The smallest of the Power Five conferences, and the only one that does not currently hold a championship game, managed to crown a solo champ in 2015 and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff quartet as a result. There the Sooners were steamrolled 37-17 by Clemson, and the Big 12 is just 1-3 in New Year’s Six games since the shift to the CFP system. As a whole, the conference is just 5-9 in bowl games over the past two years, and while the top end of the league is healthy it continually fails to stack up against both fellow Power Five opponents and against top mid-major squads.
Over the summer talk turned again toward expansion, with the Big 12 hoping to return at least to a dozen members in order to begin staging a championship game once again. Several attractive mid-majors and independents still exist for the plucking, with a decision on who to invite into the league expected as early as during this season. Though it did not affect their position in the CFP field last year, it seems as though the powers that run the conference are paranoid about the Big 12 being overlooked in the future.
But the conference must choose wisely lest it add more albatrosses to the league’s cellar. We have seen realignment achieve mixed results for many leagues — with some squads thriving in their new environments, others showing unsustainable boom periods, and yet more falling flat and filling out the bottom of the standings. For the time being, though, the Big 12 seems stable and more likely to poach from other leagues than they are to be poached themselves for more teams. As a result, this might be the penultimate campaign we see with a true round robin among the major conferences.
So let’s dive in and assess the Big 12 pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
10. Kansas — Since ditching Mark Mangino for misconduct in 2009, the Jayhawks have been the laughing stock of the Power Five. Over the past six seasons, Kansas has had four head coaches and gone just 12-60 and 3-50 in conference play. David Beaty has a fairly experienced team in his season season at the helm in Lawrence, but abysmal performance on both sides of the ball leaves plenty of questions as to how worthwhile that experience really will prove to be for the Jayhawks. Senior safety Fish Smithson, who led the FBS in tackles in 2015, might just be the best returning player on a unit that ranked dead last in the country in points and yards allowed per game. Conference victories are unlikely to come for a team that lost all nine games last year by an average score of 48-12. A home game against FCS Rhode Island to open the season might just be Kansas’ best chance to break its 15-game losing streak; if they lose to the Rams like they did against South Dakota State in 2015, it could potentially be another winless season for Beaty and his beleaguered team.
9. Iowa State — It would be hard to expect too much of the Cyclones in Matt Campbell’s first season in charge, but the former Toledo coach at least has some pieces in place that could begin to contribute in 2016. Campbell’s offensive prowess should help a unit that returns junior quarterback Joel Lanning, 1300-yard rusher Mike Warren, and four of the team’s top six receivers. Of course, he could also be hamstrung by an offensive line that loses all but one starter. The defense, meanwhile, saw linebacker Jordan Harris transfer to Southern Miss in the offseason and also lost impact safety Qujuan Floyd to graduation. That is a disquieting reality for a unit that allowed 30 or more points on nine occasions in 2015. The baseline in Ames has been set around three wins, which Campbell could exceed with an upset or two in conference play, but bowl eligibility is probably out of reach this year for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2012.
8. Kansas State — The Wildcats will always be a tough out as long as Bill Snyder is patrolling the sidelines, but competitiveness doesn’t always automatically translate to victories. Last year Kansas State went 3-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but they can’t necessarily guarantee a break-even season if they cut things as close in 2016. Joe Hubener is back at quarterback, but he’ll need to be more effective through the air. The offensive line also has to replace four departed starters. The loss of Morgan Burns will hurt both the secondary and the return game, though the defense does have plenty of depth in the front seven. An opener at Stanford turns up the pressure immediately, though Florida Atlantic and FCS Missouri State follow in non-conference play. Given that they should have no problem beating state rival Kansas, K-State’s hopes for a seventh straight bowl appearance will rest squarely on how they fare in toss-up conference matchups with Texas Tech, Iowa State, and Texas.
7. Texas Tech — In his first three seasons as a head coach, Kliff Kingsbury has posted an almost identical record to Tommy Tuberville’s time in Lubbock. Heading into year four, Kingsbury needs to identify new talent on his roster to compensate for the departure of 10 starters from 2015. The offense should remain good, but with returning quarterback Patrick Mahomes working behind a retooled offensive line that returns just two starters and throwing to a new group of receivers that lost three of its top five producers. Combined with the loss of tailback DeAndre Washington it is unlikely that the Red Raiders will produce the otherworldly stats of recent seasons. Though it loses four starters of its own the defense can’t get much worse, meaning that any improvement on that side of the ball will be welcome. Arizona State and Louisiana Tech are tough non-conference tests, and they also close the year with three straight games away from home. Like Kansas State, bowl eligibility will depend on how well the Red Raiders perform in their coin-flip contests.
