The Big 12 embarks on another new era in 2017. The league passed on expansion to remain a 10-team league, but a conference championship game returns in December. With a nine-game schedule and 10 teams, the league is guaranteed a rematch in Arlington, Texas next December to decide the conference crown. However, the additional game could help Oklahoma (or another champion) next season, especially if Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia are ranked in the top 25 to help improve the strength of schedule.
Oklahoma enters 2017 as the early favorite to win the Big 12 for the third consecutive year in a row. The Sooners closed 2016 by beating rival Oklahoma State and defeated Auburn in dominant fashion (35-19). Quarterback Baker Mayfield is back to lead Oklahoma’s run to another conference title, but the supporting cast features a couple of new faces after Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon left early for the NFL. Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia headline the next group of contenders. Texas Tech must replace quarterback Patrick Mahomes, while Baylor begins a new era under coach Matt Rhule. TCU should rebound after a 6-7 mark last fall. However, the Horned Frogs need better quarterback play to finish in the top half of the Big 12. Iowa State and Kansas are improving but are likely a year away from making a push for a bowlg ame.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2017:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2017
The Sooners have a few holes to fill this spring, but coach Bob Stoops’ team is the frontrunner to claim the Big 12 title in 2017. After setting a new NCAA quarterback rating record (196.4), Baker Mayfield should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman next fall. Mayfield’s supporting cast experienced some turnover after running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon declared for the NFL Draft and standout receiver Dede Westbrook expired his eligibility. The Sooners have options at running back with Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson the expected frontrunners for carries, and junior college recruit Marquise Brown should help right away at receiver. In addition to Mayfield, the strength of the offense should be a line that returns all five starters from the Sugar Bowl and guard Cody Ford is back from injury. Although the transition to a new set of skill players won’t be easy, the biggest concern for Oklahoma remains on defense. Can this unit take a step forward after losing linebacker Jordan Evans, linemen Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts and safety Ahmad Thomas? The losses aren’t too heavy, especially with rush linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returning and the emergence of Caleb Kelly. As a freshman linebacker, Kelly finished with 36 tackles and ended the year by recording 12 in the win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Jordan Thomas is back to anchor one side of the secondary, with Jordan Parker (eight starts as a freshman) expected to handle the other side. Safety Steven Parker should contend for All-America honors.
2. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons. Coach Mike Gundy seems to have a team capable of contending for the Big 12 title, especially after quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington turned down the NFL one more season in Stillwater. Washington will be joined by LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, Marcell Ateman and Jalen McCleskey at receiver, while running back Justice Hill returns after a 1,000-yard season as a freshman. Two starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including All-Big 12 left tackle Victor Salako. The defense ranked seventh in the Big 12 in 2016 by limiting opponents to 5.93 yards per play. Can this unit improve on that total after losing tackle Vincent Taylor early to the NFL and linebackers Jordan Burton and Devante Averette, cornerback Ashton Lampkin and safety Jordan Sterns to graduation? Road trips to Texas and West Virginia won’t be easy, but Oklahoma State hosts Oklahoma and Kansas State next season.
3. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s Wildcats finished 2016 by winning six out of their last seven games and should be in the mix to win the Big 12 title next fall. The offense is in great shape on the ground, as quarterback Jesse Ertz (1,012 yards) and rising star Alex Barnes (442 yards) return for 2017. Ertz did not throw for more than 200 yards in a game during Big 12 play in 2016 but threw only one interception over his last six contests. While the passing attack won’t take a huge step forward on the stat sheet next fall, Ertz has two talented and proven targets at his disposal in Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath. The offensive line is set with four returning starters. Reloading on defense is the biggest hurdle for K-State in order to challenge for the Big 12 title. End Jordan Willis, linebackers Charmeachealle Moore, Will Davis and defensive backs Dante Barnett and Dante Starks have expired their eligibility. Additionally, All-Big 12 linebacker Elijah Lee left early for the NFL. Helping to ease the transition on defense will be end Reggie Walker, cornerback D.J. Reed and tackle Will Geary.
The Longhorns are the toughest team to rank in the early Big 12 predictions for 2017. New coach Tom Herman should help this program take a significant step forward next fall. However, just how high can this team climb? Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Herman. Quarterback Shane Buechele headlines an offense that averaged over 30 points per game (31.9) for the first time since 2012 last fall. Running back D’Onta Foreman departed for the NFL after a 2,000-yard season in 2016. However, Chris Warren is back from injury, and Kyle Porter is another option to handle the ground game. Anchored by tackle Connor Williams, guard Patrick Vahe and center Zach Shackelford, the Longhorns have a promising trio in the trenches and should be one of the better lines in the Big 12 next fall. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando inherits a depth chart full of talent, but Texas has to improve on defense after surrendering 31.5 points per game in 2017. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, end Bryce Cottrell and hybrid end/linebacker Breckyn Hager are a key trio for Orlando to build around this spring. The Longhorns have a favorable path to a finish among the top three teams in the Big 12, as Oklahoma State and Kansas State visit Austin next fall.
