The Big 12 enters the 2022 college football season without a clear front-runner. Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are all likely to get consideration as the preseason favorite, but each team has question marks to address. The Sooners have a major wave of transition to navigate on the coaching staff and on the roster. The Bears bring back one of the league's top defenses, but coach Dave Aranda's offense must reload at receiver and find a No. 1 running back to replace Abram Smith. A standout defense lost several key pieces at linebacker and in the secondary for the Cowboys, and the offense has to get back on track after averaging only 5.5 yards per play in '21.
Although the Big 12 may lack a clear favorite at No. 1, the league isn't hurting for depth. Texas and Kansas State are wild-card teams to watch, with Iowa State and West Virginia headlining the next tier. Both TCU and Texas Tech should push for bowl eligibility under new coaches. Kansas is trending in the right direction under second-year coach Lance Leipold.
How does Athlon Sports project the Big 12 for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the Big 12 for this fall:
Big 12 Football 2022 Predictions
With no clear favorite atop the league, the Big 12 should be a wide-open battle between five or six teams for spots in the conference title game. The Bears are the reigning Big 12 champions, and with the league in flux around them, it’s hard to pick against coach Dave Aranda’s team to grab at least of those spots. Defense was the strength of Baylor’s ’21 squad by holding opponents to 5.2 yards per snap and 18.3 points a game. This unit lost a couple of key cogs, including linebacker Terrel Bernard and defensive back Jalen Pitre. However, the cupboard isn’t bare here, as the line – anchored by nose tackle Siaki Ika – is among the best in college football. Dillon Doyle (90 tackles and 10 TFL) should push for All-America honors at linebacker. Retooling a secondary with just two returning starters is Aranda’s biggest concern going into ’22 on this side of the ball. Baylor’s offense showed marked improvement in coordinator Jeff Grimes’ first season in Waco. After recording 23.3 points a game and 4.4 yards per play in ’20, the Bears averaged 31.6 a contest and 6.3 yards a snap last fall. Blake Shapen won the starting quarterback job over Gerry Bohanon in the spring, and the sophomore is likely to upgrade the team’s passing attack – provided a receiving corps losing Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed is restocked. A new go-to running back must be found to replace Abram Smith, but the offensive line ranks among the best in college football. A non-conference game at BYU won’t be easy, and the Bears have tough road trips to West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.
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The Sooners’ offseason could simply be described in one word: Change. Brent Venables takes over as head coach after Lincoln Riley left for USC, and the program also experienced its share of roster turnover with just nine returning starters in place for ’22. Losing Caleb Williams (USC) and Spencer Rattler (South Carolina) was a setback for the quarterback room, but Venables and new play-caller Jeff Lebby solved their concerns under center by bringing in UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. The Hawaii native played under Lebby in Orlando in ’19 and should find a seamless fit again in Norman. Leading rusher Kennedy Brooks and three of the top four receivers from last season have departed. Also, Oklahoma’s offensive line wasn’t up to its normal dominant standard last season. Helping to restock the offense are a couple of transfers, including former Cal lineman McKade Mettauer and Arizona State receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton. Look for Marvin Mims (22 yards per catch in ’21) to become the go-to target for Gabriel. Venables was arguably the nation’s best defensive coordinator at Clemson, so this side of the ball should see some immediate improvement. Although, the Sooners are losing a handful of key players – edge rusher Nik Bonitto and linemen Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas – from a unit that struggled to stop the pass and gave up 5.93 yards per snap in Big 12 games. A handful of additions from the portal will help, but it may take Venables a recruiting class or two to fully address this side of the ball. Oklahoma is a program in transition. But there’s also a strong track record of success and talent when it comes to the Sooners.
3. Oklahoma State
On the strength of a standout defense and timely offense, the Cowboys came inches away from winning the Big 12 title last season. The 12-2 record tied for the most wins (2011) under coach Mike Gundy. But replicating last year’s success will require the staff to fill a few key voids on both sides of the ball. New defensive coordinator Derek Mason inherits five returning starters and one of the top fronts in college football, which features Brock Martin and Collin Oliver (combined 19.5 sacks in ’21). However, the rest of the defense is in transition. The Cowboys must replace linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (131 tackles) and four key starters in the secondary, including cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse and safety Kolby Harvell-Peel. With some regression on defense expected, more production is needed on offense. Oklahoma State ranked eighth in the Big 12 in yards per play (5.46) and had the fewest plays (eight) of 40-plus yards in the conference. First-team All-Big 12 quarterback Spencer Sanders is back under center, but the senior must cut down on the interceptions (12 last year). Leading rusher Jaylen Warren (1,216 yards) and No. 1 receiver Tay Martin (1,046 yards) must be replaced. Also, the Cowboys lost two key starters up front. Road dates at Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma won’t be easy.
