Mark it down – Big 12 expansion is imminent. In a world where conference championship games are becoming part of the lifeblood of college football, the Big 12 absolutely must expand its conference to include more than the present 10 teams.
Yes, the Big 12 can and will renew its championship, presumably with its current membership. The top two teams in the conference will get berths in the game, with a mandated nine-game, round-robin conference schedule where each team plays every other team. But Big 12 officials must notice how much the other conferences benefit from a divisional set-up, most of them determined by geography (East-West, North-South, Pacific-Mountain or in the case of the ACC, Whatever-Whatever). So while some people still doubt a move to 12 or 14 teams will happen, we believe that by the beginning of 2017, the Big 12 will issue invitations to two schools. And we believe those two schools will be:
- Cincinnati. This one seems like the biggest no-brainer. Ohio is a fertile recruiting ground, and Cincy has developed an increasingly strong athletics program in recent years, depite not playing in a major conference. The addition of the Bearcats will add a decent football program, and Cincy’s inclusion in a major conference will help it recruit better and become more profitable. Plus, it puts a major conference foot squarely into Ohio State’s back yard.
- UCF. The Knights are profitable. And they’re in one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the United States. The Big 12 would love to have an even bigger entry into the Sunshine State, and UCF is the best place available to do that. This is almost as much of a no-brainer as Cincinnati.
You may have expected to see Houston or BYU or Boise State. Houston suffers from geography – simply put, adding the Cougars would be one Texas team too many. Houston may be added if the roster expands to 14 teams, but we don’t think they’ll make the cut at 12. BYU is in the same bubble position, and may make the second round. But those other Cougars also happen to be a private religious institution, and there are worries that they’ll be difficult to deal with in areas such as scheduling (since BYU doesn’t play on Sundays … ever). And Boise State is practically in Canada and plays in the 111th biggest TV market in the country. Plus, the Broncos’ 46-year-old stadium seats just over 36,000, which would be the league’s smallest by about 9,000 (and Baylor already has plans to expand its new field by 10,000).
We project that the Big 12 will place Oklahoma into the College Football Playoff, that Cincinnati will go bowling at the end of this season and that UCF is in another rebuilding year and will be watching the bowls from home in December. But the biggest bonus for the conference at the end of the year will be a greatly expanded geographical reach into prime recruiting ground, and both of those schools’ biggest Christmas presents will be their inclusion in a bigger and better Big 12. (And then we can talk about AAC expansion!)
- Oklahoma (12-0). Wilkinson. Switzer. Stoops. Yes, Bob Stoops deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Oklahoma’s other two legendary coaches. For one, he has won more games than either of the other two, even if the number of wins is due to lengthier schedules. He also has been at Oklahoma for 17 seasons, and when he takes the sidelines against Houston on Sept. 3, he’ll have the longest tenure of any OU coach other than Bennie Owen, who led the Sooners during the early parts of the 20th century. Stoops’ winning percentage of .796 is third only behind the other two, and he also joins them as the only coaches to ever lead Oklahoma to a national championship. Bob Stoops has already earned his place in the College Football Hall of Fame as one of its elite coaches, but by the time this season is over, we believe he’ll have a chance to improve on that reputation with a chance to play for a second national championship during his tenure. More than any time in recent history, Oklahoma is loaded to the teeth with a combination of talent and experience that places it among the best teams of not just the Big 12, but of all college football. The two biggest pieces of OU’s offense – QB Baker Mayfield and RB Samaje Perine – return, as does the bulk of the Sooners’ line. The only concerns are in the middle of the line and at wide receiver, both of which will see new starters. Six starters return on defense, including four preseason All-Big 12 players. DE Charles Walker is at the head of the class and should dominate on the line. LB Jordan Evans is a monster in the middle, and CB Jordan Thomas blankets opposing receivers. The Sooners also have one of the best kickers in the nation – Austin Seibert – who does double-duty as place kicker and punter. The Sooners have two huge early tests – on opening day vs. Houston and on Sept. 17 at home against Ohio State. If they survive both of those (we believe they will), then the only thing keeping them from running the table is a letdown (like the one against Texas last year).
