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CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Big 12 Predictions

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As the 2014 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the Big 12 Conference.

And while we’re at it, check out our CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository for our team’s looks at the upcoming season.

BIG 12

1. Oklahoma (Last year: 11-2; beat Alabama in Sugar Bowl)
Will the real Oklahoma Sooners please stand up? Questions surround one of the most talented teams in college football. Will Trevor Knight be the quarterback that shredded Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, or will he revert to the player that couldn’t initially beat out Blake Bell (who converted to tight end) to become the team’s starting quarterback? Will wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham receive a waiver from the NCAA to play this season? How will the Sooners overcome the losses of their top tackler, Frank Shannon, and five-star freshman Joe Mixon? And, historically, the Sooners have a penchant to disappoint after being named a preseason Top 5 team. The program will enter this season ranked fourth overall in the AP Poll and third in USA TODAY’s Coaches Poll. Despite these questions, the Sooners are still the favorites to win the Big 12. Oklahoma returns eight starters to a defensive unit that was the Big 12’s best last season. The group is led by outside linebacker Eric Striker, who is one of the most feared defenders in the country. Knight is the key on offense, but the quarterback will benefit from an experienced and talented offensive line. Both of the team’s starting offensive tackles as well as left guard Adam Shead return for another season. The Sooners’ ability to win up front on both sides of the ball will give them a decided advantage each week. Oklahoma will need it, because the team may have to go undefeated to be a part of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. Baylor (Last year: 11-2; lost to UCF in Fiesta Bowl) 
Despite Oklahoma’s status as the favorite to claim a Big 12 crown, it’s a wide-open race and the Bears have just as much chance to win a conference title. Whereas the Sooners will rely heavily on a strong defense and an improving offense, the Bears will continue to score points in bunches and hope they can stop opponents at least once or twice per game. The biggest advantage the Bears have among their conference rivals is the play of quarterback Bryce Petty. Petty threw for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions during his first full season as a starter. Petty should be even better during his second season as he continues to grow in all phases of the game. The Bears also lay claim to the most talented group of skill position players in the conference. Five of the team’s top six receivers from last year return, while running Shock Linwood will get an opportunity to show how explosive he is as the team’s new starting running back. The Bears will score points in bunches. It will fall on the defense to makes sure they don’t surrender more points than the team’s offense can score. College football is more offensive driven than its ever been, but we’ll give Oklahoma a very slight edge over Baylor due to the old adage, “Defense wins championships.”

3. Texas (Last year: 8-5; lost to Oregon in Alamo Bowl)
Everything Texas does this season will be under a microscope. New head coach Charlie Strong will be scrutinized at every turn. How the team responds to Strong, both on and off the field, will be compared to the program’s former coach, Mack Brown. Strong has already made a statement during the offseason by suspending or dismissing numerous players. Everyone will be anxious to see whether or not this new-found discipline in the locker room will eventually translate to the field. In four seasons with the Louisville Cardinals, Strong was 37-15 overall with an impressive Sugar Bowl victory over the Florida Gators in 2012. What Strong inherits in Texas is a far more talented roster than he ever had in Louisville, and his Cardinals finished No. 1 overall in total defense last season. Strong, a former defensive coordinator, should be giddy with the talent he now has on the defensive side of the football. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown and defensive end Cedric Reed are as good of an inside-outside defensive line tandem as can be found in college football. On offense, meanwhile, the team will will rely on quarterback David Ash again. Believe it or not, Ash is the most experienced quarterback in the Big 12. But this will be a run-first team with the talented Malcolm Brown and the recovering Jonathan Gray running behind a big and athletic offensive line. Texas has enough to compete for a Big 12 championship if it finally puts everything together on both sides of the football.

4. Texas Tech (Last year: 8-5; beat Arizona State in Holiday Bowl)
The Red Raiders did their best disappearing act a year ago. Kliff Kingsbury‘s squad started 7-0 and was ranked as high as 10th overall before the team faded down the stretch. Texas Tech lost five straight to end the team’s regular season but bounced back with a 37-23 victory against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Holiday Bowl. The losing streak showed the Red Raiders weren’t ready to play against the big boys of the Big 12. However, the win in the bowl game showed the team’s resiliency and growth during the month the team had to regroup and grow with the extra practices. And the Red Raiders will continue to build their program under Kingsbury. The biggest growth should come on the offensive side of the ball. Texas Tech already had the best passing offense in the conference last year, and it should be even better in 2014. Davis Webb enters his first full season as starter. Webb threw for over 400 yards in four games and finished with 20-to-9 touchdown-interception ratio. Both of his offensive tackles and center return along the offensive line. And each of the wide receivers expected to start received plenty of playing time last season. The defense is another matter altogether, but this is a team built to win games with its passing game and offensive explosiveness. Kingsbury has made his mark in a very short time as a head coach, and his team should be expected to impress during his second season with the program.

