Oklahoma once again takes the top spot in early Big 12 predictions
Oklahoma should enter the 2020 college football season in a familiar position. The Sooners have won the last five Big 12 titles, and coach Lincoln Riley's team is the very early pick to win the conference once again next season. Riley's offense will have a new quarterback, but this unit should continue performing at a high level. Additionally, the defense is headed in the right direction under coordinator Alex Grinch. Texas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor headline the next tier of teams, and there's very little separation between thse four programs headed into the offseason.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2020 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2020:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2020
The Sooners have won the last five Big 12 titles and earned trips to the CFB Playoff in three consecutive years. In other words, the path to a Big 12 title once again runs through Norman in 2020. Coach Lincoln Riley’s high-powered offense is set to lose quarterback Jalen Hurts and All-America receiver CeeDee Lamb. But as evidenced since Riley arrived in Norman, the offense won’t miss a beat in 2020. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler – a five-star prospect in the 2019 signing class – will compete with Tanner Mordecai to replace Hurts. Charleston Rambo, Jason Haselwood, Theo Wease and UCLA transfer Theo Howard headline the targets at receiver, with Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon back to anchor a standout backfield. Oklahoma should have one of the nation’s top offensive lines thanks to the return of center Creed Humphrey in 2020. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch helped the Sooners climb from ninth in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed in 2018 (6.13) to fifth (5.63) in ’19. More overall depth and talent is needed, but Grinch has the defense trending in the right direction. Linebacker Kenneth Murray departed early for the NFL, and there’s uncertainty regarding the status of end Ronnie Perkins for the fist five games of 2020. In addition to Perkins’ status, the line is set to lose Neville Gallimore, which is why the addition of Joshua Ellison and Perrion Winfrey from the junior college ranks was crucial to the hopes of more improvement on this side of the ball. Linebacker Caleb Kelly and defensive back Tre Norwood also return after redshirt years due to injury. A key five-game stretch – Baylor (Oct. 3), Texas (Dallas-Oct. 10), at Iowa State (Oct. 17), Oklahoma State (Oct. 24) and at TCU (Oct. 31) – will define just how high Oklahoma climbs in the national rankings.
The No. 2 spot behind Oklahoma should be a wide-open battle between Texas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor next year. For now, a slight edge goes the Longhorns. While the 2019 season didn’t quite meet preseason expectations for coach Tom Herman’s squad, most of the two-deep returns in 2020 and a revamped coaching staff should help this team improve next fall. New play-caller Mike Yurcich inherits a lot to work with, but receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay have to be replaced. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger ranks among the best signal-callers coming back for 2020, and there’s a talented stable of backs in place to deploy. The line will miss center Zach Shackelford, but left tackle Samuel Cosmi passed on the NFL for another season in Austin. Todd Orlando was dismissed as defensive coordinator after the Longhorns allowed 30.6 points a game in Big 12 contests in 2019. Former Rutgers coach Chris Ash is set to take over as play-caller, and there’s a lot of talent to work with. Texas loses only three seniors – Brandon Jones, Malcolm Roach and Jeffrey McCulloch – from its top 20 tacklers in 2019. A healthy year out of Caden Sterns should help the secondary, and the pass defense would improve with a little help from the pass rush (just 27 sacks in 2019). Texas plays at LSU in Week 2 and ends the year with a huge showdown at Oklahoma State on Nov. 28.
3. Oklahoma State
Little separates Texas and Oklahoma State in Athlon’s very early Big 12 power rankings for 2020. The Cowboys were a big winner around the draft deadline, as running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace both passed on the NFL to return to Stillwater in 2020. Quarterback Spencer Sanders (16 TDs and 628 rushing yards) will continue to improve with another offseason to work as the starter, and there’s a good foundation coming back in the trenches. Oklahoma State’s defense gave up 32.5 points a game in 2018 but cut that total to 26.8 a contest in ’19. This unit returns nearly everyone for 2020, including standouts in linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, safety Kolby Harvell-Peel and end Trace Ford. The linebacker group will get a boost with Calvin Bundage returning from injury. Oklahoma State gets TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor on the road, but Texas and Iowa State come to Stillwater in 2020.
