Star Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield could lead the Sooners back to the playoff
I wrote about the Big 12 and its possible future expansion last week, and while that stuff is compelling in terms of the long-term impact on certain programs, the games themselves are why we follow the sport. Regardless of what may or may not happen with Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, etc., there’s still football to be played on the field, and thank goodness for that.
In 2015, Oklahoma withstood a bizarre upset at the hands of Texas and eventually won the conference outright, becoming the first Big 12 team to make the playoff in its brief history. TCU and Baylor had been expected to duel it out at the top again, but the injury bug struck both teams – Baylor was playing a WR as a wildcat QB because they didn’t have any left, TCU lost tons of players on the defensive side of the ball. Oklahoma State bounced back nicely from a down year and won their first ten games before losing their last three (which were their three toughest). Texas didn’t take a step forward and Charlie Strong now sits at 11-14 overall in Austin, squarely on the proverbial hot seat. The Dana Holgerson era in West Virginia might have already stalled as well.
The Big 12 is sort of expected to play out much like it did last year: Oklahoma is the favorite, returning quite a bit of a potent offense, while Oklahoma State, TCU, and Baylor are expected to challenge the Sooners – though Baylor has been thrown into turmoil because of unreported sexual assault claims (they already fired Art Briles, the only great football coach they’ve ever had because of his role in the scandal). Some team will probably surge forward from the middle of the pack, but each have unresolved questions that could submarine their seasons. Predicting history to repeat itself in a sport as volatile as college football is a fool’s errand, but that might be what it looks like on paper.
[Team previews after the JUMP]
RB Samaje Perine holds the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a game
Bob Stoops shuffled the deck a little bit after suffering a disappointing five loss season in 2015; new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley struck gold with Baker Mayfield (and his connection with then-senior WR Sterling Shepherd) and things clicked for Oklahoma again. Ultimately a not-that-competitive loss in the playoff semifinal to Clemson was a disappointing end to the season, but the Sooners were playing as well as anyone in November and had – by all reasonable measures – what amounted to a pretty successful year in Norman. With the experience returning on both sides of the ball, OU should again contend for a playoff bid, but this time their merits will be determined fairly early: they play at Houston (in the Texans’ stadium) to open the year, host Ohio State, and travel to TCU within the first month of the season (the game against TCU is technically on October 1st).
While Oklahoma does have some substantial personnel losses, quarterback Baker Mayfield should ease the transition. The former Texas Tech Red Raider transferred within the conference and had a surprising debut season for his new school – 3,700 yards passing and 36 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions is impressive enough, but they came with 405 rushing yards (including sacks) and 7 more touchdowns on the ground. He thrived in Riley’s wide-open, pass-happy offense, and even though he’s breaking in some new receivers, Dede Westbrook has the look of a guy who could possibly replace former #1 target Shepherd. They have the luxury of having two great running backs in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon – Perine is a strong, capable workhorse back who’s put up gaudy numbers in Norman, Mixon would start for most teams in college football. OU does replace two key interior linemen, but returns two promising, young starting tackles.
The defense is less certain. Several cornerstones of a very good pass defense – edge rushers Charles Tapper and Eric Striker (who combined for 29 TFL and 14.5 sacks last year), and Zack Sanchez, a multi-year starter who had 7 interceptions at corner in 2015) – have departed, leaving Oklahoma likely to have a much less fearsome pass rush than they did a year ago. That should produce ripple effects over the rest of the defense, which will be forced to play some inexperienced linebackers. The defensive tackle tandem of Charles Walker and Matt Dimon is very solid – the strength of the Sooner defense – and they should be able to hold up decently against the run. The secondary returns almost everybody outside of Sanchez, though they’ll be leaned on more heavily unless a legitimate pass rush option emerges.
As long as Mayfield is playing, OU will be an extremely tough out. Even if the defense can’t quite get it together right away, which is a distinct possibility, they have to avoid getting run off the field by one of the high-powered offenses they face early in the year. Still, the Sooners will likely have one of the best offenses in college football, and that’s a great place to start if you’re gunning for a Big 12 title. Oklahoma really challenged itself with its non-conference schedule in 2016, so it would be quite a feat to match last year’s one-loss regular season. If they make it through that tough first month unscathed, they’ll be on the fast-track to a consecutive playoff bid.
