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College Football Preview 2017-2018: Previewing the Big 12

Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Big 12 Conference

2016 In Review: After starting off the season 1-2, Oklahoma hit their stride in conference play and didn't look back, beating every single they faced the rest of the way. They capped it all off it all off with a Sugar Bowl victory, finishing off 11-2, with another Big 12 title notched upon their belt. Their in-state rival, Oklahoma State, was in Big 12 title contention but their late loss in Norman to the Sooners doomed them. Meanwhile, Baylor and West Virginia both surprised many with hot starts, Baylor jumping out to a 6-0 start under interim head coach Jim Grobe, while WVU also began 6-0 behind a big-play offense and physical defense. However, Baylor's depth issues caught up with them and they would lose six straight the rest of the way before a bowl win managed to keep them above .500. The Mountaineers didn't completely fall off the map, and finished off a very respectable 10-3 overall. It wasn't a terrible season for the conference, but there is a big elephant in the room. For the second time in the three seasons of the Playoff, no Big 12 team gained entry into the field. Will the new conference championship the Big 12 is instituting in 2017 change that, or will the conference continue to fall beyond the rest of the other Power Five conferences?

Ranking the Big 12 (click on Top 25 teams for more in-depth previews)

1. Oklahoma State Cowboys (National Rank: 7)
If not for a questionable call that awarded Central Michigan an extra play, in which they completed an insane Hail Mary to stun the Cowboys, Oklahoma State would have entered a battle with rival Oklahoma 9-1 with a legitimate shot at a Playoff berth. Oklahoma State wouldn't be able to get past the Sooners and seize the conference crown, but it was still a very successful campaign in Stillwater. They had an even better off-season, retaining three-year starter Mason Rudolph at quarterback and top wide out James Washington Jr., both who were considering leaving for the NFL. The Rudolph-Washington combination will give this offense their usual explosiveness, as will the return of 1,000-yard rusher Justice Hill at tailback. The question will be on defense, where the Cowboys are decent, but have to continue to improve. Senior linebacker Chad Whitener and a veteran-laden defensive front should keep the rush defense stout, but the pass defense is the one that needs to really take big leaps forward, especially in the pass-happy Big 12. If they can, with a very favorable schedule, Oklahoma State may be able to overtake the Sooners in the conference. Depending on how the Playoff Committee views the Big 12 and its new conference championship, a Playoff run is certainly a possibility.

2. Oklahoma Sooners (National Rank: 10)
Following the abrupt retiring of long-time head coach Bob Stoops, former offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley takes over in Norman. The 33-year-old offensive genius won't have to change too much in his debut season with the Sooners. He is blessed with the return of veteran Baker Mayfield, who should once again vie for plenty of awards in his final season of collegiate football. Oklahoma must replace backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, but one of the country's best offensive lines should ensure whoever steps up at the position (likely sophomore Abdul Adams) will have plenty of holes to dash through. On the outside, OU loses Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook but has a star tight end in Mark Andrews, and adds solid Kentucky grad transfer Jeff Badet. The Sooners have been criticized on defense for a couple seasons, and they continue to struggle defending the pass, as they allowed nearly 270 yards per game in 2016 (111th nationally). Fortunately, three starters are back in the secondary, including All-Conference senior corner Jordan Thomas. The defensive line is undergoing a massive rebuild as every starter departs, but senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo has proven he can be a top-flight pass rusher. There may be some slight adjustments as Riley takes over the program (and it won't help his first road game is in Columbus against Ohio State) but Oklahoma has easily been the conference's best team the last two seasons and returns enough that a third consecutive Big 12 title shouldn't be out of the question.

