Monday, August 11, 2014

Long and Suite Preview: The Big 12

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder will look to shock the nation again with an offense rebuilt around returning quarterback Jake Waters (15) and three-time All-Big 12 center B.J. Finney (66).
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) with a cameo from Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

While the Pac 12 challenged the SEC for total conference dominance last season, and Florida State delivered a national title to the ACC, the Big 12  quietly ended the year on a bit of a tear.

Baylor's fun n' gun offense helped it win the conference (though the Bears fell to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl), while Oklahoma earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl, where it blasted Alabama. Texas Tech and new coach Kliff Kingsbury knocked off Pac 12 South champion Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, and Bill Snyder's Kansas State team rebounded from a rocky start to win six of its final seven, including a whooping of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Oklahoma State won 10 games for the third time in the last four years. Heck, even Texas, who pretty much ran long-time coach Mack Brown into retirement, won six games in a row during the middle of the year.

The conference falls off a bit after that, though TCU and West Virginia have potential. Still, with a pair of playoff contenders and several teams that can play with anyone, the Big 12 should again be among college football's best conferences.

2014 Projections

1. Baylor
Last Season: 11-2, #13, Big 12 Champions

Oklahoma may have more talent overall, but I'm going with the Baylor Bears (a team that waxed the Sooners 41-12 last season) to repeat as Big 12 champions. Why? Well, there's this coach named Art Briles and this quarterback named Bryce Petty.

Last season, those two combined to give Baylor the best offense in major college football. The Bears averaged over 572 yards a game, while Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three interceptions. Oh, and he also added nearly 350 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, so there's that too.

Petty will get all three of his starting receivers back, and though the Bears lose star running back Lache Seastrunk, they return sophomore Shock Linwood who averaged a remarkable 7 yards per carry last season, en route to a 900 yard, eight touchdown performance.

On defense things are a little dicier. The Bears were better on that side of the ball than anyone gave them credit for last year, finishing 28th nationally in total defense. That may not sound great, but for a team that scored a national best 52.4 points per game, it was good enough to do some big things.

This year's group is short on experience, but long on talent. All-Big 12 linebacker Bryce Hager returns after missing the second half of last season with an injury, and the Bears should be stout up front. Tackle Beau Blackshear should again eat up blocks, and mammoth defensive end Shawn Oakman (6'9'', 280 lbs) should build off a sophomore season that saw him record 10.5 TFL OFF THE BENCH.

If the young but talented defense comes together, Baylor could again find itself sitting atop the Big 12, this time with a trip to The College Football Playoff awaiting it.

2. Oklahoma
Last Season: 11-2, #6

After Oklahoma shocked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the player everybody was talking about was then-freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, and rightfully so. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Sooners' victory, and appeared to emerge as Bob Stoops' quarterback of the future.

That's all great news, but the reason Oklahoma can be special this season is its defense. Already the best total defense in the Big 12 (20th nationally, surrendering just over 350 YPG in 2013), the Sooners should be even better this year with nine starters returning on that side of the ball. Among them are star linebackers Frank Shannon, Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker, who should give the Sooners the top LB group in the conference, and cornerback Zach Sanchez, who could become the conference's premier coverage man as a sophomore.

Basically, the Sooners are loaded on defense, but rebuilding on offense around a sophomore that threw for under 900 yards a season ago. Knight could be the transcendent star they've been waiting for, and former quarterback Blake Bell should make an interesting option at tight end, but there are just too many questions there for me to believe this team will win a shootout with Baylor.

3. Texas
Last Season: 8-5, NR

New coach Charlie Strong inherits a program that has always had talent, but whispers out of Austin indicate the Longhorns may have lacked discipline in the last few years under longtime coach Mack Brown. So Strong began his stay at UT by dismissing five players from the team and suspending three.

Whether that will install discipline, who knows, but Strong is a, um, powerful presence in the locker room, and the job he did at Louisville, both on the field and recruiting trail, will certainly bear witness to that.

One reason the Longhorns are a sleeper near the top of the Big 12 is because Strong brought defensive coordinator Vance Bedford with him to from Louisville. He'll have plenty of talent and experience to work with, as eight starters, including double-digit sack man Cedric Reed, return, but last year's Texas defense was the worst in school history.

With a new coordinator, new attitude, plenty of talent and 15 starters returning on both sides of the ball, look for Texas to take a step forward and again be a factor in the Big 12.

4. Kansas State
Last Season: 8-5, NR

Few coaches in the country do more with less than Bill Snyder. Now in his sixth season back in The Little Apple, and 23rd season overall with the Wildcats (Snyder previously coached KSU from 1989-2005), the veteran coach hopes to build off a fantastic end to last season.