5. Kansas State (Last year: 8-5; beat Michigan in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Everyone will know whether or not the Wildcats are for real this season by Sept. 18. On that day, Kansas State will host the Auburn Tigers. The clash of styles will make for an highly intriguing game. The reason this game is so important for the Wildcats is because the teams they lost to last season either ran the ball very well or operated with tempo on offense. The Tigers do both, and they do both very well. The game is Manhattan, and Kansas State will be prepared very well by the ageless Bill Snyder. This is a program that is built around playing fundamental football and winning close games. Three top offensive linemen may have left the program after last season, but the team should still be very good up front with B.J. Finney at center and Cody Whitehair at left guard. They’ll be blocking for a quarterback, Jake Waters, who will be going into his second season as the team’s starter. And Tyler Lockett is one of the most dynamic wide receivers and return men in the nation. This is a team that could very well finish much higher or lower in the standings. It’s all dependent on whether or not the ball bounces in their favor, because they don’t have a player the caliber of Collin Klein to carry the team to the top of the conference.

6. TCU (Last year: 4-8)
It’s been a rough transition to the Big 12 for the Horned Frogs. The team is 11-14 since making the move. The program lost a combined 13 games the previous six seasons. However, this year’s squad is regarded as the most talented since it entered the league. Last season, the Horned Frogs’ defense played at a high level and finished second in the league. The biggest story line of the offseason, though, was the potential return and eventual dismissal of Devonte Fields. The defensive end was voted the Big 12’s preseason Defensive of the Year even after missing nine games last season due to injury. Fields, who was named the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2012, was a game-changing talent and his presence on the field will be missed greatly. The team also lost one of the best cornerbacks in school history when Jason Verrett graduated and went on to become a first-round selection in May’s NFL draft. Despite these losses, this unit is still talented, particularly at linebacker. Both Jonathan Anderson and Paul Dawson return. And head coach Gary Patterson always has that side of the football prepared to play at a high level. It’s on the offensive side of the football the Horned Frogs are expected to experience the most growth. While a starter has yet to be named at quarterback, Trevone Boykin should be more comfortable behind center after starting nine games last year and Matt Joeckel is a talented transfer from Texas A&M. The team can always lean heavily on its skill positions. Running backs Aaron Green and B.J. Catalon as well as the team’s top receiver, Josh Doctson, are back. TCU may not return to the level of winning it experienced prior to becoming a member of the Big 12, but the team should be much better than 4-8 during the upcoming season.

7. Oklahoma State (Last year: 10-3; lost to Missouri in Cotton Bowl)
It’s difficult to place the Cowboys this low in the standings. After all, the program has won at least 10 games three of the last four years. It’s been seven years since Oklahoma finished this low in the Big 12 standings. The biggest concern for this team is experience. Both sides of the ball will be overhauled after losing a total of 14 starters. It isn’t just how many starters the Cowboys lost, but who they lost. Justin Gilbert was an elite cornerback and returner. Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett could be dominant at times. The team’s top three tacklers from last season are gone. Three of the team’s top four receivers graduated. And the offensive line will have four new starters, while senior Daniel Koenig will transition from right to left tackle. Head coach Mike Gundy will still find ways to manufacture points due to his dynamic offensive scheme, but this is simply too much talent for a team to lose and still hope to be legitimate contenders.

8. Iowa State (Last year: 3-9)
Three years ago, Iowas State head coach Paul Rhoads was considered one of the top coaching candidates in college football. The Cyclones rewarded him with a 10-year contract worth $20 million. The Cyclones are 9-16 since then, and the team is coming off a 3-9 season. Two of those wins came at the end end of the season when quarterback Sam Richardson wasn’t in the starting lineup. Yet, Richardson won this summer’s quarterback competition. The rest of last year’s starting offense remains virtually intact. Plus, Richardson will now have a legitimate No. 1 target at wide receiver in freshman Allen Lazard. Despite the positives on the offensive side of the ball, the Cyclones’ defense was the worst in the Big 12 last season. The program simply doesn’t have the athletes on that side of the ball to compete against the explosive offenses they face this season.

