The two teams at the top of the Big 12 at the end of last season both bring back a lot of talent and more than a little incentive to see that their conference, unlike last year, is represented in the College Football Playoffs. While TCU and Baylor are clearly the cream of the Big 12 crop, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas and Kansas State add plenty of depth. Texas Tech is trying to get better, but with the strength of the teams above them, it could be a slow process. Iowa State and Kansas, with five wins between them in 2014, are destined to battle it out for the cellar.
What’s special about the Big 12, and why they should be so upset at getting their top team excluded from the playoffs, is that it’s the only league that plays a round robin conference schedule. Unlike the Big Ten, where Ohio State dodges a West contender until a potential championship game encounter, or the SEC, where defending East champ Missouri avoids Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M in the regular season, or even the ACC, where Virginia Tech doesn’t have to play Florida State, Clemson or Notre Dame. TCU lost to Baylor by three points in an epic shootout in 2014, and because the Bears then subsequently stubbed their toe at West Virginia, the Big 12 was left with co-champions, apparently not good enough to qualify for the national championship tournament. It was ludicrous then and it’s still ludicrous now. But that was last year. What about 2015?
TCU returns ten offensive and five defensive starters from a team that outscored opponents by a 46 – 19 margin per game. QB Trevone Boykin again leads this very potent attack. Where TCU differentiates itself from Baylor is on defense. Head coach Gary Patterson, despite the offensive firepower, has traditionally been known for his defenses. Last year’s version was in the top ten nationally in rushing and scoring defense. Had they not had such big leads that allowed opposing defenses the opportunity to get some passing yardage, TCU’s D may have finished much higher than their ranking of 18th in total yards allowed. There is no question that the Horned Frogs will again score points in bunches, but they’ll need to get strong play on defense from two linebackers that have no starts between them. If they make the transition and perform, this is one scary football team.
Baylor, the team that probably had the best argument of any team that got left out of the playoffs, didn’t exactly do themselves any favors by giving up 101 points in their last three wins, one a 48 – 46 squeaker over eventual 4 – 7 Texas Tech. That’s probably the game that kept them on the sidelines while Ohio State rolled to a national championship. But despite all of the starters coming back for the Bears, there’s one that needs to be replaced, and that’s QB Bryce Petty. Seth Russell takes over and if he can lead this team the way Petty did, then Baylor and TCU could both be undefeated when they meet on Nov. 27 in what would be an elimination game for the playoffs.
But let’s not forget about an Oklahoma team that came within four points of upending TCU last year and is still coached by Bob Stoops. The big question for the Sooners is who will start at quarterback. With a new offensive coordinator, it will be important for the offense to click on all cylinders to compete in a league with unprecedented scoring ability. An early trip to Tennessee and an in-state clash with Tulsa will give us a glimpse as to whether a Big 12 crown is a realistic goal. Oklahoma State needed to beat the Sooners last year to avoid going winless in their final six games and get to bowl game. They knocked off Oklahoma, then defeated Washington to end the season. But in those five losses, they averaged less than fourteen points and allowed over 40 a game. By any standard, that’s pretty pathetic and they need to get a lot better to compete for the title.
If you’re looking for a dark horse, West Virginia is a good candidate. They were the only team to beat Baylor last year, lost by a point to TCU, then faded a bit down the stretch. But in a high scoring league, the Mountaineers contained Baylor to 27 and TCU to 31 points and nine of the players on that defense are back for this season. The big issue for West Virginia is the schedule. They’re already the eastern most school in the conference, and this season they have to travel to Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU, by my measure the three best teams in the conference.
It’s impossible not to mention Kansas State. Their only conference losses last year were to co-champions TCU and Baylor, but the Wildcats lost their starting quarterback and two top receivers. Bill Snyder generally fields a good defense, but in the Big 12 it’s all about outscoring your opponents. I see them taking a step back this year, but we’ll find out pretty early in the conference slate as they open with Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor. If they’re 4 -1 on Nov. 6, then I guess I’ll have to make them a contender.
When the dust settles on what promises to be a great season in the Big 12, I have a hard time thinking that TCU, barring injuries, won’t emerge as the champion. But Texas, a team going through a bit of a down period, could make some noise, and it could only take one or two big upsets to make it a three or four team race for the title.
Prediction: TCU, but they won’t get through the schedule unscathed.