Last season, the Big 12 conference was almost unanimously viewed by major media outlets as a two-horse race between Oklahoma and Baylor. Someone just forgot to tell that to TCU. The year before that, Baylor was picked fifth by the media and wound up winning the conference. In 2012, K-State was picked to finish sixth and accomplished the same feat.
Preseason prognosticators and pundits never learn. As Bill Snyder and countless other coaches stress, each year is a new team, regardless of how many players return. Also, the Big 12 has no shortage of teams that might get hot at the right moment or play up to their potential and pull off an upset, such as Baylor in 2012, West Virginia last season, or Iowa State during any of the games that might lead to Paul Rhoads being "so proud."
Despite all of this somewhat unpredictable precedent, is it unreasonable for TCU and Baylor to be picked as the top two Big 12 teams for 2015? Absolutely not. However, history teaches us it is not wise to consider them as being beyond the reach of the pack of the Big 12.
So, what can we make of the ten contenders and the early evaluations and thoughts about those teams? This article tries to answer some of those questions.
Baylor: The recruiting efforts have resulted in increased talent and athleticism on both sides of the ball. This year that could pay some dividends, as it seems like the offense may regress a bit based upon some of the players lost within the unit. It's on the defensive side of the football where the recruiting had resulted in a significant talent and depth upgrade from where Baylor was four or five seasons ago. While Seth Russell should be solid, it may not be realistic to expect him to match the production of Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence, and Bryce Petty. Baylor has some supremely athletic dudes (just see Shawn Oakman's box jump), but I do find their inflated workout reports misleading. Bryce Petty was claimed to be a "freak" of college football, complete with a 4.62 40-yard dash and a 38-inch vertical leap. Lache Seastrunk was advertised as running a 4.34 on the Bears' website. Neither player even came close to matching those levels of production at the NFL combine(4.87 and 4.51, respectively, with Petty "losing" four inches on his vertical), so I take some of Baylor's reported information (such as the claim that Seth Russell runs a 4.49 40) with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, Baylor will be one of the teams to beat.
Iowa State: The Cyclones' lack of recent success is starting to test the long-term deal that Paul Rhoads and Iowa State reached a few years back. I expect the Cyclones to be a much better football team in 2015, as they have some very solid pieces returning, particularly in the defensive backfield and at wide receiver. A second season under Mark Mangino should pay dividends for their offense. The key to the Cyclones' season will revolve around the play of their offensive and defensive lines (where, on the defensive line, they've been a significant disadvantage for the past several seasons). I expect Iowa State to be in a lot of close football games this season. If they can pull off the majority of them, they will be bowl-bound.
Kansas: Charlie Weis was clearly not the guy to turn things around and he did not leave the program in very good shape for his successor. It is tough to know how successful David Beaty's tenure with the Jayhawks will be. However, it does seem pretty likely that things will be a struggle in 2015. Expect a lack of depth and playmakers to be the key problems for KU this season. I tend to think that the Jayhawks' coaching staff will be able to better utilize their talent than Charlie Weis, but any significant win-loss improvement is probably two or three seasons away. With Bill Snyder likely approaching retirement, struggles at Iowa State and Texas Tech, and the number of Big 12 teams that have built strong programs, it appears that there might be a narrow window for the Jayhawks to try and get out of the very bottom of the conference, but just doing that any time soon will take a lot of improvement.
Kansas State: I will do my best to be unbiased on this one, while still taking the genius of Bill Snyder into account. Here is the most pressing question for this team: how will they produce big plays? Concerns are plentiful about the lack of a running game last season. While I expect the Wildcats' rushing attack to improve with a greater focus on the run game and the skills that can be employed in the quarterback run game (they avoided it after the Oklahoma game), it is difficult to envision the offense being able to keep up with the top offenses in the conference. The defense should again be solid and possibly even very good. K-State's path to victories will require ball control, timely explosive plays, and a defense that limits big plays and generates a few more turnovers. This team could teeter somewhere between the rather average 2009 and 2010 teams on the one hand, and the 2011 Cardiac 'Cats on the other hand. That team had serious intestinal fortitude and battled to win many close games. I foresee a lot of close games, but a win-loss record more in line with the 2010 team. A huge key will be not letting the brutal early conference schedule demoralize the team, in the event of a there being a handful of losses.
Oklahoma: It is crazy to consider the Sooners this season's Big 12 sleeper team, but I think they are just that. Many of the groupthink media outlets have come to two conclusions for the Big 12 this year: (1) the winner of the conference will be either TCU or Baylor; and (2) Oklahoma State is the third best team in the conference. Last season was a bad season for Oklahoma, but do not sleep on them. They return the best running back in the Big 12, the best wide receiver in the Big 12, a head coach that has a track record of winning in this conference, and several very talented players on the defensive side of the football. Despite those advantages, this is not a team without its faults. There is a new offensive coordinator (that worked out fine for TCU last season, though, didn't it?), quarterback play must improve, there were some serious problems with the defense (much of which seemed to appropriately point to Mike Stoops), and the team's momentum headed south at the end of last season. But last season, similar to TCU in 2013, it seemed as though many, many things went wrong that are unlikely to happen again. Everything ranging from player suspensions, to injuries to key players, a reliable kicker becoming unreliable, and close losses haunted Oklahoma last year. I fully expect the Sooners to finish with 10 or more wins and possibly earn a share of the Big 12 title. At the very least, they might play the spoiler role by knocking TCU or Baylor out of the playoff.
