it, so it's hard to be confident about Texas Tech's 2017 chances.
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All-Big 12 Team
QB: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
RB: Justice Hill, Oklahoma State
RB: Kyle Hicks, TCU
WR: James Washington, Oklahoma State
WR: Allen Lazard, Iowa State
TE: Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
OL: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
OL: Dalton Risner, Kansas State
OL: Connor Williams, Texas
OL: Kyle Bosch, West Virginia
OL: Bobby Evans, Oklahoma
DE: Dorance Armstrong, Kansas
DE: K.J. Smith, Baylor
DT: Will Geary, Kansas State
DT: Daniel Wise, Kansas
LB: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
LB: Malik Jefferson, Texas
LB: Travin Howard, TCU
CB: D.J. Reed, Kansas State
CB: Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma
S: Tre Flowers, Oklahoma State
S: Dravon Askew-Henry, West Virginia
K: Clayton Hatfield, Texas Tech
P: Michael Dickson, Texas
AP: KaVontae Turpin, Kansas State
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6. The Matt Campbell era got off to a rough start with a loss to Northern Iowa, an FCS team, and a 42-3 loss to rival Iowa, but Iowa State appears to be heading in the right direction. Keep that in proper context, of course: This is Iowa State, which has appeared in the final AP poll twice ever and hasn't won more than seven games since 2000. This is a difficult job, and the hope is to consistently get to the postseason. The Cyclones' chances shouldn't be dismissed this year. While they went just 3-9 last year, they lost tight games to Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma before trouncing Texas Tech 66-10. They have a star receiver in Allen Lazard, a solid group of running backs and a QB, Georgia transfer Jacob Park, who showed positive signs late in the season. This team will probably upset somebody in the Big 12. Is that enough to get to six wins? Probably not yet, especially with five Big 12 road games, but Campbell is delivering renewed optimism.
7. Kansas has not defeated an FBS team in regulation since Nov. 8, 2014, but the hope is that last year's overtime win over Texas marked a turning point as David Beaty continues to try to rescue the Jayhawks from the mess left by Charlie Weis. Beaty went 0-12 in his debut season, then finished 2-10 last year, beating the Longhorns and Rhode Island. The Jayhawks were clearly more competitive in 2016, and that sets up another small step forward in 2017. Of course, it's hard to overstate how bad things had gotten, so a step forward still likely means only three or four wins, with any Big 12 victory qualifying as an upset. The Jayhawks have a manageable nonconference schedule -- Southeast Missouri, Central Michigan, Ohio -- five Big 12 homes games, decent experience on offense and a legitimately good defensive line featuring Dorance Armstrong and Daniel Wise. Two years ago, there was almost nothing positive to say, as Beaty took on a daunting challenge. This season would be a success if Kansas wins multiple Big 12 games for the first time since 2008.
8. Matt Rhule faces many of his own challenges at Baylor, as he tries to navigate the Bears forward in the aftermath of a scandal that cost head coach Art Briles -- who built the program from a Big 12 also-ran into a power -- his job. Under acting coach Jim Grobe, Baylor started 6-0 last year, then lost six games in a row before ending on a high note with a decisive Cactus Bowl win over Boise State. Given his lack of ties to the state of Texas and his differencing preferences on offense, Rhule was in some ways a surprise choice. However, especially given the circumstances of the scandal, Baylor couldn't have hired a better football coach than Rhule. A rising star who led Temple to a 20-8 record over the past two years, including an AAC championship, Rhule was sure to be mentioned for many Power Five jobs moving forward. There are adjustments to be made in moving to a school like Baylor in the state of Texas, given Rhule's previous experience, but he's an effective, talented coach who has also proven to be a good fit off the field.
