The College Football Playoff era has been an interesting two-year period for the Big 12. The future shape and outlook for the conference is a source of ongoing debate, but the league got a much-needed boost last season with Oklahoma earning the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and a trip to the Orange Bowl. While one season isn’t enough data, the Sooners’ playoff bid shows the Big 12’s current format (round-robin schedule and no conference championship) is enough for a team to reach the top four.
As the page turns to 2016, Oklahoma is the clear favorite to win the Big 12 once again. The addition of play-caller Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield sparked the Sooners’ offense last season, and this unit will be just as deadly next fall. Baylor has to reload in the trenches, but the Bears have enough offensive firepower to be a top 10-15 team. Oklahoma State and TCU are next up in the early pecking order, with West Virginia, Texas Tech and Texas rounding out the next group of teams.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2016:
Early Big 12 Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Sooners were a year ahead of schedule in 2015 and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Big 12 and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. After an 8-5 finish in 2014, coach Bob Stoops overhauled his staff with four new assistants and tweaked the offense under first-year coordinator Lincoln Riley. Oklahoma’s offense thrived under Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield by averaging 47.2 points a game in Big 12 contests. Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine anchor the 2016 version, but receiver Sterling Shepard will be missed. The offensive line must improve for Oklahoma to contend for the national title and question marks remain with the departure of center Ty Darlington and guard Nila Kasitati. The Sooners led the Big 12 in scoring defense (22 points a game allowed in 2015), and six starters return for coordinator Mike Stoops. However, this unit must replace cornerback Zack Sanchez, linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper.
The Bears have some work to do in the trenches, but there’s enough firepower coming back to Waco to ensure Baylor is back in contention for the Big 12 title. Additionally, coach Art Briles and his staff have upgraded the talent level in recent recruiting classes, allowing the Bears to quickly reload after key personnel losses. Center Kyle Fuller returns to anchor an offensive line that returns just one starter, and KD Cannon becomes the new go-to threat with Corey Coleman off to the NFL. Shock Linwood headlines a loaded backfield, but the biggest question mark on offense resides at quarterback. Seth Russell is expected to return to full strength after a neck injury in October. Will Russell hold onto the starting job or will Jarrett Stidham claim the No. 1 spot this offseason? It’s a good thing Baylor’s offense should have no trouble scoring points next fall, as the defense may need some time to find the right mix with new personnel. Ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer and defensive tackles Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear depart the line, and cornerback Xavien Howard left early for the NFL.
3. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys ended 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but the 10-3 record was a solid rebound for coach Mike Gundy’s team after a 7-6 mark in 2014. Matching 10 wins next fall isn’t unrealistic, especially if the offense continues to average over 40 points a game in Big 12 matchups. J.W. Walsh is not expected to gain a sixth season of eligibility, which leaves Mason Rudolph as the clear No. 1 at quarterback. Rudolph threw for 3,770 yards and 21 scores in 2015 and should take another step forward in his development next fall. Receiver James Washington (20.5 ypc) will be one of the top targets in the Big 12. However, question marks still remain on the offensive line and running back. Seven starters provide a solid foundation for coordinator Glenn Spencer, but the defense is losing some of its top performers from 2015, including end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson. After a favorable home slate in 2015, most of Oklahoma State’s toughest games are on the road in 2016.
Injuries and roster turnover on defense hindered TCU’s hopes of a playoff push in 2015. The Horned Frogs will enter 2016 with lower expectations, as coach Gary Patterson’s team must replace quarterback Trevone Boykin, running back Aaron Green, receiver Josh Doctson and four starters on the offensive line. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is considered the favorite to replace Boykin at quarterback, and the cupboard isn’t bare at running back and receiver. Defense should be a strength for Patterson in 2016. The Horned Frogs return seven starters and cornerback Ranthony Texada, safety Kenny Iloka and end James McFarland are back from season-ending injuries. TCU also has an intriguing home slate, starting with a home non-conference matchup against Arkansas and Big 12 games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
5. West Virginia
Last year’s 8-5 record was West Virginia’s best mark since joining the Big 12 in 2012. Can the Mountaineers take another step forward in 2016? Doing so will require more development from quarterback Skyler Howard and a quick rebuild on defense with only three returning starters. Howard closed out the 2015 season on a high note, throwing for 532 yards and five scores in the Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. Howard returns four starters up front and four of the top five statistical receivers. Running back Wendell Smallwood will be missed at running back, but Rushel Shell (708 yards in 2015) is capable of carrying the ground attack. The back seven on defense will require the most attention for coordinator Tony Gibson, as linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and cornerbacks Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut leave big shoes to fill.
