Big 12 college football preview, Part 2: Burning questions, projections for top teams

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Mar 6, 2018

Big 12 college football preview, Part 2: Burning questions, projections for conference's top teams​


Almost no team in college football has been as consistently awesome as the Oklahoma Sooners. Over the past 85 seasons, they have finished in the AP top 10 45 times with shares of 47 conference titles and just six losing records. They've made basically two bad hires (Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake) since World War II.

In 2022, the Sooners will be wearing Sooner jerseys and Sooner helmets and working out of the Sooners locker room. Many key players will be former blue-chippers, as a majority of OU players tend to be, and the head coach has previous experience at OU and knows what he's getting into.

Is that enough to overcome extreme turnover?

Head coach Lincoln Riley left for USC and took some key players and assistants with him, leading to the return of former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables as his replacement. The transfer portal took 15 players away and brought in 13 new ones. Of the 17 Sooners who saw 300-plus snaps on offense, only seven return. The overall talent on the roster is not in doubt, but OU is projected fifth in SP+ for reasons that don't have a lot to do with the Sooners team that will take the field in 2022.

That makes OU a lot like Clemson (projected sixth overall), and it makes the Big 12 a lot like the ACC -- if projections go as planned, each race has a clear favorite. But there are tons of unknowns, and if OU isn't the favorite, I have no idea who is. That's awfully exciting. We previewed the bottom half of the league last week, so it's time to preview the top half.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (Nos. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big 12 (Nos. 6-10)

2021 recap​

For the first time since 2009, the Big 12 championship game didn't feature Oklahoma. The Sooners survived early quarterback turmoil -- freshman Caleb Williams eventually replaced the inconsistent Spencer Rattler in the lineup -- without a loss, but they fell at both Baylor and Oklahoma State in November, opening the door for a title-game classic between the Bears and Cowboys instead. All three teams finished between 12th and 15th in SP+.

Kansas State was another pleasant surprise, finishing 21st in SP+. Despite a win over KSU, Texas was a spectacular disappointment in Steve Sarkisian's first season: After a 4-1 start, the Horns lost six games in a row -- including a home defeat to last-place Kansas -- and finished with a losing record for the fourth time in eight seasons. One of the sport's messiest programs figured out a way to get messier.

2022 projections​

Oklahoma State3249227.75.292%
Kansas State3843367.35.086%
Texas Tech4835696.24.458%
Iowa State5659576.14.069%
West Virginia7571764.42.934%
Because recent history and recruiting are both parts of the SP+ projections formula, OU gets the benefit of the doubt and starts out ahead of the pack. (That makes sense considering the Sooners had won six straight Big 12 titles before last season.) Meanwhile, Baylor and Oklahoma State have loads of key contributors to replace, Texas gets a boost from both experience and recruiting, and Kansas State won't need many breaks to play a heavy role in the title race as well.

Burning questions​

Is OU still OU with this much change? Oklahoma doesn't completely lack continuity. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh stuck around and should build another high-level unit around left tackle Anton Harrison & Co. Nine primary defenders are back, and while the Sooners defense wasn't good enough last year, linebacker DaShaun White and quite a few defensive backs have both experience and disruption potential.

Still, the Sooners' fate in 2022 will be decided by relative newcomers, starting with the quarterback and offensive coordinator.

The new quarterback, now that both Williams (USC) and Rattler (South Carolina) have transferred, is Dillon Gabriel, who at UCF threw for 7,223 yards and 61 TDs in 2019 and 2020, the first season coming under new OU coordinator Jeff Lebby. Lebby returns to his alma mater after two seasons with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, reunites with Gabriel and inherits a skill corps that will consist of receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease (injured last season), running back Eric Gray and Arizona State receiver transfer LV Bunkley-Shelton, among others.