4. Iowa State
Of Iowa State’s six losses in 2019, five came by 10 points or less. With quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall back to lead an offense that averaged 32.2 points a game, the Cyclones could turn a couple of those close losses into wins and push for a spot in the Big 12 title game. Purdy is losing his top two receivers – Deshaunte Jones and La’Michael Pettway – but tight end Charlie Kolar passed on the NFL for another season in college. The biggest concern on Iowa State’s roster for 2020 is an offensive line that has to replace four starters. The Cyclones will miss linebacker Marcel Spears and defensive lineman Ray Lima off a unit that held teams to 25.9 points a game in 2019. The return of end JaQuan Bailey from injury will help up front, with standouts in linebacker Mike Rose and safety Greg Eisworth also returning for 2020. The road slate features matchups at Iowa, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas, but the Cyclones get Oklahoma and Baylor at home next fall.
Matt Rhule departed Waco for the NFL, but the program improved significantly under his watch and returns enough of a foundation to contend for a finish in the top 25. Defensive improvement was a big reason why Baylor played for the Big 12 title in 2019. After giving up 31.7 points a game in 2018, the Bears cut that total to 19.8 this season. Building on that improvement could be a challenge with several key players leaving as seniors, and lineman James Lynch (an Athlon Sports first-team All-American) is headed for the NFL. With Lynch leaving, only two of the team’s top 11 tacklers from 2019 will return. The outlook is better on offense. Quarterback Charlie Brewer (21 TDs) is back, with John Lovett (655 yards) and Trestan Ebner (250) anchoring the backfield. Go-to receiver Denzel Mims must be replaced, but Tyquan Thornton and R.J. Sneed are back after combining for 87 catches in 2019. Keeping Brewer healthy is a priority, and after giving up 38 sacks, Baylor’s offensive line needs to show marked improvement. The good news: This unit returns largely intact in 2020. The Bears open with an intriguing neutral site matchup versus Ole Miss and play at Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State
After winning at least 11 games in three out of four years from 2014-17, TCU is just 12-13 over the last two seasons. Can the Horned Frogs rebound back into the top 25 and into contention for a spot in the Big 12 title game? The development of quarterback Max Duggan is a good place to start the optimism for next fall. Duggan threw for 2,077 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 555 yards and six scores on the ground in his freshmen debut. To help Duggan take the next step in his development, the Horned Frogs must replace the top two running backs – Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua – and No. 1 receiver Jalen Reagor. Some retooling is also needed in the trenches with the departure of three key seniors. TCU’s defense wasn’t dominant, but this group held teams to 26.4 points a game and 5.6 yards a play. Coach Gary Patterson has plenty of production coming back, but tackle Ross Blacklock declared for the NFL Draft, and there’s big shoes to fill in the secondary with the departure of cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Julius Lewis, along with safeties Innis Gaines and Vernon Scott. Road trips to California and SMU highlight the non-conference slate, with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State coming to Fort Worth next fall.
7. Kansas State
Chris Klieman had the best first season of the Big 12’s four new coaches in 2019. Kansas State finished 8-5, defeated Oklahoma and lost three games by four points or less. The Wildcats should be in good shape to get back to a bowl, but Klieman and his staff have to replace five seniors along the offensive line and restock the defensive trenches following the departure of ends Reggie Walker and Kyle Ball and three tackles, including Trey Dishon. Quarterback Skylar Thompson didn’t post huge numbers in the passing game, but he added 405 yards on the ground and didn’t make many mistakes (five picks over 297 attempts). He’s back for 2020, along with five of the team’s top six statistical receivers from last season. The team’s top two rushers – James Gilbert and Jordon Brown – have finished their eligibility. A defense that allowed only 21.4 points a game in 2019 is once again the strength of the team for Klieman in 2020. While the losses up front are significant, the linebacker unit should be a strength with Elijah Sullivan back after leading the team in tackles (65), and Justin Hughes returning from injury. Safety Denzel Goolsby is the biggest loss in the secondary. Key swing games against West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State and Baylor take place on the road, but the Wildcats catch Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas in Manhattan next year.
