For the first time since the 2008 season, the Big 12’s two traditional powers enter the spring with the optimism that only double-digit-win seasons can bring. It’s been over a decade since Oklahoma and Texas sat together atop the conference, largely due to Texas’s run of mediocrity since its last national championship game appearance. The Longhorns say they’re back, and if they’re right, the race to Arlington gets a lot more interesting.
The 2018 season saw Oklahoma make yet another College Football Playoff appearance and Texas take a much-needed step forward with a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. Matt Campbell has turned eight wins and a bowl game into the expectation at Iowa State, and all of a sudden, the Cyclones enter 2019 as a realistic contender in the Big 12.
West Virginia’s season, which was spent alongside the league’s other three contenders but ended with a loss to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl, wasn’t exactly what the Mountaineers had in mind for star quarterback Will Grier’s senior season. Now that Grier is gone and head coach Dana Holgorsen has been hired away by Houston, where will the new era take the Mountaineers?
Elsewhere, can Matt Rhule continue to piece things together in Waco after taking Baylor to a bowl in year two? Will Gary Patterson find a quarterback consistent enough for a bounceback season at TCU? And how will Les Miles be welcomed (back) to the Big 12?
State of the spring favorite: Soon after Oklahoma’s season ended in the Orange Bowl semifinal, all eyes in Norman turned to the program’s two central offseason questions: Who will replace Kyler Murray at quarterback, and can anybody save this struggling defense? While the gap between Oklahoma and Texas continues to close, the Sooners seem to have maintained the edge after finding emphatic answers on both counts.
Former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who transferred in January, seems like a viable replacement for Murray, if not the dynamic thrower the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner is. And if former Ohio State co-DC Alex Grinch can put together a competent defense, the Sooners can dream of breaking through their CFP semifinal ceiling.
Another significant project is the reconstruction of the offensive line, which lost four starters from the unit that won the 2018 Joe Moore Award for O-line excellence. The Sooners also lost top receiver Marquise Brown, but Hurts will still have CeeDee Lamb to lead a loaded incoming class of wideouts, along with Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks in the backfield. And with Lincoln Riley calling plays, there’s no reason to question whether the Sooners will be at AT&T Stadium next December playing for a fifth-straight Big 12 title.
Most interesting QB competition: More than half of the conference’s teams seem to know who will be their starting quarterback in August. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), Sam Ehlinger (Texas), Brock Purdy (Iowa State), Alan Bowman (Texas Tech), Charlie Brewer (Baylor) and Austin Kendall (West Virginia) all seem to be in a fairly comfortable position, but this won’t dissuade coaches from waiting until late August to make official announcements.
The quarterback battle demanding the most immediate attention in the Big 12 is taking place in Fort Worth. With former starter and four-star recruit Shawn Robinson transferring to Missouri in hopes of taking over in 2020 once Kelly Bryant’s college eligibility expires, the Horned Frogs are back to square one. The same quarterback carousel that took Robinson from TCU landed Alex Delton in a different purple jersey as a graduate transfer from Kansas State. Delton will have to beat out Mike Collins, redshirt freshman Justin Rogers and true freshman Max Duggan for the Horned Frogs’ starting job.
Burning non-QB depth chart question: After losing Dana Holgorsen and Will Grier in the same offseason, West Virginia has taken several steps in the right direction toward a new era. The Mountaineers hired Neal Brown, who turned in three-straight double-digit-win seasons at Troy. They also made a significant splash in the transfer portal, landing Austin Kendall, who chose to leave Oklahoma rather than sit behind a Heisman-caliber quarterback for the third time.
But who is going to replace David Sills V, the QB-turned-receiver who sits second in program history with 35 touchdowns, or Gary Jennings, who hauled in 917 yards on 54 receptions?
Some sort of dropoff is expected anytime a program loses players near the caliber of Grier, Sills and Jennings in one offseason. If they want to limit that dropoff, Kendall and a receiving corps led by redshirt junior T.J. Simmons and senior Marcus Simms (who posted 1,040 yards and three TDs between them in 2019) will need some underclassman passing game targets to step up.
Coach to Watch: If Les Miles wasn’t aware of the mammoth task in front of him before taking the Kansas job, a closer look at the Jayhawks’ roster numbers must have sobered his welcome ceremony quickly. As Ross Dellenger wrote in his feature on Miles’s opening weeks at Kansas, the Jayhawks won’t have the luxury of operating with all 85 scholarships filled out until the 2022 season, due to the NCAA’s 25-scholarships-per-signing-class limit.
The former Oklahoma State and LSU head coach is taking over a program that quite simply can’t get worse: The Jayhawks haven’t surpassed the three-win mark since a 5–7 season in 2009. A Miles-led squad should get wins over Indiana State and Coastal Carolina. After that, though, nothing is guaranteed. Will the good vibes brought by Miles’s arrival last through spring ball?
Spring game viewing guide (all times ET)
Saturday, April 13: Baylor (1 p.m.), West Virginia (1 p.m.), Texas Tech (3 p.m., in Frisco, TX), Texas (7:30 p.m.), Kansas (TBA), Kansas State (TBA), Oklahoma (TBA)
Saturday, April 20: Oklahoma State (TBA)
TCU has not announced a date or time for a spring game. Iowa State will not play a spring game this year.
Texas Tech brought in former Utah State coach Matt Wells to replace Kliff Kingsbury, who has landed on his feet in the NFL, and bring some balance to a program that has been all-offense, no-defense for the better part of this century.
The good news for Wells is that he has a quarterback. Alan Bowman took over the starting role after an early-season injury to McLane Carter and, despite struggling with injuries of his own, threw for 2,638 yards and 17 touchdowns. With Hurts, Ehlinger and Purdy as the Big 12’s headliners at the position, Bowman will likely fly under the radar. Will Wells and his staff help him take the next step this offseason? Bowman and Jett Duffey should be good for a few highlights during the three public showcase scrimmages Texas Tech has planned in Lubbock, Midland and Frisco.