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Big XII Preview

Big XII Preview

08/09/2016

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.

FAVORITE: Oklahoma

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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CONTENDER: TCU

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.

CONTENDER: Texas

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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SLEEPER: Baylor

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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ACC Coastal Preview

ACC Coastal Preview

In several recent seasons there have been some underwhelming ACC Coastal champions but last season North Carolina raised the bar for the division going 8-0 and giving Clemson a great battle in the championship game. The Coastal won the ACC Championship four straight seasons from 2007-2010 but the Atlantic has been the powerhouse since and that is expected to be the case this season. There are a few Coastal squads with a chance to make some noise however.

FAVORITE: Miami, FL

The Hurricanes have failed to reach the double-digit win count that the stature of the program commands in 12 straight seasons. Mark Richt will be the fourth Miami head coach in that run and after sustained success at Georgia for 15 years he returns to his alma mater. The Hurricanes have the potential to have a strong 2016 season as the team will have a less demanding non-conference schedule than in several recent seasons and the ACC slate also lines up reasonably well. Miami won’t play Clemson or Louisville and the meeting with Florida State will be at home. A team that is just 4-7 in road games the past two seasons should have a chance to have stronger road results this season even though they have games in Blacksburg and South Bend in back-to-back October weeks. Miami’s roster is loaded with talent and experience on offense and the defense should have the opportunity to improve after a step-back 2015 season. Despite the coaching change Miami still wound up 8-5 last season with a 5-3 ACC record and the three conference losses came against teams that went a combined 23-1 in the ACC regular season.

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CONTENDER: North Carolina

North Carolina went 8-0 in ACC play last season before losing in the championship game but they did draw a favorable path pulling NC State and Wake Forest from the Atlantic. Wake Forest is traded for Florida State this season but the Tar Heels are still a serious contender in this division. Three of North Carolina’s conference road wins came by slim margins last year and two of the four road games appear to be of the very difficult variety this season. A tough opening two weeks is also ahead with the Tar Heels facing Georgia and Illinois in non-conference action away from home and for a squad with a new quarterback and several departures on defense it will be difficult to match last season’s 11-3 campaign. North Carolina still allowed 436 yards per game last season and in the final four games of the season including the bowl loss to Baylor the Tar Heels surrendered 155 points as the defense will need to show improvement to keep UNC on top of the division.

SLEEPER: Virginia Tech

It will be a transition season with Justin Fuente replacing the legendary Frank Beamer for Virginia Tech. Fuente had a successful four-year run at Memphis and he has kept much of the defensive staff in tact from Beamer’s administration. The Hokies have two extremely difficult non-conference games as getting back to the national spotlight looks unlikely in 2016 but in Coastal division where 6-2 might be enough Virginia Tech has a promising opportunity to be in the mix. Virginia Tech draws Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic as they will avoid the heavyweight ACC contenders and while they have a few difficult road games in the division, the program has featured a winning road record in six of the last seven seasons. Fuente should be able to improve on a surprising 5-8 record in Blacksburg the past two seasons and keeping a long bowl streak for the program looks very realistic with the Hokies a possibility to emerge in the ACC race.

IMPROVED: Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets went from going 11-3 in 2014 to just 3-9 last season and Paul Johnson’s ninth-season in Atlanta looks likely to be a bounce-back campaign. Despite the ugly record the Yellow Jackets outscored their opposition on the season but wound up with six losses by eight or fewer points. A rise back to the top of the Coastal looks unlikely as they face a difficult conference road schedule, although one break is only facing three true ACC road games with the meeting with Boston College to open the season being played in Ireland. Facing Clemson as well as tough non-conference games with Vanderbilt and Georgia could temper the success to only modest improvement in 2016 but with a decent group of returning players getting back to the bowl picture looks realistic. The 2015 defense for Georgia Tech was significantly stronger statistically than the far more successful 2014 defense but the offense took a big step back and there is room for a step forward in 2016.

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SINKING: Pittsburgh

The Panthers have had some tough luck with its coaching staffs bolting in recent years and after three seasona Paul Chryst left for the Wisconsin position prior to last season. Pat Narduzzi wound up having a successful first season with the Panthers going 8-5 in 2015 even after a disappointing bowl loss for the best Pittsburgh season since 2010, the year the team relieved Dave Wannstedt. The Panthers have decent experience returning on both sides of the ball in 2016 but a decline may be possible as the non-conference schedule will be upgraded with three formidable games ahead. In ACC play the Panthers also pick-up a road game with Clemson while also facing two top Coastal contenders North Carolina and Miami on the road. Four of six ACC wins last season came by seven or fewer points for Pittsburgh and on the season the Panthers barely had a positive point differential despite the solid record. Ultimately a lot went right for Pittsburgh last season and the 2016 squad looks like one that might teeter right on the bowl cut line.

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