8. West Virginia
Despite a significant amount of turnover on both sides of the ball, coach Neal Brown nearly led West Virginia to a bowl game in 2019. The Mountaineers finished 2019 with wins in two out of their final three contests and two other Big 12 defeats came by seven points or less. Brown will have his hands full once again next season, as a defense that limited teams to 5.8 yards a play loses starting cornerbacks Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey and lineman Reese Donahue. The good news: Darius and Dante Stills (combined 14 sacks) are back to lead the trenches and Tykee Smith and Kerry Martin return in the secondary after playing key roles as freshmen in 2019. VanDarius Cowan – a potential impact transfer from Alabama – was limited to just two games due to injury but will return as a key piece of the linebacker group for 2020. The Mountaineers averaged only 19.6 points a game in Big 12 contests, but there’s optimism for improvement with most of the depth chart returning intact. Quarterback Jarret Doege showed some promise in a late four-game stretch and will benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller. Freshman Sam James (69 catches) showed flashes of promise, with T.J. Simmons (35), Sean Ryan (19) and Bryce Wheaton (12) rounding out a capable group of options on the outside. Improving a ground game that managed only 2.63 yards a carry and solidifying the offensive line are two of the top priorities for Brown this offseason. A matchup versus Florida State in Atlanta should be a good barometer test for Brown’s team in the opener. West Virginia also gets five Big 12 games at home next fall, including Kansas State, TCU, Kansas and Baylor.
9. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders finished 4-8 in coach Matt Wells’ debut, but five of those losses in Big 12 play came by 10 points or less. With a healthy Alan Bowman back under center, this program has a chance to rebound in 2020. The offensive line is set to lose a couple of starters, but Jack Anderson is back after missing most of 2019 due to injury. SaRodorick Thompson (765 yards) and Ta’Zhawn Henry (340 yards) form a solid duo out of the backfield, while Bowman returns three out of his top four receivers from 2019, including Erik Ezukanma (42 catches) and T.J. Vasher (42). Wells shuffled his defensive staff, bringing aboard former Texas coordinator Todd Orlando after the Red Raiders surrendered 7.2 yards per play in Big 12 contests. The task of improving this side of the ball doesn’t get any easier with the departure of All-Big 12 selections in linebacker Jordyn Brooks and safety Douglas Coleman. End Eli Howard (five sacks), linebackers Riko Jeffers and Xavier Benson and safety Adrian Frye will be key cogs for coordinator Keith Patterson and Orlando to lean on for improvement in 2020.
The Jayhawks made some small gains in coach Les Miles’ first season in Lawrence. Kansas had a puzzling lost to Coastal Carolina in early September but rebounded to beat Boston College on the road a week later. Miles’ team also picked up a Big 12 win (Texas Tech 37-34) and had three losses in conference play decided by 10 points or less. For Kansas to escape the cellar of the Big 12 next year, finding a quarterback – on the roster or through the graduate transfer ranks – has to be a priority. Running back Pooka Williams (1,061) is one of the Big 12’s top playmakers, and there’s talent at receiver with the return of Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson. In addition to the quarterback concerns, Miles has to restock an offensive line that loses three starters and improve a defense that allowed 6.5 yards a snap in Big 12 games. The defensive concerns are magnified with 10 seniors departing from the top 17 tacklers in 2019. Freshman Gavin Potter was a bright spot at linebacker and a player Miles and coordinator D.J. Eliot will build around in 2020.