Someone was always going to be left out. That's the nature of five power conferences and four College Football Playoff bids. It still didn't make it easier to swallow for the Big 12, when TCU, ranked No. 3 in the penultimate playoff rankings, and Baylor, the victor of its meeting with the Horned Frogs, were both shut out of the inaugural playoff.
The wound likely won't heal until a Big 12 team makes the playoff, something that could very likely happen this season. With the Bears and Horned Frogs both expected to open the season ranked among the top teams in the country, there's a strong possibility the Big 12 could place one, or even two, teams in this year's playoff field. (After all, despite last year's snub, no conference was closer to getting multiple playoff bids than the Big 12.) Will Baylor and/or TCU be able to clear the hurdle of not having a conference title game this time? An undefeated season would certainly help.
Behind them, the old powerhouses of the conference both seek to rise back up to the top tier. Oklahoma completely overhauled its coaching staff, with the exception of head coach Bob Stoops, while Texas enters Year Two of Charlie Strong's total program overhaul. After a 5–1 start to last season, Oklahoma State collapsed in the second half of the campaign before rallying to a win in Bedlam over Oklahoma. With a beneficial schedule and much more returning experience, the Cowboys will seek to capitalize.
Names to know
. Offensive MVP
Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
An early favorite to win the Heisman, the 6’2”, 205-pound senior will only improve in his second year running the Air Raid offense. Boykin’s transformation from decent receiver to standout quarterback is stunning, and he’ll get better as he gains comfort and swagger—which he has said was poorly lacking in 2013—with both the offense and the spotlight.
. Defensive MVP
Widely considered the best and strongest interior defensive lineman in the conference, Billings is set to have a breakout year. As defensive end Shawn Oakman draws attention outside, Billings, a former power lifter, will be able to terrorize and take down quarterbacks. Playing on the best defensive line in the Big 12 will only help his All-America candidacy.
. Impact Freshman
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
A high school All-America selection, one of the top linebackers in the country and an early enrollee, Jefferson will play early and often. His speed and aggressiveness belie his age, and the Longhorns need to replace six of their top seven tacklers. Jefferson will fit right in. He’s already got a college body at 6’3”, 240 pounds, and has told local reporters he has his sights set on being the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
. Coach On The Hot Seat
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
It’s crazy to think of anyone besides Stoops in Norman, but considering the Sooners’ slide the last couple seasons, it might be time for him to head elsewhere. Stoops completely revamped his staff after an 8–5 campaign last year and plans to change his offense, though he swears he does not feel any sort of mounting pressure. In a league suddenly dominated by Baylor and TCU, the guess here is that pressure becomes palpable if Oklahoma doesn’t get back to big-time wins. And let’s be clear that in Norman, competing for conference titles isn’t enough: Fans, and administrators, expect to be in the national title hunt.
Big 12 players to watch in 2015
Trevone Boykin, TCU QB
Boykin is arguably the top returning player in college football. He nearly led the Horned Frogs' high-powered offense to the College Football Playoff last season, throwing for over 3,900 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Shawn Oakman, Baylor DE
Oakman doesn't just frighten opponents with his muscular physique—he frightens them with his talent, too. The towering defensive lineman recorded 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma RB
Perine hit the ground running as a true freshman in Norman. He carried the ball 263 times for over 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns. The more he was trusted with ball, the more gaudy the numbers Perine posted, including a 427-yard, five-touchdown rushing performance against Kansas. That set the FBS record for rushing yards in a game.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State QB
Rudolph took over the starting quarterback job for the Cowboys' last three games of 2014 and threw two touchdowns in each contest. That dose of success makes the former four-star recruit the leading candidate to win the starting job for '15.
Spencer Drango, Baylor OT
Drango rebounded from back surgery in 2013 to stake his claim as one of the best left tackles in college football in '14. His consistent dominance on the line will be needed this fall as Baylor moves on from star quarterback Bryce Petty.
Karl Joseph, West Virginia S
Joseph could have entered the NFL draft but chose to come back to West Virginia for his senior season. He has been one of the Mountaineers' best defenders since he stepped on the field as a freshman, and he'll bring leadership in addition to immense talent to their secondary.
Eric Striker, Oklahoma LB
Striker's athleticism makes him one of the best linebackers in the conference. His slender build—6'0", 221 pounds—allows him to rack up tackles, drop back in coverage or rush the passer all with equal effectiveness.
