Oklahoma and Texas. We’ve been down this road before, though the expected battle for Big 12 supremacy never really materialized last fall as the Longhorns stubbed their toes too many times. Feeling pressure to justify his big-bucks hire, Horns coach Tom Herman authorized sweeping changes in the assistant ranks. His new staff has a decided Ohio State look, with new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich fresh off a bang-up debut in Columbus after a successful run at OK State and new defensive coordinator Chris Ash holding the same position a few years ago on the same Urban Meyer staff on which Herman was the OC. Herman also once again won a bowl game with a blowout of Utah in the Alamo Bowl, returns hard-edged senior QB Sam Ehlinger and has a much more seasoned defense than a year ago. Meanwhile, all Lincoln Riley has done is win the Big 12 and reach the College Football Playoff all three seasons in Norman. He did it with a different transfer QB each time, and two, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, won the Heisman. Now, with extra time to prepare, ballyhooed redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler is the next offensive maestro. No surprise if these teams go 1-2 in the league as they did two years ago.
With four Big 12 losses by three points or fewer last autumn, Texas Tech could certainly claim the award as the loop’s most snakebitten team. Key to a turnaround likely rests with a gunslinger QB, redshirt sophomore Alan Bowman, who went down early last season with a shoulder injury. Durability concerns are legit after Bowman also missed several games of the 2018 campaign due to a collapsed lung, but Bowman has been a prolific passer when healthy and was rated one of the best freshman QBs in the nation two years ago. Second-year coach Matt Wells, off a successful run at Utah State, has kept much of predecessor Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense, which ranked seventh nationally through the air last fall, even with backup Jett Duffey taking most of the snaps. Wells also is trying to inject a bit more balance as he adds sandpaper to the perennially underachieving stop unit, which returns most of its starters. The program had some COVID-19 issues early in practice, but the later start to the season should minimize that. Mostly, it’s the Wells blueprint and his success with the Utags that suggest Tech could offer some good value — especially if Bowman can stay healthy.
Nobody is expecting Les Miles to make much headway at this stage of his rebuild at Kansas. And the Jayhawks are still likely anchored to the foot of the Big 12 table. Still, 2020 looks as if it could be a case of taking a step backward before taking a couple of steps forward, and we caution against getting carried away with KU in expected heavy underdog roles. Miles might have turned the program in the right direction a year ago with a handful of competitive efforts, but after a brief midseason surge to tease potential backers, Kansas regressed in November. Graduation losses were heavy, and Miles resisted the juco route and transfer portal for immediate help. Instead, the entire recruiting class consists of incoming freshmen, and some might be forced into action sooner than recommended. The offense did show some temporary spark after the midseason switch to Brent Dearmon as offensive coordinator, but live-wire QB Carter Stanley has departed, and his replacements are unproven. Moreover, with no fans scheduled to attend, Kansas Memorial Stadium will have the atmosphere of a spring scrimmage. Wait for some evidence before deciding to back the Jayhawks.
Big games on the board
Iowa State at TCU, Sept. 26: The first pivotal-looking game on the Big 12 slate, with each side anticipating a move up the conference table and perhaps even challenging for the crown. Much regional buzz surrounds both QBs in this battle — ISU junior Brock Purdy, who is being watched closely by NFL scouts, and rough-hewn TCU sophomore Max Duggan, a punishing runner who reminds more than a bit of Sam Ehlinger’s style at Texas. But Duggan’s status remained a question coming out of fall camp with a chest injury, so Gary Patterson might go to his bullpen for relief with one of two well-regarded options, sophomore Matt Downing or juco Stephon Brown. The Cyclones and Frogs also undershot expectations a year ago, especially Patterson’s Fort Worth bunch, which missed a bowl for only the second time in 15 seasons. So this could be a launching-pad game for the winner.
Baylor at West Virginia, Oct. 3: This appears to be the first test for a new-look Baylor team that reached surprising heights under Matt Rhule, who departed for the Carolina Panthers, taking some key staff members with him. Successor Dave Aranda, most recently LSU‘s defensive coordinator, has solid credentials but no experience as a head coach, and this will be an early indicator if the Bears will be factors in the league race. Big-play QB Charlie Brewer returns, but Aranda inherits a stop unit decimated by graduation. This would also be a good time for the Mountaineers to announce their intentions of affecting the race after improving down the stretch a year ago for then-first-year coach Neal Brown, who had considerable success at Troy.
