2018 Big-12 Preview

1. Oklahoma Sooners– Year one of the Lincoln Riley experience was definitely one to remember. The Oklahoma Sooners were one of the best teams in the country and were a few plays away from playing in a national championship. They will enter 2018 as the favorites to win the Big-12 outright once again. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that they will miss Baker Mayfield, but Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray should keep the offense performing at a high level and another positive is that he will be supported by an outstanding group of talent with running back Rodney Anderson and receivers Marquis Brown and CeeDee Lamb. The offensive line will miss the presence of Orlando Brown, but the unit returns three guys from a line that was one of the best in the country in 2017. What will keep the Sooners from reaching the playoffs this year is their defense and many times last season, I found myself saying that their offense was their defense because they would have to sustain long drives to remain on the field. The Sooners gave up 5.84 yards per play in 2017 and will be without standout edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, safety Steven Parker and linemen D.J. Ward and Du’Vonta Lampkin. What will take place in Norman this fall?

2. Texas Longhorns– With the top spot in the division already solidified, the rest of the Big-12 is one big mystery. Who will be the threat to the Oklahoma Sooners? Who can knock them off the top of the hill? Each year, the Longhorns enter a season with high expectations, then play inconsistent football throughout and I never know what to make of them. Tom Herman’s first season resulted in a 5-4 mark in Big 12 play but five of the team’s six losses came by 10 points or less. I’ll take them more seriously when they can be more consistent on offense and they can stick to two quarterbacks. The offensive line was inconsistent throughout 2017 and loses standout left tackle Connor Williams. Coordinator Todd Orlando is one of the best in the nation but is set to lose some key cogs from his 2017 defense. Cornerback Holton Hill, safety DeShon Elliott and linebacker Malik Jefferson are set to depart early to the NFL. Key swing games in conference play versus TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State take place in Austin next year.

3. West Virginia Mountaineers– I think this is the one team that can definitely give Lincoln Riley and the Sooners some problems in the conference. Dana Holgorsen received some great news that quarterback Will Grier and receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings all returned and having those three on the field will once again give the Mountaineers one of the best offenses in college football. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first season under center for Holgorsen, with Jennings catching 97 passes and Sills grabbing 18 touchdown tosses. The offense loses guard Kyle Bosch, running back Justin Crawford and receiver Ka’Raun White, but there’s more than enough firepower to keep this unit performing at a high level. The defense slipped and struggled in 2017 and they need to improve in pass defense and run coverage if they want to contend for the conference title.

4. Kansas State Wildcats– Bill Snyder is returning for another season in Manhattan, which means the Wildcats will be in the mix to be in the top 25. The offense will have a new play-caller after Dana Dimel left to take over as UTEP’s head coach, but the overall approach won’t change. Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton will battle for the starting quarterback job in spring ball, while the ground game should be set with the return of Alex Barnes, Justin Silmon, and Dalvin Warmack. Top receiver Byron Pringle left for the NFL, but Isaiah Zuber, Dalton Schoen, and Dominique Heath are back on the outside. The biggest strength on offense is a line that returns all five starters, including standout tackle Dalton Risner. The defense needs to retool at linebacker for the second year in a row, top cornerback D.J. Reed declared early for the NFL, and standout tackle Will Geary finished his eligibility. Key swing games against West Virginia, TCU, and Iowa State take place on the road, but an intriguing non-conference matchup against Mississippi State is at home.

5. TCU Horned Frogs– They earned a trip to the conference title game last year after an 11-3 season and heading into 2018, it could be somewhat of a rebuilding year for Gary Patterson and his Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University. On offense, quarterback Kenny Hill departs, leaving true freshman Justin Rogers and sophomore Shawn Robinson to battle for the starting job. Both quarterbacks are talented, but Rogers is coming off an injury suffered as a high school senior and Robinson has just 27 career pass attempts. The quarterback position is the biggest offseason storyline in Fort Worth, but a greater concern for Patterson is likely to be the offensive line that loses four starters. TCU will always be tough on defense, but Patterson loses standout linebacker Travin Howard, cornerback Ranthony Texada, tackle Chris Bradley, safety Nick Orr and end Mat Boesen. End Ben Banogu, tackle Ross Blacklock and linebacker Ty Summers are a good foundation to build around in the front seven. The Horned Frogs play Ohio State in a neutral site matchup in mid-September next year.

