Which three- and four-game stretches could determine the Big 12 title?
It’s a long season, but three or four games could change the whole thing.
The Big 12 looks to be crowded at the top: Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor all have legitimate reasons to believe they can win the league title.
In the first look at critical stretches for each major conference, we examined the most important set of games for each team in the league.
For the teams at the top, it means the stretches when they’ll face the other contenders. For the teams at the bottom, it’s where they’re looking for signs of progress.
*presented in Athlon’s projected order of finish.
Nov. 16 at Texas
Nov. 23 Baylor
Dec. 7 Oklahoma
The Cowboys have a beneficial stretch against the bottom three Big 12 teams (at Iowa State, at Texas Tech, Kansas) before the stretch that likely determines the Big 12 title. The Cowboys lost all three of these matchups last season and now faces all three in the final games of the season. The Cowboys’ defense was gashed in all three games, including giving up 600 yards and six yards per play against the Bears and Sooners. Oklahoma State was in shootouts against OU and Baylor, but Clint Chelf completed only a combined 49-of-88 passes with three interceptions. On the other side, Texas returning quarterback David Ash had one of his best games of the season against Oklahoma State.
Related: Oklahoma State game-by-game picks
Sept. 28 at Notre Dame
Oct. 5 TCU
Oct. 12 Texas (Dallas)
A critical stretch for Blake Bell and the Oklahoma offense. The Sooners’ offensive line is expected to be a strength, but facing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix will be a key barometer for the Sooners after OU rushed for only 15 yards on 24 carries against the Irish last season. TCU has had attrition on its defense, but the Horned Frogs still allowed allowed a Big 12-low 4.9 yards per play. Texas is the great mystery. With linebacker Jordan Hicks back, the Longhorns can’t be as bad as the group that gave up 677 yards and 63 points to OU last season, can they?
Related: Oklahoma game-by-game picks
Sept. 7 at BYU
Sept. 14 Ole Miss
Sept. 21 Kansas State
Oct. 3 at Iowa State
Oct. 12 Oklahoma (Dallas)
The conventional wisdom may be that the season — and perhaps Mack Brown’s tenure — hangs on Kansas State and Oklahoma. Those are critical games with Kansas State winning five in a row over the Longhorns and Oklahoma winning the last two meetings by a combined score of 118-38. But things will be much more difficult: Going to BYU against the No. 2 run defense from 2012 and then facing an Ole Miss no-huddle spread in back-to-back weeks aren’t guaranteed wins.
Oct. 5 at Oklahoma
Oct. 12 Kansas
Oct. 19 at Oklahoma State
Oct. 26 Texas
TCU can thank the schedule-makers for that breather against Kansas in between Oklahoma road trips. That would be a trap game situation, if KU is good enough to pull of a trap game win. Not only does TCU face Athlon’s top three Big 12 teams in a span of four weeks, two of those games are on the road. Casey Pachall could end up the top quarterback in the Big 12, but his only games in the league were against Kansas in 2012 (a 20-6 win) and against Baylor in 2011 (a 50-48 loss in the opener).
Sept. 21 at Texas
Oct. 5 at Oklahoma State
Oct. 12 Baylor
Facing Texas and Oklahoma State on the road isn’t a great situation for a new starting quarterback, but all the pressure will be on the home team as Texas tries to get over its Bill Snyder problem and Oklahoma State goes for a conference title.
Nov. 7 Oklahoma
Nov. 16 Texas Tech (Arlington)
Nov. 23 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 30 at TCU
Dec. 7 Texas
With an untested quarterback in Bryce Petty, Baylor has to be happy with its backloaded schedule. This defining stretch begins with a Thursday game against Oklahoma that’s sure to have Waco at a fever pitch. The Bears have improved depth, especially on defense. That will be tested.
Oct. 5 at Kansas
Oct. 12 Iowa State
Oct. 19 at West Virginia
No one is projecting vintage Texas Tech despite the return of Kliff Kingsbury. Take care of business against the lower tier of the Big 12 early, and the Red Raiders should feel pretty good.
Related: Texas Tech game-by-game picks
Sept. 21 Maryland (Baltimore)
Sept. 28 Oklahoma State
Oct. 5 at Baylor
Oct. 19 Texas Tech
West Virginia has won seven in a row over Maryland, so a matchup against an improved Terrapins team could be an early referendum on the season. The Mountaineers’ home dates against Dana Holgorsen's former employers Oklahoma State and Texas Tech will at least be interesting television.
Sept. 14 Iowa
Sept. 26 at Tulsa
Oct. 3 Texas
Oct. 12 at Texas Tech
A limited cast of playmakers on offense and four returning starters on defense will be major concerns for the Cyclones. Facing an in-state rival and holding the line against the Conference USA favorite Tulsa will be key barometer games on Iowa State’s bowl hopes.
Sept. 7 South Dakota
Sept. 15 at Rice
Sept. 21 Louisiana Tech
If the Jayhawks are going to show any improvement, they’ll need to end the 11-game losing streak. KU opens with an FCS team, a Rice team that beat the Jayhawks 25-24 in Lawrence and a Louisiana Tech team with one returning starter on offense. Two wins would be nice.