3. Kansas State Wildcats (National Rank: 16)
Contrary to the big-play, flashy offenses that usually operate in the Big 12, Bill Snyder has long preferred a power rushing attack. That attack should be particularly effective in 2017, as most of the important components return to Manhattan. Senior quarterback Jesse Ertz won't kill you with his arm, but ran for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and should once again be a major threat on the ground. He'll have plenty of help with a strong offensive line, returning three starters, and underrated fullback Winston Dimel. Dimel, the son of offensive coordinator Dana, had 12 touchdowns last year, and should once again be a monster in short yardage situations. Kansas State loses some talent on defense, namely top pass rusher Jordan Willis and terrific linebacker Elijah Lee, but they should still be very stingy. Senior defensive tackle Will Geary is one of the best in the conference, and the secondary is loaded with experience. Expect junior college transfers, Snyder's speciality, to also add valuable depth throughout this roster. While many assume the conference championship race will come down to either Oklahoma schools, or perhaps even revamped Texas, K-State should not be overlooked. They have long overachieved under Snyder and have the type of team that can spring plenty of upsets.

4. Texas Longhorns (National Rank: 25)
Months of speculation were finally ended when Texas hired rising head coach Tom Herman this off-season. The former Houston head coach and Ohio State offensive coordinator will now try and rebuild in Austin, where there is plenty of talent, but there has been a lack of execution. Young QB Shane Buechele had an inconsistent 2016 but has a top-notch arm and Herman has been known for developing young quarterbacks. Junior running back Chris Warren III could also have a breakout season as he is finally healthy after missing most of 2016. He will have huge shoes to fill, as last year's back, D'Onta Foreman, ran crazy for over 2,000 yards before becoming a third-round NFL Draft selection. Somebody will have to step up at receiver, but sophomore Devin Duvernay and junior John Burt have elite-caliber talent. Texas has really struggled over the years on the defensive side of the ball but they return seven starters and bring in a fresh face at defensive coordinator in Todd Orlando, who follows Herman from Houston to UT. Junior linebackers Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler are All-Big 12 defenders and the defensive backfield could be the best it has been in years. The arrival of Herman immediately upgrades the Longhorns on the sideline and they should be even better on the recruiting trail, which obviously bodes well for their future. However, before we are ready to anoint Texas as "back", they have to answer questions in the passing game and throughout their defense. If they can solve some of those issues, they can certainly contend for a Big 12 title, but a more realistic expectation would be a 8-9 win campaign that shows plenty of progress.

5. TCU Horned Frogs
After winning 23 of their 26 games over the last two seasons of the Trevone Boykin era, TCU fell back to earth in 2016, losing their bowl game to finish off a disappointing 6-7. Quarterback Kenny Hill was an enigma; the Texas A&M transfer did throw for 3,208 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also led the conference in interceptions with 13, and was pulled four times. It's hard to imagine TCU making much of a jump in '17 unless the senior QB can have a much more consistent season. It will help that he has a loaded receivers corps, which includes seniors Taj Williams and John Diarse, along with junior KaVontae Turpin, who is back from injury. Turpin showed immense playmaking potential in 2015 but was never really 100 percent a season ago. If he can stay healthy, he is one of the most explosive players in the entire conference. Senior Kyle Hicks is returning after managing 1,042 yards and 12 scores, while sophomore speedster Darius Anderson should also give this ground attack plenty of punch. Long-time head coach Gary Patterson has long prided himself on defense, but the Horned Frogs were very leaky last season, allowing 424.8 yards per game. They'll have to reload on the D-Line, where they lose most of their playmakers, but the back seven should be very strong. Junior 'backer Ty Summers and senior linebacker/strong safety Travin Howard are both terrific, and cornerback Ranthony Texada is a guy who can shut down anybody on the outside. The last time TCU was recovering from a sub-.500 campaign, they went on a tear, going 12-1 in 2014 and coming extremely close to a Playoff bid. That is probably too much to ask of this year's edition, but they should be experienced enough to surprise quite a few folks in the Big 12 this season and perhaps vie for a conference crown.