Texas vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 10: When isn’t the Red River Rivalry one of the big dates on the Big 12 and the national football calendar? Pandemic or not, this year’s renewal stays at the traditional neutral Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and a good number of fans might be allowed in the stands. Tom Herman has managed spread covers in all three regular-season meetings against Lincoln Riley, though OU backers did cash tickets after an exciting Big 12 title game in 2018. Feeling a bit of pressure this fall, Herman, 1-3 straight up vs. OU, could certainly placate some of the increasingly antsy Texas exes with a win in Dallas.
Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 21: Bedlam has often been must-see stuff and has showcased its share of Heisman winners. This year it might be Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard, who posted Barry Sanders-like numbers with 2,094 yards rushing last fall and could have the best shot at the award going into this annual showdown. But by this point we’ll certainly know if the newest Oklahoma QB, likely to be whip-armed redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, is following in the footsteps of predecessors Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, all of whom benefitted from tutelage by Lincoln Riley. The Cowboys’ Mike Gundy could use a Bedlam win after losing five straight to the Sooners.
Why Oklahoma will go Over the season win total of 8.5: Three seasons on the job, Lincoln Riley has lost just one conference game each year. So for the Sooners to fall short of 8.5, they’d have to lose twice in Big 12 play, as we hardly think lone non-league rep Missouri State will inflict a loss. The Missouri Valley Bears, however, serve a purpose as new QB Spencer Rattler can work out some kinks in the opener before the big revenge game Sept. 26 vs. Kansas State, which dealt OU its only conference loss of 2019. Riley’s track record with QBs (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts) is pretty good, and the well-regarded Rattler ought to become a force this fall. Until then, Riley can lean on slashing junior RB Kennedy Brooks, off 1,011 yards rushing a year ago. Home run threat Charleston Rambo looks like the next on a conveyor belt of big-play wideouts, with UCLA transfer Theo Howard is another WR to watch. Though it wasn’t evident in the Peach Bowl playoff loss to LSU, the defense was much improved for first-year coordinator Alex Grinch, who returns nine starters led by emerging star linebacker DeShaun White. Mostly, however, it’s faith in QB whisperer Riley that makes us believe the Sooners are unlikely to skip a beat.
Why Texas will go Over the season win total of 7.5: Even with only 10 games on the reconfigured slate, there’s no worry about facing LSU again in the non-conference part of the schedule with only UTEP as a tune-up for league action. Will the Longhorns lose three Big 12 games? We don’t think so. The dynamics look more favorable than a year ago, when Texas was breaking in an almost-new defense and never quite recovered from that early-season loss to Joe Burrow and his bunch. That stop unit returns nine starters and got a boost of confidence in the 38-10 bowl romp past Utah after coach Tom Herman forced defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to walk the plank. Herman is familiar with former Rutgers coach and new DC Chris Ash from their days together on Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff, and Ash’s switch to base 4-3 looks should better unleash junior Joseph Ossai as a pass-rushing “Jack.” Major improvement is also expected in a secondary that was too green a year ago but returns four starters. The offense should still hum behind fourth-year starter Sam Ehlinger, whose rodeo cowboy style forces defenses to think twice before taking him on, and many regarded hyped freshman RB Bijan Robinson as the nation’s top recruit. Don’t forget clutch PK Cameron Dicker, who beat Kansas and Kansas State with last-second field goals last fall after doing the same to Oklahoma in 2018. Though the Oklahoma game Oct. 10 might be the only one in which this trend can be utilized, note Herman’s extended point-spread success as an underdog — 11-4 at Texas, 16-4 since 2015, including two seasons at Houston.
Why Oklahoma State will go Under the season win total of 7: Not the easiest offseason for coach Mike Gundy, who ran afoul of the political crowd and ended up suggesting a reduction in buyout and term on his contract as penance. We’ll see if Gundy’s presence, and angry reaction by star RB Chuba Hubbard, becomes a distraction. But despite the highest number of returning starters in the league with 19, there was something decidedly hollow about the Cowboys’ 8-5 record last season. OSU did not compete against the better foes, fattening up on a soft non-conference slate. This year Gundy gets only Tulsa in non-conference play, and a repeat of last year’s 5-4 Big 12 mark won’t get the Pokes past this win total. Expect the mercurial Hubbard to get plenty of notice after rushing for 2,094 yards, but sophomore QB Spencer Sanders was erratic in his debut last fall. The veteran defense has a familiar look, but it hardly distinguished itself against top opposition last season, and aggressive tactics from coordinator Jim Knowles have been decidedly high-risk. Bottom line is that without the usual dose of soft non-conference touches, we suspect the Cowboys probably max out at six wins.