- Oklahoma State (10-2). If Bob Stoops is among the best coaches in Oklahoma history, Mike Gundy simply is the best coach in Oklahoma State’s history. It’s amazing to consider that, with all of the talent the Cowboys have had over the years, they’ve never really had a “golden age.” The closest they came was in the mid-1980s when Pat Jones led OSU to three 10-win seasons in five years, but that was largely due to the legs of two future NFL Hall of Fame running backs – Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Without them, the Cowboys became just another team – and for the most part, just another losing team. Under Gundy, however, OSU has gone from barely average to annual conference contender. In his 11 years, Gundy’s 94 wins has placed him as the school’s all-time winningest coach. The team’s two appearances in major bowls under Gundy are the first for OSU since the mid-1940s. And with one upset this year, could have a very special season, and perhaps even a surprise appearance in the CFP. The pieces are absolutely in place on offense, and if a year of experience pays dividends on defense, the Big 12 could be in for a big surprise. A whopping 10 starters return on an offense that scored 39.5 ppg last year. QB Mason Rudolph gets back everyone except for one receiver and will frequently target All-Big 12 WR James Washington. The offensive line will start for a second year intact. However, there needs to be a lot of improvement in that unit, particularly in their run blocking. On defense, seven starters are back, but drastic improvement is needed in every phase. The Cowboys ranked 87th or worse in rushing, passing, total and scoring defense and gave up 45 or more points in their last three games – which happened to be their only losses of the year. Five of the seven returnees are projected as All-Big 12 players, including FS Jordan Stearns, so we definitely expect improvement. But just how much will determine if OSU unseats the Sooners as kings of the conference. It’s highly possible that the Cowboys will enter the last two weeks just like last year – at 10-0 and with a chance at winning the whole thing. But wins on the road will be necessary against TCU (Nov. 19) and Oklahoma (Dec, 3) for that to happen.
- TCU (8-4). You’re probably picking up on a theme here – there are a lot of Big 12 teams who are being led by one of their all-time greatest coaches. In TCU’s case, Gary Patterson is head-and-shoulders above anyone who has ever graced its sidelines. (Some might cite Dutch Meyer, who led the Horned Frogs to two national championships back in the 1930s, but after the second title in 1938, Meyer’s teams never won more than seven games in a single season.) Since getting the job in 2001, Patterson has led the Horned Frogs to 13 bowls in 15 seasons, and has built the program into a power within the Big 12. When the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996, TCU was a castoff that wasn’t included in the merger with the Big 8 that formed the Big 12. Instead, TCU found homes, successively, in the WAC, C-USA and the Mountain West, and won conference titles in each of those. Five of those championships came under Patterson, as did TCU’s co-championship of the Big 12 in 2014 following a 12-1 season. The Frogs should attain another winning season in 2016, but it will likely come with a lot of growing pains, especially on offense. Only one starter returns there – LT Joseph Noteboom, who is a preseason All-Big 12 performer. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is almost certain to start at QB, and he had flashes of greatness at his former school. The Frogs’ projected starters at running back and wide receiver were effective as backups, but will have to prove they can carry the load as starters. Aside from Noteboom, a host of fresh faces will line up to protect Hill. The defense is better off, but still lost five starters from a year ago. Last year’s unit had moments of brilliance (7 points against Texas, 10 against West Virginia), but more typically struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone (SMU–37, Texas Tech–52, Kansas State–45, Oklahoma State–49, Oregon–41). DE Josh Carraway is the best player on defense, but a lot more need to step up if TCU is going to contend in the Big 12. The Frogs will probably be 4-0 when Oklahoma comes to Fort Worth on Oct. 1. How they perform in that game will probably reveal how the rest of the year will unfold.
