College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The Big 12 was the only power conference without a team in the college football playoff this season. However, that could easily change in 2015. Baylor and TCU are playoff contenders, while Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas should be in contention for a spot in preseason top 25 projections.
Related: Athlon's 2015 Big 12 Predictions
Early Big 12 Predictions and Rankings for 2015
2014 Record: 12-1 (8-1)
It’s a close call for the top spot in the Big 12 next season, but TCU edges Baylor in the pre-spring power rankings. The Horned Frogs have a proven option at quarterback (Trevone Boykin), while the Bears will be breaking in a new starter to replace Bryce Petty. And it certainly doesn’t hurt TCU’s chances of winning the division with the annual matchup with Baylor coming in Fort Worth this year. As usual in Fort Worth under coach Gary Patterson, defense should be a strength. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 4.7 yards per play in 2014. TCU does have a few personnel losses to address, as tackle Chucky Hunter, linebacker Paul Dawson and defensive backs Sam Carter, Kevin White and Chris Hackett must be replaced.
2014 Record: 11-2 (8-1)
With at least 10 wins in three out of the last four seasons, it’s safe to say Baylor no longer rebuilds. Under coach Art Briles, the Bears simply reload and will be in the mix for at least a share of the conference title for the third consecutive year. Seth Russell, Chris Johnson, and true freshman Jarrett Stidham are expected to battle to replace quarterback Bryce Petty, but the supporting cast is among the best in the nation. Shock Linwood returns at running back after recording 1,252 yards and 16 scores in 2014, and three receivers – Jay Lee, Corey Coleman and KD Cannon – are back after each caught at least 40 passes and averaged 15 yards per reception last season. The offense was a big winner around the draft deadline, as left tackle Spencer Drango decided to return to Waco for his senior year. Baylor is slated to return all five starters on its offensive line. The defense has room to improve after allowing 5.7 yards per play (conference-only games) in 2014. However, only two seniors are slated to depart, and end Shawn Oakman is back after recording 11 sacks last season.
2014 Record: 8-4 (5-4)
The Sooners were one of the biggest disappointments in the nation last season. Oklahoma was pegged as a playoff contender in most preseason predictions, but coach Bob Stoops’ team finished 8-5 and lost the last two games of the year. But there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley inherits a talented backfield, and a passing attack that is in need of an upgrade after the Sooners tossed only 13 scores in nine Big 12 games. Although Riley is an Air Raid disciple, Oklahoma needs to maximize its stable of running backs – Samaje Perine, Alex Ross, Keith Ford and Joe Mixon – until the quarterback situation is established. Trevor Knight couldn’t capitalize off his Sugar Bowl success and finished 2014 with just 14 touchdowns to 12 picks in 10 games. Knight will have a chance to reclaim the starting job, but he will be pushed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. Another concern for Riley is the departure of four starters on the line, including standout tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams. The offense isn’t the only side of the ball in need of repair. The defense had nine returning starters, yet allowed 5.6 yards per play, generated only 19 sacks in Big 12 play and gave up 29.2 points in conference-only matchups. Tackle Jordan Phillips and end Chuka Ndulue are big losses up front, but the linebacking corps returns intact, and Frank Shannon is back after a suspension. The secondary needs to cut down on its big plays allowed – 50 of 20 yards or more – in 2015.
4. Oklahoma State
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-5)
The Cowboys have momentum entering spring practice after a two-game winning streak to close out the 2014 season. Oklahoma State had massive personnel losses to overcome last year and returned just eight starters. The Cowboys used a win over rival Oklahoma to get bowl eligible and scored an impressive win over Washington in the Cactus Bowl. A big reason for optimism in Stillwater is the development of quarterback Mason Rudolph. The true freshman threw for 853 yards and six scores over the last three games and should benefit from the return of the top five statistical receivers from 2014. The offensive line has to play better after allowing 40 sacks last season. End Emmanuel Ogbah, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson anchor a defense that should improve after giving up 5.9 yards per play in Big 12 games last year.
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2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4)
Charlie Strong will get Texas back in contention for the Big 12 title. But don’t expect a conference championship in 2015 or even significant improvement in the win column. Texas won three out of its final five games but had a dismal showing in the Texas Bowl and was soundly defeated by TCU (48-10) in late November. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes needs to make a big jump in performance for the Longhorns to finish in the top half of the Big 12, and top receivers Jaxon Shipley and John Harris must be replaced. Until Swoopes is ready to shoulder more of the offense, this team can lean on running back Johnathan Gray and five starters on the line. The arrival of Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford paid immediate dividends for the defense. Texas held opponents to just 4.7 yards per play and only 23.4 points per game in Big 12 action. Each level of the defense has a key player to replace, but the biggest and most significant loss is tackle Malcom Brown.
