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2016: Big 12 Referendum

No, we're not talking about realignment or TV money or grants of rights. But 2016 still feels like a referendum for a lot of Big 12 football programs.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes are on the Big 12's current list of 783 potential expansion candidates - no word on how that Allen High School interview went, yet -- but with opening weekend around the corner, it's time to start turning to important things. Like sportsmanship violations.

Entering 2016, the Big 12 has four programs in fairly steady states, but for different reasons. At the top, Oklahoma and TCU look like strong outfits again in 2016. Neither seems sufficiently complete to make the playoffs this year, but both are close enough to get there with a few good breaks and a breakout year here or there.

At the bottom, both KU and Iowa State have reasons to look for improvement. But improvement in KU's case means winning its first game in nearly two years. Iowa State isn't in nearly such dire straits, and Matt Campbell brings energy to a program seemingly stuck in the doldrums for the last half decade. Both would, and likely will, see some form of improvement this year, but not enough to break out of the conference's basement.

The real action is in the middle, with six teams facing situations that will probably define their programs' directions. On one side of the divide are three schools anxiously awaiting their next steps; for the other three, 2016 could decide whether their coaches remain in place.

Among those anxiously awaiting 2016's results to get a better idea where their programs are headed, Oklahoma State and K-State look to solidify and re-establish momentum, respectively. The Cowboys weren't as good as their 10-2 regular season record in 2016, but you don't take a crap team to 10-2. And while my unresearched opinion going into 2016 is that the Cowboys are likely overrated, upon looking at their schedule, it's entirely possible the Pokes are 8-0 when they roll into Manhattan in early November.

K-State jerry-rigged a team into a bowl game last year, an act of holding things together that would impress MacGyver. With presumptive quarterback Jesse Ertz back and healthy this year, the addition of Byron Pringle to target in the passing game, and a defense with athleticism and experience at every level, K-State has reason for optimism. A bounceback 8-4 or 9-3 season would propel the team into 2017 with legitimate Big 12 title hopes; another 6-6 campaign will only increase speculation about when Bill Snyder will retire.

Baylor is another school unsure of its next step, but with a decidedly less hopeful outlook. After achieving previously unknown accomplishments, coach Art Briles left in disgrace and each month seemingly brings new allegations of unseemly conduct in Waco. Jim Grobe steps in as a placeholder at head coach, while the assistant coaches who surely had no involvement in covering up sexual assault allegations somehow remain in place. The talent is still mostly there in Waco, but the program feels rudderless and waiting for an idea of where it's headed. A few early losses could tank the Bears in 2016.

Meanwhile, three Big 12 coaches enter 2016 on at least relatively warm seats.

Dana Holgorsen was fired after the 2015 season, according to a report that was later proven untrue. Needless to say, Holgo enters 2015 on rocky footing in Morgantown. The Mountaineers haven't finished better than last year's 8-5 mark since Holgorsen's first year, and are 26-25 overall since joining the Big 12. Bill Connelly projects 6.9 wins for the 'Eers in 2016. That's probably not enough to get Holgo to 2017.

Meanwhile, 1,500 miles away in Lubbock, Kliff Kingsbury enters his fourth campaign sporting a 19-19 overall record. A favorite son of the Mike Leach era, Kingsbury may get more leash than some coaches would with that record. And with Pat Mahomes at quarterback, Kingsbury has the talent at the most important position on the field to have a big season. As usual on the South Plains, defense is the issue. If Tech can actually play some this year, then they'll probably top Connelly's 6.4-win projection. If not, then athletic director Kirby Hocutt will face a difficult decision.

It seems asinine that any coach entering his third year could be on the hot seat absent outright program disaster, but expectations in Austin are typically asinine. Charlie Strong applied epoxy to the rot left from the end of Mack Brown's tenure and has restocked the talent in the Republic's capital city. But a brutal schedule, a new offensive coordinator, and no good answers at quarterback could doom Strong before he has a chance to get started. Connelly projects 6.7 wins, and if the Longhorns go 7-5 or better, then firing Strong would be foolish.

I'm on record as cautiously optimistic that K-State's 2015 season was an injury-fueled aberration and that the Wildcats will rebound this year. Baylor seems like an obvious pick to disappoint, and I expect that West Virginia may suffer the malaise that sets in when a coach is on his last stand.

Who are your picks to surprise in either direction?