It’s a season of change in the football stadiums of the Big 12 Conference.
For the first time since going to a 10-team format, there will be a championship game, the league’s two powerhouse schools have new coaches, several teams are breaking in new quarterbacks, and everyone is trying to find their way to the ultimate prize – the four-team College Football Playoffs.
The questions are many. Can Oklahoma and Texas thrive with new leaders? Will the championship game, assured to be a rematch, help the conference or hurt it? Can anybody find a way to play any defense at all?
Here’s a snapshot of each team and a few things to look for this season:
The dumpster fire surrounding the football program’s off-the-field issues has caused image nightmares for the school that go far beyond wins and losses. To this point, the fallout from those issues has in fact not really affected the team’s record all that much.
But now with a new coaching staff in place, many recruits not coming to Waco in the aftermath of the mess and many talented veteran players now showing their talent on Sundays, it may finally catch up with the Bears in a big drop-off this season.
How fast can youngsters emerge? New coach Matt Rhule figures to have to use a good number of freshmen this year, and their development must happen quickly for them to be relevant. That’s not the best recipe for success in Power Five football.
One to Watch
It could be an interesting preseason at the quarterback position. Returnee Zach Smith impressed in last year’s Cactus Bowl win, but Anu Solomon, a graduate transfer from Arizona, will be pushing hard for time as well. Expect to see both.
Bottom three of the league, fighting for wins.
Matt Campbell’s second year at the helm for the Cyclones may be a lot like the first, as he continues to try and develop consistency in the program after a 3-9 campaign.
As is needed in this game, the Cyclones have some talent in the passing game, mainly from returning receivers Alan Lazard, who had over 1,000 yards, and DeShaunte Jones, the top freshman receiver in the conference a year ago.
The Cyclones return just two starting offensive linemen but are encouraged by several youngsters, including three redshirt freshmen who spent last year learning the system and growing, literally, into their college frames.
One to Watch
Defensive end JD Waggoner is a talented pass rusher who will be hungry after having his 2016 season cut short by an injury. The senior will be thinking not just about big plays this year but hopefully helping his chances to play on Sunday in the future.
Fighting with KU, Tech and Baylor to stay out of the Big 12 cellar.
Every time you hear head coach David Beaty talk about his Jayhawks and the hard work they’re putting in, you want to think they’re going to turn a corner. Beaty is upbeat, no-nonsense and tough, the kind of guy you pull for.
But has there been enough progress? Did last year’s last-second win against Texas do more than just put the nail in Charlie Strong’s coffin? Or is it going to be another year of bottom-feeding and getting ready for basketball season?
Non-conference games against Southeast Missouri, Central Michigan and Ohio give the Jayhawks a chance to earn some early confidence and momentum. It’d sure be helpful to get at least two of those games if not all three.
One to Watch
A vote of the league’s media tabbed junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. as the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. While this may be more of an indictment of how poorly this league plays defense, Armstrong is a talented guy who will make play after play.
Sorry, Jayhawks. Last place, maybe 9th if they can get past Baylor.
There may never again be a college football reclamation project like what Bill Snyder pulled off in the 1990s at Kansas State. He took what had historically been one of football’s worst programs and turned it into a year-in, year-out contender.
Many like the Wildcats to push near the front of this year’s Big 12 race, propelled by the leadership of the seemingly ageless (he’s actually 77) Snyder and a gritty group of players that always seem to hold up better than perhaps the recruiting rankings would say they should have.
You’ve heard this before: quarterback play is going to be huge. That’s the case for any team at any level, but what Jesse Ertz can do in stabilizing the position as the Cats battle the high-scoring, high-flying Big 12 offenses, will have a lot to say in how the season plays out.
One to Watch
D.J. Reed was one of the league’s top defensive backs a year ago and will draw plenty of tough assignments again this season. He’s a big part of what the K-State defense will be doing.
Top half of the conference, pushing for a nice bowl bid.
It’s a season of change in Norman, as Lincoln Riley takes over as head coach after Bob Stoops’ resignation in June. So for the first time in this millennium, Stoops won’t be patrolling the sidelines.
Beyond that, things look like more of the same for the Sooners. There’s a veteran playmaking quarterback working behind a physical offensive line with NFL talent. It’s a defense that matches favorably with any in the conference. And it’s a team that is used to winning for a fan base that demands nothing less than championships.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has to find a way to be great. His top three skill positions weapons from last year all are in the NFL now, and it’s going to be on him than at any point in his Sooner career to be the centerpiece of the offense.
One to Watch
Sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly didn’t take long to get in the mix in his first year in college. Now he’s a guy that figures to take another jump and become one of the great linebackers in a school that’s had a bunch of them. The Sooners figure to need a little more out of their defense this year, and while Kelly isn’t the most veteran member of the unit, he may become the most important and productive.
