In 2014, the Big 12 faced a playoff snub, and it caused somewhat of a crisis for the conference. They were left outside looking in, and the depth of the conference was highly questioned. Critics are claiming this is a new age, however, with Baylor and TCU among the highest ranking schools in the nation.
The conference heads decided to change up the game a bit, to account for the lack of playoff titles. Unlike last year, there will be “One True Champion” in the conference, as the Big 12 changed its rules to account for head-to-head performance in case of a tie.
In a sport filled to the brim with tradition, it’s unprecedented that the consensus regular-season game of the year will take place between two teams that haven’t won a national championship in 77 years. TCU at home hosts Baylor on Nov. 27 in a meeting many are already projecting to decide the Big 12 championship.
Can the most unpredictable conference in college football pull out the stops, and redeem themselves from the disappointing 2014 season? Take a look at our 2015 Big 12 predictions.
TCU Horned Frogs
During last year’s magical season, everything went right for the Horned Frogs. TCU went 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown. The team gained national spotlight with a sure-handed quarterback Trevone Boykin, who didn’t throw more than one interception in a single regular season game. The strength of the returning offense, which also includes running back Aaron Green and all but one starting offensive lineman, has invigorated the public to make TCU quite possibly the preseason’s most popular team.
Just as important as what’s coming back on offense, however, is what’s not on defense. TCU lost six of its top seven tacklers from last year’s team, which ranked 12th in the nation in giving up 4.7 yards per play. Aside from a couple of notable lapses — most notably in the 61-58 loss to Baylor where TCU blew a 21-point lead in 10 minutes. Last season might not have finished the way TCU wanted, but it’s going to be even harder to get back in the same position this year. However, analysts are betting they can, and the nation is watching.
The Team(s) to Watch
Analysts aren’t as enamored with Baylor as they are with TCU, which is curious considering all that the Bears return. They bring back even more production than the Horned Frogs, and rank in the top five nationally in experience with 18 returning starters. That includes lines that mauled opponents on both sides of the ball, led by big-time NFL prospects in center Kyle Fuller and defensive end Shawn Oakman.
It would register as a surprise, with running back Shock Linwood poised to lead the offense, if the Bears started anything other than 7-0. They’re going to be favored by at least 17 points in every game, before a bye week leads them into the meat of the schedule with Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas in consecutive weeks. But Baylor has more than handled conference foes lately, going 16-2 straight up over the last two years. The Bears have five straight years of winning against the spread records over the Big 12 with coach Art Briles’ overall totals standing at 33-27 straight-up, 36-24 against the spread through seven years. Those are remarkable figures considering Baylor had never managed a winning season in the Big 12 before Briles arrived. The most likely reason the Bears haven’t been a public darling in the offseason is the absence of a returning superstar quarterback like Boykin. But it’s worth remembering that their offensive production only endured minimal drop-off between Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence a few years ago. Bryce Petty, the starter the last two years, similarly experienced no learning curve. Junior Seth Russell steps into an advantageous situation with top receivers Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon to his side in the nation’s highest tempo offense.
It’s no surprise, that coach Bob Stoops may have suffered his worst year in 2014, when the Sooners were extremely hyped going into the season but finished 8-5. Stoops has only failed to hit 10 wins three previous times in 16 years as Oklahoma’s coach.
Those numbers would caution to watch out for the Sooners, but the critics love to provoke danger. If nothing else, they should be able to run the ball and stop the run. Sophomore running back Samaje Perine set the single-game record last year with 427 yards against Kansas, helping Oklahoma gain 6.1 yards per rush attempt for the season. That fell in the top 10 nationally, as did the Sooners’ defense for holding opponents to three yards per rushing attempts. They return three of the conference’s best linebackers in Dominique Alexander, Jordan Evans and Eric Striker.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
For the first time in nine years, Oklahoma State was unprofitable to bet on in the 2014 season. The Cowboys, by far the Big 12’s best bet over the last decade, were doomed by a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season. But, then Mason Rudolph arrived. Coach Mike Gundy pulled Rudolph’s redshirt and the true freshman quarterback led Oklahoma State to covers in each of its last three games. Rudolph’s emergence culminated with outright upsets in the regular-season finale.
