Who has the best football roster in the Big 12 heading into 2014?
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
When it comes to the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma stand above the rest — in all senses of football success. These two normally dominate the headlines, the standings and the recruiting trail. And one quick look at the last five years' worth of recruiting rankings indicate this is still very much the case in the Big 12. However, the rise of potential Big 12 powers in other Heartland outposts have flipped the conference standings upside down for the most part — which is why there is a new coach in Austin.
Here is how the Big 12 rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Big 12 based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Charlie Strong has no excuses
Mack Brown is one of the nicest guys to ever coach in major college football and that might have been part of the problem. The Longhorns have the best roster in the Big 12 and the seventh-best roster in the nation heading into the 2014 season. Yet, Brown and the Horns are ahead of only Kansas (10) and Iowa State (19) in the Big 12 in overall wins in the last four seasons. The 18 conference wins over that span rank sixth in the Big 12 as well. The bottom line is that Charlie Strong enters a situation where he's taking over a team that has dramatically underachieved despite having the best players in the league, at least according to the recruiting rankings. There are no excuses for Strong, especially if he keeps Texas atop the Big 12 recruiting rankings as expected.
Bill Snyder doesn’t care about any of this
Let’s face it, there is really only one coach in college football who can take the 60th-best roster in America and consistently win 10 games a season and that is Bill Snyder. His roster ranks ahead of only Iowa State’s entering Big 12 play and just behind in-state “rival” Kansas. Yet, the Wildcats have 26 more overall wins and 21 more conference wins than the Jayhawks over the last four years. Snyder won the Big 12 title in 2012 and consistently beats more talented teams on a yearly basis. He lives on the edge with junior college players but he has proven that he is a unique motivator and one-of-a-kind head coach.
Baylor and Oklahoma State have won the past two Big 12 championships, as both Mike Gundy and Art Briles have built powerhouses in Stillwater in Waco. The recruiting rankings bear this out as both the Cowboys and Bears are nipping on the heels of the two big boys from Norman and Austin. Gundy (39 wins) and Briles (36) are second and third in the league in wins and have slowly built rosters that are beginning to be comparable to Texas and Oklahoma. The drop off in overall recruiting talent is still a large one as both the Horns and Sooners reside in the top 10 nationally while both Okie State and Baylor are outside of the top 25. But as fans in the Big 12 have seen, few coaches level the playing field better with schematics than Briles and Gundy. And now, it appears those two programs are elevating their stock on the recruiting trail as well.
Welcome to the big time
Gary Patterson has an impressive 35-16 overall record and 22-12 conference record over the last four years. That, of course, is with two decidedly different seasons each in the Mountain West and two in the Big 12. All 12 of those conference losses have come in the last two seasons in the Big 12 and 14 of those 16 overall losses have come in the last two seasons. TCU has seen a strong surge on the recruiting trail — from 62nd in 2010 to an average of 34th nationally over the last four cycles. This seems to indicate that the Frogs will be able to compete in the Big 12 once they gain their footing. How soon that will happen remains to be seen.
Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia are in the same boat as TCU. After finishing atop the Big East standings nearly every year in recruiting, the Mountaineers now sit sixth in the Big 12 in terms of talent entering the '14 season. Both of these teams are adjusting to a massive step up in competition and it will take time to win at a rate that either experienced in their former leagues. But much like TCU, West Virginia has a comparable roster to teams like Baylor and Texas Tech and should be able to flourish in the Big 12 over the long haul.
Captain Skinny Jeans
Kliff Kingsbury’s first season at the helm was an interesting one in Lubbock. He won his first seven games over teams with lesser talent, lost his next five against teams with better talent and then pulled off the huge upset over Arizona State in the postseason. Texas Tech enters this season with the fifth-best roster in the league but is trending in the wrong direction in recruiting. After two classes ranked in the top 25 under Tommy Tuberville, Kingsbury’s first two hauls have ranked outside of the top 40. Does he need elite players to win with his unique offensive system? Probably not. But should he not regain some footing on the recruiting trail in short order, his depth chart could take a hit. This would more than likely translate to fewer Ws and more Ls on the field, especially in Big 12 play.