6. West Virginia Mountaineers
Even though they fell out of the Big 12 title race quickly following a hot start, 2016 was still a very pleasant surprise for the Mountaineers, as they went 10-3 and 7-2 in the conference. They'll move on from veteran QB Skyler Howard in 2017, but don't expect this offense to miss a beat. Will Grier led Florida to a 6-0 start in 2015 before he was suspended after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. He opted to transfer to West Virginia and after sitting out last season, he should have a chance to run this offense. Senior running back Justin Crawford, who ran for 1,184 yards last season, is also returning as are a number of weapons at receiver, essentially guaranteeing this offense should meet last year's 31.2 points per game. Head coach Dana Holgorsen has done a fine job upgrading the defense over the past few seasons, and this unit isn't the complete mess it once was. However, getting pressure on the quarterback could be a concern, as every starter on the defensive line departs. The pass defense is almost definitely going to be improved after ranking 104th in the country last season. Versatile senior Kyzir White is a huge difference-maker, while a healthy Dravon Askew-Henry, who tore his ACL in '16, bodes very well for this defense. Replicating last season's hot start, particularly with a neutral site opener against Virginia Tech, may proven to be difficult but West Virginia should still find a way to be a factor in the conference. If Grier can continue where he left off at Florida, the Mountaineers could still find a way to get double-digit victories and land in a solid bowl game.

7. Baylor Bears
It hasn't been a fun couple years for Baylor, as a sexual assault scandal throughout the football program has rocked the entire university. Yet, it was a huge win this off-season for the Bears to snag former Temple head coach, Matt Rhule, considered to be one of the better young names in the coaching carousel. It will take years for Rhule to restore this program's reputation and turn them back into a winner, but this team could still provide plenty of fireworks. Sophomore Zach Smith is the favorite to take over for Seth Russell at quarterback, but he could be challenged by Arizona transfer Anu Solomon, who has a huge arm. Junior running back Terence Williams quietly ran for over 1,000 yards a year ago and should once again be a major threat, while sophomore JaMycal Hasty adds plenty of speed and versatility. The receivers corps and offensive line are both concerns, with very little returning in either unit. However, the O-Line does have plenty of talent and brings in highly touted JUCO transfer Mo Porter at left tackle, and is also talent at the receiver position. The defense was bad a year ago, and it's hard to imagine it being much better in 2017. Senior linebacker Taylor Young has been a star since he arrived in Waco, but doesn't have much help around him. The secondary in particular could be a huge concern, and an injury-plagued spring didn't help. I firmly expect the Rhule hire to work out for Baylor, but things could get worse before they get better. Expect a transition season in Waco, and likely a tough one at times. This team may be hard-pressed to get to the seven-win mark last year's team did.

8. Iowa State Cyclones
Allen Lazard, Iowa State
As expected for a new head coach in a deep conference, Matt Campbell had a rough start to his Iowa State tenure, beginning 1-8, which included losses to FCS foe Northern Iowa and archrvial Iowa by 39. Despite the slow start the Cyclones played very well over the season's second half, and beating Kansas and Texas Tech down the stretch, ending up 3-9. They could have done even better, if not for a number of choked leads, losing close games to Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma. They should be much better at closing out games as the staff and players get more comfortable with each other, and the offense improves. Former Georgia transfer Jacob Park is the favorite to take over at QB, and will have the luxury of throwing to record-setting wide out Allen Lazard (1,018 yards, seven touchdowns last year). The ground game should also take a step forward as sophomore David Montgomery and junior Mike Warren are both back and combined for over 1,000 yards in 2016. The defense is a major work in progress, especially a rush defense that came was 103rd nationally. Joel Lanning is likely to take over the ever-important middle linebacker spot, as the converted quarterback hopes to play a major role in improving this rush defense. The secondary isn't great but should be at least passable. Senior free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya is the leader of the defense, and a real playmaker in the back. Campbell has Iowa State's trajectory going up, but there may still be some growing pains in Year Two. However, if the offense can improve and the Cyclones can do a better job of holding on to leads, a bowl appearance could be in the works.

