Last year, a TCU team coming off a 4-8 season won its first Big 12 title and captured a New Year’s Six Bowl blowout win over an SEC West opponent while its oft-criticized, inconsistent quarterback morphed into a Heisman contender. That’s a Best Case Scenario with a capital "B."
Back in 2009, and Oklahoma team returning a Heisman quarterback and the best offense in college football history suffered a rash of injuries and fell from No. 3 to a 7-5 regular season and an appearance in the Sun Bowl.
Worst-case scenarios don’t get much uglier than that. This week, we’ll be looking at the best and worst cases for every team in the Big 12. Today, we examine the likely top and bottom of the league standings. Let’s get started.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
BAYLOR: Decades of struggles and two years of ugly slip-ups with national titles in sight have conditioned Bears fans to wait for disaster to strike. Would Seth Russell go down with a freakish injury? Is a three-peat unthinkable?
The balloon wasn’t going to pop against SMU or Lamar. Rice wasn’t going to do it, either. The Bears avoided a heart attack against Texas Tech like last year, and instead hung 70 points at AT&T Stadium against the Red Raiders, their third 70-point outing in four games.
Iowa State and Kansas didn’t put up much a fight and in between those two wins the Bears avenged last year’s loss to West Virginia with a four-touchdown win at McLane Stadium.
Two weeks after the ISU win, Baylor goes to Manhattan and escapes with a win, thanks to a Chris Callahan field goal at the gun. Their reward: The nation’s No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history.
Oklahoma had never lost to Baylor before 2011, but Baylor hosts the Sooners as the nation’s top-ranked team and winners of three of the last four against OU. Mike Stoops’ defense loads up against the run and dares Seth Russell to beat them. He does, throwing for 500 yards and five scores to move to the front of the pack in the Heisman Trophy race.
It’s much easier now to believe that balloon is never going to pop.
A week later, KD Cannon cements his spot in the Biletnikoff Award race with a 200-yard day in a win over Oklahoma State, snapping a streak of eight consecutive 28-point losses in Stillwater for Baylor. His 41-yard touchdown catch in the final minute put the Bears up and proved to be the game-winner.
Baylor’s chief rival, TCU, has sputtered a 7-4 season and the Bears’ trip to Fort Worth doesn’t look as epic as it did back in August. The Bears’ defensive line sacks Trevone Boykin six times and forces four turnovers in a 30-point rout, played while an airplane towing a "61-58" banner circled overhead.
After the game, there are no allegations of threats or dirty play from the opposing sideline, either.
Only Texas stands between the Bears and a playoff spot, but Ishmael Zamora returns the opening kick for a score and sets off a 60-minute party on the banks of the Brazos River. it’s never in doubt and Baylor fans use McLane Stadium’s stellar Wi-Fi on the concourse to order Cotton Bowl tickets at halftime.
Auburn promises a showcase of two of college football’s premier offensive minds and the Tiger provide it. Baylor survives, 47-41, thanks to 175 yards from Shock Linwood, including 95 yards in the fourth quarter with the Bears trying to protect a lead.
That sets up a showdown with defending champion Ohio State, who suffered injuries to starting quarterback Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett and are left with little-known third-stringer Braxton Miller, who didn’t even play a game in 2014.
Miller befuddles Baylor’s defensive line early with the zone read and burns the second level with a pop pass on the second possession to go up 14-0. Baylor rallies from a two-touchdown halftime deficit to win the first national title in school history.
In lieu of a traditional parade, all 85 scholarship Bears and Art Briles zoom up and down the Brazos on jet skis throwing candy to the fans lining the riverbank.
IOWA STATE: Bowl or bust seems to be Iowa State’s mantra every year and that’s especially true in 2015. Sam Richardson manages to stay healthy and navigates the Cyclones through an immensely satisfying nonconference slate: ISU avenges a 2013 loss to Northern Iowa and wins state bragging rights once again over the Hawkeyes. It closes with a solid road win at Toledo.
Mark Mangino’s offense easily dispatches Kansas after a bye but doesn’t have enough juice for a road win in Lubbock.
Week 7 set the stage for a Paul Rhoads Special: The Cyclones’ oft-anonymous defensive line turns into Supermen and beat TCU in the trenches, throwing off the offense’s timing. That means turnovers and negative plays that keep Iowa State alive. The Cyclones trail 24-20 with 10 seconds left, facing a 4th-and-8 on the Frogs’ 15-yard line. Allen Lazard hauls in a jump ball over Ranthony Texada to set off pandemonium at Jack Trice Stadium and give the Cyclones a fifth win. Nobody’s stopping them from storming that field.
Two weeks later, on homecoming, Iowa State running back Aaron Wimberly is stripped at the 1-yard line while trying to keep his legs churning for a go-ahead score in the final minute. Texas linebacker Peter Jinkens appeared to return it for a touchdown but officials blew the play dead. Iowa State keeps the ball on the controversial play and score a game-deciding touchdown on the next play. Texas’ Charlie Strong is fined $25,000 for calling out Big 12 officials’ constant anti-Longhorn leanings in his postgame opening statement. Athletic director Steve Patterson suggests he could pay the fine with a coaches’ bake sale that could also boost program revenue.
Strong is not amused.