Seth Russell, Baylor QB
Russell is the likely successor to Bryce Petty as the leader of the Bears' offense. He's shown flashes of his talent in the past—the rising junior threw for 438 yards in Petty's absence against Northwestern State last season—and his running ability should help keep Baylor's offense as explosive as it always has been under Art Briles.
Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State DE
Ogbah is a menace along the defensive line for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State needed every one of his 11 sacks last season, and Ogbah will have to repeat his performance to slow down some of the conference's high-scoring offenses.
Corey Coleman, Baylor WR
Coleman was an integral part of Baylor's vertical offense last season. What the 5'11" receiver lacks in height, he makes up for in explosiveness. Coleman averaged over 17 yards per catch last season en route to 11 touchdowns and had some success running out of the backfield.
Three key nonconference games
TCU at Minnesota (Sept. 5)
It’ll hardly be a walk in the park for the Horned Frogs, especially with six new starters on defense, but TCU should win. And if Minnesota finishes the season in the top 25 and TCU is in contention for a playoff slot, this nonconference matchup could become a major talking point in the selection committee room. That could be crucial for the Horned Frogs to make up for their lack of a conference title game.
Texas at Notre Dame (Sept. 5)
This is almost a certain loss for Texas, a team in desperate need of a quarterback, considering Notre Dame returns 17 starters and should compete for a playoff spot. But if second-year coach Charlie Strong can get his guys to play tough on the road, it could go a long way toward reconciling a disenchanted fan base.
Oklahoma at Tennessee (Sept. 12)
This game should tell Stoops a lot about his new offense and could give an inclination about quarterback play the rest of 2015. The Volunteers are rising in the SEC, and it’ll be a rowdy environment. Don’t expect a repeat of last year’s 34–10 blowout in Norman.
Three key conference games
Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 10)
Remember when this game was about conference championships? Now it’s just about pride, but that might be even more important. Both programs have stagnated and watched as traditional wannabes Baylor and TCU rose to the top. A win could go a long way, confidence-wise, for both teams and their quests to return to the top of the Big 12.
West Virginia at TCU (Oct. 29)
The Mountaineers are down, but they have a history of giving TCU fits, taking the Horned Frogs to overtime in 2012 and ’13. West Virginia lost a nailbiter last year, 31–30, in Morgantown, and will certainly remember it. Spoiling TCU’s ’15 chances at the playoff could be the perfect revenge.
Baylor at TCU (Nov. 27)
The rematch everyone’s been waiting for goes down in Fort Worth on Black Friday, and it’s sure to bring more joy than any shopping deal could. Boykin tried to say this wasn’t a rivalry (it lacks a trophy, and that’s his barometer, evidently) and maybe he’s right. After all, Baylor has won three of the last four.
Five key questions
1. Will there really be one true champion, and will that team make the playoff?
We already know there’s not going to be an official conference title game, so mark your calendar for Nov. 27, when Baylor travels to TCU, as the date of the unofficial version. Then get ready for the politicking, as Art Briles and Gary Patterson state their case for the final four. If the Big 12 is left out again, all hell might break loose in the Lonestar State.
2. Can things fall back together at Oklahoma?
It looked like the program was beginning to fray in Norman last season, but Stoops changed up his staff, including the addition of new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and his Air Raid attack. The Sooners still need to decide on a quarterback (returner Trevor Knight and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield are the leading candidates, but sophomore Cody Thomas is in the mix, too), but if they can figure that part out, the offense should be loaded with running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Sterling Shepard. Oklahoma is always going to have talent on defense, and mixing fronts this year should help showcase that.
3. How will TCU handle being the Hunted Frogs instead of just the Horned Frogs?
Life is different when you’re the favorite, as Gary Patterson & Co. know well. Coming off of a 4–8 campaign in 2013, the Frogs drew little preseason, and by the time they were rolling, they were playoff contenders.
With TCU the popular pick to win the conference this year, Patterson’s favorite phrase has become, “Last year was about proving people wrong. This year it’s about proving them right.”
4. Can Texas win without a star quarterback?
Answer: We’ll see. Junior Tyrone Swoopes, last year’s starter, and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will compete for the starting spot, but neither of them seems to be a superstar in waiting. The Longhorns need improvement from their signal caller, especially as they transition to an up-tempo spread attack this year.
5. How will Kansas State and Bill Snyder surprise this year?
It seems that every season in which the college football world dismisses the Wildcats, Snyder works some wizardry and has them in the thick of the conference race. The Wildcats have to replace a lot this fall, including quarterback Jake Waters and all-purpose superstar Tyler Lockett, but we should know by now not to forget about them entirely.