As we get closer to college football's opening night on Aug. 28, all week we'll be previewing the 2014 season, conference by conference. Earlier, we covered the ACC. Today, it's 20 things to know about the Big 12.
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1. The following things happened over a brief stretch last holiday season: Texas Tech smoked Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Baylor allowed 52 points in a Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF. And Oklahoma shockingly beat Alabama by two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. They were noticeable results that told a different story than what we had seen from each team in the regular season. Using bowl games as a jumping-off point for evaluating squads the next season is always precarious business, but it doesn't mean there's no value in taking them into account. In the case of Oklahoma, yes, the Sooners are loaded with potential in 2014, most of which is tied to the rise of quarterback Trevor Knight. And much of the talk about their bowl bump ignores that, while flawed, the Sooners were good enough last season to go 11-2, make a BCS game and win games on the road at Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Oklahoma was a potential-laden team trying to find consistency. In the Sugar Bowl, it found its answers.
2. As for Baylor, there's a middle ground between the Bears who set the world on fire for two months, and the Bears who stumbled badly at Oklahoma State and lost to an underappreciated UCF team. Baylor was very, very good, but it hasn't amassed the depth of other major conference contenders. So when left tackle Spencer Drango got hurt, and when running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were sidelined, and when top deep threat Tevin Reese was knocked out, and when linebacker Bryce Hager was lost for the season … Baylor couldn't just throw future All-Americas at the problem and keep going. And it didn't help that the woeful first-half schedule generated somewhat unrealistic expectations, even if this truly has become the most entertaining team in college football.
3. It's that entertainment factor that can sometimes skew our feelings about a particular team. Hence, Texas Tech getting top-25 love in some corners entering the season. The Red Raiders aren't actually ranked in the AP or coaches' poll, but still, it's been easy to overrate them as a breakout candidate because of their style of play and what we saw most recently: a 37-23 beatdown of Pac-12 South champion Arizona State. Of course, that came after a five-game losing streak once the Big 12 schedule got tough. The defense wasn't particularly good, and it returns just four starters after ranking 82nd in sack percentage and last in the Big 12 in forced turnovers. So not only did the defense lack impact playmakers last season, but the two constants who made the offense as prolific as it was -- tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward -- are gone too. Texas Tech could take a step back before it takes a step forward.
4. There is, however, one thing to hang your hat on, one thing that makes Texas Tech so dangerous to any opponent it faces: The Davis Webb-Kliff Kingsbury marriage is going to be a prolific one. Kingsbury was the original Texas Tech pass-happy star QB over a decade ago for Mike Leach, and now, in between wearing Beyoncé shirts and flirting with recruits' moms, Kingsbury can restore Lubbock back to the golden days of the mid-2000s under Mike Leach. While only 35, Kingsbury has proven to be a brilliant football mind, and he has a good match in Webb, a sophomore who started only six games in 2013 but still threw for 2,718 yards. Texas Tech isn't ready to make a leap forward yet, but that doesn't mean the ride won't be fun.
5. Fun was what West Virginia was supposed to be, and that's what the Dana Holgorsen era was until Oct. 13, 2012, when the 5-0 Mountaineers, with Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith, were blown out by Texas Tech. Since that loss, they've gone 6-14, Holgorsen's prolific offense hitting a wall, then struggling to find a way to replace Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. That struggle will continue into 2014 for the Mountaineers. Priority No. 1 in trying to turn things around after a 4-8 season is keeping 175-pound QB Clint Trickett upright. Priority No. 2 is finding someone to consistently make plays on the outside. The running game should be fine, even without Charles Sims, as Pitt transfer Rushel Shell steps in next to senior Dreamius Smith. But after Austin and Bailey combined to catch 228 passes in 2012, nobody had more than Daikiel Shorts' 45 catches last year. The Mountaineers need a steady presence at quarterback, and to be that, Trickett needs a lot more help. The addition of longtime Penn State coordinator Tom Bradley to the defensive staff may help that side of the ball, but the Mountaineers have a long way to go. Overall, this is a thin team facing a tough schedule (Alabama, at Maryland, plus nine Big 12 games) -- just getting to six wins may be a chore.
