Big 12

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#36 West Virginia Mountaineers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#36

Big 12 PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Dana Holgorsen, 28-23 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dana Holgorsen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tony Gibson

West Virginia will have a new starting quarterback, an unproven offensive line and untested receiving corps in 2015. Even then, the question seems to be around the defense. Dana Holgorsen’s offense seems to be all but automatic these days, so the defense — which ranked 60th or worse in the four major categories — is the biggest X-factor in West Virginia’s ceiling in the Big 12 race.

Previewing West Virginia’s Offense in 2015
 

Dana Holgorsen’s offense bounced back last season after a sub-par 2013. West Virginia finished in the top 10 nationally in passing yards and was No. 12 in total offense (499.8 ypg). Now, though, all-world receiver Kevin White, outside threat Mario Alford and quarterback Clint Trickett are all gone.

Perhaps no decision in Holgorsen’s career will be as important as tabbing the new quarterback. In the last three seasons, WVU is 18–20, so the heat is on. Holgorsen is hoping junior Skyler Howard can save the day. Howard, a former junior college transfer, replaced Trickett at the end of last season and completed 56-of-110 passes for 829 yards and eight touchdowns. “He’s still pretty raw,” Holgorsen says, “so he will continue to get better.”

Watch the Mountaineers run game, however. If starting tailback Rushel Shell can stay healthy — which he didn’t last season — WVU will feature a player running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider compares to Marshawn Lynch. Shell, a former five-star recruit who began his career at Pitt, rushed for 788 yards in 2014 despite being limited at times by a severely sprained ankle.

WVU, however, will have to rotate bodies on the offensive line, and the receiving corps — which lost some elite talent — is largely unproven. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing West Virginia’s Defense in 2015


Second-year WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson isn’t shy about the defense he’s ready to put on the field. “I’m not going to hide behind it,” he says. “If we’re not great on defense, that’s directly on me. I told our defensive kids that. If we’re not really good on defense — the best in this league — I’m going to be disappointed.”

There are holes. The Mountaineers were No. 95 nationally in sacks (20) and No. 63 against the run last year, and the line doesn’t seem appreciably better. Nose tackle Kyle Rose also got into legal trouble in the spring.

The linebackers and secondary seem to be solid.  The best of the linebackers is Nick Kwiatkoski, a standout senior who was moved from the middle to the strong side to accommodate Jared Barber, back from a knee injury. Kwiatkoski led the defense last season with 103 tackles. Gibson has all three starters back at safety in seniors Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon and sophomore sensation Dravon Henry. Cornerback Daryl Worley missed spring drills after shoulder surgery but has shown flashes of brilliance.

Previewing West Virginia’s Specialists in 2015
 

Returning placekicker Josh Lambert was a Lou Groza Award finalist. But the Mountaineers’ kickoff return defense was ranked No. 92 nationally last season. Strong-legged punter Nick O’Toole (aka “Boomstache”) is averaging 43.1 yards per kick over his two seasons in Morgantown. Yet West Virginia was a woeful No. 124 nationally in punt returns, averaging a paltry 3.0 yards — when the Mountaineers caught the ball. There were countless muffs. It was so bad that at times Holgorsen went without a punt returner, choosing to simply let the opposing kicks bounce. He’s hoping Jordan Thompson, Vernon Davis, Jacky Marcellus or Lamar Parker — all 5’10” or smaller — can handle the duty this season.

Final Analysis 
 

West Virginia, which has been either 4–5 or 5–4 in two of its three seasons in the Big 12, should once again be in the middle of the pack in the league standings. 

With the exception of what seems to be a quirky 2013 campaign, Holgorsen continues to crank out fine offenses. Pair that with what should be a solid defense — especially if you believe Gibson, the unit’s coordinator — and the Mountaineers look like a solid a bowl team that isn’t quite good enough to contend for a conference title. 

The Debate

Where Does Rushel Shell Rank Among Big 12 Running Backs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

Big 12 PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

The first year of Charlie Strong’s tenure ended in essence where it started. In the second game of the season, Texas lost 41-7 to BYU. The Longhorns finished with an offensively inept 31-7 loss to Arkansas in a bowl game. That, of course, is not even close to good enough for Texas. Yet despite these low points, Texas managed to win three of its last four regular season games and finish 5-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns defeated Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the road and a ranked West Virginia team at home, which will have to suffice for a team that lost to Baylor, Kansas State and TCU by a combined score of 99-17. Progress in 2015, however, will need to be more pronounced.

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Previewing the Texas Offense in 2015:
 

Gone is the pro-style offense installed last year for quarterbacks David Ash (medical hardship) and Max Wittek, a graduate-transfer prospect who never graduated from USC.