Related: Big 12 2022 All-Conference Team
Although last season’s record (5-7) was a major disappointment, the Longhorns improved the roster this offseason and should have a chance to return to a winning record in coach Steve Sarkisian’s second year. Defense was a major issue on the Forty Acres last fall. Texas surrendered 6.03 yards per play, 31.1 points a game, and more than 200 rushing yards a contest in ’21. Just four starters return, but there’s hope for improvement in the second year of the scheme under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. In addition to overall improvement, this unit needs to be better around the margins with takeaways (just 14 last year) and sacks generated (20). The optimism meter should be higher on offense. Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers is expected to edge Hudson Card for the starting nod under center. The former five-star prospect is ultra-talented but has yet to attempt a pass in college and is working behind a line that could start two (albeit very talented) true freshmen at the tackle spots. Running back Bijan Robinson and receivers Xavier Worthy and Isaiah Neyor are the strength of this offense. Considering how open the Big 12 is, a run to the conference title game can’t be ruled out. However, based on last year’s record and question marks up front on both sides of the ball, a small step forward and a bowl game is a more reasonable goal for the Longhorns.
5. Kansas State
Looking for a sleeper in the Big 12 title race? This is the team to watch. The Wildcats are led by all-purpose running back Deuce Vaughn, and Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez is slated to join him at quarterback in a backfield that won’t be easy for Big 12 defenses to contain. Martinez needs to be more careful with the ball (30 INTs in four years at Nebraska), but new offensive coordinator Collin Klein should maximize his strengths. Cooper Beebe is an underrated standout on the left side of the line and should be a preseason All-American after starting all 13 games for the ‘Cats last fall. Only one other returning starter joins Beebe up front, so Klein will have to do some retooling here. A stingy defense (5.4 yards per play allowed and 21 points a game) brings back five starters and plenty of other players with experience. End Felix Anudike-Uzomah (11 sacks) is the headliner up front. Restocking the secondary is likely the biggest concern for coordinator Joe Klanderman.
6. Iowa State
The Cyclones didn’t meet top-10 preseason expectations last season, but coach Matt Campbell still guided this team to its fifth consecutive winning record (5-4) in Big 12 play. Campbell will have his work cut out for him in ’22, however. Iowa State brings back only eight starters and must replace several players who were the heart and soul of the recent success, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and linebacker Mike Rose. Considering Campbell and Iowa State’s track record of talent development, it’s safe to assume this team will find the right answers. Sophomore Hunter Dekkers could be primed for a breakout year as the No. 1 quarterback, and the same could be said for Jirehl Brock, who replaces Hall in the backfield. Three starters are back to provide a solid foundation up front, and receiver Xavier Hutchinson returns after catching 83 passes last fall. The defense held teams to 5.04 yards per snap in ’21, but several new faces need to emerge around standout edge rusher Will McDonald IV (11.5 sacks in ’21). Retooling a secondary that finished third in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense might be the biggest challenge for coordinator Jon Heacock.
7. West Virginia
With a 17-18 mark over the last three years, ’22 season is a critical point in coach Neal Brown’s tenure in Morgantown. The Mountaineers have made back-to-back bowl appearances but are just 11-15 in Big 12 action since ’19. Defense has been a strength for West Virginia in each of the last two years, and the ’21 edition held teams to 23.8 points a game and 5.6 yards per play. However, a few personnel losses via transfer leave just three starters on this side of the ball. Dante Stills is one of the stalwarts and his return should keep the Mountaineers among the best in the Big 12 in the trenches. Linebacker and the secondary units experienced the most turnover, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator Jordan Lesley. Although West Virginia’s defense may take a small step back, the offense seems ready to carry this team in ’22. This unit has ranked eighth or worse in the Big 12 in scoring in each of Brown’s three seasons at the helm, but the arrival of Georgia transfer JT Daniels at quarterback, along with five returning starters up front, should help this group show marked improvement. New coordinator Graham Harrell called the plays for Daniels when he was the starting quarterback at USC in 2019, so the transition should be minimal. Leading rusher Leddie Brown is gone to the NFL, but Clemson transfer Lyn-J Dixon and Tony Mathis are a capable one-two punch. Sam James, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kaden Prather form a solid trio on the outside.
