New coaches mark a new era for the Big 12. Which young gun has the best shot at reaching the College Football Playoff?
The college football season is right around the corner, and it’s almost time to start firing up those tailgate grills. But before fans go and do that, it’s time to take a look at what each conference has to offer before the season starts. Leading up to the start of the season, SQ will have in-depth previews for every FBS conference. We last took a look at the PAC-12, and today we move on to the Big 12.
What Happened in 2016
Conference Champion: Oklahoma (11-2)
Coach of the Year: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
A fitting way to seemingly end his coaching career, Bob Stoops was named the Big 12 Coach of the year for the second consecutive season and the sixth time overall. Stoops led the Sooners to the first undefeated conference season since round-robin play began for the Big 12 in 2011. Thanks in part to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, Stoops’ offense was one of the best in the conference, finishing in the top-3 of the four major categories: scoring, passing, rushing, and total offense. Oklahoma led the conference in scoring (43.8 ppg), finished second in total offense (554.8), and third in each passing (318) and rushing (236.77). Stoops finished his career with a record of 190-48, including 10 Big 12 titles, and one national championship in 2000.
Offensive Player of the Year: Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma
Dede Westbrook enjoyed a fine season en route to becoming the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year. The wideout became just the second receiver to win the award after Justin Blackmon did it in 2010. Westbrook finished the season with 1,524 receiving yards and a school record 17 touchdowns, while averaging 19.05 yards per reception. Along with this honor, Westbrook was named a finalist for the Heisman trophy, winner of the Biletnikoff Award (outstanding receiver), and named a member to the All Big 12 First-Team.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State
When a legendary coach Bill Snyder calls you “the epitome” of Kansas State football, there’s no higher praise than that. Willis was not only the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but also earned third-team All-American honors from the Associated Press. Willis ranked first in the Big 12 in sacks (11.5), tied for first in forced fumbles (three), and second in tackles for loss (17.5). After somehow being left off the all-conference team in 2015, coaches recanted their mistake, making him a member of the All Big 12 first-team.
Looking Ahead to 2017
Conference Favorite: Oklahoma
Stoops’ retirement caught almost everyone off guard, but even so, his successor, Lincoln Riley, is more than capable of keeping this Oklahoma team atop the conference. Riley has done a fantastic job with the offense since he took over in 2015, averaging 40+ points in both seasons. The offense should continue to have plenty of firepower since Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield returns for his final season. Mayfield led the nation in completion percentage (70.9%) and yards per attempt (11.1), making this one of the most efficient and potent air attacks in the nation.
Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, and Samaje Perine have all moved on, meaning that new faces will have to step up at the skill positions. One breakout candidate could be sophomore running back Abdul Adams who rushed for 283 yards, averaging 5.34 yards per carry. The defense returns a much stronger foundation with six starters returning to a unit that really improved against the past later in the season. After surrendering over 2,300 passing yards through the first seven games, the Sooners made a drastic turnaround, allowing just 1,104 over their final six games.
Conference Dark Horse: Kansas State
When it comes down to the Big 12 title discussion, a lot of people seem to forget about Kansas State. Since 2011, the Wildcats have only finished outside of the top-four twice, always finding themselves in the thick of the Big 12 title race. Time and time again, Bill Snyder has taken what he’s given at Kansas State and has turned it into something special. With the amount of experience that this roster brings back with it, this team should be right up there with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State again.
The offense is a unique blend of conservative and explosive; it’s going to eat up a lot of clock, but produce plenty of big plays. Quarterback Jesse Ertz (1,755 passing yards, 1,012 rushing yards) is one of the Big 12’s best kept secrets. And with a great offensive line, running backs Justin Silmon and Alex Barnes should have plenty of holes to burst through.
The defense must replace Jordan Willis on the edge, but has capable pass rushers in Trey Dishon and Reggie Walker, who combined for nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Defending the pass last season was an issue, but it’s an area this team really improved upon over the final four games last season, allowing just 5.79 yards per pass attempt during that stretch. Road games at Oklahoma State and Texas make the road to the Big 12 title game tougher, but not impossible. If Kansas State can come away with at least split those two games, it stands a good chance of making a Big 12 title appearance.
Team That Will Disappoint: Texas Tech
Kliff Kingsbury’s offense has been unstoppable, averaging 44.4 points per game over the last two seasons. Unfortunately, the defense can’t seem to make a stop, allowing 43.56 points per game in the same stretch. There are times when it looks like Texas Tech belongs among the elite in the Big 12, but then there are times when this team is below average.
