2016 NCAA Football Preview: Big 12 Conference

September 1, 2016
By K. Becks

Today is the day!

College football is back, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be completely honest when saying that tomorrow at work is going to be a struggle, because I know as soon as five o’clock hits I’m booking it back to my hometown to enjoy the weekend full of games.

But before we get there, I have a couple of previews left to share.

Here is the Big 12 Conference preview.

Overview

The Big 12 punched its first ticket to the College Football Playoff last season after sitting out the inaugural edition, and the expectations are high once again for the only Power 5 conference to operate without a league title game.

In late May, those expectations took a slight hit when former Baylor head coach Art Briles was fired amidst multiple allegations that the program had inappropriately handled accusations of violence against women by players. Baylor was supposed to be a national title contender under Briles, and without him the team’s stock has dropped.

But in lighter news, there are still plenty of teams that could be in the Playoff conversation come mid to late November. Oklahoma is back with its potent offense led by Baker Mayfield, and in-state rival Oklahoma State won’t be far behind the Sooners in the rankings if its offense blossoms with so many returning starters.

The Big 12 has long been characterized by flashy offenses and high scoring affairs and this year should be no different. But the tactic has worked for the conference since being restructured nearly half a decade ago. With plenty of teams capable of putting up the numbers needed to hang with the favorites in the league, it should be an exciting season in the Big 12.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Oklahoma

The Sooners traded in their reputation as a defensive stalwart for offensive juggernaut in 2015, average 43.5 points and racking up over 530 yards of offense per game. Much of this was due to the quick success of quarterback Baker Mayfield in his first year at Oklahoma after transferring from Texas Tech. Mayfield is brash and not afraid to ruffle feathers, but it usually results in exciting and high quality football. Along with Mayfield, running back Semaje Perine completes part two of arguably the best quarterback-running back combo in the country.

Despite not being known for its defense last season, the Sooners were still very strong on that side of the ball, which is a big reason why they ended up the No. 4 seed in the Playoff. Oklahoma must replace NFL talent on all levels of its defense this year. If the new starters can fill the voids quickly, this team is again set up to be a Playoff contender. But the transition needs to be quick – games against Houston and Ohio State in the first three weeks of the season won’t go well if the defense is still figuring things out.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys could very well take the place of Baylor as the other team in the Big 12 fighting for a Playoff spot by mid-November. Nearly the entire offense returns from last season, a unit that ranked No. 7 in the country in passing yards per contest. Quarterback Mason Rudolph was only a sophomore in 2015, so if his progression continues then he will be one of the best passers in the country by the end of the season.

What could propel Oklahoma State from a Playoff dark horse to legitimate contender is a better balance on offense. As good as Rudolph is, teams will game plan for the pass happy attack and chances are at least one opponent will have his number (or just get lucky). Mike Gundy is surely hoping that a deep stable of running backs will have a breakout year and allow his team to become much more difficult to predict as far as play calling is concerned. If the running game develops, this team could be a nightmare for defensive coordinators.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Oklahoma State

As noted in the previous section, the Cowboys are a team that could go from good to great if they find some balance on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively Oklahoma State has plenty of playmakers to be dangerous as well, but things didn’t quite come together for the unit in 2015. If the secondary improves with three of its four starters back, the entire defense will benefit because they won’t have a pass rusher that can create on his own as Emmanuel Ogbah did last season.

Mason Rudolph will be flanked by two of his top three targets from last season and one of them, junior James Washington, is the leading returning wide receiver in the conference in terms of reception yards. Rudolph is not afraid to take chances deep and Washington can make him look really good. The offense will need to be humming by the end of the year, when the Cowboys face their most difficult stretch of the season. Texas Tech and road games against TCU and Oklahoma is how Mike Gundy’s team finishes the regular season. If this team is going to make the Playoff, it’s going to earn it.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma senior quarterback

Not everyone appreciates the gusto with which Baker Mayfield approaches the game of football and his interviews, but it’s hard to blame a guy having so much success when not very many coaches thought he would amount to much. Shows how much they know. Fittingly enough, Mayfield was snubbed of a Heisman Trophy presentation¬†invite last season despite leading the Big 12 with 36 touchdown passes and a 68.1 percent completion rate en route to the Sooners making the College Football Playoff.