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The Big 12's Best
1. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
2. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma
3. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State
4. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
5. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
1. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
2. Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State
3. Cedric Reed, DE, Texas
4. Sam Carter, S, TCU
5. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas
1. Davion Hall, WR, Baylor
2. Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
3. Dalvin Warmack, RB, Kansas State
4. Michiah Quick, WR, Oklahoma
5. Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
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6. It would help if West Virginia would get back to beating teams like Iowa State and Kansas. The Cyclones have their own offensive problems, which is why Paul Rhoads brought in former Kansas coach Mark Mangino to run the offense. It was a smart hire, and Mangino inherits a good deal of experienced offensive players, if nothing else, plus a possible freshman star in blue-chip wideout Allen Lazard, a 6-foot-5, 221-pounder who decided to stay home and play for Iowa State. But the addition of a talented young receiver, along with Mangino, can't fix everything yet. The entire offensive line may be back, but the Cyclones ranked 111th in sack percentage allowed and had no player average more than four yards per rush attempt. And there's still the matter of quarterback play, where neither Sam Richardson nor Grant Rohach stood out last season (Richardson was named the starter on Monday.) Bowl eligibility isn't an impossible goal, as last season's 3-9 record came with several close losses, but it appears to be another battle with Kansas to stay out of the Big 12 basement.
7. For Kansas, that means Charlie Weis is fighting for his job. Weis has always carried himself with a certain type of self-confidence (OK, arrogance), but the Kansas job has served as yet another reality check: He's 4-20 in two seasons, with wins over South Dakota, South Dakota State, Louisiana Tech (13-10) and a reeling West Virginia team late last season. A big influx of juco transfers hasn't helped, and now Weis turns to sophomore Montell Cozart at quarterback with Jake Heaps pushed out of the mix (now to Miami). Cozart completed just 23 of 63 passes for 227 yards and two picks in limited time last year, also rushing for 214 yards. He's in charge of an offense that ranked 122nd in yards per play, and while the defense has a few solid players (especially LB Ben Heeney), it's not good enough to carry to Jayhawks much farther. Four wins is probably the ceiling.
8. Four wins was a shocking floor for TCU last year, as the Horned Frogs unexpectedly bottomed out thanks to an identity-less offense and an inability to win close games (losses to Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas State and Baylor by a total of 11 points). Now, though, TCU is one of the nation's best candidates for a big leap forward into the top 25. Even with star end Devonte Fields dismissed, it's hard not to like the defense, led by tackle Chucky Hunter and safety Sam Carter. Fields was sidelined much of last season, and TCU still gave up only 4.83 yards per play -- the same as Alabama. We know Gary Patterson's defense will be just fine, because they almost always are.
9. TCU's success is ultimately in the hands of new offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, who bring their version of the Air Raid to Fort Worth. To do so, they may look to senior QB Matt Joeckel, a Texas A&M transfer who played sparingly in College Station but spent the last two years learning from the same coaching tree as his new coordinators. Regardless, his competitor Trevone Boykin will get on the field; it just may be as a hybrid type player who does a bit of everything (he caught 26 passes and had 313 rushing yards last year). The key is fixing their turnover problem, as TCU has given up that ball 59 times over two years as a member of the Big 12. If the Horned Frogs manage develop some offensive consistency that number is bound to go down, putting the defense in a position to allow them to at least double their four-win total and have their best Big 12 season to date.
10. There is an obvious preseason pecking order in the Big 12 that sees Oklahoma and Baylor at the top, and everyone else jockeying for position. Even though it has won 41 games over the last four seasons, Oklahoma State may have a tough time avoiding the league's middle tier this year. Mike Gundy has never gotten enough credit for the job he's doing in building Oklahoma State on the field, and this is the type of year where he could capture a lot of attention by winning with a team that's largely flying under the radar. Based on his track record in Stillwater, it's quite possible he'll do that. But this season appears more likely to be a rebuilding effort. The Cowboys lost seven of their top eight tacklers, an All-Big 12 quarterback in Clint Chelf, three starting offensive linemen and three of their four leading receivers. They open the season against Florida State and finish the season with road trips to Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma around a home date with Texas. The mobility of QB J.W. Walsh -- who has starting experience -- plus the potential breakout of juco transfer RB/WR Tyreek Hill gives the offense some exciting elements, and its possible a young team will build enough steam to make some noise in a backloaded Big 12 schedule. Really, though, this looks like a team that's building for another run next year.
