With Oklahoma coming off a huge Sugar Bowl win against Alabama, Baylor emerging as a national title contender under Art Briles, and Texas trending in the right direction under new coach Charlie Strong, the Big 12 appears poised to take a step forward as a conference. With Texas struggling to compete for league titles in recent years, the Big 12 was struggling to find its place among the SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten for conference supremacy. While the Big 12 still has a ways to go, the conference is moving in the right direction.
Oklahoma is Athlon’s projected Big 12 champion for 2014. However, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between the Sooners and Baylor.
Oklahoma finished 11-2 in 2013, in a year largely considered a rebuilding effort by most in the Big 12. The Sooners return 13 starters, and quarterback Trevor Knight is expected to take a step forward in his development after a standout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Nine returning starters lead a stout defense, and Oklahoma hosts Baylor in what could be a de facto Big 12 championship game.
The Bears are loaded on offense, but the defense – a key part of last year’s Big 12 title team – needs to reload with just four returning starters. Quarterback Bryce Petty is Athlon’s projected first-team all-conference quarterback, and Baylor has depth, speed and talent at the skill positions. If the defense plays up to last year’s totals, the Bears will be a playoff contender.
There’s a gap between Oklahoma and Baylor to Texas and Kansas State, but the Longhorns and Wildcats both rank inside of Athlon’s projected final top 25 for 2014. The Longhorns have loads of talent for new coach Charlie Strong and should be among the Big 12’s best on defense with the return of seven starters. Quarterback play is Strong’s biggest concern, especially since David Ash missed most 2013 due to a concussion. The Wildcats always seem to be underrated under Bill Snyder, and this will be a dangerous team once again in 2014. Kansas State returns quarterback Jake Waters, and standout defensive end Ryan Mueller anchors a defense that returns five starters.
After Texas and Kansas State, there’s a bit of a drop until the projected No. 5 team in Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have been a reliable pick for a spot among the top-25 teams in the nation in recent years under Mike Gundy. However, there’s a significant rebuilding effort underway in Stillwater for 2014.
TCU and Texas Tech could both surprise this year, but both teams also have question marks. The Horned Frogs need to take a step forward on offense, while the Red Raiders have concerns on defense.
It’s a close call for No. 8 between Iowa State and West Virginia, but the Cyclones had a small edge over the Mountaineers in Athlon’s prediction meeting. Iowa State made a huge staff upgrade by hiring Mark Mangino to coordinate the offense, and the Cyclones have a scheduling advantage by hosting West Virginia.
Kansas should show improvement in Charlie Weis’ third season, but the Jayhawks are still projected to finish in the cellar.
Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
How close was the pick for No. 1 between Oklahoma and Baylor?
It was very close. There is a lot to like about Baylor. The offense returns only four starters — and there are some concerns on the offensive line — but there is no doubt that the Bears will again roll up a ton of yards and score a bunch of points. That’s a given. There are some concerns on a defense that loses three first-team All-Big 12 performers. This group has come a long way under Phil Bennett in recent years, but the Bears gave up 34 points or more in four of their final five games, including 52 to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. Baylor’s schedule is also a concern; the Bears play both Oklahoma and Texas — two of their chief competitors in the league — on the road. The last time we saw Oklahoma, the Sooners were putting the finishing touches on a shockingly easy 45–31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. We don’t want to put too much stock in a bowl game, but the Sooners were very, very impressive against an elite Alabama team. OU welcomes back 16 starters from that team, most notably nine on a defense that figures to be the best in the league. Offensively, we need to see more consistency from quarterback Trevor Knight, but he showed — on a big stage — what he is capable of in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma, unlike Baylor, has a favorable league schedule. The Sooners host Baylor and Kansas State and play Texas, as usual, on a neutral site. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
How close are Texas and Kansas State to the “Big Two” in the Big 12?
