2016 NCAA Football Preview: Big 12 Conference

Photo Credit; Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2015 season, the big question was if Big 12 Football would have a College Football Playoff participant. The Oklahoma Sooners filled that role after a dominating season led by Heisman finalist quarterback, Baker Mayfield, however they would fall to the eventual National runner-up, Clemson Tigers in the semi-final game. Outside of the Sooners, there were three other teams that had a legitimate shot at the conference championship in Texas Christian University, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. All finished with at least ten wins and were in the mix of the discussions of the CFP committee at one point or another.

After the top four teams, the talent level took a substantial drop as only two other teams finished above .500, and four finished with losing seasons. The West Virginia Mountaineers and Texas Tech Red Raiders showed that they could compete with the top teams, and came close to pulling off some upsets. Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Kansas all finished below the .500 mark and were ineligible to compete in a bowl game, despite showing glimpses of talent.

The 2016 Big 12 football landscape looks to be similar to how 2015 ended up playing out, as there should be a handful of top-tier teams that may compete for one of the four College Football Playoff spots, and then the talent and production will drop off. Some teams will show some progress, while some regress, however one thing that will remain the same is the high-flying style of offensive football that will be showcased.

Big 12 Football’s Top Five Teams

1) Oklahoma Sooners 11-2 (8-1): The men in red and white were as dominant as they come in the Big 12. A slight hiccup in the Red River Rivalry game against the less-talented, Texas Longhorns, prevented the Sooners from running the table in the regular season. Led by Baker Mayfield (3,700 passing yards, 36 TDs, 405 rushing yards, 7 TDs) and a strong running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon is why they will have one of the most dangerous offensive attacks in the country. Losing Sterling Shepherd to the NFL hurts as the wide receiver position is an unknown commodity as of now, but the talent is still there through strong recruiting classes. The defense lost some of its play-makers from 2015, replacing the likes of Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander, and Charles Tapper will be extremely difficult. Ranking top two in the conference of the main defensive categories (scoring, passing, rushing, and total) was one of the main reasons the Sooners saw such great success against conference foes so they will need to find newcomers willing to step in and make an impact.

2) TCU Horned Frogs 11-2(7-2): The main concern for head coach Gary Patterson and the rest of the Horned Frogs program is replacing the dynamic duo that was Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is the heir apparent to the quarterback position and will be leaned upon heavily to lead a offense that returns only one starter (left tackle Joseph Noteboom). Replacing four starters on the offensive line means that Hill must know his reads, quickly react, and get the football to one of his multiple weapons on the outside. Sophomore KaVontae Turpin may be the x-factor as the team’s starting running back as he will receive a ton of targets in the passing game to go along with his touches on the ground. The defense, although ranking average in most statistical categories, returns several starters, especially along with front seven so the team’s identity may start there. If the defensive unit can hold teams off the scoreboard while Hill and the offense tries to gel, TCU should have no problems this season.

3) Oklahoma State Cowboys 10-3 (7-2): Head coach Mike Gundy has taken the country by storm this year with his new hair-do, as he leads the Cowboys into 2016. Returning 15 starters from a 2015 team that shocked the country by starting 10-0 before losing its last three games has OSU fans raving. Looking at their statistical rankings (aside from passing) from last season, the team looks average until you look at the results on the schedule.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Squeezing by the likes of Texas, Kansas State, West Virginia, and Iowa State caused many to question how good this team actually was, but they managed to beat TCU by nearly three touchdowns so the talent is there. Mason Rudolph passed for nearly 4,000 yards last year and returns nearly every weapon along with four offensive line starters so this team will once again be predicated on its offensive attack. The back-end of its schedule proves to be the toughest part as they are forced to play Big 12 football’s toughest teams in TCU and Oklahoma back-to-back to end the regular season, so another 10-0 start is not impossible.