- Baylor (8-4). And the theme continues … kind of. Art Briles wasn’t Baylor’s winningest coach, but he absolutely was on the way there, having delivered two conference titles and four double-digit winning seasons in the past five years. And then came this year’s sexual assault scandal. Briles and other Baylor officials were accused of casting a blind eye to alleged rape and assault allegations brought against football players by female Baylor students. Briles was fired, President Ken Starr and Athletic Director Ian McCaw resigned, and the Baylor football program was thrown into a tailspin. The 2017 recruiting class was obliterated, and 2016’s class lost six players – four of them to the Texas Longhorns. New coach Jim Grobe was brought in to restore law and order to the program, but he’s always been a grind-it-out defensive guy, which contrasts dramatically with Briles’ high-octane offensive strategy. Baylor wisely kept both offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett in place, and by all accounts Grobe has made very few changes in the way the team is run. That could save this season and allow Baylor some grace in choosing the coach moving forward (our money is on Bennett). Prior to the scandal, the season had a lot of hope. QB Seth Russell returns and the Bears need to hope he stays healthy – his only backups are all freshman, as five-star QB Jarrett Stidham didn’t like losing the battle for starter and has decided to transfer. RB Shock Linwood is one of the best in the Big 12, as is receiver K.D. Cannon, and C Kyle Fuller is easily the best center in the conference. Aside from Cannon, several other receivers need to step up, and aside from Fuller, the entire line will feature new starters. Don’t count on the Bears to repeat as the nation’s top offense. Grobe may help Baylor improve from last year’s shaky defensive output. He’ll have to work with an entirely new defensive front, though the secondary will be deep and experienced. LB Taylor Young was last season’s leading tackler and also led in TFLs. After a few cupcake games, the Bears get Oklahoma State at home on Sept. 24. Pay close attention, because that game will telegraph the remainder of the season. Just don’t set your expectations too high given how many variables have been injected into Baylor’s program.
- West Virginia (8-4). When the Mountaineers hired Dana Holgorsen to lead the program in 2011, he was pretty much seen as the next best thing to sliced bread. Holgorsen was looked at as a can’t miss offensive genius, and he seemed to deliver in his first season. West Virginia went 10-3, winning the Big East and the Orange Bowl. The next year, the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, and chinks appeared in Holgorsen’s armor. In the four years that WVU has been in the Big 12, they’ve barely limped into three winning outcomes, and finished 2013 at 4-8. He desperately needs a very good season to ensure his continued employment, and we believe he’ll get at least an OK one. Holgorsen’s offense seems to be on an upswing, and should continue with seven starters returning, including QB Skyler Howard. The Mountaineers are loaded at wide receiver, and there’s some solid unproven talent at running back. C Tyler Orinsky is the second-best at his position in the Big 12, and WVU has the conference’s best guard tandem in Kyle Bosch and Adam Pankey. Matching or exceeding last season’s output of 34 ppg shouldn’t be an issue. Improving on a defense that allowed 24.6 ppg, however, could be a struggle. Aside from two linemen and two safeties, West Virginia must replace the entire defense. DE Noble Nwachukwu gets a lot of pressure from his side, but he can’t stop opponents single-handedly. Last year’s defense was actually WVU’s best since Holgorsen became coach – typically, his teams have been known for average to below average defenses. Early games against Missouri (Sept. 3) and BYU (Sept. 24) will tell a lot about how this team is adjusting. A five-game stretch from Oct. 22 to Nov. 19 will determine the greatness (or un-greatness) of West Virginia’s season – that’s when they meet TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas and Oklahoma, with a freebie (Kansas) thrown in the middle.
- Texas (8-4). Texas is being patient with Charlie Strong. After all, he did inherit a Longhorns’ program that was in decline. But UT isn’t a big fan of losing, and Strong has done more of that than winning in his first two seasons with the team. No Texas coach has done that since Dana X. Bible in 1937-1938. Of course, Coach Bible ended up rebuilding the Longhorns and eventually led them to three Southwest Conference titles and subsequent appearances in the Cotton Bowl. Texas folks are hoping that Coach Strong is at least the second coming of Dana Bible, and that the wins will soon follow in Austin. They should get their wish starting this season. Now, we’re clearly not projecting a run at the Big 12 championship, but we are predicting that Texas should win at least eight games, and if the ball bounces right, could win one or two more than that. Getting there will require an immediate adjustment to the team’s fifth offensive coordinator in as many years. In the ‘Horns first two seasons under Strong, the offense ranked 110th and 92nd nationally in total offense. Enter young, up-and-coming OC Sterlin Gilbert, who has coached at six schools (including high school) in the past 10 years. The good news for Texas is that he’s worked wonders on offenses at Eastern Illinois, Bowling Green and Tulsa. If his offense clicks – and clicks quickly – at Texas, the Longhorns could be the surprise team of the season in the Big 12 and nationally. On defense, Texas returns only five starters, but three of them have All-Big 12 potential. The ‘Horns have one of the best secondaries in the conference, led by CBs Holton Hill and Davante Davis. The front six was hit hard by graduation and new starters will need to mature quickly. The offense is anyone’s guess, given how different it will look under Gilbert’s tutelage. Four-star freshman QB Shane Buechele will get the reins and has gotten rave reviews thus far. RB D’Onta Foreman had a decent sophomore season and should approach 1,000 yards. There are no proven great wideouts but, again, Gilbert may change that. The line has a lot of youthful talent, but the word “youth” on an offensive line isn’t usually encouraging. We think Gilbert’s a year away from fully transforming the Texas offense, but his system should pay some dividends in 2016. Look for Texas to be a lot more entertaining and to surprise some folks – starting with an upset of Notre Dame at home on opening day.
