We go to the Heartland next, as there are one maybe two favorites, a coach on the hot seat, and one team that could have a breakthrough season, here’s my breakdown of the Big 12.
First stop is Norman, where the Oklahoma Sooners are the favorite to win the conference and perhaps make another run at the College Football Playoff. Quarterback Baker Mayfield went from walking-on after transferring from Texas Tech to a preseason All-American and Heisman candidate. He threw for 36 touchdowns and seven rushing touchdowns. He only had seven interceptions last season but two were in a loss to the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl. Mayfield has to minimize those mistakes.
Mayfield will have one of (if not, the) best backfield duo behind him in preseason All-American Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The Sooners have an unproven but capable receiving corps led by preseason all-Big 12 tight end Mark Andrews. The offensive line must help out as well.
The defense lost four all-conference players but there’s no shortage of talent. Defensive end Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans, safety Ahmad Thomas and cornerback Jordan Thomas made the preseason All-Big 12. They need to make big plays if the Sooners want a chance to go all the way.
They play upstart Houston in Houston to start the season. They host Ohio State, Kansas State, Baylor and in-state rival Oklahoma State. Their usual Red-River shootout against Texas. They must go to TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia.
TCU Horned Frogs
To Fort Worth next, where injuries plagued the Horned Frogs from making a run at the conference title as well as the playoff. The Horned Frogs had one of the best offenses in the nation last year but quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson are gone. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill will compete to replace Boykin. Receivers Ty Slanina and Deante’ Grey are returning from injury and lead a young but capable corps.
The defense changed scheme mid-season, and it’s paying dividends. Preseason all-Big 12 defensive ends Josh Carraway and James McFarland, who’s coming off a toe injury, lead a potentially dangerous defense. Tackles Travin Howard and Ty Summers were in the top three on the team in tackles last season.
The Horned Frogs host Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. They face West Virginia, Baylor and Texas on the road.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
To Stillwater next, as the Cowboys will try to match their win total of ten from last season. Nine starters return on offense, including preseason All-American and last year’s leading returning receiver James Washington. Washington leads a talented corps and is a legit deep threat, so he’ll give secondaries nightmares. Quarterback Mason Randolph will have his pick of targets.
Junior college All-American offensive lineman Larry Williams will beef up the line. Running back Chris Carson and Stanford graduate transfer Barry J. Sanders (son of legendary Cowboys and Hall of Famer Barry) hope to be a solid rushing attack.
Injuries and fatigue troubled the Cowboys late last season. All-American defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah is gone. Need not worry, Cowboys fans, first team All-Big 12s safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton as well as preseason All-Big 12 lineman Vincent Taylor lead a potentially explosive group.
They host Pittsburgh, Texas and West Virginia. The face Baylor, Kansas State, TCU, and Oklahoma on the road.
In Waco, the result of an independent investigation into the school’s response (or lack of) to sexual assault allegations led to the dismissal of head coach Art Briles in May. Veteran head coach Jim Grobe takes over in the interim as he tries to shift the focus to football amid all of the uncertainty.
There have been some departures though as quarterback Jared Stidham was granted a release to transfer. Seth Russell, who’s returning from a season-ending neck injury will now start. The Bears have the most dynamic backfield in all of college football, with Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson both coming off of 1,000 yard seasons last year. All-American wide receiver Corey Coleman’s now in the NFL, preseason All-American KD Cannon must pick up the load.
Linebacker Taylor Young, versatile K.J. Smith and tackle Byron Bonds lead a defense that has improve little by little each season.
They host Oklahoma State, TCU, Kansas State and Texas Tech. They face Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia on the road.
To Austin next, where let’s be honest, the Longhorns’ surprising win over Oklahoma last season essentially saved head coach Charlie Strong’s job. His seat will be warm once again. There’s reason to hope, true freshman Shane Buechele and his arm could beat out Tyrone Swoopes and Jerron Heard as starting quarterback. Heard has also been practicing at wide receiver.
Receivers John Burt and Collin Johnson lead a talented corps. The “Thunderstorm” backfield combo of Chris Warren III and D’Onta Forman could wear out defenses.
Linebacker Malik Jefferson, who was a Freshman All-American last season, preseason All-Big 12 cornerback Davante Davis and four-star tackle Jordan Elliot lead a defense where there’s a lot of youth and inexperienced but not short on talent.
They host Notre Dame to kick off the season. They also host Baylor, West Virginia and TCU. They face Oklahoma in their annual Red-River shootout. They must face California, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech on the road.
The Rest of the Big 12
In Lubbock, Texas Tech Red Raiders quarterback Patrick Mahomes II will try to continue to expand his highlight reel with his arm and his feet. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury will have to replace many seniors including top receiver Jakeem Grant and running back DeAndre Washington. The Red Raiders defense is a year older, and hopefully wiser as they’ll try to improve from setting a school record for giving up the most points last season.
In Morgantown, some folks are wondering if West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen is on the hot seat. The Mountaineers have eight starters returning from last season on offense. Quarterback Skyler Howard finished strong. Though they’ll have to replace running back Wendell Smallwood. They must replace eight starters on defense.
In Manhattan, Kansas that is, you never count a Bill Snyder coach Kansas State team. Both of their quarterbacks as Jesse Ertz and Alex Dalton are returning from season-ending knee injuries. They’ll have a promising group of playmakers from running back Charles Jones and wide receiver Byron Pringle. Linebacker Elijah Lee leads a solid defensive group.
Over at Ames, new Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell wants to run the football. Running back Mike Warren had more yards rushing than any other freshman last year. Wide receiver Allen Lazard leads an experienced corps. The defense returns eight starters led by last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, tackle Demond Tucker.
Finally in Lawrence, where the Kansas Jayhawks were 0-12 last season. They return 12 starters including running back Ke’aun Kinner and safety Fish Smithson. Yes, the Jayhawks are a long way away from being a bowl team, but as long as they win one game, they would be making progress.
That’s all for the Big 12, next we’ll preview the Big Ten East.