Former safety Travin Howard was forced to move to linebacker, where he excelled
In TCU’s first two seasons in the Big 12, they went a combined 11-14 and Gary Patterson, who’s one of the longest-tenured coaches in the country at this point, hired two new offensive co-coordinators – Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie – to build an offense to complement his typically stingy signature 4-2-5 defense. The move worked out wonderfully: they almost (and arguably should have) come out of nowhere to get a playoff bid in 2014 and posted a combined 23-3 record in the past two seasons combined. Considering that Patterson led TCU to eight double-digit win seasons (and an undefeated 2010 with a Rose Bowl win) before entering the Big 12, it almost feels like he picked up where he left off after that early transitional blip.
While the Frogs ultimately fell short of very lofty aspirations in 2015, they still finished just a game behind Oklahoma – after losing a late-season heartbreaker in Norman (TCU came down from 30-13 to get it to 30-29 with a two-point conversion pending in the last minute, and didn’t get it). According to Wikipedia, they played without star QB Trevone Boykin and star WR Josh Doctson as well as “4 of their 6 top wide receivers, 2 of their 6 top offensive linemen, one starting defensive end, two starting linebackers, their starting free safety, one starting cornerback, and their starting long snapper. Additional early-season losses had also depleted the Frogs' depth.” Their injury luck pretty much killed any shot they had of following up that stellar 2014 season with an even better one.
They kept Meacham and Cumbie, which is pretty important considering the turnover on the offensive side of the ball. Their top three skill position players – dynamic QB Trevone Boykin, solid RB Aaron Green, and electric WR Josh Doctson – are gone, as well as four starting offensive linemen, three of whom earned some form of All-Conference honors. They add former Texas A&M starting QB and erstwhile September Heisman winner Kenny “Trill” Hill and the fit should be great, as Hill can add a nice complement to the running backs much like Boykin did. TCU, like many others in the conference, loves to air it out, and their best receiving option might be sophomore slot KaVonte Turpin. Of course, the offensive line needs to answer its many questions, though they do return two tackles with starting experience (RT Aviante Collins started mostly back in 2012 and 2013 before being beaten out).
The defense should be great. The silver lining of last year’s spate of injuries is that the Frogs have experience across the two-deep at most positions – they have two defensive ends in Josh Carraway and James McFarland that can harass the passer, they have a ton of linebackers to fit in that 4-2-5, and they have seasoned players as the box safeties and corners. The defense had some terrible games last year – conceded 52 to Texas Tech, 49 to Oklahoma State, 45 to Kansas State, and 41 to Oregon – but TCU won three of those four. TCU will likely flip from having an offense to having a better defense, but if Hill excels in his new setting, they’ll probably be in the playoff conversation. A week two game against Arkansas – a great matchup – should be a valuable litmus test.
“I’m a man! I’m [now forty-eight]!”
Dyed-in-the-wool Oklahoma State Man* Mike Gundy is entering his twelfth season as the head man in Stillwater – he continued Les Miles’s program-building and has established OSU as something more substantial than they’ve been for most of their football history. It seemed as if his breakthrough – a conference title in 2011, a year in which Oklahoma State was passed over for the SEC’s second-best team in the BCS title game – was in the rearview mirror: the Cowboys went a combined 25-14 from 2012-2014, good, but below Gundy’s standard. They rebounded nicely for an unexpected runner-up season in the Big 12 in 2015 and earned a New Year’s Six bowl appearance, although they were smoked by hated rival Oklahoma in the season finale and then smoked again by Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. Still, 2015 was definitely a step in the right direction and an affirmation that Gundy gets [goat emoji] status in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State deployed a quarterback tandem last season: essentially Mason Rudolph threw the ball, and J.W. Walsh was a dual threat (13 touchdowns passing, 13 touchdowns rushing). Since Walsh was such an integral piece of the running game – and since he graduated, leaving Rudolph as the clear-cut #1 – it’s easy to project Oklahoma State as an extremely pass-heavy team (the run offense was terrible), especially with the lack of proven running back options. Barry Sanders Jr. didn’t make much of an impact in his four years at Stanford, but he was stuck behind Christian McCaffery and other good backs for most of his career. Two of the three most heavily-targeted receivers will be back, and James Washington and Marcell Ateman could be the best receiver tandem in the conference. With a very experienced offensive line, Oklahoma State might be even better on offense this year, though Walsh is a big loss in terms of dynamic playmaking.
All-American pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah (and valuable complement bookend Jimmy Bean) are gone to the NFL, so the strength of what was OSU defense’s best attribute by a wide margin – their ability to pressure the QB – will be greatly diminished. DT Vincent Taylor got decent numbers for the position, but the attention given to Ogbah probably helped him a ton. The good news is that most of the rest of the defense is back, so if the Cowboy’s can improve on the back end, they shouldn’t have much of a drop-off in sum. LB Jordan Burton and safeties Jordan Sterns and Tre Flowers were the most productive back seven players for Oklahoma State last season. OSU faces Pitt and Baylor in weeks three and four so they likely won’t be ripping off a 10-0 start to the season again, but they should be hanging around the Big 12 race until the Bedlam game in December against OU.