4) Baylor Bears 10-3 (6-3): If Baylor has any chance at a conference championship, it is going to have to be this season. Through the multiple scandals that led to firing of head coach Art Briles, who is the main reason Baylor has been competitive in football since he landed Robert Griffin III several years ago. I hope Baylor fans enjoyed that success because their program has been dismantled from the recruiting standpoint due to the scandals involving the team’s players. Losing much of its 2016 class, the depth for the Bears to compete may not be there, however returning Seth Russell is huge for new head coach Jim Grobe. Playing as a Heisman candidate before being sidelined for the season, Russell will look to continue that production and hopes to lead another dominant offensive unit. Replacing touchdown machine Corey Coleman will be tough, however, the Bears have had little problem replacing talent in the past. Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson will be the backbone of the offense holding down the rushing attack, as both are coming off 1,000 yard seasons. The defensive front is looking for newcomers to step up as All-American Andrew Billings is gone, along with three other starters. Returning five starters in linebackers and the secondary is a strong suit for this team as they hope to improve their defense from a disappointing 2015.

5) West Virginia Mountaineers 8-5(4-5): The Dana Holgorsen led Mountaineers is an interesting team in the Big 12. They do not possess the high-powered offense that is necessary to succeed, however do sport one of the better defenses in the league. However, returning only two starters on that defensive unit in 2015 could cause the 2016 team, as a whole, struggle. Returning eight starters on the offense side gives fans hope of improvement as they were unable to hang with the top teams of the conference last season, and even took a loss to Kansas State by only scoring 23 points. Skyler Howard is the x-factor at quarterback, as he will need a nice year with his returning weapons to find success in 2016. Picking the fifth best team in the conference was a sort of toss-up as WVU offers the same things as a Texas Tech or Texas.

Big 12 Football Bottom Feeders

2015-1-9 bill snyder
Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports

The three consensus cellar dwellers include the Kansas State Wildcats, Iowa State Cyclones, and Kansas Jayhawks. Both teams had their fair share of struggles in 2015, whether it be injuries or just the fact that they were flat out bad at playing football. Kansas State is always a tough match-up with long time head coach Bill Snyder leading them. The Wildcats went through three quarterbacks last season as they were down to a former walk-on as their best signal caller so hopefully luck will be on their side next year.

Iowa State has gone through a full revamp of the football program by gaining a new head coach in Matt Campbell who has had success at the FBS level, going 35-15 in five seasons. Replacing numerous starters on offense, Campbell has his work cut out for him, but will be able to lean on sophomore running back Mike Warren, who was named to the preseason All-Big 12 first team after leading all freshman backs in yardage in 2015.

The Kansas Jayhawks are still clearly a basketball school. Going 0-12 last season, including a loss to an FCS opponent was not how David Beaty wanted to start his head coaching career at this level. Taking over the play calling duties, Beaty hopes to get more out of his quarterback Ryan Willis who received plenty of playing time last season when its top three quarterbacks fell to season-ending injuries (bad year to be a QB in the state of Kansas).

Top Big 12 Football Offensive Impact Players

1) Baker Mayfield, RS Jr. QB, Oklahoma: The Heisman finalist is undoubtedly the most exciting player in the Big 12 this season. Without All-Big 12 receiver Sterling Shepherd, it will be interesting to see which targets become Mayfield’s favorite on the field. Mayfield accumulated over 4,100 total yards with 43 total TD’s. Those numbers are impressive considering he has two future NFL running backs in the same backfield as him in Perine and Mixon. Racking up the honors and recognition from his 2015 season, Mayfield is hoping to just build on that this season.

2) Seth Russell, Sr. QB, Baylor: Going into his senior season, he has yet to play a full season as a starter yet has put up ridiculous numbers, especially in the seven games he played in 2015, throwing for over 2,100 yards, 29 TDs, and just 6 interceptions. The team missed his presence when his back-up teammates went down with injuries too and were forced to throw a wide receiver under center. The high-powered Baylor offense should be a sight to see this fall despite the scandals that have occurred, especially if the senior signal caller can remain healthy.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

3) Patrick Mahomes II, JR. QB, Texas Tech: A lesser known player to the casual college football fan as he plays for the Red Raiders that do not get much exposure when not having a ton of success. Mahomes could change that this season as a truly electrifying player that threw for 4,658 yards, 36 TD, 15 int., and 63.6 completion percentage. The son of a former major league baseball player leads an offense that is known for its ability to put points on scoreboard. Moving from safety, you would not expect him to excel like he has as a offensive signal caller, but he has done that and more. I am saying it now, if Patrick Mahomes puts up huge numbers once again this season, he needs to be sitting in New York as a Heisman Finalist.