Why Iowa State will go Over the season win total of 6.5: The Cyclones should be watched for two main reasons. First, their veteran defense figures to be one of the best in the Big 12. Second, junior QB Brock Purdy has been generating quite a buzz from NFL scouts, many of whom project him as a first-round pick. We should include a third reason, coach Matt Campbell, who has established some continuity as likely the best coach at ISU since Johnny Majors was qualifying for bowls in the early ’70s. Campbell has reached three of those in succession, historically a difficult chore in Ames, and most importantly to the fan base has rejected overtures from suitors who would love to pry him loose. Oh, yes, that defense: Nine starters return to a robust platoon that stopped being traditional roadkill a couple of years ago. But Purdy generates most of the headlines, leading the Big 12 in passing last season at better than 306 ypg and proving a dangerous dual threat, running for eight TDs as well. The late-season emergence of punishing sophomore RB Breece Hall reminds some of another recent Cyclones star, David Montgomery, now running the ball for the Chicago Bears. The restructured schedule means the Cyclones also don’t have to worry about the annual high-stakes Cy-Hawk game with Iowa in what has often turned into an early-season distraction.
Why Baylor will push the season win total of 6: The Bears flirted with a berth in the playoffs last year by taking an unbeaten record into November before two close losses to Oklahoma, the second in the Big 12 title game, relegated Matt Rhule’s troops to the Sugar Bowl vs. Georgia. That normally would be reason to celebrate in Waco. But any parties were short-lived as Rhule high-tailed it to the Carolina Panthers, taking along some key staff members, including shrewd veteran DC Phil Snow. Also riding off into the sunset were nine starters from last year’s scrappy defense. That provides an immediate reset chance for new coach Dave Aranda, fresh off a defensive coordinator gig for Ed Orgeron and 2019 champ LSU. This will be Aranda’s first head-coaching job, however, and he wouldn’t be the first decorated coordinator to fall short in a new role. On the plus side, he has an accomplished senior QB with 30 starts under his belt, Charlie Brewer. And new OC Larry Fedora, former head coach at Southern Miss and North Carolina, owns a progressive offensive mind and knows this territory after a successful stint over a decade ago as OC at Oklahoma State. Baylor drops from last season’s 11-win heights, but we don’t think the bottom falls out.
Why TCU will go Over the season win total of 6: Admittedly, the last two years have not been vintage ones for coach Gary Patterson. In fact, the Horned Frogs missed a bowl game for just the second time in 15 seasons. But the reason is pretty clear: Patterson has not had reliable production at QB. We project that won’t be a problem if sophomore Max Duggan continues the improvement he hinted at a year ago. Though his appearance belies a running threat, Duggan indeed provides a punishing infantry dimension. After flashing plenty of upside as a true freshman, we suspect Duggan accelerates on the learning curve and benefits from a couple of touted redshirt freshman RBs, Darwin Barlow and Daimarqua Foster. The return of offensive assistant Doug Meacham and adding ex-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill to the staff should also be pluses and aid OC Sonny Cumbie, who will be less cautious with Duggan than a year ago. Patterson’s defenses have often ranked in the top 10 nationally, and even after last year’s unit disappointed and lost some key components to the NFL, traditional TCU playmakers remain, including the Big 12's leading tackler, LB Garret Wallow. One caution: All bets are off with an injury to Duggan, with no experienced backup QBs in the fold.
Why TCU will go over the season win total of 6 (conditional pick assuming availability of QB Max Duggan): Admittedly, the last two years have not been vintage for coach Gary Patterson amid his decorated run in Fort Worth. In fact, the Horned Frogs missed a bowl game for just the second time in 15 seasons. But the reason is pretty clear: Patterson has not had reliable production at QB. We are going out on a limb a bit and project that won’t be a problem this fall if sophomore Max Duggan can get back on the field soon enough from a chest injury and possible heart problems. Duggan still hopes to play in the fall, and he could see enough action not to blow his redshirt year. If Duggan is available, he also provides a punishing running dimension in the style of Texas counterpart Sam Ehlinger. Waiting in the bullpen are well-regarded sophomore Matt Downing and juco Stephon Brown, each potential upgrades from some of Patterson's other options in recent years. Whichever QB takes snaps will benefit from a couple of touted redshirt freshman RBs, Darwin Barber and Daimarqua Foster. The return of offensive assistant Doug Meacham and adding ex-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill to the staff should also be pluses and aid OC Sonny Cumbie, who will be less cautious with Duggan than he was a year ago. Meanwhile, Patterson’s defenses have often ranked in the top 10 nationally, and even after last year’s platoon disappointed and lost some key components to the NFL, traditional TCU stop-end playmakers remain, including the Big 12's leading tackler, LB Garret Wallow. But all bets are off with an injury to Duggan, with no experienced backup QBs in the fold.
