How will the Big 12 look in 2014?
Coaches will still finalize their recruiting classes in the next month before prepping for spring practices and helping players develop going into the summer. Still, with eight months before the season kicks off, the Big 12 picture for 2014 is coming into focus. Here’s how the league’s 10 teams stand before spring.
1. Oklahoma: I’m betting the Trevor Knight we see next season is more like the guy we saw against Alabama than the Knight who struggled to open 2013. He was a passer first who was willing and able to make plays with his feet, but above all, he was accurate. The Sooners will be a top 10 team for sure to begin 2014. Defensive ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper enjoyed breakout games against the Crimson Tide and both return next season on a defense that boasts nine returning starters, including Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Dominique Alexander, who was a fellow freshman All-American with cornerback Zack Sanchez.
2. Baylor: The reigning Big 12 champs lose their best athlete on both sides of the ball–running back Lache Seastrunk and safety Ahmad Dixon–but they’ll be back to compete for another title. Bryce Petty will only improve, and leading receiver Antwan Goodley returns. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will have a tough task ahead after a rough outing in the Fiesta Bowl. Linebacker Eddie Lackey is gone, and Dixon is among four starters in the secondary (including nickelback Sam Holl) who won’t return.
3. Kansas State: K-State may pull a Baylor and ride a late-season surge to a Big 12 title the following season. The Wildcats won six of their final seven games and boast the Big 12’s most dangerous skill player: Receiver Tyler Lockett. Co-OCs Dana Dimel and Del Miller made a two-quarterback system with Jake Waters and Daniel Sams work, and that may continue next year. The biggest question is losing three starters on the offensive line. K-State’s two best linebackers, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter, are gone, but replacing four-year starter at safety Ty Zimmerman could prove even more difficult, but the Wildcats return the favorite for the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year: Defensive end Ryan Mueller.
4. Oklahoma State: Time to step up to the plate, J.W. Walsh. … Maybe. He’s got wheels and a lot more experience, but incoming QB Mason Rudolph, a more traditional passer, may complicate the competition this spring. Four players in OSU’s front seven won’t return, including linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, as well as defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, who may have been the most underrated player in the Big 12 last season. OSU’s best athletes on both sides of the ball are gone, too: Cornerback Justin Gilbert and receiver Josh Stewart. A promising trio of freshman receivers in Marcell Ateman, Jhajuan Seales and Ra’Shaad Samples will be fun to watch next year.
5. Texas: Will David Ash return, be healthy and stay healthy? The Longhorns shut him down late this season after a pair of head injuries and focused on his return during the spring. Will he continue to progress? I’m skeptical, which is why I have Texas this low. This defense already has outstanding athletes, and in Charlie Strong’s scheme could grow into something very scary very soon. The Big 12’s best offensive line must replace three starters.
6. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders’ will get better on offense next year even without Jace Amaro. Davis Webb and Michael Brewer will battle for the QB spot this spring, but the defense is the reason Tech lost its final five regular season games. If DC Matt Wallerstedt can turn them into a top 30 unit, Tech has the potential to contend for a Big 12 title. He loses seven starters from the defense, though, including DL Kerry Hyder and LB Will Smith.
7. TCU: TCU can be encouraged by Missouri’s transformation from 2012 to 2013. The Frogs have been torn up by injuries and untimely departures the past two seasons, which haven’t allowed their talent to shine. Depth is still an issue, and so is finding a reliable option at QB next season, but it’s hard to see the Frogs not improving and earning back a bit of respect. Young receivers like Ty Slanina, LaDarius Brown and Josh Doctson grew up late in the year, and 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields figures to be motivated after a nightmare 2013 season marred by suspension and injury. TCU will miss Jason Verrett’s coverage skills at corner. He’s been the Big 12’s best there for two seasons.
8. Iowa State: Iowa State isn’t doing itself any favors with its nonconference schedule, which may be its downfall in reaching a bowl. ISU plays FCS national champ North Dakota State, rival Iowa and a strong MAC team in Toledo. The Cyclones could conceivably win all three–or lose all three. New OC Mark Mangino, the former national coach of the year at Kansas, brings a lot of excitement and has a lot to work with. Mangino’s offense returns 10 starters, and the defense returns seven, though linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington won’t return. If QB Grant Rohach continues to progress and look like he did late against West Virginia, the Cyclones could surprise a lot of people next year.
9. West Virginia: I didn’t see much last season to convince me WVU will be much better at quarterback. That’s a big problem in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. The Mountaineers lose their best offensive player and a versatile weapon in Charles Sims, too. The defense progressed a little bit last year, but it’ll have to be much better to give WVU a shot at finishing in the top half of the league next year.
10. Kansas: KU beat West Virginia to snap its 27-game Big 12 losing streak, but the junior college experiment didn’t work very well last season. KU didn’t look much better, and just like it did in 2012, benched a high-profile transfer quarterback for a more mobile option. The defense was more disciplined last year under Dave Campo, but new OC John Reagan comes from Rice with a difficult task ahead. Pro tip: Get Tony Pierson the ball as much as possible.