The Big 12 enjoyed a stellar season in 2017 thanks in large part to a slew of veteran stars across the conference.
The picture for the upcoming year looks a little murkier with many of those known commodities gone to the NFL. Everyone from conference champion Oklahoma to cellar-dwelling Kansas appears to be losing key pieces from a year ago.
In no particular order, here are the 10 toughest players to replace in the Big 12 in 2018. We’ll start with the quarterback who was the story of the year in college football last fall.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Five-star signal caller Kyler Murray awaits to take over as the trigger man of the Sooners’ mighty offense, but there’s no replacing Mayfield (above, right). The three-year starter and Heisman Trophy winner may go down as the best player to ever don the Crimson and Cream. All three of those seasons produced Big 12 titles; two ended in the College Football Playoff. Along the way, OU’s superstar passer threw 119 touchdowns and finished first nationally in passer rating two times.
Frankly, though, OU will miss Mayfield’s toughness and attitude as much as his playmaking skills and uncanny accuracy.
Michael Dickson, P, Texas
It’s rare to call a punter irreplaceable, but Dickson absolutely fits the bill. All things considered, he was one of the best players in college football last season. The Australian’s booming leg and deft touch bailed out an offense with a propensity to stall in 2017.
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are bidding farewell to a host of longtime standouts, including QB Mason Rudolph (see bleow), WR Marcel Ateman and DB Tre Flowers. Washington’s departure hurts more than any of them. The vertical threat he added to the OSU offense upgraded the Cowboys from dangerous to lethal.
Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech
Coutee quietly had a monster season in 2017 – 93 receptions for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns. He saved some of his best performances for the Red Raiders’ biggest games, including a combined 20 grabs for 355 yards and a TD in the final two games of the year versus Texas and South Florida. Next year’s QB at Tech won’t have Coutee as his security blanket, which should serve up a warning sign for head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Al-Rasheed Benton, LB, West Virginia
Quietly, Benton (right) rang up 110 tackles in 2017, which put him in a tie for third in the conference. He also generated 13.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, good for seventh overall in the Big 12. WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will definitely find himself wishing that he still had Benton on his D on more than one occasion next fall.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Rudolph started for four seasons, three of which ended with at least 10 wins. His skill set made him an ideal fit for Mike Gundy's downfield throwing game. Although the Cowboys never won a conference title with Rudolph at QB, he will still go down as one of the program's all-time great players.
Joel Lanning, LB, Iowa State
Lanning gained a lot of admiration prior to the 2017 season by agreeing to move from quarterback to linebacker. He gained even more by putting in an all-conference performance that saw him finish second in the Big 12 in tackles with 114. Lanning embodied the get-it-done ethos that helped propel the Cyclones to a handful of big wins and a bowl trip.
Dorance Armstrong, DE, Kansas
Not many bright spots in KU football recently, but Armstrong (right) counts as one. The edge rusher teamed with Daniel Wise to give the Jayhawks a surprisingly formidable defensive line. By flying the coop a year early, Armstrong struck one in a seemingly never-ending series of blows to head coach David Beaty and the KU program.
Travin Howard, LB, TCU
Howard is a linebacker for modern times in the Big 12. He tracked down enough ball carriers to finish fifth in the conference in tackles with 108. He also could cover receivers well enough to offer TCU head coach Gary Patterson the flexibility at LB to help the Horned Frogs’ 4-2-5 defense thrive.
Dimitri Flowers, FB, Oklahoma
While Baker Mayfield’s departure will generate most of the headlines this offseason, Flowers’ graduation constites a huge loss for the Sooners as well. Flowers could do it all from his position at fullback – take a handoff, de-cleat a defender, split out wide. He made so many clutch plays in big moments for OU in his time around Norman that it’s impossible to imagine someone stepping in for him immediately in the upcoming year.
The Sooners boast a long history of studs at fullback. Flowers may have proven himself to be the best of the bunch this year.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.