The Big 12 has two Top 10 teams in the national polls, with a glut of teams behind them in the second tier. How does BearsIllustrated see the Big 12 right now?
1. Oklahoma (Media Poll Finish – 1)
The Sooners finished #1 in the media poll and are the consensus top ranked team in the Big 12 in the national polls. Their schedule works out perfectly with Baylor, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State all coming to Norman. That is a huge advantage for a team with the talent to beat anyone in the Big 12, but some big question marks at key positions. They have possible the youngest group of offensive skill position players in the nation, but an offensive line with a ton of experience. Their defense is loaded, especially the front-7. They do have to replace two key defensive backs, but they could have one of the best defenses in the nation. The question is, will this be the team that showed up and destroyed Alabama or the one that struggled at times on offense?
2. Baylor (2)
The defending Big 12 champions return key play-makers all over the field, led by Big 12 Player of the Year Bryce Petty. Anytime you have your All-American caliber QB coming back, you are going to be up there in the polls. The Bears are ranked around the Top 10, though questions about their defense have some curious how good that side of the football can be. If the Bears can get good play from their defensive secondary, they have the offense and the defensive line to make a lot of noise.
3. Kansas State (3)
Wizard magic. What does that get you? Well, under Bill Snyder, it gets them serious contention in the Big 12 every other year. Co-Champions in 2012, the Wildcats took a step back at the beginning of the 2013 season, losing their first game of the season to North Dakota State, and then a 3-game losing streak to Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor in September and early October. But after that dip, the Wildcats would go 6-1 to finish the year. With quarterback Jake Waters and star receiver Tyler Lockett back to lead the offense, and star defensive end Ryan Mueller back to anchor the defense, the Wildcats are a sleeper choice for the Big 12 title.
4. Oklahoma State (5)
If you believe in Mike Gundy's ability to recruit talent and plug and play into his system, this is probably too low for the Cowboys. They have won 9 or more games in five of the past 6 seasons, and were a late collapse against Oklahoma away from a 2nd Big 12 Title in three years. They return one of the best runners in the Big 12 in Desmond Roland, and an experienced quarterback in J.W. Walsh. But they lost three of their top four receivers, three offensive lineman, their best QB in Clint Chelf, and almost their entire defense. Simply put, the Cowboys were hit the most in the Big 12 by graduation and losses from last years team.
5. Texas (4)
If you could tell me that the Longhorns would get good, consistent QB play all year, then they would probably be moved up to at least third place. They return possibly the best collection of running backs in the Big 12 (Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Gray, Joe Bergeron, and RB/WR Daje Johnson), and some good receiving options. They lost most of a pretty average offensive line though, so outside of quarterback, that is the big question on this team. Defensively, they return Cedric Reed and Malcolm Brown to anchor the defensive line, with Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson leading the backfield. They also return pretty much all of their experienced linebackers, but that group has underachieved horribly the past few season.
6. TCU (7)
With one of the best defenses in the country last year, TCU still only managed to win four games last year and 11 games the past two seasons. Simply put, they have not been able to replace Andy Dalton after transitioning into the Big 12 era. Casey Pachall held it together for a little while, but personal issues hurt his last few seasons in Fort Worth. The Frogs have simply not been able to find a dependable quarterback, after four years of having the definition of a dependable quarterback in Dalton. Their current best quarterback is also their best wide receiver, but they have some solid options at running back. The defense though is elite last year, and that was with their best player Devonte Fields pretty much being a non-factor. Fields is now back and reportedly looking great, so the defense could be even better than last year.
7. Texas Tech (6)
Fast starts and slower finishes have defined the Red Raiders the past two seasons. Texas Tech has started the past two season 6-1 and 7-0, only to finish both of those campaigns with 8 wins. Davis Webb won the quarterback rock-paper-scissors as Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer both transferred out of town. Tech returns their top 2 running backs, but lose two of their best receiving threats in Eric Ward and sensational tight end Jace Amaro. Outside of that though, they lose 1 offensive lineman so their offense should be in good shape. Defensively though, they lose their entire defensive backfield, best linebacker and two of their best defensive lineman off of a defense that wasn't that good at the end of the year.
8. West Virginia (8)
The Orange Bowl of 2012 must feel like a lifetime ago for Mountaineer fans. On that day, they were destroying a good Clemson team 70-33 and were going into their first season of Big 12 play with a ton of momentum. Since then, a 7 and 4 win season have dampened the high hopes of WVU. They have won just 6 off their last 20 games from the middle of 2012 through 2013. They lost their best play-maker on offense in Charles Sims, but return most of their remaining major contributors. The offensive line has to get much better, and the defense has to hope that they are not slammed by injuries again and that their depth is much better. But this is an incredibly difficult schedule, one that opens with Alabama, and also includes Maryland along with the usual slate of Big 12 games. The Mountaineers could be better than the 2013 version and still struggle to exceed or even match the 4 wins from last year.
9. Iowa State (9)
The Cyclones appear to have hit the glass ceiling under Paul Rhodes. He has finished three of his 5 regular seasons with 6 wins, and that is the best he has done. The Cyclones are still struggling to find a quarterback, with oft-injured Sam B. Richardson splitting time with freshman Grant Rohach last year. Both are back and it looks like will split time again. Iowa State does return most of their top skill players, and have brought on two stud receiver recruits looking to make a quick impact. However a team that has been built on defense in the past took a few steps back last year, and a lot of their top guys have graduated. Their schedule also gets off to a difficult start, with North Dakota State (See Kansas State last year), Iowa, and the last three Big 12 champs (Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State) as their first five games.
10. Kansas (10)
With the utter lack of talent at his disposal two years ago when he first showed up on campus, Weiss took the aggressive approach of signing junior college players (worked pretty well for that other Kansas school a few decades ago during their massive rebuild). Kansas signed 16 (!!!) jucos in 2013 and eight in 2014. They have gotten better the last two seasons, but when historically bad is your starting point, it is hard not to. They won 3 games last year, the most since 2010, and as many as they had the previous two seasons combined. Last year though, they might have found a QB to build upon and an identity to grow. With Montell Cozart rushing the ball and “trying” to throw it every once in a while, the Jayhawks at least were entertaining. They do have one of the most electric players in the country that you haven't heard of in Tony Pierson and actually had a not bad defense (though they weren't good either). If the defense can take another step forward, and their offense can continue to build on that identity, more than 1 conference win could be a possibility.