Patrick Mahomes was a huge part to this offense’s success over the past two seasons, but now he’s taking snaps for the Kansas City Cheifs. Without him, it’s hard to picture Kingsbury’s offense putting up the same amount of production. The defense lost its best pass rusher in Kris Williams (five sacks, six tackles for loss), and must find someone to fill his shoes ASAP. And the secondary lost two of its best pass defenders in Paul Banks III and Justis Nelson, who combined for 17 pass breakups in 2016. Kingsbury is already on the hot seat after finishing last season with a 5-7 record, and his seat could get even hotter if this team finds itself fighting in the last few games to make it to a bowl.
Three Players to Watch:
1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma - Mayfield is without a doubt the Big 12’s best chance for a Heisman, and has been the past two seasons. His ability to be both accurate and explosive has turned him into one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country. Since joining Oklahoma, the former walk-on has thrown for 7,665 yards and 76 touchdowns. With 2017 being his final season of eligibility, Mayfield should once again be a finalist for a host of awards, including the Heisman, Maxwell, and Davey O’Brien Award.
2. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State - If it wasn’t for Mayfield, Rudolph would unquestionably be the conference’s best returning quarterback. Electing to return for his senior season, Rudolph was one of eight passers to eclipse 4,000 yards last season, finishing with 4,091. And of those eight quarterbacks, Rudolph finished with the least interceptions, throwing just four in 2016. With plenty of weapons at his disposal this season, the senior could find himself as a dark horse Heisman candidate.
3. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State - Dede Westbrook is gone, paving the way for Washington to make his claim as the best receiver in the Big 12. His back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons could make him an early favorite for the Biletnikoff Award. There’s even a shot that Washington could break the Oklahoma State record for career receiving yards, needing about 1,500 to pass Rashaun Woods. With Mason Rudolph getting him the ball, and his career 19.23 yards per reception average could make that possible.
Most Important Conference Matchup: Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State, Nov. 4
This might be the first of two games these teams could play now that the Big 12 has brought back its championship game. Usually reserved as an end-of-the-season rivalry, the two teams moved the contest back to the beginning of November as a preventative measure in case the two do wind up facing off in the conference championship. The Sooners have won four of the last five games in the series, and have won two in a row in on the road in Stillwater.
This game will be all about the offenses, as the teams have combined to produce over 2,000 yards of offense in this matchup in the past two seasons. Mayfield and Rudolph will have each built their own case for the Heisman at this point, making this the contest to decide the race. If nothing else, the winner of this matchup finds itself one step closer to reaching the Big 12 Championship, while the loser faces a much more difficult road.
The Big 12 still has 10 teams after failing to expand yet again. It remains a mystery why the conference hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunities that lie in Florida with UCF or USF, or even further expanding into Texas by adding Houston. Be that as it may, the conference is making strides in the right direction. First off, the Big 12 title game will be back for the first time since 2010, giving the conference that all important conference championship boost that the College Football Playoff selection committee covets. But more importantly, the conference hired some of the best young head coaches in the business.
Making moves to hire young, successful coaches like Tom Herman at Texas and Matt Rhule at Baylor gives the conference a much needed facelift. Not to mention, Lincoln Riley is just about the best fit for Oklahoma given Bob Stoops’ sudden retirement. The Big 12 now boasts four coaches under the age of 40 with three more coaches under the age of 47. The addition of these youthful coaches gives the Big 12 some much needed excitement heading into this season.
With that being said, 2017 should be intriguing at the very least for the Big 12. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both are legitimate College Football Playoff contenders, while Kansas State could sneak up on both and take the conference title for itself. Texas Tech and West Virginia will still have plenty of firepower on offense to wow fans, but the defenses still hinder both of these teams. Texas, on the other hand, is the biggest wild card in this conference. If Herman can get this team to play at the level it did for him while he was coaching at Houston, this team could very easily find itself in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot.
And while there is plenty of opportunity for success in the Big 12 this season, there are still a few teams that could drag it down, making it harder for this conference to receive a bid for the College Football Playoff. Kansas continues to weigh the conference down after finishing 2-10 last season, and 0-12 in 2015. Iowa State is still searching for solid ground, but could easily find itself in the cellar after going 3-9 last season. If the Big 12 had 14 members, this might not be much of a problem, but given that those two teams represent 20% of the conference, that’s a lot of dead weight to make up for.
All in all, this season will likely come down to the state of Oklahoma. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are easily the most talented teams in the conference, and should see each other more than one time this season. But when it comes down to it, Oklahoma has the slight edge at quarterback and on defense. Both of these teams may be the favorites to make it to the title game, but don’t be surprised if Kansas State or Texas sneaks in after the regular season battle for Oklahoma.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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