6. West Virginia — The Mountaineers still feel like an odd fit for the Big 12, but they’ve at least been a decent addition in terms of success rate. This year they’ll try to push beyond an eight-win threshold with one of the more experienced squads in the Big 12. The offensive line lost left tackle Marquis Lucas, and tailback Wendell Smallwood is also gone from Morgantown, but every other offensive starter returns from a team that scored five touchdowns or more in over half of its 2015 contests. Quarterback Skyler Howard should post some big numbers against Big 12 defenses. At the same time, the WVU defense was the second-best unit in the conference last year, but now must replace seven starters and deal with the loss of more than half of last year’s production on that side of the ball. Missouri, FCS Youngstown State, and BYU are all games that could turn either way — yes, even the I-AA matchup with Bo Pelini’s squad. West Virginia has the firepower to compete with any team on its schedule, but it also has a defense that could get torched too many times to go bowling.
5. Texas — This is supposed to be a big year for Texas, with Charlie Strong entering year three of his rebuild and the Longhorns consistently outrecruiting their conference rivals. Seven players return on each side of the ball, though Strong and his staff might decide to go in a different direction at several positions. One is quarterback, where Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard have both been inconsistent over the past few years and could lose the starting job to true freshman Shane Buechele. Young talent will look to step up at tailback and in the receiving corps as well, while a reconfigured offensive line brings back some starting experience. The defense put up decent numbers from a Big 12 context in 2015, though they will need to improve against the run if they are to return to bowl eligibility this season. Notre Dame and Cal offer stout out-of-conference opponents, though they have the advantage of facing Baylor, TCU, and West Virginia all at home. A bowl game is definitely possible, but this roster might need another year of seasoning before challenging for the league title.
4. Baylor — The Bears had a wild offseason, with Art Briles shown the door after an internal investigation revealed departmental failures in addressing sexual assault by its players. In his place arrives Jim Grobe, the former Wake Forest head coach who led the Demon Deacons to an improbable ACC title a decade ago. Baylor will likely take a step back in 2016, not just because of offseason disruptions but also because they have lost so much talent from the past few seasons. Few teams passed and ran so effectively in 2015, but now Grobe must deal with an exodus. Seth Russell, injured in 2015, returns as the undisputed starter at quarterback after Jarrett Stidham and Chris Johnson both elected to transfer. Thousand-yard rushers Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson are both back in 2016, though Corey Coleman’s departure takes a dynamic element away from the passing game. The defensive line has been gutted, but depth at the other levels should help mitigate the losses there. Expect the Bears to lose at least two conference games as they settle into their new post-Briles identity.
3. Oklahoma State — Few expected the Cowboys to win so many games in 2015, as Mike Gundy’s crew started the season with 10 straight victories before falling back to earth at the end of the season. Oklahoma State was as lucky as it was good, finishing 4-0 in one score games. The offense was highly unbalanced, as it usually is for Gundy, with Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh combining for 4500 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. Only Rudolph is back, putting the pressure on him to perform for a full season. Stanford transfer Barry Sanders could rejuvenate the running game at his father’s alma mater, which would only make the Pokes more dangerous. Losing top defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean could make an already-mediocre OSU defense downright abysmal, putting more pressure on the offense to produce in shootouts. With FCS Southeast Louisiana, Central Michigan, and Pittsburgh all at home in non-conference play, the Cowboys must get hot again out of the gate if they are going to make noise in the Big 12.
2. Oklahoma — Last year the Sooners finally returned to the peak of the Big 12 and found their way into the final quartet of the College Football Playoff.Even with their Red River Shootout stumble to Texas, OU won the league outright when they knocked off TCU and Oklahoma State over the last two weekends of the regular season. Of course, Bob Stoops’ team once again faltered with a championship opportunity in front of them, falling 37-17 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl to end their season. But while they return quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, the Sooners lost All-Big 12 guard Nila Kasitati, center Ty Darlington, and several key receivers. They are deep down the spine of the defense, but lack experience at outside linebacker and defensive end. The parts are there to repeat as Big 12 champions, but it is telling that Stoops has led Oklahoma to consecutive championships only twice, during their three-peat run from 2006 to 2008. An opener at Houston could be a trap, while Ohio State also looms on the non-conference schedule, and the Big 12 might be too tough for a retooling team to go undefeated in conference play.
1. TCU — The Horned Frogs took a couple of years to put things together after transitioning from mid-major threat in the Mountain West to Big 12 contender. But over the past two years they won a share of the Big 12 championship in 2014, nearly made the College Football Playoff, and turned around to post another 11-win season last year. The offense lost more talent than anyone else in the Big 12, with four starters gone on the line along with quarterback Trevone Boykin, receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee, and tailback Aaron Green. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill will try to replace Boykin’s productivity, while a deep corps of receivers already had to cover for Doctson and Listenbee when both suffered injuries in 2015. The running game will be the biggest question for the offense. A deep front seven on defense should help improve run stopping this year and if the unit improves anywhere near the best of Gary Patterson’s long tenure in Fort Worth it could be another double-digit win season. TCU’s only real non-conference test is a home date with Arkansas, and they get to play both Oklahoma schools at home. Only a weak schedule or an upset could prevent TCU from making the playoff this year.