The Big 12 was left on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff party a year ago, but it looks as though the odds are good the conference is not left out this season. TCU opens the 2015 season as the second-ranked team in the major polls and the Horned Frogs are joined by Baylor as popular picks to make a playoff push in 2015. But what about Oklahoma and Texas you ask? This year should see some improvements with both blueblood programs, although progress at each will be measured differently.
It is time for me to go on the record with some Big 12 predictions. Let’s just say I have a weird gut feeling about some of these.
1. TCU (Last year: 12-1, beat Ole Miss in Peach Bowl)
TCU returns a loaded offense with 10 starters coming back in 2015 from last season’s surging offense. That includes quarterback Trevone Boykin, who may be my top contender in the Heisman Trophy race this season thanks to his experience and supporting cast. TCU needs to replace just one offensive lineman, which puts TCU ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the conference. The schedule does have its challenges ahead of the Horned Frogs, including a season opener on the road against a solid Minnesota squad and road trips to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. But I think TCU can manage to get away with wins in all three. In fact, I see TCU winning every game on the schedule this season, which would be a remarkable feat for this program on the rise. Most importantly, if TCU does live up to this prediction, there is not a shot they miss out on the playoff at the end of the season. None. There are some questions on the defensive side of the football, but I trust Gary Patterson will be able to address those concerns enough to get by while the offense is cooking.
2. Oklahoma (Last year: 8-5, lost to Clemson in Russell Athletic Bowl)
I feel rather optimistic about the Sooners this season, although I wonder why I feel this optimistic. Heck, I’ve even calling for Oklahoma to win a road game at Baylor. Call it gut instinct if you will. Oklahoma lost every game against a ranked opponent last season and holes were exposed by Baylor and Clemson. But Oklahoma hung in there with Kansas State and TCU and the Sooners have the best running back in the conference with Samaje Perine. I’m looking for a big year from Perine, if the rebuilt offensive line can help him out. I think Oklahoma gets off to an OK start, with the game at Tennessee a toss-up (I have it marked as a loss right now). I think Bob Stoops comes through with some solid performances to surprise some along the way to a second place finish in the Big 12.
3. Kansas State (Last year: 9-4, lost to UCLA in Alamo Bowl)
Here is what I have come to learn about Kansas State over the years. Bill Snyder is a good coach and finds a way to put together a solid team more often than not. You can look at Kansas State on paper and suggest there is no reason to be too excited about the Wildcats in 2015, and that is fine. Snyder will find a way to make it all come together, and he will have three fairly easy games and a bye week at the start of the season to get it all worked out before jumping into Big 12 play. That could get off to a rough start as well, but the bye week before hosting Baylor could be huge. I think Kansas State finishes strong in Big 12 play after the bye week.
4. Baylor (Last year: 11-2, lost to Michigan State in Cotton Bowl)
This one is sure to raise some eyebrows, and I fully understand. Baylor is seen by many as a Big 12 favorite and legitimate playoff contender. Eight starters are back on offense, and nine more on defense. If not for a slip up at West Virginia last season, Baylor would have been in the playoff with an undefeated record. Just like last season, the margin for error is extremely thin for the Bears. This may be a solid test for Art Briles, as he looks to work his quarterback magic once more with Seth Russell taking over a talented offense. With an experienced offensive line protecting him and Corey Coleman and KD Cannon as targets and running back Shock Linwood in the backfield, things should look pretty good for Baylor, right? I’m going with the gut instinct again here to explain why I have Baylor down so low in the Big 12 standings. I think Baylor gets off to a great start, but hits a road block after the second bye week. I’m putting Baylor down for back-to-back losses against Kansas State and Oklahoma and one more two weeks later against TCU. But they may be the best three-loss team in the nation.
5. Texas (Last year: 6-7, lost to Arkansas in Texas Bowl)
When Charlie Strong was hired as the head coach of Texas I said it might take a few years for him to have the Longhorns ready to compete for a Big 12 title. Entering year two, I think we start to see some signs of progress. With a couple of coaching changes on the staff, the hope is the offense begins to show some more consistency and efficiency. The Longhorns have to decide whether to go with Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard at quarterback and replace both starting tackles on the line, but things should start looking a little more stable on offense. After experiencing a setback in the season opener in South Bend against Notre Dame, the Longhorns rebound before hitting TCU and Oklahoma before the bye week. We will see this season there is still work to be done for Texas to compete against the best fo the conference, but it should start proving to us things are getting better.
6. Oklahoma State (Last year: 7-6, beat Washington in Cactus Bowl)
Another relatively low expectation for the Cowboys compared to many of the preseason previews out there. The big hang up for Oklahoma State for me will be the schedule. The road game at Texas I think ultimately goes down as a loss as the Longhorns look to make a bit of a statement. A road trip to West Virginia could go down as a loss as well, and TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma could all be home losses as well. Oklahoma State is probably more likely to go 1-2 in those big three games in the last half of the season, but I have them as losses right now.
7. West Virginia (Last year: 7-6, lost to Texas A&M in Liberty Bowl)
West Virginia should once again be somewhere in the middle of the Big 12, and will be one of those teams capable of pulling an upset. West Virginia will not be a pushover and should have some back-and-forth games, but the Mountaineers are not quite equipped to make a run at the Big 12 title. They are dangerous though as long as Dana Holgorsen is commanding the offense and a defense returning nine starters (including safety Karl Joseph). West Virginia’s biggest weakness is in the trenches. There won’t be enough of a push from the defense and the offensive line may not be the most dependable. The start of Big 12 play could be rough (at Oklahoma, vs. Oklahoma State, at Baylor, at TCU after bye).
8. Texas Tech (Last year: 4-8)
The bets thing about Texas Tech is Kliff Kingsbury and his swagger. But good looks do not translate to wins on the football field, and Texas Tech is the textbook example of that right now. I have little faith in Texas Tech’s ability to be consistent enough on offense and I have even less confidence in Texas Tech’s defense to stop anything. Sure, shootouts may be fun to watch at times, but the Red Raiders need a lot of things to start turning around if we are ever going to see this program recapture the magic the Mike Leach era offered at times.
9. Iowa State (Last year: 2-10)
You may not find a harder working two-win team in the country than Iowa State. Yes, it could be another long season for the Cyclones, and that could place head coach Paul Rhoads in some unfortunate territory at the end of the season, but there should be some bright spots for Iowa State along the way. Wide receiver Allen Lazard will be tough to slow down and could have a big season. And hey, they’re not Kansas.
10. Kansas (Last year: 3-9)
I have Kansas down for one win this season and even that might be a stretch. New head coach David Beaty has his work cut out for him, but at least he is bringing some passion to the rebuilding project in Lawrence. He will need it with just three starters returning on each side of the football field, and his quarterback was injured in spring practice. If Kansas does not beat South Dakota State in week one (not a given by any means), then the Jayhawks will be staring down an 0-12 record this season.