The offense has been replaced by an up-tempo, spread attack that should feature the dual-threat talents of Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard and incoming freshman Kai Locksley.

Swoopes, who went 5–7 as the starter in 2014 with 13 TD passes and 11 INTs, was still the team’s No. 1 QB coming out of the spring. But Heard had “really closed the gap,” according to head coach Charlie Strong. And quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said the development of Heard was “the single-most important thing” that happened to the team in the spring. There’s a chance coaches will play both QBs early in the season until one truly separates.

Senior Johnathan Gray leads a talented group of running backs that includes redshirt freshman Donald “Duke” Catalon and sophomore D’Onta Foreman, a 231-pound bruiser who averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

The big questions on offense are on the line and at receiver. Six offensive linemen, including four early enrollees, were signed in the 2015 class to beef up a group devoid of talent and depth last season. At receiver, coaches want multiple playmakers to emerge after the departure of 1,000-yard receiver John Harris. But none of the leading candidates are proven.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing the Texas Defense in 2015:
 

The D-line is the strength of the football team. Senior tackle Desmond Jackson, who is returning from a lisfranc (foot) injury, and Hassan Ridgeway lead a deep and talented group of tackles and ends.

Linebacker is a big question mark after losing the team’s top two tacklers from last season — Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. Coaches will turn first to senior Peter Jinkens and junior Tim Cole. If those two don’t step up, the linebacking corps will be taken over by a highly decorated group of freshmen, including Ed Freeman and five-star early enrollee Malik Jefferson.

Coaches had high hopes for senior corners Duke Thomas and Sheroid Evans. But Evans suffered a serious knee injury in the spring and is likely lost for the season. Like the linebacker position, a very talented group of freshmen could take over at corner. At safety, Jason Hall is a big hitter, and former walk-on Dylan Haines led the team in interceptions (four) last season.

Previewing the Texas Specialists in 2015: 
 

Texas had some of the nation’s worst special teams last season. Strong hired Jeff Traylor, a highly successful coach at perennial power Gilmer High in East Texas, to improve things as tight ends/special teams coach. Texas will count on kicker Nick Rose, who is 14-of-21 on career field-goal attempts, and walk-on punter Mitchell Becker. Speedsters Daje Johnson, Jacorey Warrick and freshman Ryan Newsome hope to improve an anemic return game.

Final Analysis
 

Charlie Strong is still rebuilding in many ways after replacing his offense as well as two assistant coaches (Strong fired receivers coach Les Koenning and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers) after one season. Strong brought in former Oklahoma co-OC Jay Norvell as receivers coach, and Traylor replaced Chambers.

The defense will undoubtedly be the strength again this year. Special teams must improve. But it will be the direction of an offense that averaged an anemic 21.4 points per game in 2014 that will determine the fate of the Longhorns this season.

With a schedule that includes road games against potential top-10 teams Notre Dame, TCU and Baylor, the quarterback play has to lead a turnaround in 2015 or the results could be very similar to last year’s 6–7.

The Debate

Where Does Charlie Strong Rank Among Big 12 Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Baylor Bears

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big 12 PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Art Briles, 55-34 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kendal Briles | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Bennett

Art Briles has transformed Baylor into an annual Big 12 title contender, and the Bears are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the conference title and play in college football’s four-team playoff. Seth Russell is the next in line at quarterback in Waco, and the supporting cast is among the best in the nation with a deep receiving corps and solid offensive line. The defense should improve with the return of nine starters, including All-America end Shawn Oakman.

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Previewing Baylor’s Offense for 2015


Spencer Drango hasn’t scored one touchdown, taken a snap at quarterback, caught a pass or even gained a yard rushing. But when you’re talking about a Baylor offense that’s led the nation in each of the last two seasons, there’s not a more important piece to the puzzle than the All-America left tackle.

“It certainly gives us a better opportunity (to compete for a national championship) when you come out of the gates with guys that have been there,” eighth-year Baylor coach Art Briles says.

With Drango and the entire starting line returning intact, along with a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, it certainly eases the transition to a new quarterback.

Fourth-year junior Seth Russell takes the reins from Bryce Petty, who threw for 8,055 yards and 61 touchdowns while leading the Bears to back-to-back Big 12 championships and a two-year record of 22–4. “He’s shown the ability to help our football team win with his feet and with his arm and with his intelligence,” Briles says of Russell, who’s much more of a running threat than Petty.

Joining Drango up front are Pat Colbert at the other tackle, Blake Muir and Jarell Broxton at guard and sophomore Kyle Fuller at center.

That’s music to the ears of junior running back Shock Linwood, a returning All-Big 12 pick who rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The Bears are also loaded at receiver with junior Corey Coleman and sophomore KD Cannon, a lethal duo that combined for 122 catches for 2,149 yards and 19 TDs.

Previewing Baylor’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Another pre-Signing Day recruiting coup was keeping defensive end Shawn Oakman in the fold for another year. A third-team All-America and first-team All-Big 12 selection, Oakman set the single-season school record for sacks (11.0) and was just shy of another mark with 19.5 tackles for a loss.

“I just think you can look at it a year from now, and you’re talking about a (Jadeveon) Clowney, one of those Ndamukong Suh’s, one of those J.J. Watt’s, where he will test well, he’ll play well,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says. 

Oakman anchors a front that includes All-Big 12 pick Andrew Billings at nose tackle, fifth-year senior Beau Blackshear at tackle and either Jamal Palmer or returning Freshman All-American K.J. Smith at the other end.

The linebacking crew went through a makeover with former junior college transfer Grant Campbell in the middle, another Freshman All-American in Taylor Young on the weak side and sophomore Travon Blanchard at the “Bear” position.

Easily the most scrutinized area is the secondary, where all four starters return intact. Juniors Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid are the corners, with Terrell Burt and Orion Stewart at safety, but the depth is better than it’s ever been.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Baylor’s Specialists for 2015 


There will be a lot of pressure on incoming freshman Drew Galitz, who was recruited to replace four-year starting punter Spencer Roth (43.7-yard career average). Kicker Chris Callahan had an up-and-down freshman season, missing five of his first six field goals, but he booted the game-winner to beat TCU and finished the season by making 17 of his last 20 attempts.

Final Analysis 


While the offense has led the charge in Baylor’s meteoric rise and back-to-back league championships, this year’s team will have to count on an experienced defense being dominant out of the gates, “because you’re starting a new QB,” Briles says. The much-maligned secondary will have to be vastly improved for the Bears to three-peat in a league race that might come down to a Nov. 27 showdown at TCU.

The Debate

Is Art Briles the Big 12's No. 1 Coach?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 TCU Horned Frogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

Big 12 PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gary Patterson, 132-45 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dick Bumpas

TCU just missed out on the college football playoff last season, and the Horned Frogs are poised for another run at the national championship in 2015. Quarterback Trevone Boykin was one of the nation’s most improved players in the nation last year, and there’s no shortage of skill talent in Fort Worth. Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s strong point, but the secondary and linebacking corps are concerns after a few key personnel departures.

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Previewing TCU’s Offense for 2015


Trevone Boykin set eight school records last year in his first full season as a quarterback, throwing for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and ranking fourth in the nation in total offense. Imagine him with a year of experience in the “Air Raid” offense installed last season.

He won’t be the only one who can gain from a year of experience. His top receiver, Josh Doctson, set his own single-season school records for yards and touchdown catches. Kolby Listenbee emerged as a stretch-the-field vertical receiver. Deante’ Gray showcased home-run speed out of the slot.

Running back Aaron Green ran for almost 1,000 yards despite not starting until November. Kyle Hicks, a sophomore the Horned Frogs flipped from Texas two years ago, could be primed for heavier action, and former Nebraska four-star running back Shaun Nixon is back from an ACL injury.

Everyone will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters with 74 starts among them, including third-year starting center Joey Hunt. Right tackle Hala Vaitai will move to the left side, so not all four returners are in the same spots. But the staff believes another offseason of work in the system will yield benefits for everyone.

Previewing TCU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has a reputation for enjoying defensive rebuilds. Well, he has one on his hands this time with the loss of both his linebackers, including leading tackler and All-America senior Paul Dawson, and the team leader in interceptions, safety Chris Hackett, who surprised him with an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Linebackers get a lot of responsibility in the 4-2-5, so Patterson emphasized athleticism and awareness with early enrollees Mike Freeze and Alec Dunham.

For the secondary, the Horned Frogs are looking for speed and height at Hackett’s spot, and 6'2" senior Kenny Iloka got the first shot. At cornerback, the Frogs will be young with another early enrollee, four-star Louisiana freshman DeShawn Raymond, but incumbent Ranthony Texada started all 13 games as a freshman a year ago. Patterson may hedge his bet at corner with a look at receivers Gray and Cameron Echols-Luper.

Defensive tackle Davion Pierson, whose 31 starts are the most on the team, leads the unit least affected by graduation. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry has big-game experience but hasn’t played in a year.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing TCU’s Specialists for 2015


Placekicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry both enter their fourth seasons. Oberkrom, who won the pressure-packed West Virginia road game on a last-second kick, is the nation’s active leader with 58 field goals and third in Big 12 history in percentage made over 40 yards. Perry ranked eighth in the nation with 45.3 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. TCU allowed minus-9 yards in punt returns all year. Echols-Luper returned a punt for a TD at Kansas.

Final Analysis


This is a very good team, with experience and playmaking at the offensive skill positions, and a reliable history of defense under Patterson. But the Horned Frogs have their sights set on being more than very good. Last season convinced them they could go undefeated even in the Big 12 and be a CFB Playoff team. But first, the Horned Frogs will have to win on the road. They left Texas only twice last season before the bowl game. This year, it will be five times, including a late-season trip to Norman before the final showdown against Baylor. Performing in hostile environments and managing expectations may be the toughest challenges of all. 

The Debate

Is Gary Patterson the Best Coach in the Big 12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#17 Oklahoma Sooners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#17

Big 12 PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bob Stoops, 168-44 (16 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lincoln Riley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Stoops

Oklahoma entered 2014 with high expectations and hopes of winning the Big 12 title. But the Sooners finished 8-5 and a 5-4 mark in conference play, forcing coach Bob Stoops to make a few changes to his staff. Lincoln Riley is now the play-caller on offense and plans on implementing a spread attack similar to what he coordinated at East Carolina. However, the offense will still feature running back Samaje Perine. Oklahoma isn’t short on talent, but Stoops and his staff have to replace four starters on the offensive line and improve a secondary that allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense for 2015
 

When Lincoln Riley arrived to overhaul Oklahoma’s offense as coordinator, the immediate question was obvious: Who fit as a triggerman for the spread attack he used to create misery against better competition at East Carolina? That’s still the question, although indicators point to Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech walk-on and transfer.

None of four quarterbacks — Mayfield, returning starter Trevor Knight or youngsters Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen — did enough to seize the job in the spring. Mayfield looks the part as a pocket passer who has already directed the spread at Tech. But he was prone to throwing interceptions at Tech and tossed two in the spring game. “When I was able to get the ball in our receivers’ hands, they made plays for me,” Mayfield says. “Now I just have to keep improving and finding ways to get them the ball.”

If the quarterback concerns extend into the season, the Sooners always have Plan B. Or is it Plan A? The Big 12’s best back as a freshman a year ago, Samaje Perine is a throwback, downhill runner who can dominate and dictate games. Oklahoma rode him hard last fall when the passing game stalled, resulting in solid success, as he ran for a league-leading 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns. The running game also features the speedy Alex Ross, as well as Joe Mixon, a five-star recruit forced to spend a year away from the team after an ugly off-the-field incident last summer.

Sterling Shepard provides a game-breaker at receiver, but it’s critical that others emerge to fit the four-wide scheme.

The offensive line has something to prove, too, and is working to find replacements at both tackles. Returning starters Ty Darlington at center and Nila Kasitati at guard provide a veteran core.

Previewing Oklahoma’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The defense presents a mix of star power and major question marks. And the questions begin up front, where the decision by Jordan Phillips to leave early for the NFL leaves a gaping hole at tackle. Sophomore Charles Walker alleviated some concern inside with a strong spring. And the ends are solid with Charles Tapper, Matt Dimon and D.J. Ward providing a versatile rotation. But will it be a dynamic front?

At linebacker, Eric Striker sets the tone of the defense as an attacking ball hawk and game-plan wrecker. A first-team All-Big 12 selection, Striker led the Sooners with 17 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. And Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans return as the team’s top two tacklers, making the middle a major strength.

The secondary must improve, even with first team all-conference corner Zack Sanchez back to rule his side of the field. Sanchez led the team with six interceptions and eight pass breakups. Sophomore Steven Parker is a rising star at safety or as the nickel, but the Sooners are searching for reliable playmakers at the other corner and safety spots.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists for 2015
 

Replacements at placekicker and punter are needed, and both jobs could fall to incoming freshman Austin Seibert, who was ranked No. 1 at each spot by one recruiting service or another. The return game could be explosive, with Ross proving himself dangerous on kickoffs, averaging 31.2 per runback a year ago. Dede Westbrook and Shepard, slotted to return punts, are also dynamic with the ball in their hands.

Final Analysis
 

Much uncertainty surrounds the Sooners entering 2015. Can Mayfield efficiently engineer the offense? And if not, who can? Can the defense fix a leaky secondary that allowed too many big passing plays? The schedule is rough, too, with road games at Tennessee, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. A lot of questions. And it’s unclear whether the Sooners have all the answers.

The Debate

Is Samaje Perine the Big 12's Best Running Back in 2015?

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