9. Rhule gives Baylor a big reason for long-term optimism, but expectations have to be tempered in the short-term. Baylor experienced significant attrition amid the scandal, leaving depth thin in many places, particularly the offensive line. With a lot of youth on the depth chart, the Bears' fortunes could come down to injury luck. Additionally, they have to adjust to the new offensive scheme after years of Briles' explosive attack that spread the field and defined the program. Sophomore Zach Smith, who ended last year as the starting QB, has to fend off Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon and true freshman Charlie Brewer, and for the first time in a while, the receiving corps won't be among the best in the Big 12. A stellar defense, a productive running back in Terence Williams (who will miss a few weeks with a shoulder injury) and a manageable schedule (Liberty, UTSA and Duke out of conference) put another postseason trip well within reach, but there will surely be some bumps in the transition to the new staff.
10. It's been a season and a half since we've seen Will Grier take a snap, but the Florida transfer is ready to go as West Virginia attempts to duplicate last year's 10-win season. A prolific high school quarterback who was a four-star recruit, Grier looked like the possible solution to Florida's QB problems in 2015, completing 65.5 percent for 1,202 yards, 10 TDs and three INTs in six games to start the season. But a PED suspension ended his season early, threw Florida's QB situation back into flux and resulted in him transferring to West Virginia to play for Dana Holgorsen. Expectations are high for Grier, and he'll be paired with a productive running back in Justin Crawford, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry as a juco transfer. There are a few questions for this offense to answer, though: Three starting lineman are gone, including star center Tyler Orlosky, and top receivers Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts are lost. The offense will also transition to a new play-caller in Jake Spavital, a Holgorsen protégé who was on the West Virginia staff from 2011-12, then coordinated offenses at Texas A&M and Cal before returning to Morgantown to be handed the play-calling torch from Holgorsen.
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Top 15 Games
1. Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9
2. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 4
3. Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 14
4. Texas at USC, Sept. 16
5. Oklahoma at Kansas State, Oct. 21
6. Kansas State at Oklahoma State, Nov. 18
7. Oklahoma State at Texas, Oct. 21
8. West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 3
9. TCU at Oklahoma, Nov. 11
10. Kansas State at Texas, Oct. 7
11. Baylor at TCU, Nov. 24
12. Oklahoma State at West Virginia, Oct. 28
13. TCU at Oklahoma State, Sept. 23
14. Oklahoma at Baylor, Sept. 23
15. Maryland at Texas, Sept. 2
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11. Tony Gibson has become the best defensive coordinator in the Big 12, but he faces a second straight rebuilding job with his West Virginia defense. Last year's defense lost 10 of its top 15 tacklers, plus safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who missed the season with an injury. The defense ended up getting better anyway, allowing a Big-12 best 24.1 points per game in conference play. Now, Askew-Henry is back to boost the secondary, but the Mountaineers lose nine of 2016's top 13 tacklers. Gibson has proven himself as an exceptional coordinator in a conference filled with high-powered offenses. The 2017 season still represents a tall task, with key losses especially at cornerback (including star Rasul Douglas) and defensive end. There is and should be excitement about what Grier brings to the table in potentially upgrading the West Virginia passing game, but the rest of the roster is going to take a step back, after a season that featured a 10-3 record slightly skewed by a 4-0 record in games decided by four points or less (the Mountaineers were 0-3 against teams that finished ranked, losing by at least 17 in each).
12. The rise of Trevone Boykin combined with the introduction of an Air Raid-style offense led to a 23-3 TCU record in 2014-15, as the Horned Frogs emphatically showed they could compete with the best of the Big 12. Last year, without Boykin and WR Josh Doctson, the Horned Frogs were inconsistent, struggling to put together consecutive strong performances, with Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill replacing Boykin. Like he did at Texas A&M, Hill showed flashes of big-time ability, but he ended up completing 61.1 percent for 3,208 yards, 17 TDs and 13 INTs, as TCU finished eighth in the Big 12 in yards per play against conference opponents. The seesaw season featured a heartbreaking loss to Arkansas; close losses to Oklahoma and Texas Tech; blowout losses to West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State (the latter two featuring six points each); a close win over Kansas; and blowout wins over Baylor and Texas. TCU struggled to put together complete games in 2016 in a forgettable 6-7 season, putting a lot of pressure on Hill and offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who's elevated to main play-caller with Doug Meacham now at Kansas, to recapture the explosiveness of 2014-15.
