Big 12 Question Marks for 2015
Feature image via Sarah Glenn/Getty Images
TCU- Offense won’t be a problem. Can a defense featuring several youngsters hold up for Frogs to meet expectations?
Remember a few years ago when some people insisted that mid-major TCU would never be able to tread water in the mighty Big 12 Conference?
Where are those people now?
TCU received 32 of 42 first place votes at Big 12 Media Days and were picked to win the conference title outright after sharing it with Baylor in 2014. And why not?
The offense is loaded with early Heisman contender Trevone Boykin at quarterback, leading receiver Josh Doctson and Aaron Green (922 yards, nine touchdowns) back at tailback. They will also be protected by an offensive line that returns four starters.
The defense however, is a different story. The Horned Frogs have to replace six starters on defense in 2015, including both linebackers and both cornerbacks in head coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 scheme. As of right now, two sophomores are slated to start at cornerback. Junior Sammy Douglas, a special teams contributor last season, is projecting to start at one linebacker spot for Patterson while sophomore Paul Whitmill is a favorite start opposite him. The leader of the defense will be free safety Derrick Kindred. The junior safety led all returning Horned Frogs with 80 tackles and four interceptions last year. He should be an All-Conference pick.
There isn’t much mystery to the Horned Frogs in 2015. They are very good. How good TCU can be is going to be directly proportionate to how well some young guys adjust on defense. As of the last two-deep I could find, there are 10 freshmen and sophomores in the top two at respective positions on the defensive side of the ball alone. They will need to be battle hardened when the Frogs host Baylor to close out the regular season.
Key Newcomer-Mike Freeze, Freshman Linebacker. This freshman has already earned a starting spot at a position of need for the Horned Frogs. It will be very interesting to see how he does week one against a physical Minnesota team on the road.
Key Game- Nov. 21 @ Oklahoma. I know, I know… the obvious answer here is Baylor the next week. But, this is the game before the game and it’s on the road in Norman. If TCU and Baylor are undefeated going into this week, then this game has MAJOR trap potential with the Horned Frogs possibly looking ahead to a rematch from last year’s shootout with the Bears.
BAYLOR- Will the cycle of strong quarterbacks keep rolling with Seth Russell?
Ladies and gentlemen, we currently live in a world where Baylor, not Texas or Oklahoma, is going for its third consecutive Big 12 title. Let that sink in for a minute.
I had an argument with a friend during Art Briles’ first year as the head coach at Baylor. He said that there were only a select number of schools that could ever realistically compete for a national championship year in, year out*. In particular, he was talking about the USC, Ohio State, Florida States of the world. (*- there is an asterisk on this argument because, back then, college football was using the BCS which complicates matters for a program like Baylor.)
I disagreed and used Baylor as an example. I argued that a non-traditional power, in a talent-rich recruiting region (like Texas), with a really good coach (like Art Briles), could bring in a program changing recruit at quarterback (like Robert Griffin III), and recruit talent around that quarterback (Kendall Wright, Josh Gordon, Terrence Williams) to make a nice two-to-three year run and build on that.
Clearly, I won that argument. That is EXACTLY the formula that Briles has used to take Baylor from Big12 cellar-dweller, to national title contender in less than 10 years. The recruitment and success of RG3, who won a Heisman Trophy at Baylor, was followed by a successful season by Nick Florence, which was followed by a successful tenure by Bryce Petty. Now, it’s Seth Russell’s turn to helm the ship.
The scary thing about the Baylor Bears is that Russell is the only question mark. Shock Linwood (1,252 yards, 16 touchdowns) returns at running back. Corey Coleman (64 receptions, 1,119 yards, 11 touchdowns) and K.D. Cannon (58-1,030-8) return as the nation’s only duo of 1,000=yard receivers. The offensive line features four seniors and a junior.
Defensively, three starters return on the line, including Shawn Oakman who led the team with 11 sacks last year. Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Taylor Young returns at linebacker after leading the Bears with 92 tackles in 2014 and cornerback Xavien Howard/safety Orion Stewart combine to return eight interceptions in the secondary.