- Kansas State (5-7). Part two of the Bill Snyder era at Kansas State isn’t going quite as well as he or the Wildcats had hoped. After a brilliant, 17-year career with the Wildcats, Snyder retired in 2005. But blink and you’ll miss the only three years he hasn’t coached Kansas State in the past 27 (2006-2008). At 76, Snyder will coach KSU for the eighth year of his second stint with the team, and 25th overall. But he appears to have another rebuilding project on his hands after the team finished 6-7 last year, good enough for 8th place in the Big 12 – his lowest conference since his first season in 1989. He will start 2016 with 12 starters from a team that ranked worse than 100th in both overall offense and defense. QB Jesse Ertz returns from a season-ending knee injury that literally happened on the first play of 2015, and while he’s shown promise, it remains to be seen if he’ll be capable of rejuvenating KSU’s stagnant offense. RB Charles Jones is reliable but isn’t a game-breaker. The ‘Cats have experience at receiver, but none that stand out. The line will replace four of five starters and could experience huge growing pains. Seven starters are back on defense, including DE Jordan Willis, who is our dark horse for defensive POY. LB Elijah Lee is a force on the outside, so Kansas State should do well in getting pressure on opposing QBs. The secondary returns three of four, and senior SS Dante Barnett returns (also from a season-ending injury in last year’s first game) to give the Wildcats a great shot at improving on last year’s horrific rank of 120th against the pass. KSU gets a massive test on the road in its opener at Stanford. After that, they’ll tune up for two weeks before running the Big 12’s gauntlet. An upset will probably be needed at some point in order for Snyder to take the ‘Cats bowling again.
- Texas Tech (4-8). The Red Raiders are not usually a threat to win a bunch of games, but they’re usually a lot of fun to watch. The scoreboard at a Texas Tech game changes scores almost as frequently as a pinball machine, with each contest winding up in a shootout. Eight of Tech’s games last year had a combined score of more than 90 points, and one game topped 120 combined points. (In that one, the Red Raiders went into the half up 38-28, but were outscored 42-15 in the second half.) Imagine scoring 53 points and gaining 642 yards – and losing by 17 points. That’s life at Texas Tech, and it’s doubtful it will change for the better this season. While QB Patrick Mahomes returns and will lead what is likely to be another potent offense, it’s doubtful the Raiders will be as high-scoring as they were a year ago. With RB Deandre Washington now playing on Sundays, a committee of backs will likely take his place. Tech also loses its leading receiver, but it’s fairly certain that the Raiders will have plenty of receivers for Mahomes to target. With three of five linemen being replaced, protection for Mahomes could be an issue. We would be shocked – floored – if Mahomes and the Red Raiders didn’t top 35 points per game even with all of the changes. The problem is that last year’s defense gave up 43.6 ppg – and only four starters are back from that unit. Five freshmen and sophomores will be sprinkled throughout the starting lineup, including DT Breiden Fehoko, who will be key to Tech’s defensive rebuilding effort. But the only thing we can see that will slow down Tech’s opponents is a literal brick wall. Short of that, a painful year lies ahead. Pay close attention to the Red Raiders’ second and third games of the year – at Arizona State and at home against Louisiana Tech. We have the ASU game as a loss and the Louisiana Tech game pencilled as a win. If the Raiders upset the Sun Devils, our picks are out of the window. However, if the Bulldogs upset Texas Tech, the season could be even worse than we imagined.