Even without wide receiver Sterling Shepard, Mayfield should continue to perform at a high level this season. He has good vision and is one of the few guys that you’d probably prefer leaves the pocket before throwing. Another Heisman worthy season isn’t out of the cards, although it wouldn’t be surprising if somehow the powers that be find a way to keep him out of New York.

Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech junior quarterback

There are a lot of very good quarterbacks in the Big 12 Conference, but Mahomes is the one with the most raw talent and ability to make the difficult look easy. The 6’3″, 219 pound junior is still learning how to be a true quarterback, but his arm strength is incredible which often allows him to use iffy mechanics to make good throws.

If Mahomes can continue to grow under head coach and former quarterback himself Kliff Kingsbury, his upside is scary. Because of Texas Tech’s offensive scheme, expect the improvement to come because Mahomes will be making so many throws every game. Keep in mind we’re discussing the growth of a guy that led the conference with 4,653 passing yards and tied for the lead with 36 touchdown passes.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Kansas State at Stanford (September 2)

The Wildcats may not end up winning a lot of games in 2016, but it will be hard to tell this early in the season and Kansas State plays the type of football that could give Stanford fits. Bill Snyder’s team will play smart and tough defensively, so don’t be surprised if Christian McCaffery has a hard time finding room to run in this one. Kansas State could be difficult to watch on offense, but they always play good defense under Snyder.

Stanford has made a habit of getting out of the gates slow, bringing to mind the surprising loss to Northwestern last season that in reality may have derailed the team’s chances of making the Playoff.

Notre Dame at Texas (September 4)

How high are the expectations for this Texas team, really? Charlie Strong hasn’t quite had the impact on the program that fans had hoped, and some of the non-believers are already shouting “I told you so.” But at the very least, the faithful at DKR Stadium will be hoping for a better result than in 2015, when the Longhorns were destroyed by the Fighting Irish in South Bend.

It seems like an eternity since Texas has had a quarterback capable of consistently moving the offense down the field, but the drought may have come to an end with Shane Buechele. The freshman looked promising in spring practice, but there is a big difference between that and a real game. If Buechele is the real deal (and actually is chosen as the starter), Texas could have a surprising year and it would start with this game.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Oklahoma at Texas Tech (October 22)

The Red Raiders have played spoiler to more than a few teams thinking about the national title, and this year’s Red Raiders squad isn’t one to overlook. Patrick Mahomes and the offense can put up points in a heartbeat, and a young defense actually brings with it hope that Texas Tech won’t be one of the worst in the country at stopping opposing offenses.

Oklahoma is similarly equipped at offense and likely even better with the addition of a true rushing presence, but Texas Tech has a habit of stepping up in big games. If you’re a fan of defense, don’t bother watching this game. The Red Raiders were involved in 10 games last season in which one or both teams scored at least 55 points, and this one appears to have the ingredients to eclipse that mark as well.

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (December 3)

Could the Battle of Bedlam be a de facto conference championship game for the Big 12? If Around the Corn’s predictions are correct, the answer is yes. A battle between two of the conference’s top quarterbacks will be even more intriguing if both defenses are also playing well at this time of year.

The Cowboys have won this rivalry game a total of two times since 2003, but one of those games was in Norman (in 2014). With so much riding on this one, expect a raucous crowd and a back and forth battle that should be decided late in the fourth quarter. The winner of this game may end up in the College Football Playoff.

Conference Predictions

1. Oklahoma (11-1, [8-1])

2. Oklahoma State (10-2, [7-2])

3. TCU (9-3, [6-3])

4. Texas Tech (9-3, [6-3])

5. Texas (7-5, [5-4])

6. Baylor (8-4, [5-4])

7. Iowa State (5-7, [3-6])

8. West Virginia (6-6, [3-6])

9. Kansas State (4-8, [2-7])

10. Kansas (1-11, [0-9])

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