Baylor is loaded with talent and, outside of a trip across greater Dallas to TCU, their toughest games (Oklahoma, Texas) are at home. Look for Baylor, ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll, to be a player in the CFP mix at season’s end.
Key Newcomer-Jarrett Stidham, Freshman Quarterback. He won’t see the field this year. But Stidham is a five-star quarterback recruit who seems poised to be Baylor’s next star in line at the position in a couple of years. If you’re a Baylor fan, keep tabs.
Key Game- Nov. 27 @ TCU. Duh.
OKLAHOMA- With a back loaded schedule, Oklahoma could throw a wrench in the Baylor/TCU storyline.
The Sooners may have the talent to get back in the conference title race.
Bob Stoops must feel like he’s in the Twilight Zone.
Five years ago, Texas was starting to lose some of its shine and the Big 12 title ran through Norman every season.
Now, the Sooners are running to keep up with… TCU and Baylor? The good news for Stoops, the Sooners have the horses and the schedule to climb to the next tier and factor into the Big 12 race again in 2015.
Offensively, Oklahoma is staring in the face of a paradox. Former East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley comes to Norman to install a version of the old Air Raid offense that produced two Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks in the early 2000’s. After winning the starting job this summer, Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield will have an opportunity to put up big numbers with a strong receiving corp. highlighted by returning studs Sterling Sheppard (51 receptions, 970 yards, five touchdowns) and Durron Neal (42-513-3).
But where does that leave the potentially dynamic duo of Samaje Perine (1,713 yards, 21 touchdowns) and Joe Mixon at tailback?
Either way, the Sooner offense has the potential to be every bit as scary as Baylor or TCU.
Defensively, Oklahoma is led by All-America candidates Eric Striker at linebacker and Zach Sanchez at cornerback. The defensive line was a question mark coming into the summer and it looks like Matt Romar and Matt Dimon will get the nod at defensive tackle in the opener against Akron. But Jordan Wade and Charles Walker are still in the running to get more play time in the middle.
The Sooners haven’t won an outright Big 12 title since 2010. This season, with a back loaded schedule, Oklahoma will likely be favored in every game (with the possible exception of Sept. 12 @ Tennessee) until they travel to Waco on Nov. 14. If the Sooners are 9-0 going into that showdown with Baylor, then they will likely be ranked in the top-10 and the final three weeks should dictate a national playoff spot as well as the Big 12 championship.
Key Newcomer- Dru Samia, Freshman Offensive Lineman. This freshman out of Sacramento, Ca. was a four-star recruit coming out last February. It was announced that he will not redshirt and with the offensive line being one of the bigger storylines this offseason, Samia could/should see the field this year.
Key Game- Nov. 28 @ Oklahoma State. If the Sooners pull off consecutive upsets at Baylor and at home against TCU, then the Bedlam game will dictate a playoff spot and whether or not the Big 12 title is shared. We all saw how that worked out for the conference last season.
OKLAHOMA STATE- Can Mason Rudolph help Cowboys shock the world?
For the first time since Brandon Weeden was on campus, the Oklahoma State Cowboys know for certain who their quarterback moving forward will be.
Sophomore Mason Rudolph was forced into action near the end of last season and was impressive enough to create a competition against returning starter J.W. Walsh. That competition was short as Rudolph was named the starter last spring. He will have an experienced offense around him as the Cowboys hope to make noise in the conference race.
Three starters return on the offensive line and an immediately eligible transfer from UAB will fill one of the other two spots. Oklahoma State also returns three experienced receivers in Brandon Shepherd (team-leading 737 yards in 2014), David Glidden (team-leading 42 receptions), and James Washington (team-leading six touchdowns in 2014). Not surprisingly, Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Chris Carson has won the starting tailback job after averaging better than seven yards a carry at Butler CC last year.
