Big 12 preview: In unsettled league, who will threaten Baylor, OU?

Editor’s note: This year, we’re eschewing traditional conference previews for more bite-size nuggets of information and insight.

Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel have spent the summer visiting teams and speaking with coaches around the country.

What you find below are byproducts of those conversations and their own opinions.

On Monday, we looked at the SEC. Tuesday, the Pac-12 was covered.

Today brings us the Big 12.

SURPRISE TEAM

TOP 20 PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Feldman: West Virginia Mountaineers. Clint Trickett sparked an upset of Top 15 Oklahoma State last season while playing with a banged-up shoulder. The son of FSU O-line coach Rick Trickett has another year in the Mountaineers’ system, and word is he’s been very sharp in fall camp. Better still, head coach Dana Holgorsen, one of the best offensive minds in football, is gonna be more involved with the O this year. WVU’s secondary, led by budding star Daryl Worley, also is primed to hold up in the pass-happy conference.

Mandel: Texas Tech Red Raiders. Kliff Kingsbury’s team started 7-0 last year, lost five straight, then throttled 10-3 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. With talented sophomore Davis Webb now entrenched at quarterback and a deeper set of playmakers around him, the Red Raiders will be more consistent and notch at least nine wins.

FLOP TEAM

Feldman: Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Cowboys have won 41 games in the past four seasons, but they lost a vital cog on their staff when longtime O-line coach Joe Wickline, regarded by his peers as one of the best in the business, left for Texas. He’ll be missed, as will standout CB Justin Gilbert, who is one of seven starters on the defensive side gone from last year’s group.

Mandel: Texas Longhorns. Charlie Strong is the right guy to resurrect the Longhorns over the next few years, but Year 1 could be rough. The starting 22 is solid, but Texas lacks the quality depth of its glory days, especially after Strong dismissed a slew of players this offseason. Expect an up-and-down season as the ‘Horns adjust to Strong.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

TOP 25 HEISMAN CANDIDATES

Feldman: Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech. He lit up ASU and was MVP of the Red Raiders’ impressive romp over the Sun Devils in last year’s Holiday Bowl, and the 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore is just getting warmed up. Don’t be surprised if Webb makes it to NYC as a Heisman finalist in the next two seasons. He’s that talented, and he’s in a potent system. Kingsbury says Webb has the strongest arm of any QB to come through Tech, and he’s also extremely cerebral and determined.

Mandel: Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State. The track star-fast juco transfer has been the talk of preseason camp with his supreme playmaking abilities. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy has said he’d like to get Hill 15 to 20 touches per game, utilizing him in much the way West Virginia did with former star Tavon Austin.

IMPACT FRESHMAN

Feldman: K.D. Cannon, WR, Baylor: As if the Bears needed any more weapons on offense, Art Briles reeled in another big-play man in the five-star recruit who everyone wanted. Briles said Baylor never would’ve had a shot to land a coveted talent like the 5-11, 160-pounder a few years ago until the Bears started piling up wins. QB Bryce Petty said Cannon has the explosiveness of former Bear star Tevin Reese, only the new kid is even more explosive and more fluid than the guy who averaged 23 yards per catch last season. Watch out, Big 12.

Mandel: Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State. The most touted Iowa State signee in recent memory – a Top 50 national recruit from Urbandale, Iowa – has lived up to the hype since arriving on campus. He’ll likely start from Day 1 and could become a much-needed big-play threat for the Cyclones’ long-struggling offense.

HOT SEAT COACH

TOP 10 SURPRISE TEAMS

Feldman: Charlie Weis, Kansas. This has been a dreadful fit. The guy who once boasted of some kind of “decided schematic advantage” presided over the nation’s No. 121 offense in 2013. He’s just 4-20 in two seasons and 1-17 in conference play. There’s been plenty of talk about how dysfunctional the program he’s running has been, and to make matters worse KU just lost his top two running backs to season-ending injuries. And that came on the heels of Traevohn Wrench, a four-star recruit, failing to qualify academically and ending up at a Kansas JC. Expecting more than three wins seems like a stretch, and that’d probably still be only about half of what he’s gonna need to get another season.