Venables, OU's defensive coordinator or co-coordinator from 1999 to 2011, built some of the nation's best modern defenses in his 10 years at Clemson, and he brought aboard transfers including Appalachian State linebacker T.D. Roof (son of new OU defensive coordinator Ted), Hawai'i defensive end Jonah Laulu and Wyoming cornerback C.J. Coldon, all scrappers and playmakers who thrived at the Group of 5 level. How they meld with a load of young former blue-chippers, and how much improvement Venables can wring out of the unit in Year 1, will determine whether OU is the Big 12's lone favorite or one of many.

Can Sark get Texas out of its own way? Safe to say, last year didn't go as planned in Austin. After head coach Tom Herman was pushed out following a 7-3 campaign and No. 14 SP+ ranking in 2020, Steve Sarkisian came in and went 5-7 with a No. 48 ranking. The Longhorns' offense was solid, but the defense went from decent to bad.

There are too many former star recruits on the Texas roster to ever justify a losing record. But for whatever it's worth, the Horns were young. Leading rusher Bijan Robinson was a sophomore, top receiver Xavier Worthy a freshman, three freshman offensive linemen played at least 100 snaps and of the 10 defenders who got at least 400 snaps, seven return, including basically anyone who did anything particularly well: all three of the defenders with double-digit run stuffs, four of the five with at least two sacks and seven of the nine who took part in at least four tackles for loss. And to theoretically hasten improvement, Sark brought in a potential ringer -- former TCU head coach and defensive innovator Gary Patterson -- as an assistant to pair with coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski (who may not be feeling amazing about his job security right now).

On offense, blue-chip redshirt freshman quarterback (and Southlake, Texas, product) Quinn Ewers returned to his home state to challenge Hudson Card for the starting job. (They appeared to fight to a draw this spring.) The transfer portal also brought Alabama's Jahleel Billingsley (tight end) and Agiye Hall (wideout) and big-play receivers Isaiah Neyor (Wyoming) and Tarique Milton (Iowa State). Along with some blue-chip freshmen, they join a skill corps that already featured Robinson, Worthy, slot Jordan Whittington and backs Roschon Johnson and Keilan Robinson. The run game should be excellent, and the passing attack certainly has potential.

Then again, this is Texas. The potential is always there, but the Horns only have one AP top-10 finish in 12 years to show for it. This is clearly a difficult job, whether or not it feels like it should be, and Sarkisian has not yet proved he can get all the influential arrows pointed in the same direction. The recent commitment of Arch Manning likely eases pressure a bit, but everyone in the program, from Sarkisian to Kwiatkowski to Ewers to even Patterson, has something to prove in 2022.

Why not Kansas State? K-State's year-end numbers got a bit of a boost when it manhandled an LSU team that only somewhat resembled LSU -- fewer than 40 scholarship players available, a receiver at quarterback -- in a 22-point Texas Bowl win in January. The Wildcats were 29th in SP+ heading into the postseason and finished 21st, though maybe some of that leap was artificial.

Still, they were 29th before the bowl, not bad for a team that ranked 47th following a 3-3 start. Chris Klieman's Cats allowed just 18 points per game over their last seven. Linebacker Daniel Green's 21 run stuffs ranked fourth among power conference defenders, and end Felix Anudike-Uzomah made a havoc play (a tackle for loss, forced fumble or pass defensed) every 23.1 snaps, third-best in the Power 5. The secondary missed a ton of tackles -- something that might not improve with four of last year's top seven gone -- but it was physical and disruptive up front, something that should continue with the return of most of last year's difference-makers.

Even with quarterback injury issues and a hit-or-miss line, the offense was difficult to knock off-schedule thanks to all-world utility man Deuce Vaughn (1,872 rushing and receiving yards, 22 touchdowns) and occasional big plays from receivers (and brilliant return men) Phillip Brooks and Malik Knowles. Now they add Nebraska's Adrian Martinez, one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the country, to the equation. Martinez threw for 8,491 yards and rushed for 2,301 more over four seasons... and went 4-17 in games decided by one score.