6. Iowa State Cyclones– In coach Matt Campbell’s second year, the Cyclones improved their win total by five games and claimed the Liberty Bowl trophy over Memphis. Can Iowa State make another jump in 2018? It’s certainly possible. Priority No. 1 for Campbell is the quarterback position. Will Kyle Kempt return for the sixth year or will Zeb Noland take over? Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the offense can lean heavily on running back David Montgomery (1,146 yards in 2017). Top target Allen Lazard will be missed, but Hakeem Butler (41 catches), Deshaunte Jones and Matthew Eaton are a good foundation at receiver. Left tackle Jake Campos is a big loss in the trenches. Iowa State’s defense finished second in the Big 12 in fewest points allowed per game in 2017. This unit is set to lose linebacker Joel Lanning, lineman J.D. Waggoner and defensive backs Reggie Wilkerson, Kamari Cotton-Moya and Everett Edwards. However, cornerback Brian Peavy did not enter the NFL Draft early and is headed back to Ames for his senior year. End JaQuan Bailey (11 TFL) should also push for All-Big 12 honors.

7. Oklahoma State Cowboys– I had a blast watching them play last season and as the new year approaches, Mike Gundy finds himself in a position where he has to replace the two most productive players in school history and that’s quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington. Keondre Wudtee, Taylor Cornelius, and incoming freshman Spencer Sanders are the frontrunners to replace Rudolph under center, while Jalen McCleskey, Dillon Stoner, and Tyron Johnson are poised for a bigger role in the receiving corps after Washington and Marcell Ateman expired their eligibility. There’s a lot to replace in Stillwater. The line must replace three starters, including center Brad Lundblade and right tackle Zachary Crabtree. This unit gave up 29.4 points a game in 2017 and loses safety Tre Flowers, linebacker Chad Whitener, tackle DeQuinton Osborne and defensive back Ramon Richards. The new coordinator isn’t inheriting an empty cupboard in terms of talent, but there’s room for improvement on defense this season.

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders– The Red Raiders rebounded from a 5-7 record in 2016 to reach the postseason and ease some of the pressure on coach Kliff Kingsbury last year. While Kingsbury has to replace quarterback Nic Shimonek and receivers Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell and Cameron Batson, this team could take a step forward in the win column. Former junior college recruit McLane Carter and Jett Duffey will compete for the starting quarterback spot, with T.J. Vasher (18.8 ypc) expected to become an even bigger part of the offense at receiver. Most importantly for the offense, the line returns all five starters. Additionally, the defense is trending in the right direction. Texas Tech surrendered 43.5 points a game in 2016 but cut that total to 32.2 last year. More improvement should be noticeable in 2018, as coordinator David Gibbs returns nine of his top 10 tacklers from 2017, including linebacker Dakota Allen and end Eli Howard.

9. Baylor Bears– Baylor is trending in the right direction under coach Matt Rhule, but this program might be a year away from a bowl trip. Even if that’s the case, expect improvement in the win column. Charlie Brewer returns under center after an impressive debut as a true freshman. Receiver Denzel Mims is a big-play threat on the outside, while Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd is an intriguing playmaker on the outside. Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen should provide help for an offensive line that allowed 38 sacks in 12 games in 2017. Similar to the offense, Baylor’s defense should take a step forward by virtue of having most of the depth chart return next fall. Linebacker Taylor Young and lineman Brian Nance are the biggest losses for coordinator Phil Snow. Baylor also lost four games by eight points or less in 2017, so more production out of Brewer and better play on defense could translate into a couple of victories in 2018.

10. Kansas Jayhawks– David Beaty has won just three games and one Big 12 contest since taking over in 2015, so the pressure is building to get this program on track. Escaping the cellar of the Big 12 in 2018 is going to be a tough assignment for this team. The Jayhawks averaged only 18.7 points a game last year and need more consistency and production from quarterbacks Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley. Running back Khalil Herbert and receiver Steven Sims are two key playmakers for coordinator Doug Meacham to utilize next fall. The defense gave up 43.4 points a game but could see some improvement with most of the 2017 group returning. Standout end Dorance Armstrong decided to enter the NFL Draft, while tackle Daniel Wise is set to return to school. Joe Dineen (25 TFL) is one of the Big 12’s top returning linebackers. Just getting to four wins would be a good season for Beaty in 2018.

Prediction: I’m picking the Oklahoma Sooners to win the Big-12 once again. They could look as if they are struggling early on, but as the season goes on, I expect them to heat up as the time goes along. Rodney Anderson will be a key component of this football team and this defense has to get off the field. Just imagine if their defense was as consistent as their offense, this would be a scary, yet talented all-around football team.