Top Big 12 Football Defensive Impact Players

1) Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: Voted as the 2015 Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 to go along with his numerous Freshman All-American honors that he picked up from various sources. “The Predator”, Jefferson’s nickname due to his dreadlocks and play style, was one of the few bright spots from Texas’ five win season in 2015, and he will look to continue to develop. Malik Jefferson was among the team leaders in tackles (61), TFL (7), and QB Pressures (6), while sacking the opposing quarterback 2.5 times. He has not only been a great help on the field, but also off of it when you consider the amount of recruits he lured to Austin from the top ten 2016 recruiting class.

2) Josh Carraway, DL, TCU: The senior defensive linemen from Flower Mound, Texas was recently named to the preseason All-Big 12 first team by media voters and is ranked on numerous 2017 draft boards by the experts. Standing at 6’4, 250 lbs. playing on the defensive end for the most part, Carraway tallied nine sacks in his junior year to go along with 47 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Starting the previous two years, he is one of the main leaders within the defensive unit for the Gary Patterson coached Horned Frogs.

3) Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma: Hailing from Norman, Oklahoma playing for the hometown Sooners is a big deal to Jordan Evans and he brings a ton of experience to this defense. Starting the past two seasons, playing every game but two due to injury in 2015, he is expected to be a All-Big 12 performer this season. Evans has a knack for playing back in coverage and has broken up seven passes in the past two seasons. Only a three star recruit coming out of high school put a lot of weight on Evans’ shoulders, however he has proved the doubters wrong and should hear his name called in the NFL draft come April 2017.

Big 12 Football’s Newcomers to Watch

Oct 4, 2014; Starkville, MS, USA; Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill (7) gets out of the grasp of Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker Benardrick McKinney (50) at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

1) Kenny Hill, Jr. QB, TCU: The former Texas A&M Aggie, Hill stormed onto the scene in his debut by breaking Johnny Manziel’s most passing yards in a single game with 511 yards, however was benched in favor of Kyle Allen after eight games due to off-the-field issues that led to a two game suspension. Hill is looking for a fresh start with TCU; Gary Patterson has been adamant in saying that it is not Hill’s job yet as he needs to earn it, but there are few people who believe that. Dubbed as Kenny “Trill” based off his season debut, he seems to be the perfect replacement for Trevone Boykin.

2) Shane Buechele, Fr. QB, Texas: It is not necessarily that Buechele will be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Notre Dame, but he has been splitting first-team snaps with Tyrone Swoopes and has been praised for his relentless work ethic by his peers and the coaching staff, including head coach Charlie Strong. It seems that the Arlington Lamar recruit has a grasp on new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert’s system, which is fast paced and similar to the style of a Baylor or TCU. Much of the media is clamoring for Buechele to receive the starting nod and would be surprised if he does not get it.

3) Devin Duvernay, Fr. WR, Texas: I did not want to include two players from the same team on this list, but the fact that Duvernay was the third best wide receiver out of the 2016 class and Texas was able to poach him from Baylor’s class due to the sexual assault scandals, he deserves to be here. Undoubtedly making Texas’ top ten recruiting class that much better, Duvernay provides an electrifying talent to put opposite of John Burt and give Buechele (or Swoopes) plenty of options to throw to. Duvernay’s athleticism will be put to the test in most situations as he possesses 4.3 forty yard dash speed.

Looking Ahead
The 2016 season should be another exciting one when it comes to the Big 12 high-flying offenses led by star quarterbacks with a multitude of weapons at their side. It will be fun to see how defenses attempt to adjust some more to the offenses in this league and which will emerge as the best in the conference. Oklahoma and West Virginia were leaps and bounds better defensively than any other team. Some storylines to watch include how will Charlie Strong fare in his third year as the head coach of the Longhorns, many think he is on the hot seat this season despite bringing top talent in from recruiting. Another one is how will the Baylor football program look with a new head coach and the loss of several talented pieces through the scandals they had to endure in the offseason.

Plenty to watch for in 2016 that will have avid Big 12 fans sitting on the edge of their seats every Saturday. Can someone knock off the Sooners from the throne? Will Kansas end their long losing streak? Is Bill Snyder at the end of his run as a college football head coach? Can Kenny “Trill” Hill keep the success of TCU going? Less than a month away and we will find out the answers to all of these questions.