5. West Virginia
Coming off a 10-3 record and a No. 18 finish in the Associated Press poll, coach Dana Holgorsen has some much-needed job security. After the regular season ended, Holgorsen inked a five-year extension with the school. Additionally, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson – one of the best assistant coaches in the Big 12 – signed a new three-year deal. The Mountaineers also improved their staff this offseason by hiring former assistant Jake Spavital as offensive coordinator. Even though both sides of the ball suffered a few key losses, West Virginia should be in the mix to be a top 25 team in 2017. Florida transfer Will Grier takes over under center, and the backfield is stocked with options, including Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy. Receiver Shelton Gibson departed early for the NFL, and the line must replace standout center Tyler Orlosky. For the second year in a row, Tony Gibson’s defense is facing a significant overhaul. However, this unit will regain the services of safety Dravon Henry-Askew after he missed all of 2016 due to a knee injury. End Noble Nwachukwu and cornerback Rasul Douglas won’t be easy to replace.
For just the third time in Gary Patterson’s coaching career at TCU, the Horned Frogs are coming off a losing season. However, following the two previous years with a losing record, TCU won at least 11 games the next season. That’s a good omen for a team that returns enough talent to push for a spot among the top five in the Big 12. Co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham was instrumental in the recent improvement for TCU’s offense. However, co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie should keep this unit on track. Kenny Hill had his share of ups and downs in his first season as the No. 1 quarterback, and he will be pushed for time by incoming freshman Shawn Robinson. Running back Kyle Hicks (1,042 yards) returns, and the receiving corps is in great shape with the return of Taj Williams, John Diarse and KaVontae Turpin. The line surrendered 31 sacks in 2016 but improvement should be noticeable with four starters returning. Patterson is one of the best defensive minds in college football, and this unit has not ranked lower than third in the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed since 2012. Next year’s version should feature a strong back seven, but the line must replace ends James McFarland and Josh Carraway and tackle Aaron Curry. Standout safety Denzel Johnson also expired his eligibility.
Matt Rhule was an outstanding hire for Baylor, but the former Temple coach has a lot of work to do in his first season in Waco. The Bears were already shorthanded due to the departure of a handful of recruits after Art Briles was dismissed in May. Quarterback Zach Smith showed potential after taking over for an injured Seth Russell under center. Smith will face competition from Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon for the starting nod. Smith and Solomon is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including running backs Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty and four starters on the offensive line. Rebuilding the receiving corps is the biggest concern for Rhule after KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora left early for the NFL Draft. Safety Orion Stewart and linebacker Aiavion Edwards are the biggest losses on defense. Depth on both sides of the ball is a concern.
8. Iowa State
Matt Campbell has Iowa State trending up entering 2017. The Cyclones finished 2016 with a 3-9 record, but this team won two out of its last three games and lost five by 10 points or less. Jacob Park and Joel Lanning shared time at quarterback in 2016 and both players are slated to return next fall. Park (12 TDs, 5 INTs) is the better thrower, while Lanning (518 yards) is a superior runner. The running back position is in good hands with David Montgomery (563 yards) and Mike Warren (559). Allen Lazard is one of the top receivers in the Big 12 and turned down the NFL for one more season in Ames. Deshaunte Jones (37 catches) joins Lazard as a key target in the passing game after a promising freshman season. The biggest concern for Campbell remains up front on the offensive line and on defense. The Cyclones must replace three standouts in the trenches, as Mitchell Meyers, Demond Tucker and Jhaustin Thomas have expired their eligibility. Cornerback Brian Peavy and safety Kamari Cotton-Moya should be two of the Big 12’s top defensive backs in 2017.
9. Texas Tech
It’s no secret 2017 is a critical year for coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Red Raiders are 7-11 in Big 12 play over the last two seasons and have missed on a bowl in two out of the last three years. As usual, scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Texas Tech. However, the defense has surrendered at least 40 points per game (on average) over each of the last three seasons. Can this unit take a step forward next fall? Coordinator David Gibbs returns a good chunk of the depth chart, including linebacker Jordyn Brooks and end Kolin Hill. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leaves big shoes to fill after deciding to enter the NFL Draft. Nic Shimonek is the frontrunner to start at quarterback after throwing for 464 yards and six scores in four games in 2016. Shimonek won’t be hurting for options at receiver, as Jonathan Giles (69 catches), Keke Coutee (55), Cameron Batson (61) and Dylan Cantrell (57) return for 2017.
David Beaty has this program moving in the right direction, but the Jayhawks might be a year away from escaping the Big 12 cellar. The hire of Doug Meacham from TCU was a huge addition for an offense that averaged 20.3 points per game in 2016. Meacham was instrumental in TCU’s improvement on offense over the last three seasons and takes over the play-calling duties after Beaty called the plays last year. Peyton Bender arrives from the junior college ranks (and a stint at Washington State) as frontrunner to start at quarterback in 2017. The Jayhawks need to generate more production out of the ground attack, but the receiving corps features three talented players, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Steven Sims and Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot. The defense allowed 6.04 yards per play in 2016 but that was a slight improvement from the 6.96 mark in 2015. End Dorance Armstrong (10 sacks) is quietly one of the Big 12’s top defenders, and safety Mike Lee is another promising player for Beaty to build around on defense.