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It wasn’t long ago, that many were wondering whether the Big 12 would follow the Big East into extinction. Rumors swirled that top programs (Oklahoma and Texas) would bolt the conference in favor of joining the ACC, SEC, or Pac-12.
Both Oklahoma and Texas remain apart of the Big 12, though, and the conference appears to be in good shape. In fact, last year was a bit of a renaissance for the Big 12, as it sent two teams (Oklahoma and Baylor) to BCS bowls.
Based on their bowl performance against Alabama, Oklahoma enters the year back in the national title picture. First, they’ll need to make it through the Big 12, where Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech are all trending upward. Moreover, Baylor won the conference in 2013, not the Sooners.
Is this truly the year Oklahoma returns to the national title picture?
Here is my team-by-team breakdown of the Big 12:
1. Baylor Bears (Projected: 11-1, 8-1 in conference)
Key Players: WR Antwan Goodley, LB Bryce Hager, RB Shock Linwood, WR Levi Norwood, DE Shawn Oakman, QB Bryce Petty
Schedule Breakdown: As long as Baylor takes care of business at home, the Bears will 10 games for the third consecutive season. Their toughest games on the schedule are October 4 at Texas and November 8 at Oklahoma. Wins at Texas and Oklahoma would put them in the running for a berth in the college football playoffs. Even if they split those contests, they’ll still be in excellent position to win the conference, as their last three games are at home. Analysis: There’s a reason top-tier programs frequently mention Art Briles as a head-coaching candidate. In fact, don’t be surprised the NFL comes calling soon. Briles has done an outstanding job turning Baylor into a college football powerhouse. Petty’s return ensures another year of the Bears finishing near the top of the standings. Expect them or Oklahoma to take the conference title.
Bowl Projection: Cotton
2. Oklahoma Sooners (10-2, 7-2)
Key Players: LB Dominique Alexander, QB Trevor Knight, CB Zack Sanchez, WR Sterling Shepard, LB Erik Striker, DE Charles Tapper
Schedule Breakdown: It should be smooth sailing until Oklahoma hosts Baylor on November 8. The Bears beat the Sooners 41-12 a year ago. Expect the Sooners to be ready this time, especially with a potential conference championship on the line. Oklahoma shouldn't get too complacent with a win, though, as they play Texas Tech the following week. Watch out for the potential letdown.
Analysis: An impressive performance in the Sugar Bowl has Oklahoma on the shortlist of preseason national title contenders. Two factors will determine whether the Sooners live up to their hype. First, Knight (now a sophomore) must continue to progress. He struggled early last year, losing his job to Blake Bell. He later regained the starting position and was magnificent in the Sugar Bowl, earning the game’s MVP honors. In addition to Knight, the defense needs to take it up a notch. They were very good in 2013, especially in comparison to the last few year, but this still isn’t the OU defense of the early to mid 2000s.
Bowl Projection: Peach
3. Kansas State Wildcats (9-3, 6-3)
Key Players: S Dante Barnett, C B.J. Finney, WR Tyler Lockett, DE Ryan Mueller, WR Daniel Sams, QB Jake Waters, OG Cody Whitehair
Schedule Breakdown: One of September’s key non-conference games has defending SEC champion Auburn traveling to Kansas to play the Wildcats. A home victory over the Tigers would set the tone for the rest on the season, which also includes road games against Baylor and Oklahoma.
Analysis: Winners of six of their final seven games in ‘13, Kansas State is flying under-the-radar. Unlike last year, Waters enters the year entrenched as the starter. He also plays behind one of the conference’s top offensive lines. With a defense on the rise, Kansas State is the Big 12's dark horse candidate.
Bowl Projection: Alamo
4. Oklahoma State Cowboys (8-4, 6-3)
Key Players: DT James Castleman, WR Tyreek Hill, CB Kevin Peterson, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales, QB J.W. Walsh
Schedule Breakdown: The Cowboys were within one game of capturing the Big 12 title last year, but rival Oklahoma upended them in Bedlam. A similar scenario may occur this year, as the Cowboys closeout the regular-season with road contests against Baylor and the Sooners. Though it doesn’t influence Big 12 standings, Oklahoma State opens the season against defending national champion Florida State. The Cowboys will be considerable underdogs, so they don’t have much to lose.
Analysis: This season should tell us a lot about Mike Gundy’s recruiting. All indicators suggest Gundy’s recruited well over the last several years, but the only results that matter are the ones on the field, and Gundy has to replace key players on both sides of the ball. Based on talent, winning eight or nine games is feasible. However, if the young talent fails to deliver, the Cowboys could drop to six wins.