13. TCU's experience level makes it a sleeper Big 12 contender, but its road schedule stands in the way. Hill is surrounded by enticing weapons, including speedy all-purpose playmaker KaVontae Turpin, Taj Williams, John Diarse and Shaun Nixon, who returns from an injury. Hill is also flanked by a proven, versatile running back in Kyle Hicks, and they're operating behind a veteran offensive line. With a healthier receiving corps, there's little doubt that TCU will improve on offense. The defense also returns a ton of experience, at least in the back seven (led by CB Ranthony Texada, S Nick Orr and LBs Travin Howard and Ty Summers), as it also tries to recover from a frustrating year. The key is rebuilding the D-line as quickly as possible and replenishing the pass rush. There's a lot to like here, but the Horned Frogs have to play at Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma, with six road trips to Power Five opponents in total.
14. Don't bet against Bill Snyder having one more big run in him. The 77-year-old Snyder is back again despite a bout with throat cancer, and his Kansas State team owns increasingly high expectations. Last year's Wildcats rather quietly bounced back from 6-7 to 9-4, shrugging off a 3-3 start to win six of their last seven games, including the Texas Bowl against Texas A&M. Kansas State's offensive line and run game were significantly improved, while the defense gave up 11 fewer points per game in nine conference games than it did in 2015. While there are holes to fill on defense, Kansas State has building blocks in DT Will Geary, DE Reggie Walker and CB D.J. Reed. The schedule isn't bad, either, with the nonconference road trip at Vanderbilt instead of last year's opener at Stanford.
15. The biggest key for Kansas State is a healthy Jesse Ertz returning at quarterback behind an underrated offensive line. It was easy to miss that Ertz was one of five quarterbacks to rush for 1,000 yards in 2016, joining Lamar Jackson, Quinton Flowers, Nick Fitzgerald and Will Worth. Ertz missed 2015 with a torn ACL and had shoulder trouble last year, but he rushed for 1,012 yards and 12 TDs and passed for 1,755 yards and nine TDs. If his shoulder is healthy, he'll become more of a passing threat with the help of a solid receiving corps led by Byron Pringle. Plus, sophomore RB Alex Barnes emerged as a potential breakout player late last season. Add it all up, and this is capable of being a dangerously efficient Kansas State offense -- which is typical of Snyder teams that have veteran QBs.
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1. Oklahoma 11-1 (9-0)
2. Oklahoma State 10-2 (7-2)
3. Kansas State 9-3 (6-3)
4. Texas 8-4 (6-3)
5. TCU 7-5 (4-5)
6. West Virginia 6-6 (4-5)
7. Baylor 6-6 (3-6)
8. Texas Tech 4-8 (3-6)
9. Iowa State 4-8 (2-7)
10. Kansas 3-9 (1-8)
Conference Championship: Oklahoma over Oklahoma State
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16. Few teams can match the firepower of the Oklahoma State offense. What could have been a rebuilding season instead turned into a year with some of the highest expectations in school history thanks to the return of QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington, both potential first-round picks in next year's draft. Rudolph threw for 4,091 yards, 28 TDs and four INTs last year. Washington had 71 catches for 1,380 yards and 10 TDs. They're both capable of All-America campaigns. They're supported by the nation's deepest receiving corps, with Marcell Ateman back from injury, Tyron Johnson eligible after transferring from LSU and Jalen McCleskey and Chris Lacy both back after productive seasons. Throw in a rising star in sophomore RB Justice Hill -- 1,142 yards as a freshman -- and what was already a big-play offense is about to get even more dangerous following a 10-win campaign.