Defensively, Emmanuel Ogbah is the undisputed star after winning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2014. The Cowboys return two starting linebackers in Ryan Simmons and Seth Jacobs. Simmons is one of the top tacklers in OSU history. The secondary is where the Cowboys are the strongest. Junior safety Jordan Sterns leads the unit after recording 103 tackles as a sophomore. The other safety, Tre Flowers is a two-sport star. He also competes in track and field as a long jumper for OSU. Cornerbacks Kevin Peterson and Ashton Lampkin are both returning starters. Peterson led the team with 13 passes defended last year.
The schedule sets up favorably for Oklahoma State, in a manner of speaking. The good news is that TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma all travel to Stillwater. The bad news is that those are three of the last four games of the season.
Key Newcomer- Darrion Daniels, Freshman Defensive Tackle. The Dallas-native spurned USC, LSU, Ohio State, and Texas to join Oklahoma State. Four-star recruit impressed in fall practices and will be in the defensive line rotation in week one.
Key Game- Nov. 14 @ Iowa State. Oklahoma State has a very tough November with home dates against TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma. Sandwiched between the Frogs and Bears, the Cowboys travel to Ames, which is a deceptively tough place to play, especially sandwiched between two top-10 opponents.
TEXAS- The Charlie Strong rebuild continues…
The strongest evidence that the Texas Longhorns are still in the process of rebuilding their once proud football dynasty can be found on the depth chart for this weekend’s contest at Notre Dame.
Freshmen occupy 13 of the top 22 positions on the offensive and defensive two-deeps, including EIGHT true freshmen who attended prom less than four months ago. This is the test for second-year head coach Charlie Strong and his staff.
But at Texas, you don’t get to rebuild like at other schools. The Longhorns were 6-7 after losing the Texas Bowl to Arkansas last season, which was the worst record for Texas since they went 5-7 back in 2010. So the Longhorns, despite starting two true freshmen on the offensive line, will be expected to produce more wins in 2015.
For that to happen, junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes will need to make the next step in his progression. Last year, Swoopes stepped into the starting job because of an injury and performed like a typical backup should, completing just over 58% of his passes and a 13:11 touchdown to INT ratio. The offense last season was stagnant and, not surprisingly looking at the depth chart, if it’s going to change the Longhorns will need some freshmen to step up to playmaker status early. Freshman John Burt will get the first chance to shine. The highly touted receiver out of Florida impressed in fall camp and will start at the ‘Z’ receiver spot in the opener. He joins fellow freshmen Connor Williams (LT) and Patrick Vahe (RG) as first game starters on offense.
Defense carried the Longhorns to a bowl game last year. But Strong has to refill the cupboards on that side of the ball as well. Gone are All-American defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and linebacker Jordan Hicks, they are replaced by sophomore defensive tackle Poona Ford and, you guessed it, freshmen Malik Jefferson. All told, three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman will see time on the field at linebacker this fall. They will rely on the leadership of senior Peter Jinkens who will start at strong side backer for the Longhorns.
Relatively speaking, the secondary is the most experienced group on the field for Texas. Junior Dylan Haines leads the unit after recording 86 tackles and four interceptions from his safety position last year. Duke Thomas is a senior who will start at corner.
There is a ton of youth on this Texas squad, but it’s important to remember the freshmen who go to Texas, in many cases, are not like freshmen at other schools. Players like Jefferson at linebacker and Burt at receiver are most likely capable of playing at most major conference schools. Once they get over the learning curve, the Longhorns will still be a competitive team.
Key Newcomer- Malik Jefferson, Freshman linebacker. Jefferson was the top-ranked linebacker prospect in America coming out of Mesquite, Tx. After enrolling in January, his athletic ability and nose for the football forced Strong and his staff to put the 18-year old in the middle of the Texas defense. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on #46 Saturday against Notre Dame.
