How far did Baylor fall? How did we sort out West Virginia and Texas?
Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our Big 12 predictions for 2016.
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Were there thoughts on not picking OU?
Not really — due in part to our confidence in the Sooners and in part to a lack of confidence in the other top teams. Oklahoma did lose some key personnel last year — most notably wide receiver Sterling Shepard, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zach Sanchez — but this is still the most complete team in the league. A year ago, Oklahoma outgained Big 12 opponents by an average of 192.2 yards per game — by far the best in the league — en route to an 8–1 record. The offensive line could be an issue, but OU boasts one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and an elite running back duo in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
How did the situation at Baylor affect the Bears’ ranking?
We ranked Baylor second in the Big 12 during the spring. Obviously, things have changed with the firing of Art Briles, the hiring of Jim Grobe and the turmoil with what’s left of the current roster. Grobe is a fine coach, and he’ll have a talented quad. That said, Baylor doesn’t seem likely to contend for the Big 12 without Briles’ command of the offense, never mind the toll on morale for the remaining players. There are simply too many variables to make any kind of informed decision on Baylor. We originally projected Baylor to go 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the Big 12, a feat that would probably earn Grobe Big 12 Coach of the Year consideration. Baylor is probably closer to seven or eight wins. Given the non-conference schedule and games against Kansas and Iowa State, 5-7 would be the worst case scenario. We split the difference and moved Baylor to fourth behind Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Why did TCU get the nod over Oklahoma State?
TCU endured a string of significant injuries last season yet still went 11–2 overall and 7–2 in the league — a testament to Gary Patterson’s coaching and the overall talent in the program. The Horned Frogs return only one starter on offense, but the drop-off in production shouldn’t be too great. There are plenty of talented returning players at running back and wide receiver to help ease the transition for quarterback Kenny Hill, a transfer from Texas A&M who posted gaudy numbers with the Aggies in his half-season as the starter. And the TCU defense, with seven starters back, should be among the most improved in the nation. Oklahoma State, after winning 10 games a year ago, figures to receive some love in the preseason polls. The Cowboys have some quality talent at quarterback and receiver, and their defense should be decent, but this team still has some significant areas of concern. And it must be noted that the Pokes were fortunate to win seven league games; they outgained league opponents by only 10.9 yards per game, and four of their seven Big 12 wins came by seven points or fewer. One more note: Oklahoma State’s road schedule includes trips to Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma. That is not easy.
What went into picking West Virginia fifth?
Sorting out the middle of the Big 12 was very difficult. After much debate we settled on West Virginia at No. 5 over Texas Tech and Texas. There is some unrest in Morgantown — head coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t on the firmest of ground — but this is a team that could surprise in 2016. Despite last year’s 4–5 Big 12 record, West Virginia was rated highly by some of the advanced metrics; the F/+ rating used by Football Outsiders ranked the Mountaineers 31st nationally and fourth in the league. There are holes to fill in the secondary, but the offense has a chance to be very good thanks to the return of quarterback Skyler Howard (who played his best game in the bowl win over Arizona State) and a quality offensive line. The schedule also sets up nicely: Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU all visit Morgantown.
Texas at 7, really?
Yes, Texas is predicted to finish closer to the bottom than the top. The Longhorns should be improved on defense, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest the offense will take a big step forward under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. It’s a positive that this offense will finally have an identity, but it will take time for the Horns to adapt to Gilbert’s version of the up-tempo spread. There have been a few nice wins in Charlie Strong’s two seasons, but the Horns have also been really bad far too often; they’ve lost nine games by 17 points or more under his watch — nine too many for a coach at Texas.