2016 Big 12 preview: Battles at the top and battles for survival define conference

1:03 | College Football
2016 Big 12 football preview: Nine quarterbacks return
Tuesday August 16th, 2016

From the SEC and Big Ten to the Sun Belt and Conference USA, the race for league titles is always fascinating. The Big 12 is no exception. The battle between defending conference champ Oklahoma and TCU and Oklahoma State should be thrilling and will likely have College Football Playoff implications.

But what sets the Big 12 apart this season might be its intrigue beyond the title race. After an appalling scandal led to Art Briles’s dismissal this off-season, Baylor is one of the toughest teams to project. Texas coach Charlie Strong will be coaching for his job following a combined 11–14 record in his first two seasons with the Longhorns. West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen may similarly be coaching for his job while legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder aims to prove he still has one more trick up his sleeve.

From the top to the bottom, the Big 12 is filled with storylines—and that’s not even counting the teams who might be joining.

• More 2016 conference preview: Group of Five | ACC

Projected 2016 Big 12 standings

Oklahoma 11–1 (8–1) Kansas State 6–6 (4–5)
TCU 10–2 (7–2) Texas Tech 7–5 (4–5)
Oklahoma State 8–4 (5–4) West Virginia 6–6 (4–5)
Baylor 8–4 (5–4) Iowa State 5–7 (3–6)
Texas 7–5 (5–4) Kansas 2–10 (0–9)

• Oral history of the birth of the Big 12

    Offensive MVP
    Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
    2015 stats: 269 of 395, 3,700 passing yards, 36 passing TDs, 7 INTs; 405 rushing yards, 7 TDs
    2016 projected stats: : 270 of 376, 3,713 passing yards, 38 passing TDs, 6 INTs, 388 rushing yards, 6 TDs
    Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year despite 2015 being his first year of eligibility for the Sooners and playing for an offensive coordinator in his first year in the program. The pairing of Mayfield and Lincoln Riley was natural, given their shared Air Raid background, so it’s not surprising they quickly got up to speed. Still, after a full off-season of work together, there’s little reason not to expect even more in year two. Mayfiled loses his top target, Sterling Shepard, but nonetheless has no shortage of options in Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews and Penn State grad transfer Geno Lewis.

    Defensive MVP
    Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
    2015 stats: 61 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
    2016 projected stats: 70 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
    Perhaps the second-most important player on the Longhorns (behind only the player listed below), Jefferson will carry the weight of improving a Texas defense that ranked 70th in yards allowed per play last season. The linebacker recorded solid numbers for a true freshman en route to earning the Big 12’s defensive rookie of the year last season, but he’ll have to become a national sensation for the Longhorns to progress this fall. Texas gets eight starters back on defense, so it’ll have the experience to improve; it just needs the star power.

    Impact Freshman
    Shane Buechele, QB, Texas
    2016 projected stats: 180 of 315, 1,980 passing yards, 12 passing TDs, 9 INTs
    Strong brought on Sterlin Gilbert as offensive coordinator to try to revive a stagnant unit that has ranked eighth and ninth in the Big 12 in scoring offense in Strong’s two seasons. It now appears likely Gilbert will turn to Buechele, a four-star signee, to guide a rebuilt spread attack. Good luck, Shane: You’re entrusted with saving the head coach of the biggest program in college football in your first year on campus. Oh, and your first start is against Notre Dame. No pressure.

    Coach On the Hot Seat
    Charlie Strong, Texas
    2015 record: 5–7 (4–5)
    Overall record at Texas: 11–14 (9–9)
    In case the past two sections haven’t made it clear, there’s a lot on the line for Strong in the 2016 season. His first two seasons haven’t been a lot of fun, but that’s hardly surprising given the empty cupboard he inherited from Mack Brown and the shakeup he catalyzed that led to several players leaving the program. Strong is building something, and so far recruits have bought into his vision—Texas’s 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the country, according to Scout.com. There’s still reason to believe Strong can restore the Longhorns to greatness if given enough time. The 2016 campaign will determine if he gets that time.

Three key nonconference games

Kansas State at Stanford (Sept. 2)

If Stanford lives up to its preseason expectations, the Cardinal shouldn’t have too much trouble winning this one. But Snyder’s 2016 squad looks a lot like the kind he’s so masterful at turning into a greater whole than the sum of its parts. Kansas State is experienced—the Wildcats’ top passer, top three rushers and two of the top three receivers from 2015 are back, as are seven defensive starters—and last year’s onslaught of injuries should lead to solid depth. The Cardinal can’t overlook this one, particularly after a Week 1 loss last year derailed their playoff hopes.

Notre Dame at Texas (Sept. 4)

A loss doesn’t necessarily mean the Longhorns are doomed for another season of mediocrity, but it would be a wasted chance to indicate they’re on the right track. Notre Dame embarrassed Texas in South Bend last season, 38–3. A similar result in Austin would be catastrophic, at least for morale. A victory would likely indicate Gilbert’s attack is sparking the offense and Buechele has potential. The Longhorns at least need to make sure this game is respectable.

Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)

For a conference often dogged for its contenders’ weak non-conference slates, Oklahoma’s this season is anything but. The Sooners’ opener against Houston could have also made this list, but we’ll go with the Week 3 showdown with Ohio State because, while both the Cougars and Buckeyes could make a run to the playoff, Ohio State has the clearer path. Oklahoma has its own playoff hopes, too, and a marquee non-conference win over another potential Power 5 conference champion would speak volumes to the selection committee.

