The Big 12’s biggest asset has been the biggest reason for its four-year drought without a national title game appearance: A bulging middle class.
The conference has been able to trumpet its depth, but in three consecutive seasons, an undefeated Big 12 team has lost on the road late in the season to a heavy underdog who ended up in a bowl game.
The Big 12 has two legitimate candidates to crack the four-team playoff, but both teams may be at the mercy of the 13-person College Football Playoff Selection Committee if our projections are accurate.
Here’s how the Big 12 standings will look at the end of the regular season.
1. Oklahoma: 11-1 (8-1)
Trevor Knight has a few bumpy days, but the defense carries the Sooners to a Big 12 title and important wins over Baylor and Texas. The lone hiccup comes at home against Kansas State … again. There will be plenty of talk about a possible stumble on the road in Lubbock, but OU knocks off the Fightin’ Kliffs on the Plains.
2. Baylor: 11-1 (8-1)
If only the Bears got to host Oklahoma in McLane Stadium’s inaugural season. The Sooners answer the bell in games like that at home, and Baylor learns that lesson the hard way. Still, the Bears head to a major bowl, beat Texas and earn a share of the Big 12 title. I’m not holding my breath for the Big 12 to make another addition to its slogan. "The Big 12: One True Champion (except for 2012 and 2014)."
3. Kansas State 9-3 (6-3)
Anyone without K-State on their preseason top 25 ballots will quickly regret the decision. I’m picking the Wildcats to knock off Auburn in a big Thursday night showdown. Both teams have 12 days to prepare, but this is an underrated K-State team and Auburn was overrated a year ago. Expect high-quality ball between two great coaches in Bill Snyder and Gus Malzahn. As for the Big 12 schedule, K-State could play its way into title contention if it stays healthy and catches a break or two in tight games.
4. Oklahoma State 7-5 (5-4)
Other than Texas, OSU may be the Big 12’s biggest wildcard. They’ll be inexperienced across the board and lost their secret weapon, OL coach Joe Wickline, to the Longhorns. We’ve seen this before, though. Look back at the 2011 Cowboys. These guys aren’t as good as that team, but Mike Gundy’s squad is underrated, and improved recruiting and stability inside the program masks some of that inexperience.
5. Texas 6-6 (5-4)
The Longhorns close the season with four consecutive wins to earn a good chunk of hype going into 2015, but stumble to a 1-2 start in nonconference play and fall to 2-4 after losses to Baylor and Oklahoma. Charlie Strong doesn’t pay attention and doesn’t change a thing. The Longhorns are better off for it.
6. West Virginia 6-6 (5-4)
A healthy Clint Trickett means an improved team. The Mountaineers showcase their depth at the offensive skill positions and Rushel Shell emerges as the team’s best running back. Daryl Worley and Karl Joseph are studs, but WVU struggles to slow the run against the Big 12’s most efficient teams.
7. Texas Tech 7-5 (4-5)
The Red Raiders have upside and might sneak up on a double-digit win season, but they still have a lot to prove in the running game and in their ability to stop the run. Davis Webb breaks out on a national stage and shows off Tech’s depth at receiver, but the lack of true impact players on the defensive side of the ball costs Kingsbury’s team in the long run.
8. TCU 6-6 (3-6)
The Horned Frogs get back to a bowl game with Matt Joeckel at the helm and spring an upset on Oklahoma State. The defense proves to be one of the Big 12’s best, but the lack of depth along both lines of scrimmage prove problematic once again.
9. Iowa State 3-9 (2-7)
The Cyclones will be improved from last year, when they were the league’s worst rushing defense, one of its least explosive offenses and lost four Big 12 games by 31 points or more. That said, the depth of the Big 12 and a difficult nonconference schedule make cracking a bowl game seem like a big reach.
10. Kansas 1-11 (0-9)
In Year 3, I’m still looking for compelling evidence that Kansas will be improved under Charlie Weis. The talent level hasn’t seen significant improvement and the offense will struggle without James Sims. If KU wins a conference game, it’ll have to sneak up on someone. West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State–probably KU’s best chances for upsets–will all be better in 2014.