Contender for Big 12 title and College Football Playoff.
Mason Rudolph looks the part at quarterback as well as anyone in the country, and James Washington leads a stable of experienced and talented receivers in what could be one of college football’s most fearsome passing attacks.
The problem for the Cowboys has as much to do with history as anything. They struggle to find consistency in the biggest games – usually against in-state rival Oklahoma, who they’ve beaten just twice since back-to-back wins in 2001 and 2002. Can they leap that hurdle this year in a season the talent is there?
With the glut of skill players on offense, the question for OSU the previous two years has been its offensive line play. At times the group has been totally outplayed and put extra pressure on Rudolph. If they haven’t stepped forward this season it’s going to be impossible to beat the biggest boys on the national stage.
One to Watch
Running back Justice Hill emerged from a crowded backfield to become the top ball carrier last year. Ultimately it earned the Tulsa native freshman All-American honors, and he can give the team even another offensive dimension if his play moves forward this year.
Contender for Big 12 title and maybe the College Football Playoff, if play at the line of scrimmage improves.
The Longhorns have been such a difficult team to handicap in recent years. After only three years at the helm, the school had enough of Charlie Strong, cutting ties last year.
Strong brought in a tougher system and Texas still has the athletes and talent that seem to rival anyone in the Big 12. But it hasn’t been producing wins, as the record of just 24-26 since 2013 demonstrates. Can new man Tom Herman, who won like crazy at Houston, turn it around quickly?
Texas just got physically beaten too often even as Strong tried to move the culture in a blue collar direction. It’s Football 101, but the Longhorns have to be better on the line of scrimmage or they aren’t going anywhere. The pieces are there but can Herman get the most out of them?
One to Watch
It’ll be a tall, tall order, but if the Longhorns could somehow be competitive in a Sept. 16 primetime battle at USC, it could go a long way to building some confidence. In October, the Horns get Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home, sandwiched around the annual Red River Shootout in Dallas against Oklahoma.
Middle of the pack, shooting to be bowl eligible.
Gary Patterson teams will bring an edge, a toughness and an interest in being physical. Last season’s effort was a disappointing one by the Horned Frogs’ recent standards, particularly given that it wasn’t a deep year for the league to begin with.
This year has some importance. Is TCU a program that’s going to contend regularly for league titles and big bowl games, or just be a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack team just happy to be going bowling anywhere in December?
Nobody in the Big 12 will set any records for playing defense, but Patterson stresses it as much as anyone. If top linebacker Travin Howard and the Horned Frogs can put forth a solid effort on that side of the ball, it bolsters their hopes.
One to Watch
Remember when Kenny Hill was a Heisman candidate, lighting things up for the post-Johnny Manziel version of Texas A&M? It literally lasted about two weeks, then Hill wound up losing his job and eventually transferred to TCU. It’s now his second year guiding the Horned Frogs and he simply must be more consistent this fall.
Pushing hard for 3rd in the league, hoping for a slip by OU or OSU.
The points and yards come fast and furious in the Texas Panhandle, seemingly regardless of who is throwing and catching the ball. And the Red Raiders once again figure to have an offense that will light up the scoreboard.
They also again figure to have a porous defense. It’s led to some exciting games, but at the end of the day, a collection of mediocre seasons in the regime of coach Kliff Kingsbury, a former Red Raider quarterback (16-21 the last three years, only one bowl appearance).
Since defense may be a moot point, Tech has to outscore people. They’ll have to do it minus quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has taken his talents to the NFL. Enter Nic Shimonek, a senior who’s been around and seen what to do. It’s pretty normal for a guy we don’t know much about to light it up in Lubbock and he may be the next.
One to Watch
Keke Coutee could be the next receiver to put up eye-popping stats for the Red Raiders. He’s only 5-11 and about 170 pounds but can fly.
Many entertaining games, but a bottom half finish in the conference.
Dana Holgorsen is one of college football’s most interesting men. The Mountaineers’ head coach is a gunslinger, calling plays and getting snaps off almost as quickly as he guzzles energy drinks on the sideline.
He’s also got an intriguing team. The Mountaineers are tough to beat at home after what’s always a longer than usual trip for opponents. They have a penchant for winning a game they shouldn’t almost every year, and their offense always will make opponents uncomfortable.
Multi-year starting quarterback Skylar Howard is gone, but Holgorsen and his staff are high on Will Grier, a transfer who started his career at the University of Florida. He’s the first man up this year in Morgantown.
One to Watch
Justin Crawford had a solid junior season carrying the ball for the Mountaineers, but his role becomes even more critical this season as a cog in making Holgorsen’s offense click.
Middle of the pack, maybe pushing for 3rd or 4th if the chips fall right and Grier is productive.