Ranking the Big 12
10. Kansas — Entering his third season at the helm in Lawrence, Charlie Weis is one of those coaches that somehow continues to land high-profile gigs as a leader when he has proven time and again that his true worth is as a coordinator. The Jayhawks managed to win three games last year; this season, only their home opener against FCS Southeast Missouri State feels like a probable victory. Kansas is likely going to be the underdog in every game they play this season besides the opener. While there is plenty of experience on this roster, the players on both sides of the ball have experienced little beyond the cellar.
9. West Virginia — Dana Holgorsen is another coach who could be dismissed this season after bottoming out in 2013. The move to the Big 12 has been unkind so far to the Mountaineers; WVU is 6-12 in conference play since the realignment in 2012. The team will depend on diminutive Clint Trickett to guide the offense back to the high-octane levels of the Geno Smith years, and the defense will look to reverse the regression that occurred as soon as last season progressed into conference play. Playing Alabama out of conference is a hell of a way to start the season, but at least they get both Oklahoma and Baylor at home later in the season.
8. Iowa State — According to the NCAA tabulations, the Cyclones play the seventh-hardest schedule in the country this year. No Big 12 team is burdened with as many good opponents as Iowa State, which opens the year against defending FCS national champion North Dakota State and also plays Iowa and Toledo in non-conference play. Paul Rhoads’ team has a reputation as a giant-slayer, having defeated highly-ranked Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma State teams in recent seasons. Expect them to defeat an opponent they have no business beating (perhaps Oklahoma on November 1), but it won’t translate into a bowl berth.
7. TCU — The Horned Frogs are much like West Virginia in that the move to the Big 12 has been less kind than expected. Gary Patterson’s team continues to field strong defenses just as they did for years in the Mountain West, but they struggled yet again on offense in 2013. Whether Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin can step up and effectively drive the ball down the field will go a long way in determining whether or not TCU can return to bowl eligibility this year. They could be 3-0 when they host Oklahoma on the first weekend of October, with FCS Samford, Minnesota, and SMU on the non-conference schedule. Reaching six wins will likely come down to the result of swing games like the visit from the Red Raiders and the trip to Austin.
6. Texas Tech — The Red Raiders have started hot each of the past two seasons before reaching their zenith and tapering back down to earth. The schedule is designed for much of the same in 2014, with a lean non-conference schedule including FCS Central Arkansas, UTEP, and SEC lightweight Arkansas. Back-to-back trips to Stillwater and Manhattan could trip up Texas Tech as they enter October, but they could ostensibly be 7-2 when they welcome the Sooners to Lubbock on November 15 with the benefit of a bye week. The offense should be good, but there is little depth behind Davis Webb if the quarterback misses any time with injury.
5. Texas — Charlie Strong takes over the perpetually hot seat in Austin and will get little benefit of the doubt for long from a fan base that is accustomed to being the dominant force of Lone Star football. The Longhorns need to get more consistent defensive performances in 2014 if they are going to improve on the 8-5 record they posted in Mack Brown’s final season at the helm. Strong should be able to help instill discipline on that side of the ball. The offense, meanwhile, is going to be only as successful as quarterback David Ash is healthy. The early schedule includes visits from BYU and UCLA, leaving little time to get up to speed and less margin for error before starting Big 12 play.
4. Oklahoma — Everyone is bullish on Oklahoma after the Sooners rolled Alabama 45-31 in last season’s Sugar Bowl. They look at 348 yards and four touchdowns by Trevor Knight against the Crimson Tide secondary and forget that he is the same quarterback that went 11 of 28 against Louisiana-Monroe and never threw for even 200 yards in a game before facing the disinterested Bama defense. They conveniently gloss over a roster that brings back less combined experience than any of the other 127 teams in the FBS. They allow one big result to blind them to the uneven play of last year’s squad, which benefited from a lot of luck in the turnover department just to reach the Sugar Bowl. A spot in the CFP is far less likely than Bob Stoops’ crew is being given credit.
3. Kansas State — Though Collin Klein was no longer under center in Manhattan, the Wildcats nevertheless had a statistically great season in 2013 despite regressing to the middle of the Big 12 standings. Klein’s replacement, Jake Waters, passed for nearly 2500 yards and rushed for over 400 more last year and returns for his senior season as the entrenched starter. He gets to continue throwing the ball to Tyler Lockett, the most dynamic offensive weapon on any Big 12 roster. The team proved it can win last year, with an average margin of victory of three touchdowns; only the TCU victory came by a margin of less than 17 points. If Snyder’s crew can reverse its luck in close contests, Big 12 contention isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
2. Oklahoma State — The Cowboys have not finished outside of the top four in the Big 12 standings since 2008, and with a talented roster returning to Stillwater another top-half finish is to be expected. Yet it is surprising to see how far into the “Others Receiving Votes” section of the polls Oklahoma State is languishing to begin the season. Part of that is the departure of quarterback Clint Chelf and 12 other starters; now it is up to J.W. Walsh to take the reins and own the starting job he lost last year. But while Mike Gundy must replace a lot of moving parts, the Pokes should still remain a tough opponent for their Big 12 foes. A visit from Florida State opens the season, which should prove the toughest test of 2014 for Oklahoma State.
1. Baylor — Not even a defeat to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl can dampen the high on which the Baylor program is riding at the moment. The Bears have built upon the Heisman won by Robert Griffin III in 2011 to claim the school’s first conference championship since sharing the penultimate SWC title with four other teams in 1994. (Texas A&M finished undefeated, but was on probation and ineligible to win the league; five teams finished with 4-3 conference records. The last outright championship for Baylor came way back in 1980.) The team moves into brand-new on-campus McLane Stadium this season, and quarterback Bryce Petty is back to mount his own Heisman campaign. Their schedule sets them up for a possible undefeated season, but the strength of that schedule means they very well might have to go undefeated to claim a spot in the first College Football Playoff field.