9. Texas Tech Red Raiders
It was the same old story in Lubbock last season; the Red Raiders had one of the nation's most explosive offenses, averaging 564.5 yards per game behind the arm of NFL first-rounder Pat Mahomes, but their defense once more doomed them and they ended up 5-7. That has put major pressure on fifth-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who is 24-26 since returning to his alma mater. There are even more questions as the team enters 2017, as they must replace Mahomes and leading receiver Jonathan Giles, who transferred to LSU. Senior Nic Shimonek and sophomore McLane Carter are competing to replace Mahomes and while neither is very experienced, Texas Tech has always been dangerous offensively and should be once again. Losing Giles is tough, but senior Dylan Cantrell, junior Keke Coutee and former Iowa transfer Derrick Willies give this team plenty of options on the perimeter. However, even if the offense is up to its usual tricks, the defense has to improve. It was the worst in FBS football in points allowed per game (43.5 PPG) and yards given up (554.3 YPG) and there is no culture on that side of the ball. Kingsbury decided to retain third-year D-coordinator David Gibbs, who will try to switch things up and try something new. But, with just four starters back on that side of the ball, things could still be an issue. Junior college transfer Dakota Allen will help, as will another JUCO addition, cornerback Octavius Morgan, but it is hard to imagine much improvement. Unless it does, Texas Tech is a bottom-of-the-conference team. It is never easy to fire alums, but if the Red Raiders continue to trend in the wrong direction, Kingsbury may not have a lot of time left to sort it out.

10. Kansas Jayhawks
Following an 0-12 2015 Kansas had one simple goal in mind entering last season: win a football game. They did just that in the opener, dominating FCS opponent Rhode Island 55-6. They followed that up with nine straight defeats, often blowout losses. A November 19th date with Texas didn't seem too promising but the Jayhawks played their best football of the year and stunned the Longhorns, giving them their first win over UT since 1938. As head coach David Beaty enters Year Three, progress continues to be made. The offense is still figuring things out, with junior Peyton Bender and sophomore Carter Stanley in a stiff competition for the QB job. They also have yet to identify their starting tailback, with JUCO transfer Octavius Matthews considered the favorite. They do have a talented receivers corps, spearheaded by junior Steven Sims Jr. (859 yards, seven TDs in '16) and speedy LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who followed Beaty from A&M. The defense isn't necessarily a strength either, but there is a lot of potential on that side of the ball. Junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. quietly managed 10 sacks a season ago and is a real difference-maker, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Mike Lee really sets the tone for the back. Despite a 2-22 record over his first two seasons, Beaty was rewarded with a raise over the off-season. That may seem odd, but the Jayhawks are beginning their long climb from irrelevancy in the sport and players and recruits are really starting to buy into the head coach. A bowl game is too much to ask for at this point,  but improving on last year's two victories is a real possibility, particularly with a soft non-conference slate.

All-Big 12 Team
First Team
QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
RB Justice Hill, Oklahoma State
RB Terence Williams, Baylor
WR Allen Lazard, Iowa State
WR James Washington Jr., Oklahoma State
TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
OL Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
OL Connor Williams, Texas
OL Dalton Risner, Kansas State
OL Austin Schlottmann, TCU
OL Ben Powers, Oklahoma
DL Will Geary, Kansas State
DL Dorance Armstrong Jr., Kansas
DL Poona Ford, Texas
DL K.J. Smith, Baylor
LB Travin Howard, TCU
LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
LB Chad Whitener, Oklahoma State
CB Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma
CB D.J. Reed, Kansas State
S Tre Flowers, Oklahoma State
S Dravon Askew-Henry, West Virginia

Second Team
QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
RB Justin Crawford, West Virginia
RB Chris Warren III, Texas
WR Jalen McCleskey, Oklahoma State
WR Keke Coutee, Texas Tech
TE Dayton Valentine, Kansas State
OL Zachary Crabtree, Oklahoma State
OL Mo Porter, Baylor
OL Kyle Bosch, West Virginia
OL Scott Frantz, Kansas State
OL Patrick Vahe, Texas
DL Matt Romar, Oklahoma
DL Reggie Walker, Kansas State
DL Malcolm Roach, Texas
DL Mat Boesen, TCU
LB Malik Jefferson, Texas
LB Taylor Young, Baylor
LB Al-Rasheed Benton, West Virginia
CB Ranthony Texada, TCU
CB Jordan Parker, Oklahoma
S Mike Lee, Kansas
S Kamari Cotton-Moya, Iowa State

Projected Awards
Championship Game: Oklahoma State over Oklahoma
Offensive Player of the Year: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Defensive Player of the Year: Jordan Thomas, Oklahoma
Coach of the Year: Bill Snyder, Kansas State

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