Oklahoma State: Mason Rudolph showed why he is the future of the Oklahoma State football program late last season when he burned his redshirt. While he showed some impressive talent and poise for a true freshman, do not be at all surprised if the Cowboys' offense faces some major struggles in 2015. There are two key reasons. First, their offensive line was very, very poor last season. Oklahoma State ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing last year. Second, Oklahoma State lost its most explosive player, Tyreek Hill, whose exploits played a key role in the Cowboys' victories over Oklahoma and Kansas last season. Oklahoma State should be an improved team in 2015, but I do not see their team as a major contender for the Big 12 championship, either.
Texas: In time, they could build a very good football team. If you're a fan of another Big 12 team, you just hope Charlie Strong's teams continue to have the same Colt McCoy graduation-induced hangover that plagued Mack Brown's final several seasons. Sometimes quarterback play or the lack of good quarterback play is overblown and ignores other deficiencies that a team might possess. With the Longhorns, the focus on the recent lack of quarterback production is well-earned. Perhaps to an even greater degree than almost all football teams, the Longhorns' success over the past decade or so has hinged upon the play at the quarterback position. When Vince Young and Colt McCoy excelled, the Longhorns were almost unbeatable. When those guys were either developing or when other, less-talented signal callers have taken over the reigns, things have gone totally awry. As a result, despite Charlie Strong's talent as a coach and the likelihood that the defense will again be stout, it is difficult to get too optimistic about a successful (and by successful, I'm guessing UT fans gauge that as at least 10 wins) season this year. The offense was predictable and safe last season. If the Longhorns cannot improve their offensive line and find a quarterback who they feel comfortable letting loose, they will continue to fail to keep pace with the top teams in this conference.
TCU: The Horned Frogs were a very good team last year that had one of the more heart-breaking losses of the past decade or so against Baylor last year. Trevone Boykin has turned himself into the ultimate headache for a defensive coordinator and proved Bill Snyder's praise from when Boykin was a freshman to be an accurate assessment. The question for this team is whether they can do it again. My gut feeling is that TCU wins the Big 12 outright, but I also foresee them picking up a loss somewhere along the line. Encores can be very difficult and TCU has a sneakily difficult schedule. This season they have five Big 12 road games, instead of four. Three of those include Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State. One has to only look at TCU's games last season against Baylor (loss), West Virginia (close win), and Kansas (close win) games to see how much stronger the Horned Frogs were when they were able to play at home. The defense lost some good players, but history would suggest that this team will field a solid defense. The biggest concern for TCU would be an injury to Boykin. A serious injury to him would likely cause the Horned Frogs to fall back down to the Big 12 pack pretty quickly. I expect Patterson to do what he can to protect Boykin from injury against lesser opponents, rather than seeking to build up the Johnny Football numbers in blowouts.
Texas Tech: It is still possible for Kliff Kingsbury to prove that he can become a good coach in the Big 12, but if the Red Raiders do not see significant improvement in 2015, it will become quite clear that he will not be able to duplicate the success of Mike Leach, or even Tommy Tuberville. Coach Dudebro finds himself on the hot seat in 2015. Ever since Mike Leach started churning out the wins, Texas Tech fans stopped accepting mediocrity. This seems to be true even if mediocrity wears sunglasses and a six-pack. All kidding aside, the Red Raiders' success in the future depends on those boring fundamentals and intangibles that Bill Snyder loves to talk about. In particular, the team needs to exercise better discipline (less turnovers and penalties), more toughness (both in running and stopping the run), and must somehow recapture the gunslinger / pirate role in the conference from Baylor and TCU. By that, I mean that the Red Raiders consistently did more with less under Leach and the concern is that Coach Kingsbury has not yet been able to achieve that feat, while Baylor and TCU are utilizing the same schemes with better athletes and coaching. It seems that Patrick Mahomes should be the starter, as Davis Webb has been both overrated and turnover prone. I expect another long season in Lubbock.
West Virginia: Is it a bad thing that disinterest has been my prevailing feeling for the Mountaineers as a Big 12 school, other than the 2012 season in which Geno Smith won the September Heisman? Perhaps some of this is related to geography and the lack of history. West Virginia again has some solid pieces on its team and, surprisingly, the bulk of those are on the defensive side of the football. Nevertheless, it is difficult to envision the Mountaineers finishing anywhere below eighth in the conference or anywhere higher than fifth.
Predicted Order of Finish in Conference
1. TCU, 8-1
2 (tie). Oklahoma and Baylor, 7-2
4 (tie). Oklahoma State and Texas, 5-4
6. Kansas State, 4-5
7 (tie). Iowa State and West Virginia, 3-6
9. Texas Tech, 2-7
10. Kansas, 1-8