Mandel: Weis. The Jayhawks’ resident schematic genius is 1-17 so far in Big 12 play. It may be that sophomore starting quarterback Montell Cozart – who beat out veteran Jake Heaps, prompting his transfer to Miami – may be the spark Weis has been missing. It will still be tough to find his way to bowl eligibility.

THREE MAKE-OR-BREAK POSITION GROUPS

1) Texas quarterbacks: Charlie Strong takes over a team with a lot of experience on D and a couple of very good running backs. The O-line’s been underwhelming but not any more than the QB play has been since Colt McCoy left Austin. Can David Ash stay healthy? Or be consistent? If not, freshman Jerrod Heard may be forced into action much sooner than UT coaches hope. The schedule also isn’t very forgiving.

2) Oklahoma wide receivers: Much has been made of the case of former Mizzou standout Dorial Green-Beckham, but the real challenge is replacing almost every viable receiver the Sooners had in 2013. Only Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal have experience. Freshman Michiah Quick lives up to his last name and looks like he’s going to provide much-needed help, as should fellow freshmen Dallis Todd, Jeffery Mead and Mark Andrews; each are towering targets. Still, that’s leaning on a lot of inexperience.

3) Baylor secondary: The Bears have loads of firepower, and a couple of difference-makers on the D-line and some speed and savvy at linebacker anchored by the underrated Bryce Hager. But the real pressure will be on a new secondary, which does have some time before facing the Big 12’s best passers, who don’t show up on the schedule until the second-half of the season.

— Feldman

THREE UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES

ON THE HOT SEAT

1) BYU at Texas, Sept 6: The Longhorns’ Week 3 game against a Top 10 UCLA team could have playoff implications, but it’s this one against a Cougar team that mauled UT last year that figures to show how far Strong’s new team has come.

2) Oklahoma at Texas Tech, Nov. 15: All eyes will be on the Sooners a week earlier when they host Baylor, who has never beaten OU in Norman. If they do handle the Bears, this one against a dangerous Red Raiders squad will be tricky, especially at Jones Stadium.

3) Auburn at K-State, Sept. 18: Gus Malzahn’s system typically gives defenses fits, although the defending SEC champs should get a legit test here from a very disciplined Wildcats team that should be amped up to host an SEC heavyweight on a Thursday night stage.

— Feldman

MORE BIG 12 INTEL

* Between the camp injury of Jaxon Shipley and the suspensions of Daje Johnson and Marcus Johnson, Texas was hurting at wideout, but speedy freshman Armanti Foreman has shown in camp that he’s ready to provide UT a spark.

* Texas Tech was sorely lacking in heft on its D-line last year. The Red Raiders think they have the answer for that in 350-pound JC transfer Rika Levi, who wowed Kliff Kingsbury’s staff on his recruiting visit when he ripped a thick phonebook in half with his bare hands. Levi’s power isn’t in doubt, but his conditioning — he’s shed 30 pounds since arriving in Lubbock — still is, although he has flashed some burst at August scrimmages.

* Four of K-State’s seven team captains are former walk-ons. "It shows buying into the system really works,” said standout LB Jonathan Truman.

* Blue-chip recruit Allen Lazard, one of the most hyped recruits in Iowa State history, brings much-needed size and play-making skills to the Cyclones offense, which was 96th in the country in pass plays of 20 yards or longer last season.

* One area of concern for the Stoops brothers regarding the Sooners’ D: forcing more turnovers. Last season, OU was No. 112 in fumbles forced. Two years ago, the Sooners were No. 121.

— Feldman and Mandel

BIG 12 PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Feldman’s picks Mandel’s picks
1) Baylor 1) Oklahoma*
2) Oklahoma 1) Baylor
3) Texas Tech 3) Kansas State
4) Texas 4) Texas Tech
5) Kansas State 5) Oklahoma State
6) Oklahoma State 6) Texas
7) West Virginia 7) TCU
8) TCU 8) West Virginia
9) Iowa State 9) Iowa State
10) Kansas 10) Kansas
  * Oklahoma wins tiebreaker