Key Game- October 10 vs. Oklahoma. For the Longhorns, this game will dictate what constitutes a successful season. If they win or lose a close game, I think that Strong gets a lot more leash in this massive rebuilding project. If they get blown out of the water, then Texas better get to a bowl game and win. Otherwise, the natives will likely get very restless.
KANSAS STATE- The Wildcats don’t look great on paper, but is it ever safe to bet against Bill Snyder?
There is probably a joke somewhere about Bill Snyder being old enough that it says in the Bible not to doubt any team he coaches. So I won’t try to put one here.
Offensively, there are three things that anybody seems sure about. First, the offensive line is solid. With Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson returning, the left side of the O-line is as good as there is in the Big 12 and the other guard and tackle, seniors Luke Hayes and Matt Kleinsorge, are back as well. Second, the Wildcats lost almost all of their pass catching production. Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton are gone and they took 185 catches and 16 touchdowns with them. Senior Kody Cook is the most experienced receiver returning. And finally, nobody knows who will start at quarterback. There was a four-way battle going on all preseason between junior Joe Huberner, sophomore Jesse Ertz, freshman Alex Delton, and JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks. Realistically, you can eliminate Delton from the mix as Snyder has NEVER started a true freshman under center. Take into account that the gameday depth chart doesn’t list Banks and you can deduce that the reps will most likely be split between Huberner and Ertz. Huberner completed nine passes for 235 yards (not a typo) last season. Ertz has never thrown a collegiate pass, however he rushed for 46 yards as a redshirt freshman last year.
The offensive headliner is Glenn Gronkowski. Yes, he is related to THAT Gronkowski. The K-State Gronk is a preseason all-league pick and is considered a tremendous threat as a receiver from his fullback position. He will do a lot of lead blocking for starting tailback Charles Jones. Jones is coming off a season in which he ran for 13 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Wildcats feature a standout at each level. Senior Travis Britz anchors a defensive line that features three returning starters. Sophomore Elijah Lee recorded 4.5 sacks last season, most in K-State history by a true freshman. He is the known commodity in the linebacker corp. Morgan Burns and Danzel McDaniel are returning starters at cornerback. McDaniel is on the Nagurski Trophy watchlist. Safety Dante Barnett is the key to the secondary, he recorded 77 tackles last year and three picks.
Kansas State has talent on defense. But they have all sorts of questions on offense. It’s so hard to pick against Bill Snyder though, and the Wildcats have recorded four consecutive seasons with at least eight wins. All of their toughest games are at home, which helps and the non-conference schedule is nothing to lose sleep over. Don’t be surprised if K-State makes it five straight seasons with eight wins.
Key Newcomer- Alex Delton, Freshman Quarterback. Delton may not start the opener, but he has a good chance to become just the third freshman quarterback to see the field under Snyder. Delton skipped his last high school semester to join the Wildcats in the spring.
Key Game- Oct. 3 @ Oklahoma State. Last season, the Wildcats pounded the Cowboys, 48-14. This year, Oklahoma State has designs on being in the Big 12 race. If Kansas State can go into Stillwater and leave with a win, not only will they knock OK State down a peg, they may have to be taken seriously as contenders themselves.
WEST VIRGINIA- Can an experienced defense help Mountaineers climb Big 12 ladder?
The Mountaineers showed their potential by upsetting Baylor in 2014.
West Virginia returns nine starters on defense and gets a tenth back from injury. Defensive end Christian Brown is the lone defensive starter in 2015 who didn’t start last season, but he was a rotation player on the defensive line. At linebacker, Nick Kwiatokoski returns after leading the team with 103 tackles last year he is joined by fellow returning starter Shaq Petteway and Jared Barber, who started in 2013 but was sidelined last year with an injury.
In the secondary, Karl Joseph returns after an all-conference season in 2014. Joseph is a box safety who had 92 stops and three forced fumbles last year. Junior cornerback Daryl Worley led the team with three interceptions last year.