*Do other schools do this too?
The explosive KD Cannon will see plenty of targets as Baylor’s #1 receiver
At Baylor, football seems secondary to larger issues. Over the last few months, as a particularly disturbing sexual assault cover-up scandal emerged, the university president and athletic director were removed, as was Art Briles – the coach who’d carried Baylor to its greatest heights on the field and evidently didn’t take sexual assault claims seriously enough off the field. It’s not within the NCAA’s scope of limited powers to punish Baylor for its transgressions, so the show must go on for a team that was projected to be the most serious challenger to Oklahoma before the fallout from the Hamilton report. Jim Grobe – the former longtime Wake Forest coach – is in as the interim head coach and he retains his assistant coaching staff (though if they’ll be around for more than this upcoming season is still an open question). Much of the incoming freshman class fled to other schools. Some players have transferred out. Baylor seemed like a pretty stable program before all of this came to light, but now their future is obviously quite uncertain.
Last season seems like a distant memory, but it wasn’t a pleasant one for Baylor – they suffered a ton of injuries, particularly at quarterback, and wound up finishing 10-3, which was somewhat short of expectations. If the offense can stay healthy this season, it will be potent: Seth Russell was putting up video game numbers early on before suffering a neck injury, Shock Linwood is probably the best running back behind Perine in the Big 12 and his backup Johnny Jefferson is a great complement, and even though sensational receiver Corey Coleman is gone to the NFL, K.D. Cannon will surely provide some of the game-breaking ability at receiver. Even though offense was Briles’s background, his son Kendal is still the offensive coordinator, so there should be continuity there. The most uncertain element of the offense is the line, where there will be four new starters.
The Bears’ cornerstone on defense was an amazing nose tackle, Andrew Billings, and he’s now off to the NFL. There’s not much experience up front, which could prove to be a huge problem with the amount of snaps each defensive lineman will likely be playing. Baylor’s defense has improved over the last couple years from really terrible to pretty decent, and the secondary should be a strength in their 4-2-5 alignment. If the defensive line can hold up against the run and generate a pass rush (big ifs), Baylor could very well be in for a Big 12 title run – their offense should be great again, and they have enough playmakers at the second level of the defense (linebackers and box safeties) to get the ball back to that high-powered offense. The scope and magnitude of the scandal is what should be getting our attention, but Baylor could have an underrated team on the field.
The Rich Rodriguez parallels with the Charlie Strong era are too strong to ignore
After going 23-3 over two seasons at Louisville, Charlie Strong was one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country; eventually he took one of the elite jobs in college football – though he might have severely underestimated the comprehensiveness of the rebuilding process. In his two seasons at Texas, the Longhorns have gone 11-14 and the inevitable “hot seat” talk swirls incessantly around Strong. It’s been a disappointing tenure thus far – with severe dysfunction on the side of the ball opposite Strong’s expertise – but he’s a good coach and could salvage things. If every blue-blood program goes through their down cycles, Texas is going through one right now.
Strong isn’t to blame for all of it, but if there isn’t significant improvement this year, it wouldn’t be a shock to have them fire Strong and set up a successor with a much better roster in 2017 than there’s been in Austin in a little while now. Not taking a meaningful step forward in year two is what leaves him in this position. 2015 was a bizarre year for Texas: they gave Oklahoma their only regular season loss and they beat Baylor (who was down to a WR at QB because of injury, but still); they narrowly lost two shootouts at home to Cal and Texas Tech; they were obliterated by Notre Dame, TCU, and Iowa State(!) by a combined score of 112-10. They finished 5-7 and didn’t get invited to a bowl game.
Fixing the disastrous offense will require finding a quarterback: the candidates are Jerod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, big dual-threat QBs with some experience, and true freshman Shane Buechele – that Buechele could very well win the job should tell you a lot about Heard and Swoopes. A new offensive coordinator, one of many in Strong’s tenure, should improve things, because it was pretty terrible last year. An inexperienced defense was so-so last year and while there are a few notable losses, there are some young returning starters who could potentially develop into stars in time – like sophomore LB Malik Jefferson. With Notre Dame on the schedule again, Texas will have a season opener that should tell us a lot about Texas – last year, it portended doom. Since they also face Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks to open Big 12 play, the offense needs to improve quickly.