It’s six wins for Iowa State. Nevermind what happened the rest of the way: The Cyclones are going bowling and Jack Trice Stadium gets two field stormings in three weeks.
KANSAS: David Beaty’s team is a bigger enigma than any in the Big 12. It has a gelatinous depth chart with lots of lost starters and a new staff in town. No one knows who to keep an eye on and this year, it works in the Jayhawks’ favor. Michael Cummings heals from his offseason knee surgery and is back on the field for the season opener, where he tops 300 yards passing against South Dakota State to give Beaty his first career win.
DeAndre Mann tops 100 yards against Memphis a week later, a surprising win that turns some heads and gives the Jayhawks a 2-0 start. However, KU’s road losing streak stretches to 33 games during a trip to Rutgers in Week 4.
That streak ends in Week 5 at Iowa State, with a game-winning catch from Tre Parmalee, killing the Jayhawks’ 26-game road Big 12 losing streak with it.
The next six games are less fun, but the Jayhawks are done getting routed. Giving up 60 and 70 points like KU has in the past says more about players’ attitude and the coaches’ scheme than it does about talent. KU suffers a six-game losing streak but only one (at TCU) comes by more than three scores.
The Jayhawks ambush West Virginia in Lawrence once again with a strong running game and a week later, cap the season by snapping Kansas State’s six-game winning streak in the Sunflower Showdown. It’s not a bowl game, but the cap to a five-win season feels a lot like a satisfying end to what could be a promising run for Beaty as the head Jayhawk.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
BAYLOR: Garrett Gilbert taught us so much about expectations at quarterback. Even if all the evidence in the world suggests the heir apparent will succeed, you never know until it’s officially his job and he actually has to do it.
That brings us to Seth Russell. He’s athletic, sure. He’s got a big arm. But when the lights are on and he’s not playing against an FCS team or in garbage time, his decision-making struggles. Turnovers drown the Bears and the secret gets out. Plug the line of scrimmage and play soft on the sidelines to contain Baylor’s speedy receivers who constantly want to get over the top of the defense. Make Russell string together completions and he will make a mistake. SMU puts a scare into the Bears early, but Texas Tech picks up where it left off at AT&T Stadium last year with an upset win, thanks to another big day from Patrick Mahomes.
Baylor’s bus drives home through a driving rainstorm, and upon arrival back in Waco, realize the program’s dream of playing on the banks of the river have backfired. Rainwater has drained into an already-higher-than-normal Brazos River, causing major flood damage south of BU’s campus and forcing Baylor to play IN a river if it wants to play at McLane Stadium. The extensive damage to the previously pristine stadium grounds gives them only one option: Moving back to Floyd Casey to play out the remainder of the season.
On the field Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State find the defensive blueprint against Russell and Art Briles’ fortune with quarterbacks looks to be wearing thin.
A road trip to face an 11-0 TCU team further piles on the embarrassment. The Frogs offense shreds the Baylor secondary and defensive mastermind Gary Patterson feasts on Russell’s game-tape, which is full of ways to exploit his inexperience and decision-making struggles. The only good news for Baylor is it doesn’t have to worry about a Big 12 title being devalued by sharing it this year. TCU hoists the crystal bowl as the Bears walk off the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium with their facemasks parallel to the dirt.
A week later, TCU beats Baylor twice. The Bears’ confidence is shaken and Charlie Strong’s defense uglies up the game. Johnathan Gray eats up the clock to control the ball for the Longhorns, who add one final indignity to a nightmare 6-6 season.
Not long ago, Baylor celebrated any opportunity to get to a bowl. This year, it seems like the Bears might be better off not even playing in one. Better wait awhile before using the words "Baylor" and "dynasty" in the same sentence.
IOWA STATE: For all the deserved flack Baylor has gotten for its nonconference schedule, I never understand why Iowa State overindulges on well-done steak that takes a week to chew while much of the rest of the sport specializes in cupcakes.
FCS power Northern Iowa gives the Cyclones their third loss to an FCS opponent in as many seasons and a week later, Iowa embarrasses ISU with a three-touchdown win in Ames.
A trip to Toledo a week later doesn’t get any better. The Cyclones open October with a 10-point win over Kansas but Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor all hit 60 points against an Iowa State defense that looks lost and consistently gets dominated at the line of scrimmage. The rest of the schedule doesn’t promise change and the rest of the season is spent racking up losses and logging hours of conversation about Jamie Pollard’s offseason decision: Give Paul Rhoads another chance to turn it around? Or admit his best days in Ames are behind him and dig up the cash for a major buyout that could have ISU hiring two new coaches in the two revenue sports in the same year.
KANSAS: This is dark, friends. Avert your eyes, if you must. Kansas lost its best players from last year’s team–linebacker Ben Heeney and running back/receiver Tony Pierson–on both sides of the ball. Starting quarterback Michael Cummings is down with a knee injury and his status for the fall is in doubt. Two of the team’s best offensive weapons–running back Corey Avery and receiver Rodriguez Coleman–were dismissed earlier this month.
Congratulations, first-year head coach David Beaty! He has limited experience as a coordinator and on paper, has a team that could easily be worse than any Turner Gill and Charlie Weis ever fielded. I’ll spare you the details on this one, but the worst case scenario for Kansas is simple: Every game ends with the same result and most of them aren’t close.