On offense, Skyler Howard takes over at quarterback. Howard made his first appearance last season in a game at Iowa State, throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Mountaineers to a comeback win. He followed that up by throwing for 346 yards and three more scores in a 45-37 bowl win over Texas A&M. He will be throwing to a group of receivers that will try to replacing the production of top-10 draft pick Kevin White. Daikel Shorts Jr., Shelton Gibson, and freshman standout Jovon Durante will start at receiver in the opener against Georgia Southern.
Running back Rushel Shell ran for 788 yards and seven scores last season and returns to the backfield in 2015. Joining him is change of pace back, Wendell Smallwood, who ran for 722 yards last season. Expect the Mountaineers to lean on the run game early in the season until one of the aforementioned receivers establishes himself as a go-to guy.
For West Virginia, the gauntlet run of their schedule is early. The Mountaineers face OU, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU in consecutive weeks starting on October 3rd. If they want to come out the other end of that stretch still looking like a contender, the defense is going to have to carry the Mountaineers early while the offense can feast on some of the lesser teams late in the year.
Key Newcomer- Kyle Bosch, Junior Guard. Bosch transferred from Michigan in January and is slated to start at right guard in the opener.
Key Game- Oct. 17 @ Baylor. Last season, the Mountaineers threw a wrench into the Big 12 and national championship equation by upsetting the Bears, 41-27. If West Virginia wants to jump to the next tier in the Big 12, a repeat of that performance would go a long way.
TEXAS TECH- Is it still true that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have a quarterback?
If you believe the two-deep for the Sam Houston State game on Saturday, Davis Webb will get the starting nod over Patrick Mahomes. But, during his weekly press conference on Monday, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury still wouldn’t tell anyone who the starter would be.
Whoever gets the start is going to have the luxury of playing behind an underrated offensive line. Left tackle Le’Raven Clark anchors a line that is filled with experienced upperclassmen. Texas Tech is known for its passing prowess, but as a result of such a strong offensive line, the Red Raiders’ running game was a pleasant surprise in 2014. Returning running back DeAndre Washington ran for 1,103 yards last season.
At receiver, Jakeem Grant(67 receptions, 938 yards, seven touchdowns) highlights the returning players. Devin Lauderdale (31-589-7), Ian Sadler (23-336-2), and Dylan Cantrell (20-312-2) are also returning out wide.
On defense, the Red Raiders will be looking to a few new faces. The first new face is Mike Mitchell at linebacker. Originally an Ohio State commit, Mitchell, a former five-star recruit, redshirted and transferred to Tech and should see the field early on for the Raiders. Another newcomer to watch is true freshman Breiden Fehoko. This four-star defensive tackle enrolled in January and has already played his way into the defensive line rotation.
Texas Tech was 4-8 last season, meaning the first order of business in 2015 is getting to a bowl game. To do that, the Red Raiders will need to be more opportunistic on defense and improve on their minus-13 turnover margin.
Key Newcomer- D’Vonta Hinton, Freshman Linebacker. Hiinton was only rated as a three-star prospect out of Texas City, Tx., but he has played well enough in fall camp to find himself on the two-deep at weakside linebacker for the opener against Sam Houston State.
Key Game- Nov. 14 vs. Kansas State. If the Red Raiders are going to go bowling this winter, they need to find more than the two conference wins they got last season. This is a game late in the season, at home, against a team that is most likely going to be one-dimensional on offense.
IOWA STATE- Don’t sleep on the Cyclones. They’re more talented/interesting than they’ve been in a while.
Allen Lazard is one of a trio of talented receivers in Ames hoping to pull Iowa State out of the cellar.
In the last two seasons, the only Big 12 team with less wins than Kansas is Iowa State.
A talented quarterback with weapons to throw to and a defense paced by an underrated secondary are hoping to change the fortunes of the program this year and, maybe, save their coach’s job.
