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  • The Sooners have been ticketed for a fourth-straight Big 12 title since the preseason, but only recently has the strength of their challengers become clear.
By Laken Litman
September 18, 2018

Let’s talk about a Big 12 race that’s starting to look like it’s going to be unpredictably entertaining. The conference has three undefeated teams, six that are 2–1, and four in the AP Top 25. Oklahoma, led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Kyler Murray, is the overwhelming favorite to win the conference and represent it in the College Football Playoff, following through on the potential that helped it earn 46 out of a possible 52 first-place votes in the conference’s preseason poll. Unlike in recent years when the Sooners have run away with the league title, they should face multiple stiff tests on their way to Arlington, where a brutal rematch will likely wait.

There’s no reason not to believe Oklahoma won’t make it to the Big 12 championship game, which it has won the last three years and 11 total times. But the early returns on the conference’s other contenders indicate the Sooners will face a challenge in December from whoever wins that second title game spot.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys made the biggest jump in the AP Top 25 this week after a convincing 44–21 win over Boise State on Saturday, going from No. 25 to No. 15. Fifth-year senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius, who patiently waited his turn behind Mason Rudolph, was 15-of-26 for 243 yards and a touchdown with 41 rushing yards and two more scores. Perhaps the biggest story coming out of Oklahoma State’s win, however, was its defense. Under the direction of new coordinator Jim Knowles, whom Mike Gundy hired away from Duke this winter, the Cowboys currently lead the country with 16 sacks in three games after notching seven against Boise State. Eight different players have at least half a sack.

Oklahoma State is getting pressure off the edge from defensive ends Jordan Brailford and Calvin Bundage and dominating out-of-conference offensive lines. Right now the unit appears to be the most lethal in the Big 12, having just held the Broncos to 34 rushing yards on 31 attempts.

The Cowboys face Texas Tech in their first conference game Saturday. Their schedule is back-loaded, with Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU coming the last three weeks in November (and the Sooners and Horned Frogs on the road).

TCU

Before a slew of second-half mistakes ruined TCU's chances of knocking off Ohio State, it had played the Big Ten favorites pretty evenly. The Horned Frogs frustrated the Buckeyes with their tempo and the mobility of first-year starting quarterback Shawn Robinson. Ultimately, the lesson here is that you have to protect the ball against Ohio State. Within a 4:01 span in the third quarter, Ohio State went on a 20–0 run thanks to a pick-six and a blocked punt that set up another score. To his credit, Robinson got things back on track with a 51-yard touchdown pass to TreVontae Hights late in the third quarter to keep his team in the game.

Gary Patterson’s team is going to be a tough one to face in conference play. Its offense is especially fast: Jalen Reagor and the other receivers continually beat Ohio State on the perimeter, and running back Darius Anderson ripped off a 93-yard touchdown, which was the longest run in TCU history and longest play Ohio State has ever given up.

The Horned Frogs next face a Texas team looking for some momentum after a revenge victory over USC. That game will reveal what kind of Big 12 threat both of these teams will be moving forward.

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West Virginia

The Mountaineers' Week 3 game against NC State was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, and a road win over the Wolfpack would have been another nice non-conference résumé-builder after Dana Holgorsen’s group beat Tennessee handily in Week 1. Will Grier is still the third-most accurate quarterback in the country, completing 76.7% of his passes, and West Virginia again has one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, averaging 586.0 yards per game on 8.62 yards per play, second only to Memphis through three weeks.

Similarly to TCU, the Mountaineers’ schedule is fairly manageable up until November. They face Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks to end the regular season. That stretch could push them into position for a playoff spot, seal Grier’s Heisman Trophy candidacy, or spoil both of those things.

Texas

The Longhorns might not be consistent enough to earn a rematch with Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, but they may spoil someone else’s chances to get to AT&T Stadium. Texas proved in its decisive 37–14 win over USC that it can make big plays and has the potential to rise to the occasion.

We will learn more about Tom Herman’s team on Saturday when TCU comes south from Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs have won the last four meetings by a combined score of 153–33. A big component will be how Texas, with a struggling pass rush that has posted just four sacks in three games, decides to defend Robinson. If it can figure out how to match TCU’s speed without linebacker Malcolm Roach, who suffered a broken foot in the first half of the USC game, then this defense should be taken more seriously moving forward. Especially with the Red River Showdown on tap for Oct. 6.

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