Texas is always tough to evaluate. The Longhorns are never short on talent but have underachieved in recent years due in large part to problems at quarterback. If David Ash can stay healthy — a big if — Texas could compete for a league title. The Longhorns should be strong on the offensive line and have a nice stable of running backs. With seven starters back, the defense should be improved despite some key losses on the line. The biggest difference in Austin, however, will be the coaching. The arrival of Charlie Strong and his staff has re-energized the program and should allow the Longhorns to play to their potential. Strong engineered a quick turnaround at Louisville, and we expect the same at Texas. We also like Kansas State in 2014 — a lot. The Wildcats closed the ’13 season with six wins in their last seven games, highlighted by a dominant performance against Michigan in the bowl game. They lost to the top four teams in the Big 12, but all four games were competitive. With Jake Waters firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback and two All-Big 12 offensive linemen back, the offense should be improved this fall. If the defense can remain among the best in the league, Kansas State could emerge as a dark horse contender in the Big 12. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Why is West Virginia picked ninth when most expect the Mountaineers to improve?
We have West Virginia at No. 9 and projected to have only three wins, which would be a huge disappointment in Morgantown. Admittedly, three wins could be low for this team. But even if the Mountaineers improve, the schedule is one of the toughest in the nation. West Virginia is staring at two non-conference losses against Alabama and Maryland and swing conference games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are on the road. Also, the Mountaineers have a significant question mark at quarterback, and the defense is under the direction of new coordinator Tony Gibson. Make no mistake: West Virginia has talent. The backfield and receivers will give quarterback Clint Trickett plenty of options. However, if the defense allows 33.3 points a game once again, and Trickett is unable to solidify the quarterback position, a tough schedule will keep the Mountaineers out of the bowl picture once again. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Oklahoma State has emerged as one of the most consistent programs in the league. Why don’t the Cowboys get the benefit of the doubt?
The Pokes have been very good of late and have recruited well under Mike Gundy. Still, this team figures to take a small step back in 2014. The losses on defense — including four All-Big-12 players on the front seven and a first-team all-conference cornerback — are too great to ignore. There is still some firepower on offense, but the Cowboys no longer have the type of depth at quarterback that made them so strong in recent years. J.W. Walsh is the last man standing from the three-headed monster that began the 2012 season. Junior Daxx Garman will be given a look in the fall, and true freshman Mason Rudolph is highly touted, but this position is not as strong as in recent years. The Pokes will still be good — we are forecasting a 5–4 Big 12 record — but we just don’t see this team as a legitimate contender in 2014. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Texas Tech or TCU: Which is more likely to surprise in 2014?
TCU. Despite missing out on the postseason with a 4-8 mark last year, the Horned Frogs were much closer to a winning record in Big 12 play than some may realize. TCU lost four games by a touchdown, including a three-point defeat to Baylor and a three-point loss at Oklahoma. Coach Gary Patterson will always have one of the Big 12’s top defenses, but the offense has to improve for TCU to take the next step. Hiring Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as co-offensive coordinators should help the offense improve, while senior transfer Matt Joeckel will push Trevone Boykin for the starting job. With an improved offense, the Horned Frogs should be able to turn a couple of close losses into wins in 2014. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Big 12 Notebook
by John Helsley (@jjhelsley)
Parity on Parade
The Big 12 is developing a roll call of champions for football. And hands are rising outside the usual places. Over the past five seasons, five different programs have claimed the conference championship: Baylor (2013), Kansas State (2012), Oklahoma State (2011), Oklahoma (2010) and Texas (2009).
So when league coaches talk about parity, it’s not just babble. It’s real. The five different champions, representing half the Big 12’s membership, are the most among the power conferences. Since 2009, here’s how many teams have won league titles elsewhere: four of 14 in the ACC; three of 12 in the Big Ten; three of 14 in the SEC; and two of 12 in the Pac-12.
A year ago, the Big 12 was one of only three leagues — and the only one among the power conferences — to have every team win at least one league game.
Upon his arrival at Texas, new coach Charlie Strong acknowledged the challenges ahead, complimenting Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops and recognizing the league’s reputation for high-powered offenses.
“There are some great offenses (in the Big 12),” Strong says. “You look at what Coach (Mike) Gundy has there at Oklahoma State. You look at Coach (Art) Briles at Baylor… It’s a track meet out there. Guys are up and down the field, touchdown after touchdown, so it will be a big challenge for us.”