Sam B. Richardson set a school record for pass completions in 2014 on his way to becoming just the third 3,000-yard passer in Cyclones history. And in 2015, Richardson has his top two receivers, D’Vario Montgomery (44 receptions, 605 yards) and Allen Lazard (45-591), back along with Quenton Bundrage who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury after being the team’s top receiver in 2013.
The question marks on offense are all on the offensive line. While the line features five returning starters, none of them have more than 20 career starts due to injury problems in the past. Redshirt freshman Mike Warren is a player to watch on offense. He will split carries with sophomore Tyler Brown who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in limited duty last year. The Cyclones need to balance their attack to be a more effective offense.
Defensively, the secondary sets the pace. Free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya was a Freshman All-American last year after leading the Cyclones with 77 tackles. Senior cornerback Sam E. Richardson led Iowa State with four interceptions and Nigel Tribune also returns as a starter after picking off three passes last year. To fill in the strong safety position, the Cyclones brought in JUCO All-American Qujuan Floyd.
At linebacker, Luke Knott returns after making 74 tackles last year, but he’s not listed as a starter. After an influx of JUCO talent, former middle linebacker Levi Peters has moved to strong side backer to make room for transfers Jay Jones (Georgia Military Institute) and Jordan Harris (Copiah-Lincoln CC). The JUCO infusion doesn’t stop there. Desmond Tucker (Copiah-Lincoln) will start at defensive tackle and he will be called on to help put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Paul Rhoads took on what may be the toughest job in college football seven years ago when he arrived in Ames. If the Cyclones don’t show marked improvement with several JUCO recruits on defense and an underrated offense, it may be someone else’s turn to try next fall.
Key Newcomer-Joshua Thomas, Freshman Running Back. If the combination of Tyler Brown and Mike Warren don’t produce in the first couple of weeks, look for Thomas to come into play. This three-star recruit out of Georgia spurned Georgia Tech and Wisconsin to join Iowa State.
Key Game- Oct. 3 vs. Kansas. For Iowa State, more specifically Rhoads, the first step to showing improvement this year is making a dent in conference play. That being said, Iowa State lost three conference games by one possession last season. Kansas was not one of those games, but beating the conference punching bag is a pre-requisite for keeping your job in college football.
KANSAS- It’s a long road ahead for first-year coach David Beaty.
Kansas is awful. (Editor’s Note: at football)
That seems like a harsh way to open their preview, but it needs to be stated. It needs to be taken into account when measuring success for the Jayhawks this season.
David Beaty takes the helm at Kansas after a stint as the wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator at Texas A&M. This is a great hire for two reasons. First, Beaty is installing an exciting, up-tempo style of offense that can produce points on a given day with inferior talent and make high school kids think it’s fun to play there. Second, Beaty has a reputation as being a very good recruiter, particularly in the talent-rich state of Texas.
Montell Cozart will start at quarterback and the Jayhawks hope that a more fast-paced offense will suit his style more. Cozart completed less than half of his passes last year before being unseated by since-injured Michael Cummings. One name to keep in mind is Ke’aun Kinner. Kinner was the JUCO Offensive Player of the Year in 2014 at Navarro JC. He will most likely be the best offensive weapon for Kansas this season.
On defense, free safety Fish Smithson is the leader after recording 49 stops in 2014.
That being said, success this season can’t be measured in wins and losses. Although, some wins may be nice. The most important thing for the Jayhawks this season is to establish an identity. On the field, the only goal I would set as a Jayhawk fan would be: don’t lose to South Dakota State. Non-conference games against Memphis and at Rutgers don’t offer much comfort heading into what will likely be a long conference season.
Key Newcomer-Ke’aun Kinner, Junior running back. Kinner was the top offensive player in all of JUCO last fall. He will need to be stellar for the Jayhawks to have any hope of being competitive.
Key Game- Sept. 12 vs. Memphis. For Kansas, this is a benchmark game. Memphis is a solid mid-major team. How this game goes, will tell a lot about how much of an overhaul Beaty and his staff need to plan for long term.
(Editor’s note: Wanna talk basketball now?)