Big XII Preview
The Big XII figures to add a few teams in the coming years but in 2016 the 10-team conference will play again without a championship game and will hope for a better showing in the College Football Playoff. Last season there were a few clear cut national contenders in the league while this season there is more mystery with Oklahoma again projected to excel but a few others outside of the spotlight potentially ready to make the leap.
The Sooners survived an early season loss to Texas to take the Big XII title last season as injuries hurt a few of the other contenders and Oklahoma wound up 8-1 in the league and good enough to qualify for the College Football Playoffs. Oklahoma had a nice win over Tennessee early in the season but in the biggest Big XII games down the stretch the Sooners faced the top teams with back-up quarterbacks for some major scheduling breaks. Oklahoma was exposed in a 37-17 loss to Clemson in the national semifinals for tough finish to an 11-2 campaign and a tough debut for the Big XII in the short history of the College Football Playoff, a year after the league made a lot of noise about being left out. Oklahoma is a serious threat to return to the national stage but they again have a huge early season test out of the conference with Ohio State visiting Norman in Week 3. Oklahoma also faces Houston in the opening week in a dangerous game with the Cougars again a national threat from a smaller conference and a prime candidate to join the Big XII down the road. The schedule is front loaded as four of the toughest games of the season for Oklahoma will be in the first five games through early October but if the Sooners get by with only one loss they have a great shot to win out and put the program in a similar position as last season. Prolific passer Baker Mayfield is back after throwing for 3,700 yards last season as is top running back Samaje Perine. The Oklahoma defense will again present the most question marks and that unit will need to be up to the task early in the season with the pair of non-conference tests and perhaps the two toughest conference games being the first two games of the Big XII season with the opener at TCU ahead of the Red River Rivalry with Texas in Dallas.
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Last season was supposed to be the year for TCU and the Horned Frogs fell a bit short of national goals, slipping from 12-1 in 2014 to 11-2 in 2015 with both losses in the Big XII. While TCU won’t get as much national attention early in the season as last year, the team may have a favorable path for a great season that could feature a rise to the top of the Big XII. Two big early season games at home will determine whether the Frogs are serious contenders, hosting Arkansas outside of the conference and then hosting Oklahoma in a key revenge game after losing 30-29 in Norman last season. Late season road games at Baylor and at Texas will be challenging but if Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill can smoothly take over the offense, the Horned Frogs figure to have one of the better defenses in the Big XII. It was a young defensive group depleted by injuries early last season but late in the year Gary Patterson’s defense stepped up in big overtime wins over Baylor and Oregon. With several other starters from last season absent on the offense it will be difficult to match the huge production of the past two seasons but the top of the conference also looks less formidable than last season and TCU will get to host likely the biggest game of the season on October 1.
The Longhorns have made a habit out of failing to reach preseason expectations much of the last decade with a disappointing run for the program, featuring at least four losses in each of the last six seasons. After failing to make a bowl game last season this is a pivotal season for Charlie Strong in his third year in Austin and he appears to have the makings of a team capable of a breakthrough. The opening week game with Notre Dame will determine whether or not the Longhorns have arrived back on the national stage or whether they will simply lurk as a Big XII sleeper. The Big XII season will open in October with a road game at Oklahoma State and a Red River Rivalry game with Oklahoma after Texas stunned the Sooners 24-17 last season. Those two games figure to shape the season for Texas and if they find a way to win both they would move to the forefront of the conference picture as they will get to host the other possible contenders in big late season games with Baylor and TCU. Texas is returning a lot of experience on both sides of the ball and after several highly regarded recruiting classes the pieces should be in place for the results to shine. Texas is only 6-6 S/U at home the past two seasons under Strong however and for the Longhorns to have any hope for a title they will need to lock down wins at Memorial Stadium.
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There has been nothing but bad news this offseason for Baylor with Art Briles eventually ousted after misconduct was revealed and former Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe has taken over. There have been numerous players and recruits opting to leave the program and ultimately there are a ton of questions on and off the field entering the season for a Bears program coming off three consecutive double-digit win seasons. There are enough returning players to expect that Baylor can still compete at a high level and the early season schedule should allow the Bears to ease into the season. Baylor has a light non-conference schedule highlighted by games with SMU and Rice before opening the Big XII season with Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Kansas. A 6-0 start still seems very realistic for the Bears heading into heavyweight matchups in the second half of the season. It is hard to envision Baylor beating Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma in successive weeks but the path to a surprise contending season amidst adversity is possible for a Baylor team that looked like one of the nation’s elite much of last season
IMPROVED: Kansas State
The Wildcats fell to just 6-7 last season for the worst season for the program since Bill Snyder’s first year back leading the team in 2009. Kansas State wound up starting 3-0 and then losing six games in a row before a 3-0 finish to the regular season but very competitive losses vs. highly ranged squads Oklahoma State, TCU, and Baylor were included in the slide. The Wildcats struggled mightily on offense last season, dropping almost 90 yards per game on average compared with the previous season and the defense had a similar regression in what was a very strong conference in 2015. Kansas State has a number of difficult road games but Manhattan should return to being a very tough place to play with the Wildcats capable of winning all of its home games in 2016, through they may be dogged hosting Texas even though the Longhorns haven’t won in Manhattan since 2002. The defense returns most of the key players from last season and the schedule lines up more favorably this season as the Wildcats won’t have to face all the top teams in consecutive weeks as they did last season. Expect a marquee upset at least once this season and an improved win count for a Kansas State program that should be back in the postseason.
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SINKING: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys were a great story last season with a 10-0 start to the season, climbing into the top 5 of the national polls. It was clearly a mirage as they had a very soft non-conference schedule and a back loaded conference slate.10-0 became 10-3 with double-digit losses in the final three games of the season including an embarrassing 35-point loss to Oklahoma and a 25-point loss in the Sugar Bowl vs. Ole Miss. Mason Rudolph returns at quarterback with a veteran roster but the schedule is demanding with five Big XII road games including four of those games likely being against the top half of the conference. Mike Gundy has delivered a great 11-year run in Stillwater with several overachieving seasons so anything is possible but it looks like a step-back season for a program that has alternated strong and mediocre seasons the last five years. Another bowl season looks very likely as Oklahoma State could definitely win all three of its non-conference games and with a few breaks the Cowboys could be a contender but it looks like a much tougher path than last season
SINKING: West Virginia
The Mountaineers are 17-21 in four seasons in the Big XII with a 5-4 2014 season being the best conference result. Despite underwhelming results since Dana Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to the Orange Bowl in his first season as head coach the team has improved in record each of the past two seasons, getting eight wins last year after a wild bowl win. Continuing that trend looks like a serious challenge in 2016 as West Virginia has two formidable non-conference games plus the Big XII schedule that brings the top contenders to Morgantown. West Virginia went 6-1 at home last season and if they repeat that record they could be in the title hunt as they host Missouri, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma, and Baylor. With a productive senior quarterback in Skyler Howard leading a veteran offense West Virginia can certainly score a few big wins but doing so and also taking care of business in several coin-flip road games will be a tall order with West Virginia winning just once on the road last season. West Virginia did show slight improvement on defense with nine starters returning last season but it still wasn’t enough to compete with the top Big XII teams and this year almost all of the key players from the 2015 defense are gone. Expect some shootouts in West Virginia games but the most likely scenario is a fall back to a .500-type season.
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