Be on the look out for Oklahoma State to make some huge roster moves, and take chances on big plays.
Not even the $8 million video board at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium could make the Longhorns’ offense look pretty last season. They averaged 4.8 yards per play, one of the 20 worst averages in the nation, and only better than Kansas in the Big 12. The lack of offense reached a tipping point in the Texas Bowl, where Texas managed 59 total yards in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas. Most of the same personnel return on that side of the ball in 2015, including quarterback Tyrone Swoopes who’s locked in a battle with redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard for the starting job. The hope is that a healthy and experienced offensive line can help whoever plays quarterback and senior running back Jonathan Gray, once a five-star recruit as one of the nation’s most decorated high-school players, live up to their potential. Defense kept Texas in games last season, but the unit loses six of its top seven tacklers.
It might take a miracle, but the front office has made moves off-season to ensure that the likelihood is stronger.
Kansas State Wildcats- Kansas State loses virtually all of its best players, and is getting ignored by the public. In other words, it’s reminiscent of almost every year under coach Bill Snyder. Enough said.
West Virginia Mountaineers- If raw talent Skyler Howard develops, West Virginia could have its best season since joining the Big 12. The defense should be among the league’s best, led by safeties Karl Joseph and Dravon Henry.
Texas Tech Red Raiders- Mike Leach’s final year was the last time the Red Raiders posted a winning record. Defense is the recurring issue, as Texas Tech was again miserable in 2014, surrendering 6.3 yards per play. Good news is, Texas Tech brings back the second-most experience in the conference, including two quarterbacks in Davis Webb and Patrick Mahome, who threw for more than 4,000 yards collectively. Whoever wins the job has the luxury of five of their top six receiving targets returning including dual threat running back DeAndre Washington.
Iowa State Cyclones- After finishing 0-9 last season, Kansas will be the only Big 12 team Iowa State is favored against in 2015, but senior quarterback Sam Richardson and top receivers D’Vario Montgomery and Allen Lazard should threaten teams with shaky defensive backfields.
Kansas Jayhawks- Former high school coach David Beaty was a smart hire for a brutal job. By tirelessly recruiting Texas, Beaty might eventually bring the Jayhawks back to respectability. But after a spring marked by injuries and dismissals, Kansas will struggle.
Games to Watch
Sept. 5- Texas at Notre Dame
As far as season openers go, Texas at Notre Dame is certainly one of the most intriguing, regardless of expectations. The Irish once again have their eyes on a possible playoff spot and will be breaking in a new quarterback, Malik Zaire. Texas, too, has a quarterback storyline with the ongoing battle between Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard.
Sept. 12- Oklahoma at Tennessee
There’s potentially a lot riding on this game. First of all, it’s a huge stress test for Oklahoma. Unless it’s a stunning loss, a Week 1 game against Akron probably won’t tell us much about this team. There’s also a lot of hype around Tennessee this year as possible SEC East favorites. The Vols need a statement win just as much as Oklahoma does.
Nov. 21- TCU at Oklahoma
The Sooners haven’t been quite as dominant at home over the past few years as they have been historically under head coach Bob Stoops, but that doesn’t mean Norman has suddenly become a cake walk. Additionally, there’s a lot of chatter about Oklahoma actually living up to expectations this year—one year after it became the trendy playoff pick.
Nov. 27- Baylor at TCU
I mean, duh, right? There is no game on paper in the Big 12, and very few nationally, that has the type of anticipation as Baylor’s trip to TCU has on Nov. 27. This could be for the Big 12 championship. It could also be for so much more. A playoff spot could be on the line for two teams that many people project will be undefeated come late November.
Kristen Ashly is a contributor and senior editor for Nuts & Bolts Sports. You can talk all things football with her on Twitter @KristenAshly.