The Big 12 has ten members, lacks a conference title game and almost singlehandedly ruined its chance to appear in the inaugural College Football Playoff. On the same weekend Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama and Florida State clinched their spots behind conference championship wins, TCU beat Iowa State by 52 points yet (somehow) sunk three spots in the almighty final rankings. Hardly helping the league’s playoff case, the Big 12 elected to name Baylor and TCU co-champions, a phrase best used to reinforce the meaning of paradox.
The Big 12 will enter this season with the same possible co-champions issue, but boasts an early national title favorite (TCU). Still, these are tough times in the conference. Two of the league’s Texas teams (Texas and Texas Tech) have recently struggled. Its traditional powerhouse was one of college football’s biggest flops in 2014 (Oklahoma). And two former members (Texas A&M, Missouri) now bask in the vaunted SEC, long divorced from the dysfunction of years past.
So, where to from here? Spring practice, of course. If the Big 12 is to rebound from last year’s disappointing finish, that process will begin in the coming weeks. Here are the major questions facing each team.
• Baylor: Who will be the Bears’ new electric passing combo?
After leading Baylor to two consecutive Big 12 titles, record-breaking quarterback Bryce Petty is gone to the 2015 NFL draft along with his primary weapon, wide receiver Antwan Goodley. That should open the door for a new high-flying duo of quarterback Seth Russell and receiver KD Cannon. Briles has essentially anointed Russell the starter, telling reporters last week, “Right now, Seth is going to have to be beaten out.” However, he’ll need to hold off sophomore Chris Johnson and true freshman Jarrett Stidham, both of whom have drawn praise from Briles. Cannon will look to capitalize on his promising freshman All-America campaign, in which he caught 58 passes for 1,030 yards with eight touchdowns.
• Iowa State: Can an experienced attack get the Cyclones back to a bowl?
After taking Iowa State to a bowl game in three of his first four seasons, coach Paul Rhoads has led his team to a combined five wins over the past two years. But with eight offensive starters returning, including promising sophomore receiver Allen Lazard, the Cyclones hope spring ball will be a step back toward Big 12 relevance. Senior quarterback Sam B. Richardson returns to lead an offense that was relatively effective passing the ball (51st nationally) but failed to establish the run (108th), mostly because it consistently faced deficits. With the return of top wideout Quenton Bundrage (who missed all but four plays last season with a torn ACL), leading receiver D’vario Montgomery and Lazard (593 yards, 3 touchdowns as a freshman), the Cyclones will try to keep improving.
• Kansas: Can David Beaty start to turn things around?
The Jayhawks enter this spring as a virtual unknown. One of the worst teams in the FBS last season, they didn’t retain interim coach Clint Bowen, who motivated the squad enough to scare TCU in a November matchup but otherwise scuffed to a 3-9 finish. The school brought in new head coach Beaty, a former Kansas assistant who arrives from Texas A&M, and along with new offensive coordinator Rob Likens (who last served as Sonny Dykes’s receivers coach at Cal) he will likely institute a quick-strike attack reminiscent of those of Dykes and Kevin Sumlin. Quarterbacks Michael Cummings and Montell Cozart return along with promising freshman tailback Corey Avery. While there isn’t much to report about the Jayhawks yet, they are on the technological forefront of concussion prevention.
• Kansas State: Can new faces help the offense reload?
The losses of prolific quarterback Jake Waters, receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller will sting, but depth and discipline are hallmarks of recently anointed Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder. Surprisingly, Snyder took just one juco transfer in this year’s signing class, leaving a number of positions (most notably quarterback, receiver and several spots on the defensive line) open for competition. Right now the best option at quarterback appears to be sophomore Joe Hubener, Waters’s backup last season, but early enrollee Alex Delton from nearby Hays, Kan., could see meaningful snaps this spring. With the team’s top three receivers lost to graduation (including Lockett, arguably the best in program history, and Curry Sexton), seldom-used Kody Cook and Deante Burton should see considerable action in the receiving corps.