Close games are part randomness, part quarterback play, part special teams and part mystery. Martinez made his share of miscues, but if it turns out that both he and Nebraska simply needed a fresh start away from each other to thrive, he could do quite a bit of thriving in Manhattan, Kansas. He'll have Vaughn and an efficient offense built for his skill set, plus a defense that might become the best in the conference if the defensive backs tackle a bit better. It's easy to boil this year's Big 12 title race down to two SEC-bound blue bloods (Oklahoma and Texas) versus last year's standouts (Baylor and Oklahoma State), but Kansas State needs only a break or two to be right in the mix.

Is the OSU offense ready to carry more weight again? For years, Oklahoma State was defined by offense. Mike Gundy's Cowboys ranked seventh or better in offensive SP+ eight times from 2007 to 2018 and, combined with defenses that averaged a ranking of 45th, they ripped off six seasons of double-digit wins in that span, nearly reaching the BCS championship game in 2011 and finishing in the AP top 15 four times. By 2020, their offense had fallen to 41st while their defense had risen to 18th. In 2021, the offense fell even further (to 53rd), but Gundy enjoyed his second-best season ever thanks to the No. 4 overall defense, a relentlessly physical unit that dominated the line of scrimmage, tackled well and dared the refs to call holding penalties on every pass play.

In 2022, the Cowboys will still have maybe the deepest set of defensive ends in the country thanks to the returns of Tyler Lacy, Brock Martin and Collin Oliver (combined: 41 tackles for loss, 24 sacks and 27 run stuffs), plus junior Trace Ford, who had 4.5 sacks in 2020 but missed last season. The offense returns 11 of 15 players with 300-plus snaps -- including quarterback Spencer Sanders, a player nearly as perplexing as Martinez -- and the Pokes should absolutely be solid. But there are some red flags.

Excellent line aside, OSU must replace defensive coordinator Jim Knowles (now at Ohio State), sure-tackling linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper and four of last year's top five defensive backs. The secondary still has safeties Jason Taylor II and Thomas Harper and corners Jabbar Muhammad and Korie Black, but leading returning linebacker Mason Cobb saw just 74 snaps last season. There's virtually no way for new defensive coordinator Derek Mason to avoid some regression.

For the Pokes to contend again, then, they'll need more points. Sanders has been remarkably consistent, for better or worse, over the past three seasons: He has completed 62-63% of his passes and averaged 6.9 to 7.5 yards per dropback each year. He's a tough and willing playmaker occasionally held back by mental lapses. Does he have a Kenny Pickett-esque late-career leap in him? Can a young receiving corps -- six players return with double-digit catches, and all were freshmen aside from then-sophomore Brennan Presley -- improve with him? Can explosive but inconsistent running back Dominic Richardson become more reliable? The answers will tell us if OSU can make another 2021-esque run, or if the Pokes fall back to the land of eight wins.

Are the numbers right to doubt Baylor? The past five years for Baylor football, first under Matt Rhule and then Dave Aranda, have been nearly unprecedented. I don't mean they've been particularly good or bad -- I mean they've been both. Rhule's three seasons saw the Bears go from one win to seven to 11; when Aranda replaced the NFL-bound Rhule, Baylor plummeted to 2-7, then surged to 12-2. They've gone an almost perfectly mediocre 33-29 in the most creative possible way.

If you're a Baylor fan, you're assuming last year's leap was permanent. Aranda's defensive prowess began to shine through as the Bears jumped from 42nd to 13th in defensive SP+, and he found his offensive soulmate in new coordinator Jeff Grimes, who rode converted linebacker Abram Smith for 1,601 rushing yards and engineered a leap from 91st to 41st. After some rookie mistakes in 2020, Aranda pushed all the right buttons, leading the Bears to a Big 12 title and a 4-1 record in one-score games.