The Wildcats dropped an embarrassing home opener against FCS power North Dakota State, then began the Big 12 season 0-3. Then quarterback Jake Waters took over full time, and KSU won six of its last seven. The then-junior posted a solid 14-4 TD/INT ratio over that span.

Returning next to Waters is big play receiver Tyler Lockett. Perhaps the best receiver in the conference, Lockett grabbed 81 balls for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. Senior center B.J. Finney is a three-time All Big 12 selection, and left tackle Cody Whitehair returns as well along an offensive line that should feature a good mix of experience and young talent.

It will be a rebuilding job on defense around end Ryan Mueller. After tallying 11.5 sacks last season, Mueller is the man KSU hopes can draw plenty of attention, opening up holes for a largely rebuilt defense. 

5. Texas Tech
Last Season: 8-5, NR

Coach Kliff Kingsbury has gained notoriety this offseason due to his resemblance to Ryan Gosling, but football fans know him as one of the best young offensive minds in the country. After a breakout performance in the Raiders' Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, sophomore Davis Webb enters camp as the starter, and appears to be the next in a line of great Air Raid quarterbacks to come out of Lubbock.

Receivers Jakeem Grant and Brad Marquez return, but the usual questions abound on defense. Texas Tech was actually better than you think on the whole defensively, but was again terrible against the run, surrendering over 200 YPG in conference clashes. With only three starters returning on defense, it could be another long year of shootouts, but would we really have it any other way?

6. Oklahoma State
Last Season: 10-3, #17

Mike Gundy has done a remarkable job at Oklahoma State, winning 10 or more games in three of the last four years. That said, the Cowboys could be in line for a step back this season. Though J.W. Walsh broke out in the second half of last year, completing 67 percent of his attempts down the stretch, the Cowboys still lose their top two receivers, their three best linemen and all depth at running back.

A similar rebuilding job looms defensively. Only one of the Cowboys' 10 leading tacklers returns (MLB Ryan Simmons had 67 last year), and three new starters will need to be found in the secondary.

Gundy has worked some magic in his decade in Stillwater, but he'll need to bring a large number of inexperienced youngsters along to reach the expectations he has set for the program. The Cowboys may not meet them this year, but they still won't be an easy out for anybody.

7. TCU
Last Season: 4-8, NR

A month ago you could have made a case that TCU's defense would rival Oklahoma's this season. Then All American defensive end Devonte Fields allegedly struck his ex-girlfriend and threatened her with a gun, triggering his dismissal from the team.

Fields is now stuck in football limbo, but the Horned Frogs will have to go another year their without their most talented players. Fields misses the first two games of last season after violating team rules, then missed most of the rest of the year with a foot injury.

The defense will still return plenty of experience, but a pass rusher will have to emerge from the end group of Terrell Lathan, Mike Tuaua and James McFarland. While coach Gary Patterson has always employed an aggressive defense that generates sacks from its back seven as well, TCU doesn't return a single player with more than four sacks, and safety Sam Carter is the team's returning leader.

Offensively, Texas A&M transfer quarterback Matt Joeckel will have some talent to work with. TCU returns both of its leading rushers and receivers, but it remains to be seen if the Horned Frogs can climb back to bowl eligibility without their biggest defensive play maker or an experienced offensive line.

8. West Virginia
Last Season: 4-8, NR

After transferring from Oklahoma State and battling injuries early in his Mountaineer career, it looks like quarterback Clint Trickett is finally ready for a full break out year. The senior had mixed performances last year, throwing 7 TDs and 7 INTs on just over 50 percent passing in limited duty last year, but coach Dana Holgorsen believes bigger things are coming in 2014.

They better, because WVU loses a 1,000 yard rusher in Charles Sims and doesn't bring back a game changing player anywhere else on the offense. Ultimately, it will be up to Holgorsen to live up to his billing as an offensive genius and Trickett to finally realize his potential for this offense to take off.

On defense things aren't much better. WVU returns seven starters, including middle linebacker Nick Kwiatoski, but no pass rushers or turnover producers. It will take a fantastic coaching job for West Virginia to return to the postseason this year.

9. Iowa State
Last Season: 3-9, NR

New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino knows a little something about winning with bottom of the barrel Big 12 talent, and he'll have to do just that running the offense at Iowa State. Coach Paul Rhodes is hoping he can, as only Kansas (Mangino's old team) was worse on offense in conference than the Cyclones last year.

