Big 12 Preview Part One

Using advanced stats and looking at returning players and key additions, predicts the Big 12. Part One includes the top five teams.

For each of the teams, I've listed some advanced statistical ratings from a year ago. Both S&P+ and FEI are play-by-play success rates that also account for competition and eliminated wasted statistics — ones accumulated late in blowouts, etc. I like these statistics because they don't take into account wins and losses … they're a pure look at how well your team performs on a play-by-play basis. We all know team X went 9-3 last year. But how much of that was schedule? How much came from lucky breaks?

To that end, I've also listed F/+ rankings. Simply put, that ranking is a combination of both S&P+ and FEI, and that combination is used by FootballOutsiders for their national college football rankings. So if you asked that site to prepare a ranking of the teams from the previous season, they would just give you their F/+ rankings. Additionally, F/+ rankings can be broken down (like S&P+ and FEI) into offensive and defensive rankings, and potentially the coolest part — they also have a special teams efficiency ranking.

But looking at a team's performance from the previous year is only part of the formula for predicting future success. An equally bigger part, albeit an admittedly less scientific one, is to look at what each team has coming back, or, in the cases of transfers or star freshmen, coming in. So in addition to the advanced statistical rankings, I've also included a short paragraph on what each team returns, and what my expectation is for them this year.

Part One of this two-part series will look at the top-five teams in the Big 12.

1) Texas (9-4, 5-4 in Big 12 play, last year)

Advanced Stats — S&P+: 36th nationally; FEI: 17; F/+: 24 (Offense: 18, Defense: 40, Special Teams: 30)

Per F/+, Texas was the Big 12's fourth-best team a year ago, coming in at 24th in the nation. And that wasn't a bad spot for a young team that dealt with some crippling injuries: the loss of linebacker Jordan Hicks after three games, Jackson Jeffcoat after six and having quarterback David Ash play one game and miss another with broken ribs (both were losses). This year, the Longhorns return more than any team in the country, with the most experience in the nation, per prognosticator Phil Steele. That includes the starting quarterback, Texas's top three running backs, top two wide receivers and all five starting offensive linemen in a group that averaged 36 points per game a year ago. Defensively, Texas brings back not just 9-of-11 starters, but also 19-of-22 players on the defensive two-deep from a year ago, including seven linebackers who started at least a game. Many of the Longhorns' issues last year could be traced to injuries and inexperience, and Texas figures to make a multi-game jump in a Big 12 that is deep at the top, but doesn't necessarily have a legitimate top-five team. Look for the offense — which will be going up-tempo — to improve on its 18th ranked spot, while the defense should perform quite a bit better with the returning talent. If Texas can get past its bugaboo, the annual Red River matchup in Dallas, the Longhorns could be in for a big season.*

* When doubting the Longhorns, many seem to bring up the fact that Texas won multiple games that could have gone the other way a year ago, mostly Oklahoma State and Kansas. But people also seem to forget that the Longhorns were potentially a botched snap and a quarterback injury away from tying for the league title. If we're being fair, last season probably played out about like it should have.

2) Oklahoma State (8-5, 5-4)

Advanced Stats — S&P+: 15; FEI: 14; F/+: 12 (Offense: 12, Defense: 24, Special Teams: 10)

Like Texas, Oklahoma State finished 5-4 in the Big 12 last year, with Texas's win in Stillwater serving as the tiebreaker in the standings, though advanced stats favored Oklahoma State, with the Cowboys ranking 12th nationally in F/+. The difference here is that Texas returns more than Oklahoma State does. The Cowboys bring back five starters offensively, though receiver Tracy Moore should count as a sixth. Between he, Josh Stewart and the rest of the receiving corps, and either Clint Chelf or J.W. Walsh at quarterback (Gundy hasn't named a starter), Oklahoma State should be able to throw the ball. The key will be how well the running attack fares with the Cowboys replacing three starters on the offensive line and the Big 12's leading rusher in Joseph Randle. Last year, the Cowboys ranked 16th nationally in S&P+ on standard downs and 59th on passing downs, showing that the offense dropped off significantly in potency without the threat of the running game. The offensive line should be fine … at least, that's what Cowboy OL coach Joe Wickline keeps proving on a year-by-year basis. But part of the reason I'm so high on the Cowboys is that they should be strong defensively, bringing back a bunch of talent, including both starting defensive tackles in Calvin Barnett and James Castleman and one of the Big 12's best linebacking trios in Shaun Lewis, Caleb Lavey and Ryan Simmons. A Nov. 16th showdown in Austin looms large, and is the first game in a brutal three-game stretch that features Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma back-to-back-to-back.

