There are some concerning trends in Big 12 football these days. Elite recruits aren’t signing with the league like they used to, they aren’t getting drafted into the NFL and this league took it right on the chin in the non-conference a year ago.
Texas lost to BYU, Ole Miss and Oregon in out-of-league play a year ago. TCU lost to LSU, West Virginia was crushed by Maryland, Kansas State was upset at home by North Dakota State, Iowa State lost the Cy-Hawk Trophy to rival Iowa and Kansas even lost to Rice.
The state of Oklahoma won the two best non-con games in the regular season last year when the Sooners won at Notre Dame and the Cowboys topped Mississippi State in Houston in the season opener. That’s it, folks. Otherwise, the Big 12 completely wet the bed in non-conference play.
Even the bowl season was a mixed bag. Oklahoma’s win over Alabama was huge, Texas Tech pulled a major upset over Arizona State and Kansas State topped Michigan. But the conference champion Baylor Bears gave up 53 points to UCF in a Fiesta Bowl loss, Texas was crushed in the Alamo Bowl by the Ducks and Oklahoma State allowed 41 points in a loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl.
There are marquee showdowns in the non-conference again this year but the Big 12 needs to win some of these big-time games to improve the overriding trajectory of the league.
1. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral field” in Dallas. The Longhorns will be a much more disciplined and focused team under the new regime and both teams have outside chances at landing a spot the college football playoffs. An early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
2. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall, four returning offensive line starters and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.
3. BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)
A revenge opportunity for the Burnt Orange players and a chance for Charlie Strong to land his first big win as the head coach. Especially, the way quarterback Taysom Hill and the Cougars abused the Longhorns' rushing defense a year ago. Hill is going to be even better this year so stopping that ground attack is still going to be a tall order. This Texas team will be more physical and more fundamentally sound this fall and the game is on the 40 Acres. No matter what happens, though, this is must-see TV early in the year.
4. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 30, Arlington)
Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title in 2011 and was one drive away from a second conference crown a year ago (they also smoked the Baylor Bears at home as well). However, with massive departures, the Pokes are in rebuilding mode and playing the defending national champs in Week 1 is a recipe for disaster. Still, any time two big programs get together in the season opener in Jerry’s World it’s something the nation needs to watch.
5. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13)
It may not be all that close of a game but any time two major power brands like the Vols and Sooners get together, it's must-see TV. Trevor Knight and Oklahoma enter the year thinking Big 12 championship and postseason bid. Butch Jones and Tennessee are slowly working their way out of the worst slump in program history. There is a lot on the line for both coaches and both teams.
6. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 13)
This is a passionate in-state rivalry that has been played 61 times (Iowa leads 41-20). The Hawkeyes won easily in Ames a year ago but lost 9-6 the last time these two met in Iowa City (2012). This game has seen high-scoring overtime affairs (44-41 in 2011) and low-scoring defensive battles. Fans never really know what they are going to see when these two get together.
7. Minnesota at TCU (Sept. 13)
Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson are two of the most well respected coaches in the game today. Minnesota is coming off an eight-win season and wants to prove it can sustain some level of success, while TCU is projected to be a much better team in 2014. This game may not look like a great matchup on paper but by season’s end, one of these two teams will have a really good non-conference win.
8. TCU at SMU (Sept. 27)
The Battle for the Iron Skillet may not seem like a big-time rivalry game nationally, but inside the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, there is a long history between these two programs. The Frogs and Mustangs have played 93 times with TCU leading the series 46-40-7. TCU has won two straight and 12 of the last 14, so SMU is looking to end the Horned Frogs' recent run of domination.
9. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)
Fans in Lubbock and Fayetteville may learn all they need to know about the both teams in Week 3. Should Bret Bielema's team play well in Lubbock or even pull the upset, then Arkansas could be a much bigger factor in the SEC than expected. If not and Kliff Kingsbury out tempos the Razorbacks, it could signal a long year for Pig Sooie and a sign of things to come for Tech. The old Southwest Conference ties make this one of the more intriguing matchups of the year.
10a. West Virginia vs. Alabama (Aug. 30, Atlanta)
This game is worth noting just because any time Alabama is on a football field it matters to the nation. Unfortunately, the Crimson Tide has dominated games in Atlanta to kick off the season and West Virginia might be its worst opponent yet. This one will be really, really, really ugly.
10b. Kansas at Duke (Sept. 13)
Charlie Weis is dealing with some major heat as the head coach at Kansas and David Cutcliffe is now dealing with expectations in Durham for the first time in program history. If the Jayhawks don’t at least look respectable in a non-conference tilt against the traditionally weakest ACC program, Weis' time in Lawrence could be kaput.