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3. Kansas State
6. Oklahoma State
7. Texas Tech
8. West Virginia
9. Iowa State
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11. You might as well say the same for Texas. Ordinarily, a place like Texas always does expect to win right now, especially given that everyone's restless after Mack Brown went 30-21 over his last four years since losing the national title game in 2009. But Charlie Strong deserves patience. Strong himself has already acknowledged that Texas won't be winning a national title in 2014, and he followed that this summer by taking a firm stand against off-the-field problems. As has been documented throughout the offseason, Strong begins a much different attitude to Texas than Brown, who succeeded for a decade in Austin as the ultimate college football politician. Now, Strong brings a focused, aggressive, tough, defensive mindset to Longhorns football -- a change in culture that will take some getting used to within the program.
12. Does this mean Texas will go 5-7 and miss a bowl game, like it did in 2010? Of course not. Strong inherits a veteran team that first and foremost needs to stay healthy. Quarterback David Ash is back after concussion issues sidelined him for much of 2013, LB Jordan Hicks is trying to emerge as a star after two injury-shortened seasons and RB Johnathan Gray is on track for a quick return from the torn Achilles he suffered last November. This is still a talented roster, and Texas has the ability to compete with anyone in the Big 12 in any given week. Again, though, it's not going to happen overnight, even with a defense that should be much better than what we remember from last September.
13. The team with the best chance of cracking that Oklahoma-Baylor top tier is Kansas State. The Wildcats were written off early last year when they lost to North Dakota State on the opening Friday -- it turns out the Bison were really good, FCS or not -- and over the course of the season they pretty much won the games they were supposed to and lost the games they were supposed to. The result was 8-5, with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl thrashing of Michigan. Now, they return a solid quarterback in Jake Waters, who quietly averaged 9.5 yards per attempt; perhaps the Big 12's best all-around player in wideout Tyler Lockett; a rock-solid offensive line anchor in center B.J. Finney; a proven pass rusher in Ryan Mueller (11 ½ sacks); and a rising star at safety in Dante Barnett. There are building blocks here, and Bill Snyder is the type of coach who can successfully play to those strengths and make opponents uncomfortable.
14. With that said, Kansas State has a few big hurdles if it wants to live up to its sleeper contender potential. Steady chain-mover John Hubert is gone at running back, as is change-up running QB Daniel Sams, who transferred. That leaves an unclear possible rotation of running backs. Waters is the team's leading returning rusher (312); the next best was possible starting RB DeMarcus Robinson, who ran for 20 yards. Additionally, the Wildcats face a lot of turnover in their defensive back seven, highlighted by the losses of safety Ty Zimmerman and leading tackler Blake Slaughter. Still, Snyder has the core to again shoot for 10 wins, meaning everyone should pay special attention to Thursday, Sept. 18, when Auburn visits Manhattan for a prime-time showdown that's one of the season's most intriguing matchups.
15. Kansas State's road is difficult, in that in addition to hosting Auburn, it must travel to Oklahoma and Baylor. The season-ending trip to Baylor on Dec. 6 could play a crucial role in the Big 12 title race. As always, it's a matter of trying to stop Baylor, and its offense that averaged 7.5 yards per play and 52.4 points per game. Matching last year's scoring pace may be nearly impossible, but Baylor can come close. Petty is a physical force at quarterback, one who threw for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions and also ran for 14 touchdowns last season. Yes, Art Briles' offense is conducive to big numbers almost no matter who's playing quarterback, but Petty has proven to be a perfect fit, surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Recruits have understandably taken notice of how much fun it is to play in the Bears offense, giving Baylor a solid mix of veteran and young depth at the skill positions, even if they don't have a ton of depth elsewhere. We already know that Antwan Goodley is a star out wide and that Levi Norwood is reliable from the slot; this year, we'll see Linwood break out at running back after rushing for 881 yards as a freshman, and any number of young receivers could emerge too. Throw in a healthy Drango at left tackle, and Baylor's offense will continue to be perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing offense in college football -- in a more aesthetically pleasing new stadium too.