17. Oklahoma State hopes to fill key holes with veteran transfers: offensive tackle Aaron Cochran (Cal) and cornerback Adrian Baker (Clemson). Cochran may be charged with protecting Rudolph's blind side, while Baker steps into a significant position of need at cornerback after the team finished 81st in defensive passer rating nationally. Ultimately, the offensive line should be fine, a fairly experienced group that also gets Larry Williams back from an injury. The biggest questions are on defense, where standout safety Jordan Sterns and tackle Vincent Taylor are among the losses. The Cowboys didn't defend the run well last year, either, so there's room for improvement all around if this team is to take a step up from Big 12 contender to actually knocking Oklahoma off its throne.
18. Bob Stoops won nearly 80 percent of his games at Oklahoma, capturing a national title and 10 Big 12 championships. In 18 seasons, his teams never missed a bowl, won at least 10 games 14 times and finished in the AP top 10 on 11 occasions. Sure, there were a few stumbles in big games, but Stoops quickly revived Oklahoma from a down period in the 1990s, re-established it as a consistent national power and sustained success for most of two decades. Stoops is almost irreplaceable, and his sudden retirement and handoff to a 33-year-old first-time head coach in the middle of the offseason creates plenty of questions. If Stoops wanted to step down, though, he leaves at an ideal time for Oklahoma to undergo a smooth transition. New head coach Lincoln Riley broke the Sooners out of a stagnant period on offense, directing units that scored 43 points per game and won Big 12 titles in each of his first two years on staff. His Air Raid background has also proved to be an ideal fit for QB Baker Mayfield, who has thrown for 7,665 yards, 76 TDs and only 15 INTs the past two years, earning top-four Heisman finishes each time. Riley is back for Year 3 with a superstar quarterback, who will be protected by the nation's best offensive line, and the defense returns nine of its top 13 tacklers. Riley has a lot to prove as a long-term head coach, but circumstances are favorable for Riley to have a successful debut.
19. Oklahoma is a playoff contender, depending on a few hurdles. Fortunately, the Sooners won't drop multiple nonconference games like last year, since they play UTEP and Tulane instead of Houston. They do, however, have to make a return trip to fellow playoff contender Ohio State, which beat the Sooners 45-24 in Norman last September. They also play at both Oklahoma State and Kansas State and, as usual, meet Texas on a neutral field, so they could play their four biggest games away from home. They'll do this while having to replace the prolific running back tandem of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, plus Heisman finalist wideout Dede Westbrook. Oklahoma recruits at a high level and has some exciting options -- including Rodney Anderson, Abdul Adams and Trey Sermon at running back -- but Mayfield isn't going to have as much help, even if he has an excellent line to rely on. Defensively, Oklahoma fell from 15th to 80th in yards per play last year. Their pass rush should improve, and they need to find more consistency in the secondary. While the offense will continue to be among the nation's most productive, playoff hopes hinge on Oklahoma's defense returning to the form we saw in much of 2015's playoff run.
20. Oklahoma is the best bet to win the Big 12, although it's hard to shake the feeling that the reintroduction of a conference championship game will backfire on the league's national title hopes. We've seen it before, and it's inevitable that a conference title game upset will dash a conference's playoff chances before long. Oklahoma ran the table after losing to Houston and Ohio State last year, but it wasn't enough for a playoff bid. Can it run the table again if it loses to Ohio State? This year, that would require 10 conference wins. Oklahoma State has the ability to take down the Sooners at least once, Kansas State is going to be a tough out and Texas gave OU plenty of trouble even during its worst times the past few years. The unknown supporting cast raises big questions, but the foundation of Riley calling plays for Mayfield behind Orlando Brown and this OU offensive line gives Oklahoma a good chance to make a second playoff trip in three seasons despite the rising expectations of its two top rivals.
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