• Oklahoma: Will Baker Mayfield challenge Trevor Knight under center?
After delivering a dazzling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama in January 2014, quarterback Knight was tabbed a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite by multiple media outlets. Yet after finishing last season with the 85th-ranked passing offense in the nation, Knight may not have even secured his spot entering spring practice. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, finally eligible after a contentious move from Lubbock, presents the biggest challenge to Knight, whose inconsistency marred one of the most disappointing campaigns of Bob Stoops’ tenure in Norman. Mayfield started eight games as a true freshman walk-on under Kliff Kingsbury in ’13, but elected to transfer after falling behind fellow freshman Davis Webb on the depth chart. Lightly recruited out of Lake Travis (Texas) High, Mayfield drew praise from those around the Sooners’ program during his redshirt season.
• Oklahoma State: Who will emerge from a crowded quarterback race?
Mike Gundy’s team responded to an injury-plagued five-game losing streak with impressive wins over rival Oklahoma and Washington to close out the 2014 season. The problem now is there is no clear indication as to who will start at quarterback. J.W. Walsh hung tough in the opener against Florida State last August, but injured his foot against Missouri State and missed the remainder of the year. Daxx Garman showed flashes of improvement in his nine games as the starter, but rumors have surfaced that he may be considering a transfer from the program. Touted freshman Mason Rudolph quarterbacked the Cowboys’ final two wins, but burned his redshirt in the process.
• TCU: Can the defense replace several departed key contributors?
Star quarterback Trevone Boykin may be the best player in college football, but will miss the final week of spring practice due to an operation on his non-throwing wrist. For Gary Patterson’s lightning-quick attack, which finished second nationally in scoring offense (46.5 points per game), the focus will be on properly replacing tailback B.J. Catalon. Aaron Green looks like the most likely answer, having finished fourth in the Big 12 with 922 rushing yards last fall. Yet it’s not offense that’s the problem. If the Horned Frogs find one stop against Baylor in the waning minutes of a 61-58 loss on Oct. 11, then they are in the playoff. And that defense loses six starters on the front seven and standout cornerback Kevin White. Two starting linebackers—including Paul Dawson, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year—are also gone. But Patterson has expressed confidence in his reserves.
• Texas: Can the Longhorns finally find an effective quarterback?
One of the most intriguing teams this spring, Texas enters practice with no clear answer at quarterback in year two of the Charlie Strong era. Tyrone Swoopes is one of the better athletes on the roster, but his wavering confidence was evident throughout the second half of last fall, culminating in a 57-yard passing effort in a 31-7 Texas Bowl loss to Arkansas. With redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard eligible, Swoopes may find himself changing positions before the spring is out. Keep in mind, Kai Locksley, a four-star recruit who flipped from Florida State to Texas before Signing Day, could join the competition when he enrolls over the summer.
• Texas Tech: Can the defense bounce back from a dreadful 2014?
With another new defensive coordinator (David Gibbs from Houston, assisted by co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith), the Red Raiders will look to shore up an awful 2014 defense in what should be a revelatory spring. After surrendering 41.3 points per game last year (including 82 in a loss to TCU), Gibbs ushers in his 4-3 scheme with hopes of repairing a porous secondary and a lackluster pass rush. The most exciting player is Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell, a former five-star prospect who could play at either defensive end or outside linebacker. Smith emphasized the importance of not placing too much pressure on Mitchell right away, but he may be asked to control a lot on such a struggling unit.
• West Virginia: Will running back Rushel Shell break out?
One of the Big 12’s pleasant surprises last year (until the final few games, at least), West Virginia faces a new challenge without quarterback Clint Trickett and wide receiver Kevin White. Yet it could see the long-awaited breakout of running back Shell. The transfer from Pittsburgh was one of the most heralded high school players of his class and impressed with 788 rushing yards last year. With the unseasoned Skyler Howard likely starting at quarterback, Dana Holgorsen may choose to structure his offense around the dynamic Shell instead.