9. West Virginia (Last year: 4-8)
It’s a make-or-break season for West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen. The team has gotten progressively worse each season Holgorsen has been at the helm of the program and tensions are building in Morgantown. Holgorsen’s entire program is built around his offense. An offense which disappointed in 2013 and finished 62nd overall in yardage per game. That level of production simply isn’t good enough when the defense continues to be an issue for the Mountaineers. The defensive coordinator position has been a revolving door under Holgorsen’s supervision. Former Penn State coordinator Tom Bradley was hired as a senior associate head coach during the offseason. Bradley’s inclusion to the staff is a last-ditch attempt to get a woeful defense on track. If it doesn’t and Holgorsen can’t revive his offense — and it doesn’t seem likely — there will be major changes within the program.

10. Kansas (Last year: 3-9)
At this point, what is there to say about Charlie Weis‘ tenure at Kansas? It’s a failed experiment. Yes, the team improved by two wins during Weis’ second season and finally captured a conference victory for the first time in three years. But Weis’ plan to inject talent into the roster with a plethora of junior college additions and transfers didn’t do nearly enough to close the gap with the rest of the teams in the Big 12. All is not bleak, though. The Jayhawks return 17 starters. The team has officially given the reins to quarterback Montell Cozart, who decided to stay in-state to be the future of Jayhawks football. His growth at the position will play a major part in Kansas’ improvement this season. The team also has a solid edge-rushing duo in junior Ben Goodman and senior Michael Reynolds. Overall, It’s difficult to win at this basketball school. And it’s even more difficult to establish a long-term winning culture. After a quick peak at the schedule, it’s hard to project this team winning more than three or four games even in a best-case scenario.

Stanford plucks Oklahoma defensive line coach Diron Reynolds

MIAMI - 2007:  Diron Reynolds of the Miami Dolphins poses for his 2007 NFL headshot at photo day in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Getty Images)
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On Tuesday, Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart announced his retirement. On Wednesday, the Cardinal found his replacement.

Stanford hired one of its own according to reports from Sports Illustrated and FootballScoop (where I am also a writer), pulling former assistant Diron Reynolds away from Oklahoma after one season with the Sooners.

While Stanford has not formally announced Reynolds’ hiring, Oklahoma has already confirmed his departure.

“Diron did an excellent job for us here at OU,” head coach Bob Stoops said in a statement. “This move is going to allow him to reunite with his wife and children. We appreciate the work he did and wish him the best.”

Reynolds was Stanford’s assistant defensive line coach in 2014, and prior to that spent five years in the same capacity with the Minnesota Vikings. He inherits a defense that ranked in the top 30 nationally in rushing defense and sacks.

For Oklahoma, 2016 marks the second straight season the Sooners will be on the hunt for a defensive line coach after Signing Day. OU’s hiring of Reynolds last year was necessitated when defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery left for the Green Bay Packers.

D-line coach Mark Hagen leaving A&M for Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 14:  Nate Sudfeld #7 of the Indiana Hoosiers runs with the ball against the  Michigan Wolverines at Memorial Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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There are two types of coaching moves: the ones coaches want to make and the ones they’re told to make.

It’s with that in mind we review the news that Indiana has hired Texas A&M defensive line coach Mark Hagen to coach the same position, the Hoosiers announced Wednesday. Hagen is a former Hooiser that coached at his alma mater in 2011-12 before leaving for College Station in 2013. And Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin coached with Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson for five years at Oklahoma. If you wanted to find a landing spot for an assistant you were looking to replace, this is the type of job you would look for.

Texas A&M insider Billy Liucci, as much an insider as one can be, certainly presented this move as the second type of coaching change.

When a head coach is feeling heat, it’s often his assistants that pay the price, and especially when a high-profile coordinator is brought in, as was the case with the hiring of John Chavis.

“It’s exciting to be able to come back home again,” Hagen said in a statement. “These last three years have been fun. It’s something I felt like I had to do a few years back, but being a part of Coach Wilson’s program again and getting on board on the front end with Coach Allen is something I could not pass up. I’m looking forward to the challenge of coaching the entire defensive line and building a championship defense.”

