Ubben’s Big 12 Mailbag: Breakout players, autonomy, Texas will go 6-6?

Baylor Bears wide receiver Jay Lee

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks for all your e-mails this week, everybody. You can find my coverage this season right here on Facebook or follow me on Twitter and submit a question for a later Mailbag. 

This week, we tackle my preseason predictions, the Big 12 title race, breakout players and an issue surrounding major conference autonomy. Let’s get to it. 

Derek in Austin writes: I saw your season predictions and I could only think of one thing. Are you on drugs? Texas goes 8-4 last year, gets a big coach upgrade with Charlie Strong and you think the Longhorns go 6-6? You make almost as much sense as a Tech fan. 

David Ubben: I like to get high on life, but thanks for reading, Derek. I’ve said it all offseason, and I’ll say it one more time: If David Ash stays healthy, Texas wins 9-10 games. I really hate it for him, but I simply don’t believe he’ll be healthy all season, and that’s where my prediction comes into play. 

Charlie Strong named Tyrone Swoopes his No. 2 quarterback on Thursday, and Big 12 defenses are not going to respect him as a passer. If Swoopes ends up playing an extended period of time this year, Texas’ passing game will actually have been in better shape last year with Case McCoy than it would be with an inexperienced Swoopes, who hasn’t shown much ability as an accurate passer thus far, though he may be able to make plays with his feet. It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. 

If Ash isn’t on the field, Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray are going to be running up against eight and nine man boxes. They’re both great backs, but Texas doesn’t really have a home-run hitter at running back. It really lacks explosiveness on offense. Last year, UT wasn’t in the top half of the Big 12 in total plays from scrimmage longer than 10, 20 or 30 yards. 

Texas is already thin at receiver and Jaxon Shipley’s been banged up and had his effectiveness limited by injuries for some of his career, too. 

That’s going to severely limit how many points Texas can score, and obviously, that will be a problem in winning Big 12 games consistently, even if your defense is pretty good, as I expect Texas’ to be. As strong as the front seven is–especially Cedric Reed and Desmond Jackson on the D-line–Safeties Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner and walk-on Dylan Haines don’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence. With a maturing group of quarterbacks across the Big 12, a leaky back line will be a problem. 

Additionally, look closer at last year. All four losses were by 19 points or more, and the Longhorns were fortunate to play Kansas State early in the season. The Wildcats were a much-improved team later in the year when they won six of their final seven games. Texas also came back and escaped in overtime at West Virginia and caught a break with a controversial call in the win over Iowa State. 

The Longhorns (Case McCoy especially) also played the game of their lives against Oklahoma. 

Texas won every one of its close games last year, and its losses weren’t close, so the Longhorns could be a similar level of quality compared to last year and go 6-6, which will be the case if Ash isn’t on the field.

Diego Galaviz writes: I’ll make it simple: Who wins the Big 12? Do they go to the Playoff? Do they win it all?

David Ubben: Oklahoma. No. 

And maybe. 

Adam Rogg in Waco, Texas writes: Which team will hurt the most from injury / suspensions?

David Ubben: I’d go with Texas right now. 

Kansas lost its top two running backs, Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox, but that won’t cost them a ton of wins on the bottom line. Those guys were experienced players, but not impact players. 

TCU lost an impact player in Devonte Fields. He was slightly overrated by the league’s media, but he was still one of the conference’s best defenders at an important position: pass rusher. However, the Frogs played without him last year and were still one of the Big 12’s best defenses, an accomplishment I don’t think Gary Patterson gets enough credit for. 

Which brings me to the Longhorns, who get my vote for sheer numbers. 

Losing Kendall Sanders and Joe Bergeron hurts depth a lot. Everybody thinks they can get by without it before the season actually starts, and then every October and November, you see how valuable it is. If Desmond Harrison, Daje Johnson and Josh Turner’s suspensions end up being longer than a game, it might cost Texas that BYU game, which is pretty close to a toss-up. A win or a loss there could influence a lot later in the year. A loss likely means Texas would go into Big 12 play at 1-2 and playing two of its first three games against the league’s two best teams. 

Eric in Kansas City writes: Who are your breakout players this year?

David Ubben: Baylor’s young receivers are getting so much attention, but people are overlooking junior Jay Lee, a big body at 6-2 and 215 pounds who’s been in the system quite awhile. Don’t forget, Antwan Goodley had 17 catches for 171 yards in 2012 before becoming an All-American last year. Davion Hall and KD Cannon and Corey Coleman have gotten a lot of attention, but Lee may be more apt to have a big year without Tevin Reese and with Clay Fuller out for a good chunk of the year. 

I love the big guys who clog up the middle and don’t get the statistical recognition for it, and Texas Tech signed a big one out of junior college. Rika Levi has dropped 30 pounds since the winter and is down to just below 350. His coaches want him more around 340. He’ll have an adjustment period, but he could fill a big void Kerry Hyder left behind at nose guard. He may not completely change Tech’s defense, but he’ll be a guy to watch and may be one of the household names in the league soon enough because of his sheer size alone. 

Tyreek Hill is too obvious at OSU, but I’d give Jhajuan Seales (I’m still like 9-for-9 on spelling his name right, knock on wood) a long look as one of the league’s breakout players. He showed some flashes last year, catching 39 balls for 571 yards, but Josh Stewart is gone and there are a whole lot of balls up for grab. OSU will run the ball a little more with Walsh stepping in for Clint Chelf, but Seales so skilled and looks like a natural at the position at 6-2 and 198 pounds. I liked what I saw from his hands last year. I wouldn’t be shocked it he was a 1,000-yard guy this year. 

No Ty Zimmerman at safety anymore? The four-year starter is a big loss, but Dante Barnett will help Kansas State move forward. He grew up a bit as a sophomore last year and made 75 stops with four interceptions. He may become one of the league’s best safeties this year. 

Will Klose writes: Do you think the NCAA decision to grant Big 5 autonomy will stabilize the conference realignment, or is there more to come?

David Ubben: It won’t have a major effect one way or another. For now, realignment at the highest levels is settled and the only thing I could see changing that is unforeseen fallout from enacting the playoff. For instance, if the Big 12 has a deserving team get left out once, you may see a serious conversation about bringing back the title game, which might actually be counterproductive to the goal of qualifying for the playoff. 

If it happens twice, I could see the Big 12 exploring an upgrade its product on the field. Maybe it begins to think differently about BYU, who is more and more desperate in the shifting landscape of college athletics. 

Those are a lot of big ifs. There’s too much talk this offseason about which conference will be left out of the playoff as if that’s something that can be decided or known right now. It’s all situational. 

There are five questions that will determine which conference gets left out. 

Good luck answering those before November or December. Anything before that is wasted breath. Let the games play out. 

Ross Eveland writes: Who is dreamier of football and basketball coaches? The Mayor or The Notebook guy? 

David Ubben: Why is a salt-and-pepper bearded Paul Rhoads never included in these discussions? 

Blue steel, baby!