Predictably, Texas Tech has a QB (Patrick Mahomes) that can really sling it
SBN Nation’s Ryan Nanni recently called Indiana “Texas Tech with a puffy coat” and since a Big Ten fan is probably more familiar with Indiana’s insane, pants-on-fire brand of great, open offense and no defense whatsoever, it’s an accurate comparison. Texas Tech went 7-6 in 2015 and the point totals surrendered in losses were absurd: 55, 63, 63, 70, 31 (great job), and 56. Granted, Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid rung up some numbers as well, but a defense as poor as last season’s is simply untenable for a team aspiring for more than a middle of the pack finish. They have a new defensive coordinator and even though they’re replacing a lot in the front seven, a regression to the mean has to be on the horizon. If not, they’ll be the Big 12 stereotype typified once again – elite offense, horrendous defense.
The Red Raiders will have a phenomenal offense in 2016, mostly because of QB Patrick Mahomes, who threw for over 4,500(!) yards last season and accounted for 46 total touchdowns. He will be without running back DeAndre Washington and slot receiver Jakeem Grant – both of whom accounted for well over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, respectively – but Justin Stockton did well in limited carries last season and Mahomes has a solid rapport with several returning receivers. The offensive line will be without 1st-Team All-Big 12 left tackle Le’Raven Clark as well as some other starting linemen, but the scheme that Tech employs can often mitigate inexperienced or weak offensive lines by getting the ball into space quickly. Mahomes is perhaps the best under-the-radar quarterback in all of college football (and would surely be a great pick in a college fantasy football league), but he can only do so much; with a decent defense, Texas Tech could get to ten wins, which would require unfathomable improvement.
QB Skyler Howard will be crucial to the Mountaineer offense
WVU in the Big 12 might be the oddest fit of any team in a major conference; every league foe is over a half-day’s drive away and there’s no history between the Mountaineers and any other Big 12 team. In their last season before the Big East crumbled (also Dana Holgerson’s first season in Morgantown), they went 10-3 and won a BCS bowl. Since joining the Big 12, it hasn’t been as easy – 26-25 total (15-21 in conference play) over four years is enough to cast serious doubt on Holgerson’s ability to be competitive in the conference. In 2015, West Virginia suffered the misfortune of having their four toughest games in their first four weeks of conference play – they lost all four, including three blowouts at the hands of Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. An exciting shootout win against Arizona State in the bowl game provided some good feelings headed into the offseason, especially because of QB Skyler Howard’s 532 passing yards and 5 touchdowns.
Any Holgerson team will need success in the passing game, and Howard is a seasoned dual-threat starter – though one who threw 14 interceptions and took 31 sacks a year ago. He’s joined by Rushel Shell in the backfield, a now-senior who’s waited his turn to be the number one option at running back. Shelton Gibson, Daikiel Shorts, and Jovon Durante were the most heavily targeted receivers in 2015 and they all return. Four of five offensive linemen return and even though they conceded quite a few sacks, WVU was able to effectively run the ball so there’s some trade-off there. Former Michigan assistant Tony Gibson is Holgerson’s DC and runs an attacking 3-3-5 scheme. The defense wasn’t great after star safety Karl Joseph was hurt and they must replace all three starting linebackers and both starting corners. WVU’s schedule sets up more favorably this year, but progress seems to have stagnated in the program and Holgerson probably needs to have a surprisingly successful year to feel secure.
Legendary coach Bill Snyder had a rough 2015 season
After starting the season 3-0 against weaker teams, Kansas State dropped its first six Big 12 games en route to a 6-7 season capped by a blowout bowl loss to Arkansas. That the Wildcats needed to eke out narrow wins over Iowa State and West Virginia at home (by a combined four points) was alarming – Bill Snyder’s been solid at KSU but there’s always the lingering wonder if a one-year slide signals The End for him. They couldn’t pass the ball last season – Joe Hubener completed fewer than half of his passes, threw more touchdowns than interceptions, and even though he led the team in rushing, there’s still quite a bit of concern there. The offensive line is losing a lot, and there weren’t any notable skill position playmakers last season. The defense gave up a ton of big plays, but they do have some more experience this season. It would be nice to see KSU surprise to the positive – it’s just hard to find evidence to suggest that they might. Of course, that’s how Snyder’s done it for most of his career.
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Since this is running long, I won’t dwell on Iowa State and Kansas. ISU hired Matt Campbell, formerly of Toledo, to undertake a significant building process in Ames. Kansas went 0-12 last season, and are still Kansas.