With 10 starters returning on offense and an upgrade at coordinator, look for Iowa State to be an improved unit in 2014. A pair of experienced quarterbacks will compete for the starting job, as sophomore Grant Rohach and junior Sam Richardson prepare to battle it out.

Whoever wins the job will have star receiver Quenton Bundrage back for his junior season, and the entirety of last year's offensive line back. On the other side, the defense returns half the starters from the Big 12's worst defense.

There don't appear to be any true play makers on defense for the Cyclones, and depth may be an even bigger concern. Someone will have to come out of nowhere for ISU to NOT be in the Big 12's defensive basement.

10. Kansas
Last Season: 3-9, NR

I know, I know: How is Charlie Weiss still employed? Posting only four wins the last two years, and two of those were against FCS teams, with only one conference victory, Weiss is certainly on the proverbial "hot seat" in Lawrence. Worse yet, the Jayhawks lose 1,100 yard rusher James Sims, making whoever wins the starting quarterback's job even harder.

If there is a sliver of hope for KU, it's that Weiss is letting offensive coordinator John Reagan recreate the offense in the mold of a spread-option attack. If the new quarterback is sophomore Montrell Cozart, a shifty runner that needs some work as a passer, that could mask many of Kansas' weaknesses.

Still, it will be a long road back to bowl eligibility. Nine starters return on defense, but from one of the conference's worst units. If the league-worst offense takes a huge step it will help both sides of the ball, but only expect minor progress this year.

Players to Watch

B.J. Finney, C, Kansas State

It's hard to believe that Finney, now a three-time All-Big 12 selection (First Team the last two years), began his Kansas State career as an anonymous walk-on. In fact, Finney only ended up at K-State because Ohio, not Ohio State, Ohio, decided to take another lineman after he had committed to the Bobcats.

Let's just say things have worked out for the best. Once an undersized but athletic lineman with a wrestling background, Finney has grown into one of the most complete centers in the country, and a true testament to the effectiveness of coach Bill Snyder's famed walk-on program. At 6'4'' and over 300 lbs, he now has the requisite size and power to move tackles in front of him, but the versatile Finney still retains the athleticism and nasty disposition that made Snyder offer him a scholarship after only a redshirt season.

If the Wildcats are again to contend for a title, Finney will have a lot to do with it.

Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, RB Texas

While Texas still needs to find a quarterback, these two running backs have proven they can shoulder the load on a contending team. Brown, a senior, and Gray, a junior, combined for nearly 1,750 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, and they'll need to be even better if the Longhorns are to ease a new quarterback in behind a line replacing four starters.

Texas doesn't have too many things it can hang its hat on, but the explosive running of these backs is one of them.

Conlin's Cameo

Jeremy knows far less about college football than he does pro football, which is saying something, because he's not that great with the NFL either. But he has decided to stop by to add his take on each of this year's conferences.

Remember when the Big 12 was the premier conference in college football? Whatever happened to that?

From 2000 through 2005, the Big 12 had five appearances in six BCS title games, more than any other conference. That included two wins, one from Oklahoma in 2000 (the 2001 Orange Bowl), and one from Texas in 2005 (the 2006 Rose Bowl). Since then, however, the Big 12 has made just two appearances in the last eight title games, losing both times. Their record in BCS Bowls is just 5-6. They're 1-7 in the last eight Cotton Bowls. They lost two teams to the SEC, one to the Big Ten, and another to the Pac-12. They had to absorb West Virginia and TCU, two middling teams with no real national presence whatsoever to even stay a competitive conference.

The Big 12, for all intents and purposes, is on the decline. The Pac-12 and the ACC are now both arguably ahead of the Big 12 in both prestige and national success. The Big 12 clearly trails the SEC in both categories, and the Big Ten at least in prestige and money.

As we roll into the 2014 season, the Big 12 seems to be at the bottom of the totem poll again. They have only four members of the Preseason Top 25 poll. Of the five power conferences, only the ACC has fewer with three (four if you want to include Notre Dame, who will effectively play an ACC schedule this year), but the ACC holds the trump card of boasting the defending National Champion and consensus Preseason No. 1 Florida State. The Big Ten has four members in the Top 25. The Pac-12 has six. The SEC has seven. The Big 12 barely snuck in Texas at No. 24 and Kansas State at No. 21 to maintain respectability.

Oklahoma is a reasonable bet to be included in the four-team playoff. They're the Preseason No. 3, even getting three first-place votes, and their returning most of the relevant players from a team that went 11-2 and upset a heavily favored Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl last year. But outside of that, there isn't much to write home about from the Big 12 on the national landscape.

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