- Iowa State (3-9). Think back as far as you can – can you remember a time when the Iowa State Cyclone football team was a threat or a power in the Big 8, Big 12 or any other conference on the planet? Save yourself some time – the answer is no. That is, unless you’re at least 110 years old and remember when, in your childhood, the Cyclones shared the Missouri Valley Conference title in 1911-1912. Since then? No. Iowa State has one a maximum of nine games – twice (1906 and 2000). Any major bowl appearances for ISU? Not unless you count the Liberty or Independence Bowls. The closest Iowa State has come to national prominence was when RB Troy Davis finished runner-up to Danny Wuerffel in the Heisman voting in 1996. (Even with 2,185 yards and 21 TDs, Davis lost … because he played on a team that finished 2-9.) We would love to write something positive about the Cyclones, but there’s usually not much to talk about. Mark this down – the three wins we’re projecting aren’t a guarantee. They’re a ceiling. It’s possible that ISU could do worse than that. Not even the season opener against Northern Iowa is a definite win, because the Panthers are usually an FCS playoff contender. No offense to new coach Matt Campbell, who comes into Iowa State from a very successful stint at Toledo, but winning at Iowa State is more than difficult. It won’t be any easier this season with just 11 returning starters, and only four on offense. RB Mike Warren is special and should be a first-team All-Big 12 player. So is OT Jake Campos, who was the Cyclones’ only returning lineman. Unfortunately, he has been lost indefinitely with a leg injury. Any hope of winning even three games will depend on the defense, which gave up 32.7 ppg last season. The line will feature only one returnee, but all four starters are projected to be seniors. DT Demond Tucker has all-conference potential. The linebackers and secondary will be stocked with experienced players, but the biggest need is for poise and leadership. New DC Jon Heacock must instill a more hard-nosed mentality in his players. We can never rule out that it’s possible for a program to improve over time. But we simply can’t fathom that even approaching a break-even record is possible for Iowa State in 2016.
- Kansas (1-11). It’s hard to believe that Kansas actually went 12-1 less than 10 years ago. Then-coach Mark Mangino must have either sold his soul to the Devil or worked out a deal with the Amazing Kreskin, because when it comes to winning, Kansas isn’t much better than Iowa State. In recent years, they’ve been the worst team in the Big 12. A year after Mangino’s 12-1 miracle, the Jayhawks went 5-7. In the midst of that slide, some players accused Mangino of being verbally abusive. The university intervened, bought Mangino out of his contract and moved on. They hired Turner Gill, and perhaps because of a complete shift in football culture, the program has never recovered. Gill went 5-19 in two seasons and was replaced by Charlie Weis, who went 5-22 in his two-plus seasons. (Weis was fired four games into the year after being blanked by Texas. AD Sheahon Zenger said the decision would help the team make immediate progress. They won only one game – against Iowa State – the rest of the year.) Now, coach David Beaty is in his second year. His first was a 0-12 whitewash that included blowouts of 66-7 to Baylor, 62-7 to Oklahoma and 49-0 to West Virginia. Maybe they’d like to rethink Mangino and his temper right about now. Beaty’s second campaign is likely to be just as ugly as the first. Kansas has exactly one player who we’re following for all-conference possibilities – SS Fish Smithson. Other than that, you are likely to see a repeat of last season’s 114th ranked offense and 127th ranked defense, which got outscored by an average of 15-46. QB Ryan Willis is decent, but not great, and will receive zero protection from a rebuilt line that returns just a single starter. RB Ke’aun Kinner is decent, but not great, and will not even approach 1,000 yards, largely because of that same line. The talent simply isn’t there on defense. The experience is, with seven returnees, but only one comes back on the line. Smithson was last year’s leading tackler in the Big 12, but when your strong safety is getting 10 tackles per game, it’s usually because your front seven isn’t doing its job. Three chances at wins are on the schedule – Rhode Island, Ohio and Iowa State. After the opener, we think all hope for a win will evaporate. Please understand – we really like Kansas. One of our friends – Bud Moore – was a head coach at Kansas in the 1970s. We like the uniforms and the mascot. And we really liked Mark Mangino. Too bad he isn’t still there to help the Jayhawks avert another disastrous season.
Bowl teams: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, Texas, West Virginia.
Offensive player of the year: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Defensive player of the year: Charles Walker, DE, Oklahoma
Coach of the year: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Tomorrow: 2016 Big Ten preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt