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Is TCU the sleeper pick to watch in 2014?
The Big 12 did not have a banner year in 2013, as only three teams from the conference finished ranked in the final Associated Press poll, and the bottom four teams in the league combined for just seven conference victories.
Heading into the 2014 season, there appears to be some positive momentum for the Big 12. Baylor and Oklahoma are playoff contenders, and Texas and Kansas State should be preseason top-25 teams.
While Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State appear set as the top-four teams in the league, the No. 5 spot seems to be up for grabs.
TCU slipped to 4-8 last year, and as a result of the struggles, coach Gary Patterson overhauled the offense for 2014. Iowa State has potential after finishing 2013 with back-to-back wins, while Texas Tech is an intriguing team to watch with Kliff Kingsbury at the helm, and Oklahoma State always seems to reload under Mike Gundy.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the Big 12 in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The bottom half of the Big 12 should be an interesting battle this year. Teams like Iowa State and West Virginia should improve, but whether or not it’s enough to make a bowl remains to be seen. I think Oklahoma State simply lost too much to pull a surprise finish among the top four teams, so it’s really down to TCU or Texas Tech as a sleeper pick for me. I think the Horned Frogs have a ton of upside going into 2014, as this team was just a couple of plays away from a winning record last year. New play-caller Doug Meacham made a difference at Houston in 2013 and helping TCU transition to a spread should help Gary Patterson’s team become a more effective offense in 2014. The Horned Frogs still need to find a quarterback, as well as develop more consistency at receiver and on the offensive line, but this team lost four Big 12 games by three points or less last year. With a better offense, TCU could easily turn some of those close losses into wins, especially with a defense that is still among the best in the nation. Another factor in the Horned Frogs’ sleeper potential is the schedule. TCU plays five conference home games, including swing matchups against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in Fort Worth.
Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
What really qualifies as a surprise in the Big 12 anymore?
Baylor has gone from plucky upstart to defending champion.
Bill Snyder working miracles in Manhattan is nothing new.
Given how much talent is on Texas' roster, would it really be a "surprise" if the Longhorns made a run at the league crown in Charlie Strong's first year?
I think the most fitting candidate here is Texas Tech. Even with the loss of all-star tight end Jace Amaro, Kliff Kingsbury will keep the Red Raiders rolling up points. Reports from spring camp say quarterback Davis Webb has made major strides since the fall, and he'll have a bevy of productive skill players at his disposal, including receivers Bradley Marquez and Jakeem Grant and running back Kenny Williams. Up front, all-conference candidate Le'Raven Clark will lead an experienced offensive line that should be one of the best in the league.
Of course, offense usually isn't a problem in Lubbock. The Red Raiders will have to continue winning shootouts until Tech figures out a way to stop people. Look for the Red Raiders to come out on top of a wild one--or two--that you wouldn't expect (Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor), finishing with eight wins in the regular season and a winning record in league play.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big 12 as they start to look to 2014.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
My sleeper in the Big 12 is the team it always seems to be in this league, Iowa State. The Cyclones slipped to 3-9 last season, missing a bowl for the second time in five seasons under Paul Rhoads. That should turn around this season. While Iowa State won’t contend for the title, there are plenty of reasons the Cyclones will get back to the six- to seven-win range. After Iowa State lost a 31-30 heartbreaker to Texas on Oct. 3, the 2013 season went sour. Injuries took their toll on a team that was already going to struggle to compete. Iowa State, though, found its stride at the end of the season. In his final two starts — both wins — quarterback Grant Rohach completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 631 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He’ll be among 10 returning starters on offense, now playing under coordinator Mark Mangino. The former Kansas coach has his faults, but he can run an offense in the Big 12. On defense, seven starters return, and linebacker Luke Knott will return healthy. That should be enough for Iowa State to double its win total from last season.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Defining a sleeper must be based on expectations and since the expectation levels for Oklahoma State heading into 2014 seem to be lower than we've seen in Stillwater in nearly a decade, I will go with the Cowboys. Mike Gundy's squad hasn't won fewer than eight games since 2007 and has only won fewer than nine once during that span. Due to massive departures to graduation and the NFL, the Cowboys likely won't be picked in the top half of the Big 12 — fifth at best — but this program is in way better shape than a team with so few returning starters. Gundy has elevated the entire Pokes program by building depth throughout his roster. This team was one drive away from winning the Big 12 championship, and I just don't see the fall from grace like many preseason prognosticators will predict. Will OSU win the Big 12? No. But can they be a sleeper who could win nine or ten games and pull a couple of upsets? You bet.
Prior to last season, TCU had won at least seven games every year since 2005. Granted, all but two of those seasons came when Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs were dominating the Mountain West Conference, but I think their 11-14 record since joining the Big 12 in 2012 is somewhat misleading. Of those 14 losses, half were by seven points or fewer. In fact, last season's 4-8 TCU team was potentially just one or two touchdowns away from maintaining the program's bowl streak, which ended at eight. As bad as the offense was (Horned Frogs were 104th in the nation in total offense), this team was still out-gained by just 6.2 yards in conference play in 2013. Eight starters return from that defense, along with defensive end Devonte Fields, the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year when he was a freshman. Patterson also brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and Texas Tech co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie to overhaul TCU's offense. A quarterback will need to be settled on and the offensive line will need to gel, but whomever ends up running the show does have playmakers to work with and it's not like it can get much worse than it was last year, right? TCU also has the luxury of hosting Oklahoma and Oklahoma State with its toughest road tests shaping up to be at Baylor and Texas. If the Horned Frogs can survive a difficult stretch of six straight conference games starting Oct. 4, then I think this team has a chance to open some eyes in its third year in the Big 12.