6. Kansas State
2014 Record: 9-4 (7-2)
It’s tough to pick against Bill Snyder, but the Wildcats are losing a handful of key contributors from their 2014 team. Quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett are the biggest departures on offense. Waters passed for 22 scores and 3,501 yards in 2014, while Lockett was one of the nation’s top receivers (106 catches, 1,515 yards). Replacing both players will be a challenge, and the offense has to find more consistency in its ground attack next year. While the skill talent needs to be stocked and a quarterback must be found, the offensive line returns four starters, including standout left tackle Cody Whitehair. The personnel losses extend to the defense. End Ryan Mueller, linebacker Jonathan Truman and defensive back Randall Evans have expired their eligibility. Mueller is the biggest loss out of that trio, but K-State’s front seven should benefit from the emergence of linebacker Elijah Lee and the return of tackle Travis Britz.
7. West Virginia
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-4)
Coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 finish in 2013. But the Mountaineers rebounded, finishing with a 7-6 record and a winning mark (5-4) in Big 12 play for the first time since joining the conference. Skyler Howard showed promise in limited action (8 TDs, 0 INTs), but needs to raise his completion percentage (50.9). In addition to getting Howard acclimated to the starting role, the receiving corps must replace Kevin White and Mario Alford, while standout guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski have expired their eligibility. The strength of the offense should be at running back, as Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Andrew Buie return after combining for 1,742 yards. Under the direction of first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, West Virginia’s defense cut its yards per play allowed from 5.9 to 5.4 and held opponents to 27.6 points per game (sixth in the Big 12). The Mountaineers should take another step forward on defense next year, as the secondary returns three standouts in cornerback Daryl Worley and safeties Dravon Henry and Karl Joseph. Pass-rush specialist Shaq Riddick, defensive end Brandon Golson and linebacker Wes Tonkery are the biggest losses on defense.
8. Texas Tech
2014 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Since starting the 2013 season 7-0, Texas Tech is just 5-13 over its last 18 games. But the Red Raiders are a good candidate to rebound back to a bowl in 2014, as most of the team’s starting core returns, and new coordinator David Gibbs should bring stability to a defense that has struggled in recent years. Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes will battle to earn the starting nod under center for 2015, with Mahomes (averaged 439.7 total yards over last three games) likely holding an edge for the No. 1 spot. Mahomes isn’t hurting for skill talent, as DeAndre Washington (RB), Jakeem Grant (WR) and standout left tackle Le’Raven Clark are back. Gibbs’ defenses at Houston had a knack for forcing turnovers, and the Red Raiders need better discipline and takeaways after recording a -13 margin in 2014. Texas Tech allowed 41.3 points per game last season, and it’s clear Gibbs has a lot of work to do in the spring to generate improvement from the defense in 2015.
9. Iowa State
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
Iowa State is one of the toughest jobs among Power 5 programs. The Cyclones are 5-19 over the last two seasons and went winless in Big 12 play in 2014 for the first time since 2008. Getting back to a bowl will be a challenge for coach Paul Rhoads, as Iowa State loses a handful of key seniors. The offense should be better under the second year of coordinator Mark Mangino, and the passing attack will benefit from a healthy Quenton Bundrage at receiver. In addition to Bundrage’s return, the coaching staff has to be pleased with the development of receiver Allen Lazard (45 catches as a true freshman in 2014). The defense allowed 6.8 yards per play in Big 12-only contests last season. But there’s optimism in Ames for improvement, as only two starting seniors depart – Jared Brackens (LB/S) and Cory Morrissey (DE). Safety Kamari Cotton-Moya should be in the mix for All-Big 12 honors next year.
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-8)
New coach David Beaty is known for his recruiting ties to the state of Texas, and his previous experience at Kansas (2008-09 and 2011) should benefit the program. But the first-year coach is going to need some time to restock the roster and get the Jayhawks in contention for bowl games. This team played better after Charlie Weis was fired, and interim coach Clint Bowen remains on staff as the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator. Both sides of the ball have major question marks entering spring practice. Quarterback Michael Cummings and running back Corey Avery are two pieces for the offense to build around next season, but the receiving corps lost its top three options. All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney has expired his eligibility, and Bowen must find a replacement for rush end Michael Reynolds, and three starters in the secondary.