Don't assume the Big 12 is just a two-team league. Baylor and TCU bring back plenty of firepower and could make runs at College Football Playoff bids, but Oklahoma will likely have a say in the conference title race, too—or the Sooners could fall flat in their biggest games again. Meanwhile there should be plenty of reshuffling around the middle of the conference. So who will wind up where in the Big 12's new order? Get a better grasp with some superlatives.
Most improved: Iowa State
The only way to go is up after the Cyclones went 0–9 in the Big 12 last year, and while Iowa State won’t make any huge leaps, they should at least be a little better this season. Sam B. Richardson gives Paul Rhodes’s squad a dual threat at quarterback, and he’ll have three solid targets to throw to in Allen Lazard, D’Vario Montgomery and Quenton Bundrage, who missed last season with a torn ACL. The Cyclones’ run defense was horrid last year (5.6 yards allowed per carry) but should make some improvements with two returning starters on the defensive line and three-star defensive tackle juco transfer Demond Tucker joining the mix.
Most on the decline: Kansas State
That Kansas State loses a big chunk of its starters from last year is nothing new. Bill Snyder specializes in developing lower ranked recruits into big-time playmakers by their later years and adding juco transfers who can contribute right away. But the Wildcats picked up just two junior college players this year after adding 10 in 2014. Although they return plenty of starters in their offensive line and secondary, they’ll be pretty young elsewhere. Kansas State also loses every weapon from last year’s offense. Dual-threat quarterback Jake Waters and elite wide receivers Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton are gone, leaving the Wildcats with just 17 attempted passes returning and no receiver who caught more than 20 balls last season.
Toughest schedule: Texas
If Texas is going to get back to being Texas, it’ll have to win even when it faces a difficult slate. But the schedule designers certainly aren’t making Charlie Strong’s rebuild easy. After traveling to Notre Dame and hosting the Jared Goff-led Cal Air Raid in nonconference action, the Longhorns get just one (Oklahoma State) of their four toughest Big 12 games in Darrell K Royal Stadium. Texas has to take on TCU in Fort Worth a week before the Red River Rivalry and then closes out the regular season in Waco against Baylor. The Longhorns also face the always-difficult task of beating West Virginia in Morgantown. There are very few sure wins for a team struggling to establish its offensive identity.
Easiest schedule: Oklahoma State
With a nine-game conference schedule in a 10-team league, there’s less room for variability than in other conferences, but the Cowboys have it about as good as can be. Road games at Texas and West Virginia will be challenging, but trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State aren’t too bad. Oklahoma State also gets five conference home games, including matchups with Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor. All of that comes after a light nonconference slate against Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and UTSA. The Cowboys could easily be 7–1 heading into a pivotal November (TCU, at Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma).
Biggest range: Oklahoma
Bob Stoops changed eight of the nine members on his coaching staff this off-season. That’s either the genius move that will revive the Sooners and get them back to winning Big 12 titles or the futile last-ditch effort of a coach whose best days in Norman are behind him. Which of those two outcomes we see will likely be shaped by new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who assumes an attack loaded with star power in running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Sterling Shepard but shaky at quarterback and rebuilding on the offensive line. Oklahoma loses three all-conference linemen and must choose between Trevor Knight, who regressed at the end of the season (45% completion percentage with two touchdowns and four interceptions vs. Baylor and Clemson) and Baker Mayfield, who transferred after losing the starting job at Texas Tech. The right solutions could lead to a conference championship and possible playoff berth; the wrong ones could produce another 8–5 season.
Most overrated: TCU
The Horned Frogs are loaded on offense and should have a solid season, but their current status as the clear favorites in the Big 12 is overstated. It’s a mix of the inevitable bowl bump that Oklahoma got before last season and simply not realizing how lucky TCU was in 2014. No team had better turnover luck than the Horned Frogs, who gained an average of 6.34 points per game from their good fortune. That’s larger than their margin of victory against Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas (though Kansas was the one game in which TCU had poor turnover luck, recovering zero of the four fumbles and intercepting only one of their eight passes defended). The Horned Frogs also had great luck with injuries last year as running B.J. Catalon suffered the only major injury and Aaron Green exploded in his absence.
As for this year’s squad, the offense should be exceptional behind 10 returning starters, including Heisman candidate quarterback Trevone Boykin. But the defense has some major concerns without Chucky Hunter (9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year) at defensive tackle; Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet (187 combined tackles, 31.5 of them for loss) at linebacker; and Chris Hackett, Kevin White and Sam Carter (13 combined interceptions) in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas also retired after last season. TCU will still be a top team in the conference and benefits from playing most of its tough games late in the season and drawing Baylor at home, but with a regression to average luck and some setbacks on defense, the Horned Frogs will struggle to match last year’s incredible success.
Most underrated: Texas Tech
The Red Raiders should have no trouble moving the ball this season. Of course they had no trouble moving the ball last year either (6.4 yards per play), but both Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes proved they can run a successful offense and the combination of DeAndre Washington and Justin Stockton gives Texas Tech a potent running game, too. The real reason Tech is underrated is that its defensive line simply can’t get as ravaged by injuries again. The Red Raiders were abysmal against the run, giving up 5.4 yards per carry, but nearly every member of their D-line rotation missed some time with an injury. Eight returning defensive starters means they shouldn’t be lacking for experience this year, and new defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ emphasis on forcing turnovers should pair perfectly with the Red Raiders’ offense. It’ll be an uphill battle to get back to bowl eligibility, but it’s possible.
Most at stake: Dana Holgorsen
One of the top teams of the Big East is still waiting for its breakout season in the Big 12, and impatience is building. No one reasonably expects the Mountaineers to compete for a Big 12 title this year, but an improvement to eight or nine wins would be solid evidence Dana Holgorsen has the program on the right path. West Virginia should have a robust defense led by linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and arguably the Big 12’s top secondary, but how will the offense fare without quarterback Clint Trickett and wide receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford? Likely quarterback Skyler Howard will determine whether the Mountaineers can take another step forward after improving by three wins last season or whether they’ll waste their best defense since moving to the Big 12.
Best path to the playoff: Baylor
With TCU likely regressing a bit, that leaves Baylor as the Big 12’s best shot to avoid getting shut out of the playoff this year. The Bears return 18 starters on offense and defense, and while Bryce Petty leaves big shoes to fill, Art Briles has proven he can plug in new quarterbacks without any setbacks. If Nick Florence can replace Robert Griffin III and the Bears still rack up yards, Seth Russell should be have little trouble keeping the offense humming. Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear give Baylor one of the most imposing defensive lines in the country, and linebacker Taylor Young made 74.5 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks as a freshman last year.
The biggest threat to the Bears’ playoff hopes once again is their schedule, thanks to a nonconference slate of SMU, Lamar and Rice. Can they go undefeated and assure their playoff berth and will they leave it up to chance again by losing either to Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State or at TCU?