Will the Sooners return to the top of the Big 12?
Baylor’s climb to the top of the Big 12 continued last season with an 11-2 final record and a conference championship. The Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF, but there’s clearly staying power with Art Briles at the controls in Waco. Baylor has a few holes to fill in 2014, but quarterback Bryce Petty is back after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.
In addition to Petty’s return, the Bears are loaded at the skill positions with talent, including running back Shock Linwood and receiver Antwan Goodley. The offensive line has question marks but getting left tackle Spencer Drango back to full strength after a back injury will be huge for the play in the trenches.
There’s no doubt Baylor’s recruiting and overall roster have improved in recent years. But with only eight returning starters, can the Bears hold off Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas for the top spot in the conference?
Oklahoma finished in a three-way tie for second last season and closed the year on a high note by beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
After finishing 11-2 in 2013, Oklahoma is loaded for a run at the Big 12 title. The Sooners return 16 starters, including a rising star at quarterback. Bob Stoops’ team also has an edge in the schedule, as Baylor visits Norman in 2014.
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.
Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although Baylor returns the Big 12’s top quarterback and is the defending conference champion, I like Oklahoma to win the league title in 2014. In what was essentially a rebuilding year in 2013, the Sooners went 11-2 and capped the season with a huge win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, we can’t read too much into bowl results, but Oklahoma is loaded for a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The defense returns nine starters, with the defensive line and linebacking corps poised to be among the best in the nation. Linebacker Eric Striker is a difference maker in the front seven, and cornerback Zack Sanchez is also poised for a big season after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Although Trevor Knight still has plenty to prove, and the receiving corps loses standout receiver Jalen Saunders, there’s reason to believe the offense will be improved in 2014. Knight’s performance against Alabama was impressive, but his output against Kansas State (253 total yards, two scores) shouldn’t be overlooked. Knight may have to carry the offense early in the season, especially as Oklahoma looks for a No. 1 running back. Bob Stoops isn’t hurting for options, including potential breakout stars in Keith Ford, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross. In addition to having few weaknesses on the depth chart, the Sooners’ schedule is very favorable. Oklahoma hosts Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State and doesn’t have a tough non-conference game. I still think Baylor is among the top 10-15 teams in the nation, but I would take the Sooners to win the Big 12 and finish among the top-five teams in college football at the end of 2014.
Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Baylor's rise to the top of the Big 12 may have caught most observers around the country off guard, but it didn't happen overnight. Art Briles has steadily built up his program by turning over rocks in Texas and finding speedy offensive playmakers to suit his version of basketball on grass. What set the 2013 team apart was its veteran defense, which was better than just "good for Baylor." Statistically, it was easily the best Briles has had, and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's aggressive philosophy complemented the uptempo O.
While the Bears have talented skill players in place to replace departed standouts such as Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, they don't have the same depth on D. Four of their top six tacklers for a year ago have departed, including tackling machine Eddie Lackey linebacker and stars of the secondary Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Despite having some studs up front, those losses are going to hurt.
On the other hand, the Sooners have the most complete team in the conference. The D is stout in the front seven, and Bob Stoops' staff has recruited well enough in the secondary to plug in promising youngsters at safety and cornerback make up for the departures of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin. Offensively, the team's true Achilles' heel from '13, quarterback, now looks settled. OU did take some hits at receiver through graduation, although sensation junior Sterling Shepard should be able to carry that unit.
Most importantly, the schedule breaks decidedly in OU's favor. The Sooners catch Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home to go along with the annual trip to Dallas to face Texas. Meanwhile, in addition to going to Norman, Baylor also has a trip to Austin on deck. Even if the margin between the two squads proves to be thin, that gives OU the edge.
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has loads of offensive firepower returning and is enjoying the best stretch of sustained success in program history. However, I'm going to take Oklahoma to unseat the Bears this season, as the Sooners return 16 starters from a team that won 11 games in 2013, the last one a convincing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Whether Big Game Bob is truly back remains to be seen, but Stoops should be in position to win a bunch of games this fall thanks to the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight and a loaded defense that finished top 20 nationally last season and welcomes back all but two starters. Baylor will score plenty of points once again with reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty back at quarterback and a bevy of athletic, dynamic and explosive pass-catchers, but the offensive line must replace three starters and, more importantly, the defense returns just four starters. Although recruiting has certainly picked up since Art Briles came to Waco, Baylor still falls behind Oklahoma in this department, which makes replacing five all-conference defenders a tougher task for the Bears. What's more, Baylor has to face both Texas and Oklahoma on the road, while the Sooners' toughest conference road game looks to be at TCU, not including the Red River Showdown date with the Longhorns in Dallas. Baylor demolished Oklahoma 41-12 last season in Waco on it way to its first outright conference crown since 1980, but I am picking the Sooners to reign supreme in the Big 12 in 2014.