Bowl Projection: Russell Athletic
5. Texas Longhorns (8-4, 6-3)
Key Players: QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, DT Malcom Brown, CB Quandre Diggs, RB Johnathan Gray, DE Cedric Reed
Schedule Breakdown: A challenging non-conference schedule sets the tone for Texas’ season. The Longhorns will look to avenge an embarrassing loss in 2013 when they play BYU on September 6. One week later, they’ll play UCLA on a neutral field. Winning both contests would prove to the college football world that Charlie Strong isn’t planning an extended rebuilding project. In conference, Texas has crucial road games against Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. As always, though, the Red River Shootout Showdown is the biggest game on the schedule.
Analysis: Mediocrity from the quarterback position will produce a mediocre record. In other words, Strong, who recruited Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville, needs to find his version of Bridgewater at Texas. When he does, the Longhorns will re-emerge on the national title scene. Until then, though, Texas will rely on their improving defense to keep them in games.
Bowl Projection: Liberty
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders (8-4, 5-4)
Key Players: OG Le'Raven Clark, WR Jakeem Grant, OT Dominique Robertson, QB Davis Webb, RB/LB Kenny Williams
Schedule Breakdown: An easy schedule positions Texas Tech for success in ‘14. The Red Raiders don’t have to play Baylor, Oklahoma, or Texas on the road. They should also win all their non-conference games. They do have a challenging start to their conference schedule, as they play back-to-back road games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
Analysis: The Red Raiders started strong in ‘13, winning their first seven games. However, they finished the regular-season on a five-game losing streak, knocking them out of conference title contention. They did beat Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, so overall, Kliff Kingsbury feels good about his program entering the season. It’s rare for a program to take their all-conference left tackle and make him a guard, but that’s what Texas Tech did with Clark after the arrival of Robertson this year. Overall, led by Webb, the offense should score points. Whether the defense follows the offense's lead will determine if Texas Tech can compete with Baylor and Oklahoma.
Bowl Projection: Cactus
7. TCU Horned Frogs (6-6, 3-6)
Key Players: QB Trevone Boykin, S Sam Carter, RB B.J. Catalon, DT Devonte Fields, DT Chucky Hunter, CB Kevin White
Schedule Breakdown: The month of October will determine TCU’s standing in the Big 12. Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are the Horned Frogs four opponents in October. Three of the four games are at home.
Analysis: Under Gary Patterson, TCU normally produces a quality defense, and this year shouldn’t be different. The onus is on the offense then to improve after a woeful year. TCU brought in Sonny Cumbie to fix the unit. Cumbie, who served as rival Texas Tech’s co-offensive coordinator last season, is implementing an up-tempo attack. There’s a lot of pressure on TCU to win this year. They’re just 6-12 since entering the Big 12 two years ago.
Bowl Projection: Texas
8. West Virginia Mountaineers (4-8, 3-6)
Key Players: S Karl Joseph, RB Rushel Shell, RB Dreamius Smith, QB Clint Trickett
Schedule Breakdown: Starting just 1-3 is possible for West Virginia, as they play Alabama, Maryland, and Oklahoma in the month of September. The Mountaineers also have road games against Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech.
Analysis: Coming off their worst season since ‘01, West Virginia will have to overcome a rough schedule to return to their previous prominence. The Mountaineers should feature a potent running game, with no one player handling the full workload. A strong running game will come in handy, as West Virginia will benefit from keeping a defense that allowed 33 points and 455 yards per game off the field.
Bowl Projection: None
9. Iowa State Cyclones (3-9, 1-8)
Key Players: TE E.J. Bibbs, WR Quenton Bundrage, C Tom Farniok, QB Sam Richardson, CB Nigel Tribune
Schedule Breakdown: It’s hard to see a path to a bowl game develop for Iowa State. They have road games against Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Texas. Their home schedule is brutal, with contests against Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech.
Analysis: The Cyclones have a lot overcome, but their offense could be sneaky-good. Richardson will probably open the season as the starting quarterback. In front of him is an offensive line that returns five starters. Overall, Iowa State will have to wait at least another year before returning to a bowl game.
Bowl Projection: None
10. Kansas Jayhawks (2-10, 0-9)
Key Players: QB Montell Cozart, WR Nick Harwell, LB Ben Heeney, RB/WR Tony Pierson
Schedule Breakdown: If the Jayhawks are going to show any progress, they’ll need to be competitive at home against conference foes. Kansas should be 2-1 when they begin conference play against Texas. A good showing in that game could give fans some hope going into the rest of the season, which features intriguing games against Iowa State, TCU, and West Virginia.
Analysis: Now entering year three at Kansas, Charlie Weis’ program needs to show progress. Expecting a bowl appearance is too much, but winning three or even four conference games would give the program a lift heading into next year.
Bowl Projection: None