The Big 12 is the most quarterback-driven of all QB-driven leagues, and 2018 represents a major changing of the guard. Gone is Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield, and so, too, are Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, TCU’s Kenny Hill, Texas Tech’s Nic Shimonek and Kansas State’s Jesse Ertz. West Virginia returns Heisman candidate Will Grier, but the next-highest returning passer is Texas’s Sam Ehlinger, who threw for all of 1,915 yards as a true freshman in 2017. This is going to be a wide-open year and, as such, a year where the unpredictable will reign supreme over the predictable. It’s an off-year in the Big 12’s your turn/my turn College Football Playoff rotation with the Pac-12, and a year where a young, ascendant team (Baylor?) is likely to rise up and wreck the season of a favored team who is among the best in the land (Oklahoma? West Virginia? TCU?) who’s wobbly from the most difficult week-to-week grind in college football. (Don’t @ me.)
Oklahoma enters as the prohibitive favorite, but the Sooners lose a lot of production from 2017. You know about Mayfield, but Lincoln Riley also loses All-American pass rusher Obo Okoronkwo, All-American left tackle Orlando Brown and All-American tight end Mark Andrews, as well as Swiss army knife fullback Dimitri Flowers. Kyler Murray will add an extra dimension to Oklahoma’s running game, but can a 5-foot-9 quarterback sit back in the pocket and pick people apart when necessary?
West Virginia enters as OU’s top challenger, and the combination of Grier, Gary Jennings (97 catches for 1,096 yards in 2017) and David Sills (60 grabs for 980 yards and 18 touchdowns) is easily the conference’s most fearsome passing attack. Dana Holgorsen thinks his team finally has the defense and the depth to survive the year-long grind of the Big 12, but he seemingly says that every year. Making four cross-country trips a year is a unique challenge that any program would struggle to solve, though WVU does get Oklahoma and TCU in Morgantown. TCU replaces Hill with Gary Patterson‘s highest-regarded quarterback recruit ever in sophomore Shawn Robinson. He should team with KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Reagor to give the Frogs plenty of sizzle, and TCU’s front seven is probably the scariest in the league, but the Frogs’ four new offensive line starters will have to grow up in a hurry.
Texas has a lot to like on an individual level, but skepticism is warranted until the quarterback position is sorted out. This is a league where 40 touchdowns responsible for from your starting quarterback is a prerequisite for winning the conference title, and Ehlinger and Shane Buechele combined for 22 in 2017. Oklahoma State won’t be as good as they were last year after losing Rudolph and James Washington but will still be much better than you assume they’ll be, which is exactly how Mike Gundy prefers it. Iowa State will be just good enough to ruin your season but not good enough to seriously contend for the league title. Texas Tech enters the year with more question marks on offense than defense for the first time since the 19th century, which could be considered a very good sign considering Kliff Kingsbury will never field a bad offense. Baylor was much better than last year’s 1-11 record, and Matt Rhule‘s 17 returning starters, led by sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer, means this will be the league’s most improved team — and perhaps the country’s. Kansas State will be about as pleasant to play as a root canal, and junior quarterback Alex Delton will again be a nightmare to contain. David Beaty returns 19 starters and enters a last-chance season to show marked progress with new AD Jeff Long watching.
Before we get to the predictions, consider that the Big 12 is annually a league where the gap between No. 3 and No. 8 is small enough to slip a notecard through, and especially so this year.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
3. West Virginia
5. Iowa State
6. Oklahoma State
7. Kansas State
9. Texas Tech