The Big 12 doesn't have a runaway favorite going into the 2023 college football season, but the uncertainty at the top should make for an entertaining and unpredictable battle next fall. Texas is the way-too-early favorite, with TCU, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas Tech in the next tier. The middle of the Big 12 is strong with Baylor, newcomer UCF and Kansas up next, followed by Oklahoma State and Iowa State. Fellow newcomers Cincinnati, BYU and Houston rank near the bottom, but all three should be bowl teams in '23. West Virginia ranks last and also won't be an easy out for the rest of the Big 12.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2023 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its very early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2023:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2023
Similar to the 2022 season, the Big 12 appears to be wide open going into the '23 campaign. Texas gets the nod as Athlon's way-too-early favorite in the Big 12, but a case could be made for a couple of teams here. The Longhorns improved their win total by three from '21 to '22 in coach Steve Sarkisian's second year, and an elite recruiting haul adds to the talent and depth on the roster. The bulk of the two-deep is set to return, but the offense will certainly miss running back Bijan Robinson. Can quarterback Quinn Ewers take a step forward? If not, five-star freshman Arch Manning is ready to push for the starting nod. And the winner of the quarterback competition will have a standout group of receivers - Xavier Worthy, Jordan Whittington, Isaiah Neyor and AD Mitchell - to target next fall. The defense surrendered 31.1 points a game in '21 but cut that total to 21.6 in '22. With end Barryn Sorrell and linebacker Jaylan Ford returning, this unit is once again among the best in the Big 12. The addition of transfers Jalen Catalon (Arkansas) and Gavin Holmes (Wake Forest) will help to solidify the secondary.
Coach Sonny Dykes has a busy offseason ahead if the Horned Frogs are going to make another run at the CFB Playoff. A number of the team's key players in the '22 run are gone, including quarterback Max Duggan, running back Kendre Miller and receiver Quentin Johnston. Dykes also is dealing with turnover on the coaching staff after Garrett Riley left to become the offensive coordinator at Clemson. Former Baylor and Arkansas play-caller Kendal Briles will replace Riley. The transition extends to the defense, where coordinator Joseph Gillespie loses key contributors at all three levels, including end Dylan Horton, linebacker Dee Winters and cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
The first season under coach Brent Venables resulted in a 6-7 finish, but the Sooners should rebound into Big 12 title consideration in '23. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel is back, and the one-two punch of Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk is promising at running back. Restocking Gabriel's weapons at receiver and improving along the offensive line top the list of priorities for coordinator Jeff Lebby. Oklahoma's defense gave up 30 points a game in '22, but an infusion of transfers - Linemen Rondell Bothroyd (Wake Forest), Trace Ford (Oklahoma State), and Jacob Lacey (Notre Dame) and linebacker Dasan McCullough (Indiana) - provide optimism for improvement next fall. Of Oklahoma's seven losses, five came by seven or fewer points last year.
4. Kansas State
The reigning Big 12 champs have to replace a couple of key standouts, but don't count out coach Chris Klieman's team from making another run at the top of the conference. Filling the void left behind by running back Deuce Vaughn is the biggest concern on offense for coordinator Colin Klein. However, Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward should give the backfield a boost, and quarterback Will Howard was solid after taking over as the team's starter following an injury to Adrian Martinez. A defense that held opponents to 21.9 points a game will miss Felix Anudike-Uzomah (8.5 sacks) off the edge and cornerback Julius Brents on the back end.
5. Texas Tech
Looking for a sleeper team in the Big 12 next year? Texas Tech should be your early pick. The Red Raiders finished coach Joey McGuire's debut in Lubbock on a high note by winning their last four games, including matchups against Oklahoma and the Texas Bowl versus Ole Miss. Tyler Shough and Behren Morton will compete for the starting quarterback job, and as usual, Texas Tech won't lack skill talent around its signal-caller. But for the Red Raiders to contend for a spot in the conference title game, improving a defense that's been a problem for years is a must. Edge rusher Tyree Wilson (13.5 TFL) is the biggest loss for coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
Can the Bears get back on track after a disappointing 2022? After winning the Big 12 title in '21, coach Dave Aranda's team slumped to 6-7 last fall. The pieces are in place for a finish in the top half of the conference next year, as Blake Shapen returns for his second season as the starter under center, and Richard Reese is back to anchor the backfield. Coordinator Jeff Grimes has to rebuild up front, but that task was made easier with the arrival of a pair of transfers (Clark and Campbell Barrington) from BYU. Baylor's offense may have to carry the team early on, as the defense is likely to be in transition at the start of '23. Coordinator Ron Roberts was dismissed at the end of last year, and this unit has to replace Siaki Ika in the trenches and linebacker Dillon Doyle.
Of the four new teams in the Big 12 - UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU - coach Gus Malzahn's squad seems to have the best mix of returning talent and newcomers to push for a finish in the top half of the conference. Dynamic quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and receivers Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson return to anchor an offense that averaged 32.9 points a game last fall. Addison Williams was promoted to defensive signal-caller after Travis Williams left for Arkansas. The Knights gave up 5.7 yards a snap but held teams to just 23.6 points a contest. Each level of the defense has some turnover to address. However, getting tackle Ricky Barber and linebacker Jason Johnson back was huge, and a couple of transfers should quickly restock the secondary.