But SP+, a predictive algorithm, is not quite sold. Teams that win consistently -- and don't careen all over the place -- are the ones most likely to continue winning, and teams that were a little too good in close games tend to regress. The Baylor offense will get a total reset without Smith, leading passer Gerry Bohanon and four of the five players who caught more than 15 passes last season. The defense, meanwhile, loses leading pass-rusher Terrel Bernard and five of last year's top seven defensive backs, including all-world safety Jalen Pitre. These are the primary reasons why SP+ sees Baylor as a borderline top-40 team and not something much greater.

Still, it's not hard to convince yourself the numbers are missing something. Bohanon left because sophomore Blake Shapen had taken his job after a strong late-2021 debut and spring performance. The offensive line, led by All-American tackle Connor Galvin, could dominate, and running back Taye McWilliams made the largest possible impression in just 17 carries last year -- nine of them went for at least 10 yards and one went for 44. On defense, the front seven will be devastating. Bernard is the only departing starter, and Aranda won the services of Tulsa transfer Jaxon Player, who took part in 21 TFLs and 22 run stuffs and was one of the better pass-rushing tackles in the country. Player and Siaki Ika will form one of the country's best tackle tandems, and opponents may only be able to take advantage of a vulnerable secondary so often.

The 2022 season will test the permanence of Aranda's 2021 brilliance. Maybe last year was the first in a long run of top-15 performances in Waco, but the numbers aren't sold, and I don't think I am either.

My 10 favorite players​

QB Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma. Gabriel lacks the natural arm strength of a Spencer Rattler, but he interprets space well, uses the entire field and is always looking for the home run ball. It's hard not to enjoy the possibilities of a Gabriel-to-Marvin Mims combination.

RB Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State. In 13 games last fall, Vaughn gained at least 120 combined rushing and receiving yards 12 times. He's 5 foot 6, 176 pounds and among the most durable, reliable backs in the Big 12.

RB Bijan Robinson, Texas. You couldn't blame Robinson for Texas' 2021 woes -- the then-sophomore posted 1,422 combined rushing and receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. And that was with injuries taking him down in November.

WR Xavier Worthy, Texas. Asked to carry his receiving corps -- he had more than twice as many receptions as anyone else -- the true freshman responded well, gaining at least 85 yards in five games (and 261 against Oklahoma).

LT Connor Galvin, Baylor. The Bears are facing a lot of change this season, but a veteran offensive line could dominate, and Galvin, who allowed just one sack and one forced incompletion for a top-10 team in 2021, will be the primary reason why.

DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State. There might not be a bigger under-the-radar star in the country than the junior from Kansas City. His specialty is the pass rush (11 sacks, 8 forced incompletions, 5 forced fumbles), but he also took part in 10 run stuffs.

DE Brock Martin, Oklahoma State. It's hard to pick just one OSU end, but we'll go with the 245-pound senior, who took part in 21 TFLs and showed the highest combined level of run disruption and scary pass rushing.

DT Jaxon Player, Baylor. Player is impossibly quick for his bowling-ball stature (6-0, 290 pounds), and with the weapons he'll have around him, opponents will struggle to double-team him. One of my favorite transfers of 2022.

LB T.D. Roof, Oklahoma. Undersized at 5-11, 216 pounds? Absolutely. Tough as hell and disruptive? Absolutely. Roof missed only six tackles all season, took part in 11 run stuffs and could thrive if asked to blitz more in Brent Venables' system.

S Jason Taylor II, Oklahoma State. The OSU secondary still has one dynamite playmaker. The senior from Oklahoma City is the perfect safety for the 2020s -- part linebacker (6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 6 run stuffs) and part ball hawk (two INTs, three breakups).

Honorable mention: QB Blake Shapen (Baylor), WR Marvin Mims (Oklahoma), WR Phillip Brooks (Kansas State), RT Cooper Beebe (Kansas State), LT Anton Harrison (Oklahoma), DE Tyler Lacy (Oklahoma State), DE Collin Oliver (Oklahoma State), NT Keondre Coburn (Texas), LB Daniel Green (Kansas State), S Christian Morgan (Baylor).