For the first time since 2000, a new head coach will roam the sidelines for the Horned Frogs. Gary Patterson’s tenure ended during the ’21 season, so transition – a rarity at TCU – is the big storyline going into the fall. New coach Sonny Dykes went 30-18 over four-plus years at SMU and is no stranger to the state of Texas. The Patterson-led teams were usually strong on defense, but Dykes’ squads at California, Louisiana Tech and SMU have leaned on offense. How that translates in ’22 is uncertain, especially with a quarterback battle between Max Duggan and Chandler Morris and the ongoing implementation of a new scheme. Center Steve Avila and tackle Andrew Coker provide a solid foundation to build around up front, and skill-position talent isn’t in short supply with running back Kendre Miller (623 yards) and receiver Quentin Johnston (33 catches for 634 yards) returning. TCU’s defense struggled mightily last year. This unit ranked ninth in the Big 12 against the run (222 yards a game allowed), ninth in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered 7.2 yards per play. Also, this unit was torched for 28 plays of 40-plus yards and generated only 15 sacks. New coordinator Joseph Gillespie returns seven starters and has standouts returning at every level (end Dylan Horton, linebacker Dee Winters and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson). Steady improvement on this side of the ball, along with a quarterback emerging as the clear No. 1, might be enough for TCU to get back to six wins and play in the program’s first bowl since ’18.
9. Texas Tech
New coach Joey McGuire is the right pick to rebuild in Lubbock. McGuire – a former successful high school coach in the state and assistant at Baylor – has never been an FBS head coach but surrounded himself with a top-notch staff, including coordinators Zach Kittley (offense) and Tim DeRuyter (defense). A three-man quarterback competition – Tyler Shough, Donovan Smith and Behren Morton – will continue into the fall for the chance to pilot Kittley’s high-powered passing attack. Some retooling is needed around the signal-caller with two returning starters up front, along with the departure of receivers Erik Ezukanma and Kaylon Geiger. The one-two punch of SaRodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks at running back is among the top combos in the Big 12. DeRuyter inherits seven returning starters, but there’s work to be done to shore up a group that ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and has holes to fill at linebacker and in the secondary. The Red Raiders have allowed 30 or more points a game in each of the last 12 seasons. If DeRuyter can generate some improvement here, and the offense takes off under Kittley’s watch, another bowl trip should be within reach in McGuire’s first season.
Escaping last place or earning the program’s first winning record since 2008 might be too heavy of a lift for the Jayhawks in ’22. But make no mistake, this program is on the right track under coach Lance Leipold. Kansas stunned the college football world with a November upset against Texas last season and lost later that month by one score to both TCU and West Virginia. With 16 starters back, another step forward in the win column is within reach. Quarterback Jalon Daniels returns after a promising finish to the ’21 season and is supported by a solid group of running backs, including Devin Neal (707 yards) and Minnesota transfer Ky Thomas. Continuing to develop depth and talent up front and more playmakers on the outside would be a boost to an offense that averaged 20.8 points a game last fall. Major progress is needed on defense. The Jayhawks ranked last in the Big 12 against the run (249.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and in pass efficiency defense, while surrendering 7.2 yards a snap. A few transfer portal additions – namely safety Marvin Grant and end Lonnie Phelps – will help a unit slated to return largely intact with seven starters. Safety Kenny Logan Jr. is one of the best defensive backs returning in the Big 12.
Big 12 2022 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Offensive POY: RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
Defensive POY: DL Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
Coach of the Year: Dave Aranda, Baylor
Top Freshman: OL Devon Campbell, Texas/RB Jovantae Barnes, Oklahoma
Top Offensive Newcomer (Transfer): QB Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): DL Jaxon Player, Baylor
Sleeper Team: Kansas State
Key Position to Watch: Oklahoma and Texas OL
Best Coordinator Hire: Zach Kittley, OC, Texas Tech
Hardest Teams to Evaluate: Oklahoma and Texas
Coach on the Rise: Jeff Grimes, OC, Baylor
Must-See Game: Texas vs. Oklahoma (Dallas - Oct. 8)
Breakout Player: Kaden Prather, WR, West Virginia
Comeback Player: Trace Ford, DL, Oklahoma State
Big 12 Championship: Baylor over Oklahoma
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