Hagen coached one of the nation’s top pass-rushing duos in College Station in the form of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.

Rick Neuheisel is offended Jim Mora called his UCLA teams ‘soft’

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Head coach Rick Neuheisel of the UCLA Bruins gestures in the game against the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  USC won 50-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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After posting back-to-back 10-win, top-20 seasons, UCLA backslid to an unranked, 8-5 finish this season. Perhaps for that reason Bruins head coach Jim Mora decided to bring up the supposed state of the program he inherited during an appearance on Colin Cowherd’s show Tuesday.

“In our first interview, (UCLA AD Dan Guerrero) asked me, ‘When you think of UCLA? What do you think?’” Mora said, via the Los Angeles Times. “I’m thinking, what do I say here? Do I tell him the truth or something like it’s a great school and we can be great? I said, ‘I think you’re soft. I think the football team is soft.’

“Dan said, ‘That’s what I think, and we need to toughen it up.’”

Speaking on his own SiriusXM radio show Wednesday, Mora’s predecessor Rick Neuheisel took serious exception to that comment.

“All he did is go and paint the walls black and wear black on the sideline and think that that’s tough,” Neuheisel said. “I’ve been in the locker room. There’s all sorts of stuff about Sun Tzu and ‘The Art of War’ and pain and all that kind of stuff. He takes the team to Navy SEAL training. Congratulations, I’m glad you had the money to do it. But don’t talk about toughness with my football team.”

We’re not here to pick sides. In fact, our stance in the media is that we love all coaching wars of words — especially in the middle of February. But here are some facts to bring to the situation: since winning the Pac-12 South in his first season, largely with Neuheisel’s players, Mora has finished tied for second, tied for second and third in their own division. And against Stanford, the roughest, meanest team on UCLA’s schedule, Mora’s teams are 0-5, losing by an average of 35-19 — including a 31-10 blowout with a trip to the Pac-12 Championship on the line in 2014.

Nevertheless, it appears Neuheisel took the most umbrage with Guerrero’s supposed agreement with Mora’s assessment.

“We were 21-29, and I’m man enough to own that record. That’s the facts. That’s what we were, and I own it,” Neuheisel explained, via CBS Sports. “Jim Mora has done a nice job at UCLA, but to hear Dan Guerrero say that we were soft? That makes me bristle, because Dan Guerrero never came to practice. He never came to my office in four years. Not one time did he ever come and be a part of what was going on out there.

“I was told in my final year, ‘You make it to a bowl game, we’re fine.’ He knew we were bankrupt. He told me over and over, ‘Listen, we’ve got to lock arm and not make excuses. You make it through this, and we’re going to be fine.’ We knew what Brett Hundley was going to do. He ended up doing it. He just did it for Jim Mora. We go 6-6 and get to a bowl game, and I’m still let go. That’s business. No tears here. I understand the business. But the guy who was running the store knows for a fact we had nothing, and we were given nothing to get it done.”

Reports: Jake Spavital headed to Cal as offensive coordinator

COLLEGE STATION, TX - NOVEMBER 09:  Johnny Manziel #2 of the Texas A&M Aggies chats with his quarterback coach Jake Spavital before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Kyle Field on November 9, 2013 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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It appears Jake Spavital won’t be out of a job for long.

A month and some change after “mutually parting ways” with Texas A&M, Spavital has reportedly found a new home out west. FootballScoop (where I also work) and Fox Sports reported Friday Spavital had found a new home at California, and on Wednesday Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman added that Spavital will receive a two-year deal in Berkeley.

Cal head coach Sonny Dykes and his new offensive coordinator have never worked together previously, but each hails from the same school of thought. Dykes rose the ranks while working under Mike Leach at both Kentucky and Texas Tech and under Mike Stoops at Arizona, while Spavital spent the past few years working for former Leach assistant Dana Holgorsen at Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia and with former Bob Stoops assistant Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.

Spavital earned just north of $486,000 in 2015 according to the USA Today salary database while the man he replaces, new Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, made $510,000.

Cal finished the 2015 season ranked seventh nationally in yards per play and 17th in scoring, but Spavital will be tasked with re-tooling the attack without future 1st-round pick Jared Goff at quarterback.