Three key conference games

Oklahoma State at Baylor (Sept. 24)

Whether the Bears continue to play at a high level or suffer a setback this season, they’ll likely be 3–0 heading into this meeting with the Cowboys. After starting off the season with Northwestern State, SMU and Rice, Baylor will finally be tested in its conference opener. For Oklahoma State, this is essentially a must-win to get in the Big 12 title race. The Cowboys have to travel to Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma in the final month of the season, so they’ll likely need to enter that stretch undefeated to have a shot to win the conference.

Oklahoma at TCU (Oct. 1)

This matchup caps off an opening four-game stretch (vs. Houston, ULM, Ohio State) that should definitively tell us whether the Sooners are legit playoff contenders or not. But even if it slips up in one of its non-conference showdowns, Oklahoma will still have all of its conference goals ahead of it. Starting off Big 12 play with a loss could jeopardize that. For TCU, this is a golden opportunity to put itself in pole position in the conference race and avenge last year’s one-point loss on a failed two-point conversion.

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Dec. 3)

Whether this matchup has playoff implications, a conference title or just bragging rights on the line, something is bound to be at stake in this year’s Bedlam game. Oklahoma punched its ticket to the playoff last year with a 58–23 victory over Oklahoma State. Either team could be in position to do so when they meet on the final Saturday of the season.

LM Otero/A{

Five key questions

Will Baylor remain a threat or collapse?

Go ahead and add a giant question mark to Baylor’s projected record at the top of this page. No one truly knows what type of team the Bears will be this season. On paper, the top-line talent is there for Baylor to contend for a conference title. The Bears lost a lot of their young talent to transfers and decommitments since Briles’s firing, but that is more likely to cause problems in future years than this season. With quarterback Seth Russell, running back Shock Linwood and wide receiver KD Cannon back, few schools can match Baylor’s talent at the offensive skill positions. However, the Bears do lose key pieces on the offensive and defensive line, including Spencer Drango, Andrew Billings and Shawn Oakman. Still, if they fall apart this season, it won’t be because of those losses. Baylor was a Big 12 cellar-dweller before Briles arrived with his innovative offense. He made the program a national powerhouse before leaving it in scandal. Will the scandal weigh down the Bears this fall? Will the loss of Briles’s on-field genius be too much to offset? No one knows yet.

In its last year before adding a conference championship game, can the Big 12 avoid another playoff snub?

After crunching the numbers (or having a research company do it for them), the Big 12 concluded adding a conference title game—which it will do next year—will help its chances of making the playoff. However, the Big 12’s playoff hopes are hardly doomed this season by the lack of a championship game. Oklahoma’s path to the playoff was actually made simpler last year because the Sooners got to sit back and watch on Championship Saturday with their spot in the top four already secured. With Oklahoma’s arduous non-conference schedule, if it can make it through the season with one loss, a return trip to the semifinals is all but assured. Given the Pac-12 again lacks a clearly elite team, it may be that all the Big 12 needs is a one-loss conference champion, regardless of non-conference strength of schedule. TCU has a solid shot, particularly if it can down the Sooners at home on Oct. 1. The Horned Frogs must revamp their offense after losing Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, but co-coordinators Doug Meacham Sonny Cumbie should get the next crop ready to thrive. TCU can also return to its defensive roots after that unit was demolished by injuries last season. The Horned Frogs defense returns eight starters, and the abundance of injuries should give them great depth. If the injury bug doesn’t bite again, expect TCU to be in the mix.

Does Oklahoma State belong in the conference’s top tier?

The Cowboys are probably a half-step below Oklahoma and TCU entering the season, but they could easily rise to the top of the conference if they can improve their offensive line play. Oklahoma State ranked second-to-last in adjusted line yards and allowed 32 sacks last season, plaguing an otherwise explosive offense. That offense should be explosive again with Mason Rudolph back under center along with top target James Washington. But the Cowboys are in danger of becoming one-dimensional if the line doesn’t help improve a ground game that ranked ninth in the conference in yards per carry (3.6). All five starters are back on the offensive line and Stanford transfer Barry Sanders joins the backfield. If Oklahoma State can improve to just average in rushing, it could be nearly impossible to stop and in position to win a conference title.

• Why the Big 12 needs to add Houston

Which schools will the Big 12 add in expansion?

Off the field, this is the question that will get the most attention in the Big 12. The conference is interviewing at least 18 schools, so no one can say it isn’t doing its due diligence. But that doesn’t mean the Big 12 will come to the right decision, especially when the right decision depends on which factors the schools value most. BYU, Cincinnati and Houston would seem to offer the most for a league without plans for a conference network, but even the addition of those schools is no guarantee the Big 12 will survive the next round of Power 5 conference realignment.

Will Kansas win a game?

The Jayhawks had their chances last year but fumbled the snap on a spike play against South Dakota State and fell to Texas Tech and TCU by 10 and six points, respectively. It was a rough, if not unexpected, start for head coach David Beatty. The good news is the Jayhawks should get in the win column this fall, even starting off the year 1–0. Whereas last year’s FCS foe, South Dakota State, went 8–4 on the season, this year’s—Rhode Island—went 1–10, including a 47–0 loss to Syracuse. A Week 2 matchup against Ohio is winnable, too, creating the possibility for a (dare we say it?) winning streak.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.