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The Big 12's Biggest Games
1. Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8
2. Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18
3. Kansas State at Oklahoma, Oct. 18
4. Oklahoma vs. Texas (at Dallas), Oct. 11
5. Kansas State at Baylor, Dec. 6
6. Oklahoma State vs. Florida State (at Arlington, Texas), Aug. 30
7. Oklahoma at TCU, Oct. 4
8. Texas vs. UCLA (at Arlington, Texas), Sept. 13
9. Baylor at Texas, Oct. 4
10. BYU at Texas, Sept. 6
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16. That means that the difference between Baylor, national title contender, and Baylor, entertaining team that loses a few games, is the rebuilding of the defense. Last year, coordinator Phil Bennett engineered an incredible turnaround, building off the 2012 upset of then-No. 1 Kansas State and somehow leaping from 94th in yards per play allowed to ninth. Sustaining that will be difficult with only three starters back. Fortunately, linebacker Hager returns after missing 2013's final four games, and the hope is that disruptive 6-foot-9 end Shawn Oakman will become a more complete player after recording 12 ½ tackles for loss in a rotational role. Baylor's defense doesn't have to be dominant; it just has to be good enough to make some stops and give the offense some breathing room.
17. So, on Oct. 8, will Baylor be able to stop Trevor Knight? The answer will likely decide the Big 12, and perhaps a playoff spot as well. Everyone knows the story by now: Knight was somewhat surprisingly named Oklahoma's starting QB last summer, only to have an uneven season in which he was in and out of the lineup. Against Alabama, of all teams, he had his breakout game, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a Sugar Bowl win. With one game, he became a Heisman candidate, and that hype may be justifiable. Everything finally clicked into place in that game, especially with Knight and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, after a frustrating regular season in which the offense appeared lost at times. A few key pieces are gone, but with Knight, a solid offensive line, a proven receiver in Sterling Shepard and a promising sophomore running back in Keith Ford (potential impact freshman RB Joe Mixon has been suspended for the season), Oklahoma has the makings of a much more consistently high-powered offense, whether or not the NCAA lets the Sooners add Dorial Green-Beckham immediately.*
*UPDATE: The NCAA denied Oklahoma's appeal, meaning Green-Beckham will not be eligible. He'll either suit up for the Sooners next season or simply declare for the NFL draft after sitting out this season.
18. Beyond that, Oklahoma has the best defense in the Big 12 -- although Texas and TCU will make an argument. Aside from losing CB Aaron Colvin, the Sooners are in good shape across the board, with Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Geneo Grissom and Chuka Ndulue generating pressure on the outside, Zack Sanchez emerging as a lockdown corner and Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander giving them a pair of quality linebackers in the middle of the field. The Oklahoma defense still has questions to answer about defending the power run, but the Big 12 isn't exactly full of teams who can do damage that way. This should be an aggressive, entertaining unit capable of making a lot of big plays.
19. Then the question becomes: Can Oklahoma -- or anyone in the Big 12 -- afford to lose a game? It's a very solid league -- especially if teams like TCU, Kansas State and Texas improve -- but dropping one game will create a lot of uncertainty for the fourth spot in the playoff field. The Big 12, this year, isn't likely to get the benefit of the doubt that the SEC , Pac-12 and Florida State will. The good news? Oklahoma has both the talent and the schedule to erase that doubt and make a run at an undefeated season.
20. Oklahoma will win the Big 12, especially because its road schedule is favorable (a tricky trip to TCU being the toughest, along with Teas Tech). Baylor will make another run with its awe-inspiring ability to score touchdowns every 12 seconds, but provided that Knight becomes the consistent playmaker he's expected to be, the Sooners are the more complete team -- and one of the most complete teams in all of college football.
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