6. Texas Tech
After a disappointing 4-8 record in 2014, the Red Raiders had a nice bounce back year, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play. Taking a step forward and climbing into the top half of the standings next season starts with improvement on defense. Coordinator David Gibbs was the right hire to fix Texas Tech’s defense, but this unit surrendered 43.6 points a game in 2015 and loses two of its top players in end Pete Robertson and Micah Awe. The good news for Gibbs? The secondary returns largely intact and linebacker Dakota Allen (87 tackles) turned in a solid freshman season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II is one of the nation’s most underrated signal-callers, but he will have to shoulder more of the workload with a revamped offensive line and the departure of running back DeAndre Washington and receiver Jakeem Grant.
The pressure is building on coach Charlie Strong. Can Texas take a step forward in 2016? We’ll see. The Longhorns are 11-14 in Strong’s two seasons and once again begin spring ball with question marks on offense. New assistants Matt Mattox and Sterlin Gilbert were hired from Tulsa to implement a spread attack, but do the Longhorns have a quarterback on the roster to run the offense? Jerrod Heard (1,214 yards, 5 TDs), Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Kai Locksley are back and will be joined by incoming freshman Shane Buechele to compete for the No. 1 job under center. While question marks exist at quarterback, the running back corps (D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III) and receiving corps (John Burt) feature a few promising playmakers. Three starters are back up front, including standout freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe. Strong’s specialty is defense, and this unit returns a handful of promising youngsters to build around, including linebacker Malik Jefferson.
8. Kansas State
Last season’s 6-7 record was the worst mark of coach Bill Snyder’s second stint in Manhattan. Retirement rumors popped up during 2015 for Snyder, but the 76-year-old coach put those to rest after the Liberty Bowl defeat against Arkansas. Snyder is slated to return on the Kansas State sidelines next fall with 11 returning starters. Injuries hit the quarterback position hard in 2015, but Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton will return to full strength and ready to compete with Joe Hubener for the No. 1 spot. Four starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including stalwarts Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson. The defense should be the strength for the Wildcats, as seven starters are back, and safety Dante Barnett returns after missing nearly all of 2015 due to injury.
9. Iowa State
Iowa State gets high marks for the hire of rising star Matt Campbell as the program’s new coach. Campbell went 35-15 at Toledo and should bring improvement to the Cyclones after three seasons of missing out on a bowl. Campbell inherits a few talented pieces on offense to build around, as running back Mike Warren (1,339 yards in 2015) and receiver Allen Lazard (56 catches) should contend for All-Big 12 honors. However, the offense needs more development from quarterback Joel Lanning and the offensive line returns only one starter. Iowa State’s defense returns nine starters, but this unit needs to get better against the pass (111th nationally in pass efficiency defense) and cut down on the yards allowed per play (6.16). It may not show too much in the win column this year, but the Cyclones will take a step forward in Campbell’s first season.
David Beaty’s massive rebuilding project at Kansas enters 2016 looking for small steps in the right direction. The Jayhawks showed some signs of life in league play with close losses to Texas Tech and TCU last year. But there’s a lot of work for Beaty and this staff to do next fall, as Kansas has a 15-game losing streak and the roster is littered with question marks. Quarterback Ryan Willis and running back Ke’aun Kinner are two promising players to build around on offense, and Texas A&M transfer LaQuivionte Gonzales joins the mix at receiver this spring. The defense surrendered 46.1 points a game last season and the overall depth and talent is still a work in progress. Freshmen Dorance Armstrong Jr. (DE) and Daniel Wise (DT), linebackers Joe Dineen Jr. and Marcquis Roberts and senior safety Fish Smithson form a foundation for co-coordinator Clint Bowen to build upon next year.