College football is all about building a story of wins, strength of schedule, and conference championships. In order to unlock each team’s future, it can be helpful to take a look at an individual team as a whole by examining their past and present successes and shortcomings. One thing’s for sure, the Big 12 football conference has plenty of storylines and intrigue for the upcoming 2017 season. Let’s dive into some of those key storylines for each team and put them into context. Hopefully this will differentiate between the fan bases who should look to make their hotel reservations in Arlington on December 2nd for the championship game and which should just simply start watching basketball highlights (I’m looking at you Kansas). Let’s saddle up and head over to Big 12 country.
Baylor Bears: Mark Rhule is the new head coach in Waco.
The hiring of Mark Rhule from Temple was the proverbial turning of the page for Baylor. Attempting to move on from its own infidelities, the Bears hired Rhule who led the Temple Owls to back to back 10-win seasons for the second and third time in school history. Make no mistake; Rhule is a defensive coach and a pretty damn good one. Football Outsiders ranked Temple’s defense in the top 25 of the country per S&P + ratings in each of the last 3 seasons. The question is can he make good of an experienced defense and shift Baylor’s focus from Air Raid offense to hard-nosed defense?
Iowa State Cyclones: Can the Iowa State build on last year’s end of the year momentum?
I know what you’re probably thinking in your head right now. I mean what momentum could ISU possibly take out of a 3-10 season? Before we as a collective write off the Cyclones, take these scoring numbers into account. These are the average scoring splits for ISU broken down into three stretches of their season:
First 3 games: ISU- 14 points, Opponent- 36 points
Next 4 games: ISU- 31 points, Opponent- 30 points
Next 4 games: ISU- 37 points, Opponent- 25 points
There is a clear pattern of improvement both in offense production and defensive stops. With an offense that is returning some key contributors, I suspect the Cyclones to be more than just a doormat this season.
Kansas State Wildcats: This has potential to be one of the best rushing attacks in the country.
As Bill Snyder embarks on his 150th season in Manhattan, the philosophy stays the same. This program has always been about slowing the tempo and running the ball efficiently. However, this particular Wildcats team could have a really dangerous rushing game given what Snyder has at his disposal. Justin Silmer (5.4 yards on 86 attempts) and Alex Barnes (7.9 yards on 56 carries) will shoulder more of the load and will be one of the most impressive duos in all of college football. Add in quarterback Jesse Ertz, who was over 1,000 yards rushing last year, and there is reason to think this rushing attack will be absolutely deadly. And if that wasn’t enough, almost their entire offensive line is returning this upcoming season. This has potential sleeper status for a trip to Arlington.
Kansas Jayhawks: Can transfers and a decent recruiting class drag this team to competency?
Head coach David Beatty has been doing all he can to bring a competent team to Lawrence this fall. I will give credit where credit is due and this offseason has been better than usual. Transfers such as WR Daylon Charlot (Alabama), QB Peyton Bender (Washington State), and RB Deron Thompson (Colorado State) among others will all compete for starting spots this year. Then take into account a better than usual recruiting class and a few JUCO transfers and were talking incremental progress here. Just remember that the key word here is incremental.
Oklahoma Sooners: A lot of new faces in new places for Baker Mayfield to get accustomed to.
This Oklahoma team is a lot different than the one that we saw last year. Running backs Joe Mixon and Sameje Perine have both moved on to the NFL as well as number one target Dede Westbrook. The combination of those three made up for over 4,000 offensive yards last year which is a substantial percentage of the offense. Maybe most importantly, longtime head coach Bob Stoops unexpectedly retired this offseason leaving the reins to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Football Outsiders rated this unit the number one offense per S&P+ ratings last year but there are certainly questions regarding the skill positions heading into this year. I do give Mayfield the benefit of the doubt and still see this as a top 10 unit in the county.
Oklahoma State Cowboys: The combination of Mason Rudolph and James Washington might be the best duo we’ve seen in awhile.
There is no way around it; this passing attack is going to be terrifying. Mike Gundy has always invited big plays into his offensive repertoire by stretching out the field. I’m not sure he has had a better weapon in Stillwater than that of wide receiver James Washington since the likes of Justin Blackmon. This guy can flat out play and his preseason All-American nod is evidence that I’m not alone. Couple that with one of the biggest arms in the country in Mason Rudolph and we have ourselves something special. The Pokes’ offense was 9th in S&P+ rating last season and I have a good feeling that ranking can improve if things continue. Man, that Bedlam matchup with Oklahoma could be one for the ages.
TCU Horned Frogs: There is plenty of experience on this roster.
Sometimes in college football, experience gives a team an advantage before the game even starts. If this is the sort of thing that you covet in your football roster, search no further because the Horned Frogs have plenty of it. According to this useful returning production table created by Bill Connelly of SB Nation, TCU is returning 85% of its production from last season. Say what you want but that is a very encouraging number to look at and in no way will we have to project where the contributions are coming from. Kenny “Trill” Hill is still 5 feet behind center for the Frogs and let us not forget what kind of weapon he is at his best. Watch out for their first conference clash with Oklahoma State to see how serious they are.
Texas Longhorns: Everything Tom Herman touches turns to gold.
Let me come out and first say that I am a huge Tom Herman guy. In my opinion, he is one of the best coaches in the country and gets the most out of his players. The man won a national championship as offensive coordinator at Ohio State and went 22-4 in his two years with Houston. This guy is winning personified and from all accounts amazing with his players. As for the team itself, they are returning a ton of production (82% production return) and have a lot of skill on both sides of the ball. The Longhorns will improve quickly, but I want to bookmark this team for next season when they will be a genuine playoff contender.
Texas Tech Red Raiders: The offense is great, but will the defense ever be able to keep up?
The problem over Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure in Lubbock hasn’t been the ability to generate offensive production but defensive stops. Defense has been down right bad with last year being no exception for the Red Raiders. Football Outsiders had them ranked as the 125th defense in all of college football per S&P + rating. The offense on the other hand ranked 6th in the country. This offense will be spectacular even with major departures, however this team won’t do much of anything unless the defense can at least reach competency. This could be a make or break season for Kingsbury as head coach of his alma mater.
West Virginia Mountaineers: Inexperience and less luck in close games are good indicators of trouble.
At first glance, this is a team that looks like it can compete and is generating a lot of Top 25 hype. They have some interesting transfers and former Florida Gator quarterback Will Grier seems like a great fit for Dana Holgerson’s offense. However, when you look closer this is a team that is bound to regress. If you’ve read this far you know that returning production is something that I see as a useful indicator of success. West Virginia is returning just 25% of its production from last year which is ranked second to last in the country. Another key stat to remember is that the Mountaineers went 4-0 in games that were a touchdown or less. That is a record that could possibly regress back to the mean in the following season. Add this all together and they could be closer to .500 than chasing a Big 12 championship.