- The Big 12 title will likely come down to a battle between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State again—unless Tom Herman can make quick progress at Texas.
For the first time since 2010, the Big 12 will decide its champion with a game. Who will be playing in it? For the last two years, the battle in the state of Oklahoma has defined the conference’s top tier, and that looks likely to continue based on where the teams stand entering spring practice.
Still, the biggest story in the Big 12 focuses on neither of the top two teams in SI’s Big 12 Power Rankings, but rather (of course) on Texas. Can Tom Herman refashion the Longhorns into legitimate contenders as quickly as he revamped Houston? He may have the talent to do it, despite last year’s 5–7 campaign.
Who’s the quarterback?
Seth Russell’s fractured ankle forced Zach Smith into action as a true freshman, and while the quarterback put up some big numbers (1,254 passing yards, 11 touchdowns in his final four games) he also made a lot of mistakes (seven interceptions). That’s understandable for a freshman, but it’s also unsustainable, so Smith will need to show this spring that he can consistently make smart decisions. Anu Solomon’s transfer from Arizona adds intrigue to this position battle. Solomon shined as a freshman in 2014 but has struggled to stay on the field since. Still he has much more experience than Smith, and neither has the advantage of continuity with the coaching staff.
Do the Jayhawks have the making of a decent passing attack?
By now you’ve probably heard about Kansas’s surprising success on the recruiting trail that could pay dividends in the future. But for progress in 2017, look no further than the Jayhawks’ passing attack. With receivers LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Steven Sims Jr. back after combining for 1,588 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and the addition of Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot, coach David Beaty’s offense features some weapons. And with a quarterback battle between returning starter Carter Stanley, who showed some potential late last season, and former Washington State passer Peyton Bender, Kansas should be able to find a competent arm to distribute the ball.
Can Jesse Ertz build on his late-season flourish?
A consistent runner throughout the season, Ertz developed into a true dual-threat by completing throws at a high rate in the latter half of the season. The result was a hot streak in which Kansas State won six of its final seven games, including a Texas Bowl win over Texas A&M. During that stretch, Ertz completed over 62% of his passes in every game but one after doing so just once in the first half of the season. Most of Ertz’s favorite targets are back, and the Wildcats add former four-star recruit Carlos Strickland from Cal. The pieces are in place for a big season from Ertz.
Can the defense step up to match the offense’s progress?
We discussed the high potential for the Cyclones’ offense in the section above, so the main question marks entering spring are on the defensive side of the ball. Iowa State wasn’t great defensively in 2016, allowing 5.97 yards per play, and will be young in ’17. The secondary should be the strength of this unit with Kamari Cotton-Moya and Brian Peavy back, but who will emerge to help the Cyclones improve on their 103rd ranking in sacks last season? The defensive line will be entirely new this fall. Look to defensive end JaQuan Bailey to see if he can become a consistent source of disruption.
Who will be Baker Mayfield’s new go-to receiver?
Mayfield has shined in his first two seasons at Oklahoma, but so far he has always done so with a clear No. 1 target. When Sterling Shepard graduated after 2015, Dede Westbrook emerged to become a Heisman Trophy finalist alongside Mayfield. Westbrook is gone now too, so the quest for a new favorite target begins again. No returning wide receiver (not counting tight end/wide receiver Mark Andrews) had more than 265 receiving yards last season (Nick Basquine), so this year’s search begins with far more uncertainty (Westbrook, for comparison, had 743 receiving yards in 2015 before he became a star). Jeffery Mead and Mykel Jones both showed a knack for making big plays last season, and the Sooners added four four-star wide receivers in their 2017 recruiting class, including elite juco prospect Marquise Brown.
Can the Cowboys’ run defense make strides amid transition?
Oklahoma State has the offensive firepower to keep up with Oklahoma, so the Big 12 title will likely come down to who can force a few more stops. The past few seasons, that has been the Sooners, and it explains why the last two Big 12 titles reside in Norman. Expecting elite pass defense in the Big 12 might be too much, but Oklahoma State should definitely be capable of improvements in its run defense. The Cowboys ranked seventh in the conference in yards allowed per carry last season and now lose four starters in their front seven, including dominant defensive tackle Vincent Taylor. Juco linebacker Patrick Macon is a name to know at linebacker.
Who joins Mat Boesen and Chris Bradley on the defensive line?
The Horned Frogs don’t lose much on defense this season, but the majority of their losses fall on the defensive line, where Josh Carraway (11 tackles for loss, eight sacks), Aaron Curry (nine TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and James McFarland (3.5 TFLs, two sacks) all depart. Boesen and Bradley were effective last season but will carry more weight to uphold a unit that ranked first in the Big 12 in sacks. TCU’s pass defense slipped to the middle of the pack last season and could fall further if the D-line can’t generate the same pressure. Tipa Galeai will likely need to step up at defensive end and L.J. Collier will have to do the same at defensive tackle.
Is Shane Buechele still the Longhorns’ QB?
There are of course plenty of interesting questions regarding how a 5–7 team plans to turn back into the powerhouse it once was, but let’s not kid ourselves—Texas’s QB race will get among the most attention of any storyline this spring. Buechele appeared to be the Longhorns’ quarterback of the present and the future when the true freshman shined in a season-opening win over Notre Dame and continued to put up solid performances throughout the first half of the season. But the glowing assessments halted as Texas’s struggles worsened and Buechele ended the season with five interceptions to two touchdowns in the Longhorns’ last three games, all losses. With that finish to the season and a coaching change, nothing is certain for Buechele, particularly with four-star Sam Ehlinger enrolling early. Buechele used his early enrollment to seize the starting job last year. Could Ehlinger do the same?
The defense has to be better, right?
Forget replacing Patrick Mahomes, the Red Raiders simply can’t expect better results unless their defense improves. The good news is there’s just about nowhere to go but up after Texas Tech ranked third-worst in yards allowed per play last year. The bad news is the Red Raiders may test that theory as they lose some of the few productive players on their defense, like linebacker Malik Jenkins, safety Justin Nelson, and defensive linemen Breiden Fehoko, Ondre Pipkins and Kris Williams. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks impressed as a freshman, though, leading the team in tackles. If David Gibbs can last more than eight games into the season, he’ll become Texas Tech’s longest-serving defensive coordinator since Lyle Setencich served from 2003–2007.
How far will the defense slide?
The Mountaineers’ defensive success last year was key to their surprising 10-win campaign, but that unit now returns just three starters. That stat is a little misleading as West Virginia welcomes back safety Dravon Askew-Henry and former four-star recruit Brendan Ferns, who would have played key roles last year but missed the season with knee injuries. Still, there will be a lot of turnover, so some level of setback is expected. How well defensive coordinator Tony Gibson can manage that change will determine whether West Virginia’s way-too-early top 25 ranking is realistic or not.