The Jayhawks showed massive improvement in coach Lance Leipold's second year, going from 2-10 in '21 to 6-7 last fall. Expect another step forward from Leipold's squad, as Jalon Daniels is arguably the Big 12's top quarterback, and the staff continued to rebuild the roster with a solid class of portal additions. Kansas has a few holes to plug along the line of scrimmage and must continue to improve on defense (35.5 points a game allowed). However, with Daniels back, and the roster even more comfortable with Leipold and this staff, a winning record and a finish in the top half of the Big 12 is within reach.
9. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy hasn't had a losing record since his debut as Oklahoma State's head coach in 2005. That streak will be tested in '23, as the Cowboys were hit hard by portal losses, including quarterback Spencer Sanders, leading rusher Dominic Richardson and three of the team's top five receivers. The departures extend to the defense, where coordinator Derek Mason stepped down at the end of the year, safety Jason Taylor II and end Brock Martin departed for the NFL, and linebacker Mason Cobb (96 tackles) and cornerback Jabbar Muhammed opted to transfer.
10. Iowa State
Improving across the board and finding ways to win close games tops the list of priorities for coach Matt Campbell this offseason. Iowa State went 4-8 last year - the program's first losing record since 2016 - but six of those eight defeats came by one score. New play-caller Nathan Scheelhaase won't have All-American Xavier Hutchinson back at receiver, but the offense returns quarterback Hunter Dekkers, running backs Jirehl Brock and Cartevious Norton, and receiver Jaylin Noel. Although the offense was an issue all year, the defense finished '22 atop the Big 12 in the fewest points allowed and yards per play. Coordinator Jon Heacock should have another stingy group in '22 provided standout linemen M.J. Anderson and Will McDonald IV and cornerback Anthony Johnson can be replaced.
The Bearcats have won at least nine games in each of the last five seasons and have just 11 losses since '17. That track record suggests this ranking is probably a little low for Cincinnati, but this program is in a state of transition for '23. New coach Scott Satterfield brought in more than 10 transfers to help replenish a roster that's losing standouts on both sides of the ball. Ben Bryant and Evan Prater will compete with Arizona State transfer Emory Jones at quarterback, while three Power 5 transfers add playmaking ability to a depleted receiving corps. The offensive line must be rebuilt, and key defenders Jabari Taylor (DL), Ivan Pace (LB), Ja'Von Hicks (FS), Ja'Quan Sheppard (CB), Arquon Bush (CB), and Ty Van Fossen (LB) are gone. The front still returns enough talent and transfers to cause plenty of havoc under coordinator Bryan Brown, however.
Leaving FBS Independence for the Big 12 is a great long-term move for BYU but improving depth and addressing a suspect defense are a must if coach Kalani Sitake's team wants to challenge for a spot in the top half of the conference in '23. The '22 season was an up-and-down ride for BYU. After a 4-1 start, the Cougars lost four in a row, before finishing the year with a four-game winning streak. Pitt (and former USC starter) transfer Kedon Slovis is the early favorite to replace Jaren Hall at quarterback and UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins could take over as the No. 1 option. Puka Nacua is gone at receiver, but Keanu Hill, Kody Epps and Chase Roberts form a solid trio on the outside. A standout line must replace three starters. However, left tackle Kingsley Suamataia is back. Sitake revamped his defensive staff this year, highlighted by former Weber State coach Jay Hill taking over as coordinator. The Cougars struggled on this side of the ball last year, giving up 29.5 points and just over 170 rushing yards a game.
After an appearance in the AAC title game and 12 victories in 2021, the Cougars had hopes of winning the American and contending for a spot in a New Year's Six Bowl last fall. But coach Dana Holgorsen's team fell way short of that mark with an 8-5 record, capped by a 23-16 victory over Louisiana in the Independence Bowl. Transitioning to the Big 12 without quarterback Clayton Tune or receiver Nathaniel Dell won't be easy, but the addition of former Texas Tech signal-caller Donovan Smith helps, and Matthew Golden (38 catches for 584 yards as a freshman) is primed for a breakout season as the team's No. 1 receiver. Houston held teams to 20.4 points a game in '21 but took a step back last fall, allowing 32.2 points a game and 5.91 yards a snap.
14. West Virginia
The 2023 season is a make-or-break one for coach Neal Brown in Morgantown. The Mountaineers are 22-25 under Brown's direction but haven't had a winning record in Big 12 play and failed to win more than six games in a season in his tenure. An offense that averaged only 5.3 yards per play in Big 12 contests is under the direction of a new play-caller (Chad Scott). The strength of this unit is at running back and along the offensive line, which provides a sturdy foundation for Garrett Greene or Nicco Marchiol at quarterback. Question marks also surround the defense. The Mountaineers gave up 32.9 points a game last year and struggled mightily against the pass. All-Big 12 lineman Dante Stills is off to the NFL.