Is this the year the Texas Longhorns challenge the Sooners for Big 12 supremacy?
For the past three seasons, the Big 12 has belonged to Oklahoma. Not only are the Sooners the three-time defending conference champions, they have won the Big 12 title 11 times since the conference started play in 1996. Texas is a distant second with three conference championships.
Given Oklahoma's dominance, it only makes sense that the Sooners enter 2018 as the favorites, but that doesn't mean OU won't have its own challenges to face. Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield is longer on the roster, one of 11 starters that must be replaced from last year's team that made the College Football Playoff.
So if the Sooners are vulnerable, which team is most likely to end their three-year run in the Big 12? We asked Athlon editors and contributors to give their pick for the team they view as the one Oklahoma should be most worried about this fall.
Which Team is the Biggest Threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
West Virginia and TCU are intriguing, but the biggest threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12 is Texas. The Longhorns were 7-6 in coach Tom Herman’s first year, losing five games by 10 points or less, including a five-point defeat to the Sooners in Dallas. Defense was the strength of last season’s team and this group should be strong once again. Coordinator Todd Orlando brings back six starters, and each of the three levels rank near the top of the conference in unit rankings.
Texas’ biggest concern is once again on offense. However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Sam Ehlinger seems poised to take a step forward, and the addition of graduate transfers in Tre Watson (RB) and Calvin Anderson (OL) should help both of those units. With an improved offense to go with arguably the Big 12’s top defense, Herman’s team should flip a couple of those close losses into wins in 2018. Also, USC, West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State all visit Austin next year. A road trip to Oklahoma State won’t be easy, but Texas also has a bye week before going to Stillwater. The pieces (and schedule) seem to be in place for the Longhorns to take a big step forward in Herman’s second year.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
The key to Oklahoma's success was pretty simple last season -- offense and lots of it. The Sooners will still be potent on offense this fall, but the conductor will be new with Baker Mayfield in the NFL. The mantle of Big 12's best quarterback shifts to West Virginia's Will Grier. With a healthy Grier, the Mountaineers should light up the scoreboard. While it's entirely possible that WVU's defense will have even more questions than OU's last season because of the turnover and uncertainty on that side of the ball, I still look for Grier and the offense to do the heavy lifting, just as Mayfield and company did last season. It's only fitting that these two teams don't meet until late November, as that game could serve as the appetizer for a second matchup on Dec. 1 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
It's been six years since West Virginia joined the Big 12, and the Mountaineers have yet to win, or even truly contend, for a conference title. I can hear Admiral Ackbar off in the distance shouting, "It's a trap!" -- after all, the Mountaineers have been tabbed as the emerging candidate to win the Big 12 repeatedly in their brief tenure. Why not perennial overachiever TCU? Matt Campbell has a budding dark horse at Iowa State, maybe the Cyclones could shock the world? What if this is in fact the season that Texas football is back?
All those questions speak to a larger theme in the Big 12 ahead of 2018: Of the Power 5 conferences, it's arguably the one most shrouded in uncertainty. Aside from Oklahoma, which is a constant to be in the championship conversation, West Virginia embarks on the campaign with some of the greatest stability.
Quarterback Will Grier leads an experienced offense and should build on a campaign of 34 touchdowns and just shy of 3,500 yards (in 11 games) -- especially with primary target David Stills in the fold. Grier's health bolsters the offense, just as David Long's return elevates the defense. With Long and breakout star Kenny Robinson, the Mountaineers defense has intriguing pieces.
Drawing Oklahoma at home on Thanksgiving weekend could make for an exciting, de facto Big 12 title game... what's that you say? The Big 12 launched a needless championship round last season? Well, at least the Mountaineers will be in the running to reach that.
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism)
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Texas.
The Longhorns are working on something like their eighth year of being "back," and they're still not there yet. They're getting closer, though.
Despite a middling 7-6 record last year, UT played hard from start to finish. The strength of the 2017 squad, the defense, brings back known commodities at all three levels and has talented youngsters coming down the pike. Meanwhile, the offense should provide more firepower with seasoned quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele playing behind an improving offensive line.
The next most likely candidate is TCU, which has the best defensive player in the conference in lineman Ben Banogu and a bevy of threats at the offensive skill positions. However, the Horned Frogs are rebuilding their offensive line and breaking in sophomore Shawn Robinson as their starting QB. In his only start last season against Texas Tech, Robinson didn't look ready to lead a team to the top of the conference.
Overall, Texas possesses the best depth of any team in the Big 12 not wearing crimson and cream every Saturday. The players are now fully immersed in Tom Herman's vision for the program in his second year as head coach. If you're looking for the best bet to dethrone the Sooners in 2018, head to Austin.
Peter Mundo (@PeteMundo)
The West Virginia Mountaineers. Dana Holgorsen has the most talent he's ever had in Morgantown and this is his year to capitalize on it. The Big 12 is as wide open as it's been since before Baker Mayfield entered the conference. Holgorsen returns the top quarterback in the Big 12 and a potential Heisman favorite in Will Grier, who lived up to the expectations following his transfer from Florida, but he went down late in the season with a nasty finger injury. Grier is healthy and has fantastic weapons on the outside in David Sills V, Gary Jennings and don't forget about Alabama WR transfer T.J. Simmons. Kennedy McKoy should then lead the way in a crowded and deep backfield.
On defense, the Mountaineers are shaky, but have used the transfer market to try and shore some units up. USC transfer Kenny Bigelow comes to town to help on the defensive line and try to improve a run defense that was the worst in the Big 12, along with true freshman and four-star DT Dante Stills. Denzel Fisher joins from UCLA and will help at the cornerback position. Linebacker David Long may be one of the best defensive players in the conference and racked up 15.5 tackles for a loss in just nine games played last season.
Also, the Mountaineers get the Sooners at home this year in the final regular season game of the year on a Friday in Morgantown.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
I'm torn between two, and it might surprise some that TCU isn't in the mix for me. The Horned Frogs have a lot of turnover, especially on the offensive line, and quarterback is more of a question mark than it is with the other top Big 12 challengers. I also don't like the way the schedule sets up, with trips to Texas and West Virginia, the neutral-site matchup with Ohio State the week before playing the Longhorns, and the fact Oklahoma has a bye week ahead of its trip to Fort Worth.
West Virginia has the best quarterback in the conference, and one of the best in the nation, in Will Grier. The Mountaineers also have a bevy of playmakers around him and a solid offensive line. There's talent on defense as well, though depth is a concern. Dana Holgorsen has relied heavily on junior college transfers, which is a high-risk strategy. But, the schedule is manageable, and sets up very well early. WVU is likely to be favored in its first eight games, and also gets TCU and Oklahoma at home in November.
Finally, this year's Texas squad compares similarly to Georgia's last year. The Longhorns have a ton of talent across the board, especially on defense. Texas ranked No. 1 in Athlon Sports' Big 12 unit rankings at all three levels. Also, Tom Herman is in his second season as head coach, so the team could benefit from the well-documented Year 2 bump. There's a marquee non-conference matchup with USC in September, and the Horns host TCU in their Big 12 opener the following week.
It's not ideal to have the two games back-to-back, but at least both are at home and TCU has an even tougher task the week before. Both the Trojans and Horned Frogs are dealing with a lot of turnover, and playing the pair early in the season could be beneficial to Texas. West Virginia must also travel to Austin in November. There are a lot of ifs, but if the quarterback situation settles itself, the rushing attack improves, and the offensive line comes together, Texas could be dangerous offensively. Pair that with what could be the best defense in the league and the Horns are a legitimate Big 12 title contender, and a potential dark horse College Football Playoff candidate.