So much for soft starts in the Big 12. The non-conference schedule features a combined 11 bowl teams from a year ago, highlighted by programs responsible for the past three national championships and both participants from last year’s BCS title game.
Oklahoma State takes on defending national champ Florida State in Arlington, Texas, at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Kansas State hosts last year’s runner-up, Auburn, in one of the biggest non-conference games ever in Manhattan. West Virginia and Alabama meet in Atlanta in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.
For all three, it means they’ll each face three teams that appeared in BCS games last winter, since Baylor played in the Fiesta and Oklahoma played in the Sugar.
For the Cowboys, who are rebuilding on defense, getting FSU in the season opener represents an immediate wake-up call.
“We can debate scheduling that game,” says OSU coach Mike Gundy, who saw athletic director Mike Holder sign off on the matchup. “We have to go play that game.”
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Once snapped, the ball should be in good hands this fall. Every Big 12 team returns at least one quarterback with starting experience, led by Baylor’s Bryce Petty, the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and a Heisman Trophy candidate.
A year ago, several schools were in transition at the position, with quarterback competitions and even controversies carrying throughout preseason and the season in some cases. That does not mean all jobs are closed entering this season, but most league coaches have reason to feel good about the position.
Eight of the top 10 league leaders in passing efficiency return from last season. One of those — Oklahoma’s Blake Bell — has moved to tight end, but he has been replaced by exciting sophomore Trevor Knight, coming off a breakout performance against Alabama in the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl victory.
Until Oklahoma delivered a statement win over Bama, the Big 12’s national appeal had taken a hit in 2013, with the conference far removed from national title talk. The slip was at least partly due to a lack of star power in a year of transition across the league. The conference should be trending back up.
The Big 12 returns its Offensive Player of the Year (Petty), Defensive Lineman of the Year (Ryan Mueller, Kansas State), Special Teams Player of the Year (Tyler Lockett, Kansas State) and a long list of underclassmen who have already made an impact on the league and are now poised for greater breakthroughs.
Big 12 Coordinator Carousel
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Iowa State: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Courtney Messingham;
New: Mark Mangino
Messingham was fired after five seasons at Iowa State, the final two as the offensive coordinator. Mangino, the former head coach at Kansas, was the tight ends coach at Youngstown State last year.
Kansas: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Charlie Weis;
New: John Reagan
Weis, the head coach at Kansas, no longer has the title of offensive coordinator. Reagan, an assistant at KU from 2005-09, had been the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Rice. Reagan will call the plays.
TCU: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Jarrett Anderson, Rusty Burns;
New: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham
Anderson and Burns are still on the TCU staff, though their roles have yet to be determined. Meacham was the offensive coordinator at Houston last season. Cumbie was the quarterbacks coach and offensive co-coordinator at Texas Tech, his alma mater. Meacham will call the plays.
Texas: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Major Applewhite, Darrell Wyatt;
New: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline
Applewhite and Wyatt, both members of Mack Brown’s staff, were not retained by Charlie Strong. Watson, who has the title of Assistant Head Coach for Offense, made the move from Louisville with Strong. Wickline was the offensive line coach at Oklahoma State. Watson will call the plays.
Texas: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Greg Robinson;
New: Vance Bedford
Robinson rejoined the Texas coaching staff in September as the defensive coordinator. He was not retained by the new staff and accepted a position as the coordinator at San Jose State. Bedford was the defensive coordinator at Louisville under Charlie Strong.
Texas Tech: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Sonny Cumbie, Eric Morris;
New: Eric Morris
Cumbie left his alma mater to accept a similar position at TCU. Morris has the title of offensive coordinator, but head coach Kliff Kingsbury calls the plays.
West Virginia: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Keith Patterson;
New: Tony Gibson
Patterson left to take a similar position at Arizona State. Gibson was promoted from his position as the safeties coach after Patterson departed. He was the defensive coordinator at West Virginia Tech from 1999-2000 and then served as West Virginia’s defensive backs coach under Rich Rodriguez from 2000-07.