Why Kansas State will go Under the season win total of 5.5: COVID-19 problems remain a concern, and the Wildcats have had their share of disruptions caused by the pandemic. But we also wonder if second-year coach Chris Klieman, who impressed with eight wins in his K-State debut after winning FCS national titles at North Dakota State and allayed fears that longtime coach Bill Snyder was irreplaceable, can sustain the momentum with an almost completely rebuilt offense, a dangerous dynamic in the high-powered Big 12. All five starters must be replaced along the offensive line, not the best news for fourth-year starting QB Skylar Thompson. Defensively, Klieman must find reinforcements along the line and replace two key pass defenders, Denzel Goolsby at free safety and Kevion McGee at corner. Mostly, however, no Big 12 team was hurt as much by the schedule reshuffle as the Wildcats, who were looking at three likely home wins vs. Buffalo, North Dakota and Vanderbilt but now get arguably a tougher assignment in Sun Belt contender Arkansas State before traveling to Norman to face revenge-minded Oklahoma in the Big 12 opener Sept. 26.
Why West Virginia will go Under the season win total of 4.5: It was a not-so-unexpected bumpy ride for new coach Neal Brown last fall as the Mountaineers expected to drop off after major graduation losses and the departure of coach Dana Holgorsen to Houston. WVU made some advancements late in the season with road upsets at K-State and TCU behind Bowling Green transfer QB Jarret Doege, who wrested the job from Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall after Halloween. And remember that Brown won big in previous seasons at Troy. But the alarm in Morgantown was the complete disdain of a ground game. This was the anti-Army, gaining just 73 ypg on the ground. Perhaps Brown could survive and even flourish in the Sun Belt with such an unbalanced approach, but that won’t cut it in the Big 12. The offensive front couldn’t get a push for the run game and now must replace three starters, including both tackles. The best news on defense was that All-Big 12 NT Darius Stills resisted the temptation to jump early into the NFL draft. But the roster is still thin, and last year’s offense bore little resemblance to the fireworks shows produced in the Holgorsen years. Brown might keep WVU competitive, but he lacks the material offensively to trade points with the high-powered attacks in this league.
Why Texas Tech will go Over the season win total of 4.5: The Red Raiders lost four league games by three points or fewer last year, all after QB Alan Bowman went down with a shoulder injury. Backup Jett Duffey filled in with some flair as the Red Raiders scored better than 30 ppg, but the real downside of Duffey’s departure is experienced cover behind Bowman, who has missed 13 games the last two seasons. In parts of two seasons, Bowman has passed for nearly 3,700 yards and remains a live-wire trigger man for coach Matt Wells’ version of the Red Raider spread he inherited from Kliff Kingsbury. And in slashing sophomore RB SaRodorick Thompson, Wells and OC David Yost have the perfect downhill infantry diversion. Wells will need a defensive upgrade, and he did a quick reboot of his staff while keeping coordinator Keith Patterson, who got a mulligan after injuries wreaked havoc a year ago. One of those additions is shrewd veteran linebackers coach Kevin Cosgrove, with a decorated career and most recently on Ed Orgeron’s LSU staff. The Wells teams at Utah State played conscientious defense, and the move of junior Adrian Frye back to corner from safety is indicative of the personnel adjustments Wells will be better able to authorize in his second year in Lubbock.
Why Kansas will go Under the season win total of 2.5: It’s too soon to expect much from the Jayhawks in Year 2 of the Les Miles era. The best move Miles might have made was the midseason switch to Brent Dearmon as offensive coordinator; the attack immediately sparked. As a run-pass option devotee, Dearmon found a perfect catalyst in QB Carter Stanley, who responded immediately. But Stanley has departed, and Dearmon must find a new leader among inexperienced candidates. Providing a proper diversion is junior RB Pooka Williams Jr., a legit threat who has run for better than 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons — quite a feat in Lawrence. But Stanley’s presence also helped Williams, and the offense still struggled on several occasions. On defense, eight starters must be replaced. None of those reinforcements will come from the juco ranks, however, as Miles believes his long-term strategy of recruiting only freshmen will pay off down the road. It’s hard to take a step back from a three-win season, but with no soft touches in the Big 12, getting past two wins will have to wait another year for Miles. Who, for the time being, seems content to wait.