In 1967, 55 years ago, Texas' Darrell K Royal decided he needed to change his offense. After five top-five finishes in six seasons, Royal's Longhorns had hit a rough patch, going 6-4, 7-4 and 6-4 from 1965 to '67. His Longhorns had ranked outside the top 50 in scoring offense in 1966 and '67. Texas had talent, and -- not for the last time -- it also had the benefit of the doubt from poll voters, but it was clear the offense needed a refresh, so Royal did something strange: He asked first-year linebackers coach Emory Bellard to move to offensive coordinator and come up with something fresh.

Inspired in part by Houston's veer offense and blessed with riches in the backfield, Bellard crafted what would become known as the wishbone offense. The quarterback -- in this case, James Street -- would have endless options for where to go with the ball. Texas began 1968 with a draw and a loss, then won 30 straight games, took the 1969 title and became the inspiration for major offensive overhauls at Alabama and Oklahoma. Option football was already popular in the college ranks, and the wishbone made it the sport's first-choice offense.

In 1987, 35 years ago, Barry Switzer fielded his last great Oklahoma team. When the wishbone took over, no one benefited more than Texas' Red River rival. OU's Barry Switzer learned the offense from Bellard, and from 1971 to 1980, with Switzer first as offensive coordinator and then as head coach, the Sooners won two national titles and never finished lower than seventh in the AP poll. They slipped briefly, going through a bit of an offensive identity crisis and losing four games each year from 1981 to 1983, but they jumped back to 9-2-1 in 1984, won the national title in 1985, then nearly won two more in 1986 and '87.

Switzer was out by 1989, taken down by NCAA sanctions, but his 1987 team was about as good as any he'd had. Led by quarterbacks Jamelle Holieway and Charles Thompson and All-American defenders Dante Jones, Rickey Dixon and Darrell Reed, the Sooners destroyed Texas 44-9 and controlled top-ranked Nebraska 17-7 in Lincoln to finish an unbeaten regular season. They came up six points short of another title, losing 20-14 to Miami in the Orange Bowl and landing on my list of best teams not to win a national title. But they were a wrecking ball all the same.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Kansas State won its second Big 12 title. From 1989 to 2005, Bill Snyder became the greatest coach in K-State history, flipping the Wildcats from laughingstock to elite program (five top-10 finishes from 1995 to 2000) and, in 2003, Big 12 champion. After a three-year retirement, Snyder returned and basically also became the second-greatest KSU coach. After going 13-12 in 2009 and '10, his Wildcats jumped to 10-3 with Collin Klein at quarterback in 2011, then started 2012 with 11 straight wins and positioned themselves for a BCS championship game bid in late November.

A blowout loss at Baylor ended that dream, but a 42-24 win over Texas, keyed by a 28-0 second-half run, clinched a second Big 12 title and the seventh 11-win season of Snyder's career.

In 2017, five years ago, Baylor went 1-11 under Matt Rhule. After the fallout from a sexual assault investigation, new Baylor leadership had to craft a new football program. Athletic director Mack Rhoades persuaded Temple's Matt Rhule to give it a shot, and in 2017 came an ultimate Year Zero situation. Baylor beat Kansas, of course, but that was it. Within two years, the Bears were playing in the Big 12 title game. After Rhule left for the NFL, Dave Aranda took over, and Baylor both collapsed again (2-7 in 2020) and surged again (Big 12 champ in 2021).

Also in 2017: Nothing was scarier than Rudolph-to-Washington. Only one power conference athlete has produced more receiving yards in his career than Oklahoma State's James Washington, who racked up 4,472 and 39 touchdowns over 226 receptions from 2014 to 2017. Mason Rudolph was on the throwing end of 196 of those completions for 3,807 of those yards, and the two formed one of the most devastating connections ever in 2017. They connected 74 times for 1,544 yards and 13 scores and powered an attack that ranked fourth in offensive SP+. The Cowboys went 10-3 in 2017, scoring 50-plus points six times in the process. Who says you can't build an offense around going deep?
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