3) TCU (7-6, 4-5)

Advanced Stats — S&P+: 32; FEI: 22; F/+: 31 (Offense: 70, Defense: 12, Special Teams: 55)

There's a decent amount of projection here because TCU returns two key offensive players that missed the bulk of 2012 in Casey Pachall and Waymon James. If both can return to their early 2012 form, the Horned Frog offense should be significantly better than it was a year ago. A receiving corps that brings back Brandon Carter, Ladarius Brown and Ja'Juan Story is high on talent and low on proven production. But the real question on offense is how an offensive line — one that statistically ranked as the Big 12's worst a year ago* — that must replace multiple starters will fare. Defensively, expect it to be business as usual. The Horned Frogs likely have both the Big 12's best defensive line and secondary, bringing back most of the key players who allowed TCU to rank 10th in passing downs S&P+. That includes the Big 12's top pass-rusher in Devonte Fields, top cover corner in Jason Verrett, and a stacked group of defensive tackles and safeties. Being so good at the front end and the back end should allow the linebackers some extra time to grow up a bit. But judging by how good the Horned Frogs have been defensively over the last several years, the returning talent on that side of the ball and the defensive chops of head coach Gary Patterson, this could be an elite unit, one that will keep the Horned Frogs from getting into too many shootouts they don't want to be a part of.

* TCU was the Big 12's worst offensive line when looking at yards per rushing attempt and second-worst in sacks allowed per passing attempt.

4) Oklahoma (10-3, 8-1)

Advanced Stats: S&P+: 9; FEI: 6; F/+: 8 (Offense: 6, Defense: 23, Special Teams: 34)

The Big 12 co-champion a year ago, the Sooners were tapped as the Big 12's top team according to both S&P+ and F/+. Here's the issue: Oklahoma must replace a number of key players, from quarterback Landry Jones to receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown to left tackle Lane Johnson and secondary players Demontre Hurst and Tony Jefferson. Offensively, Oklahoma has the pieces to ease those pains. Oklahoma is stacked along the offensive line and at wide receiver, making those issues more negligible. And the backfield of Damien Williams and Trey Millard is sublime. Here's the question for starting quarterback Trevor Knight: can he throw the ball when everyone knows he has to? For all the knocks on Jones, he helped the Sooners to a top-20 ranking in passing downs S&P+, last year, converting a number of big downs. Knight's age shouldn't frighten Sooners … being a redshirt freshman quarterback isn't the team killer it once was. But asking him to duplicate the production of one of the most prolific passers in Sooner history might be a bit much. Defensively, the main concern comes in the front seven. Oklahoma is woefully thin on the defensive line, something that showed up big when the Sooners allowed 41-plus points in three of their final four games, and Mike Stoops seemed so down on his linebackers that, at times, he didn't put any on the field. Oklahoma has the athletes in the back end to be strong there yet again, especially with the return of Aaron Colvin, who is in the discussion for the Big 12's top cover cornerback. It was a tough choice here between the Oklahoma and Baylor, but I think both could be explosive offensively, and I have more faith in the Sooners putting a strong defense on the field than I do in the Bears. If those perceived defensive issues manifest, Oklahoma could even drop a spot or two. If the Sooners are able to find answers on the defensive line and at linebacker, they should compete for yet another Big 12 crown.

5) Baylor (8-5, 4-5)

Advanced Stats — S&P+: 33; FEI: 18; F/+: 30 (Offense: 3, Defense: 79, Special Teams: 102)

It's a testament to how deep the top of the league is that I have Baylor this low, because I really like the Bears. You know that they'll be explosive on the offense, and I think the Bears have recruited smartly on defense, with some of those returns starting to see the field. Baylor's defense was bad a year ago, and though the Bears improved as the year went on, they were still two spots worse in F/+ defensively than they were in 2011. At bigger issue is special teams: the Bears have ranked 100th or worse in special teams F/+ in every season in Art Briles's tenure. While special teams don't actually account for a third of the game as old-school coaches will tell you (at least not statistically), it's tough to win the league with a no-show on that side. Bryce Petty replaces Nick Florence at quarterback and figures to be the latest Briles quarterback to throw for eight-gazillion yards and break scoreboards. As always, he'll have a sleek and fast receiving corps to throw to, including last year's biggest big-play threat in the Big 12 in Tevin Reese, and arguably the Big 12's top incoming recruit in burner Robbie Rhodes. The left side of the offensive line, with Spencer Drango and Cyril Richardson, should be dominant, and Lache Seastrunk is set to have a Heisman-type year. Just ask him. Glasco Martin provides some thunder to Seastrunk's lightning. Of course, it's on defense where the Bears have to take a leap forward, and they bring back seven starters on that side of the ball, with young talents like Beau Blackshear and Javonte Magee starting to break in and Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman expected to help provide pass-rush. The linebacking trio of Eddie Lackey, Bryce Hager and Sam Holl is probably a bit underrated for their ability level, while big-time talent Ahmad Dixon is moving back to safety from a nickel linebacker spot. If Baylor can improve on that side of the ball — not even to a top-25 unit, just somewhere in the middle of the pack — the Bears have a chance to put together a pretty special year.

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