With the 2016 season upon us, it’s time to start planning your September Saturdays around can’t-miss football games. While many early season contests mean snoozers, cupcakes and blowouts, the Big 12 will be challenged with several tough matchups. I’ve ranked the Big 12’s toughest non-conference schedules and predicted how each team will fare.
10. Baylor Bears
SEP 2 – Northwestern State
SEP 10 – SMU
SEP 16 – at Rice
Baylor’s cakewalk through non-conference play has been well-documented in recent years. While the Bears have taken steps to remedy their strength of schedule going forward, this season’s out-of-conference slate won’t test Jim Grobe’s squad. Expect the Bears to go 3-0 easily.
Toughest Test: SMU (2-10, 1-7 AAC)
While the Mustangs struggled mightily last season, Chad Morris just might be turning things around in Dallas. His recruiting ties and offensive acumen has the potential to push SMU up the American Athletic Conference standings in the coming years. With returning quarterback Matt Davis, the Ponies should put up some points on opponents. However, this shouldn’t be a game in the second half. Baylor running back Shock Linwood runs for an obscene amount of yards and Seth Russell takes the 4th quarter off. Russell, KD Cannon, and the sheer talent surrounding them will overwhelm the Mustangs.
9. Kansas Jayhawks
SEP 3 – Rhode Island
SEP 10 – Ohio
SEP 17 – at Memphis
Kansas should be, perhaps surprisingly, favored to win its first two games. Rhode Island posted a 1-10 record at the FCS level last year, so the Jayhawks should not have too much trouble there. Ohio was a pretty good MAC team in 2015, going 8-4 in the regular season with a bowl loss. The real fun starts in a road trip to Liberty Bowl Stadium to play Big 12 hopeful Memphis. David Beaty gets himself a nice 2-1 start in his efforts to rebuild the Jayhawk program.
Toughest Test: at Memphis (9-4, 5-3 AAC)
The ascension of Memphis football under Justin Fuente was incredible. The Tigers jumped from 3 wins in 2013 to 10 and 9 wins in 2014 and 2015, respectively. However, the loss of Fuente and star QB Paxton Lynch would seem to signal a step back for Memphis in 2016. Still, this team should not be taken lightly. Over 60,000 saw the Tigers make quick work of 13th ranked Ole Miss in Memphis last season. While I believe KU quarterback Ryan Willis and company will keep it somewhat close, the Jayhawk’s young roster can’t pull out the victory on the road.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys
SEP 3 – SE Louisiana
SEP 10 – Central Michigan
SEP 17 – Pittsburgh
A FCS opponent blowout precedes a matchup against one of the MAC’s best defenses. If all goes according to plan for Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State should open the season 2-0 with ease. Week 3 brings an ACC opponent to town in the Pitt Panthers. Despite the one Power Five foe, the Cowboys won’t have all that much trouble getting to 3-0.
Toughest Test: Pittsburgh (8-5, 6-2 ACC)
Pat Narduzzi stands to build on a solid first year atop the Panther program. Dangerous running back James Conner will lead Pitt’s offensive attack, despite coming off an MCL tear. Behind Conner, Pitt has the ACC’s offensive rookie of the year Qadree Ollison. The pair will likely split carries when the Panthers come to Stillwater. Pitt’s quarterback is Nathan Peterman, a transfer from Tennessee who started the majority of last year for the Panthers after taking over the job in week 3. Peterman will need to find a new go-to weapon, as Pitt lost receiver and second round draft pick, Tyler Boyd. Pitt played well on defense last season, but Mason Rudolph, James Washington, and the Cowboy offense should be able to score. Oklahoma State’s experience on defense should be enough to slow Pitt’s ground game and give the Cowboys a double-digit victory.
7. TCU Horned Frogs
SEP 3 – South Dakota State
SEP 10 – Arkansas
SEP 23 – at SMU
South Dakota State will have a decent team as FCS opponents, but the opener looks like a dress rehearsal for the Horned Frogs date with Arkansas on September 10th. That contest will feature polar opposite offenses, pitting TCU’s spread Air Raid against Bret Bielema’s signature power running game. The lone road game on the docket isn’t much of a trip, just a short bus ride over to Dallas to a stadium that will likely display quite of bit of purple. Chad Morris seems to working diligently to rebuild the Mustang program, but SMU simply doesn’t have the talent to play with TCU for more than a quarter or two. Gary’s guys hit the ground running with a 3-0 start.
Toughest Test: Arkansas (8-5, 5-3 SEC)
An SEC foe should never be taken lightly, but the Razorbacks offense might be in for a rebuilding season after losing QB Brandon Allen, RB’s Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, and TE Hunter Henry. Austin Allen, Brandon’s little brother, will look to forge his own legacy as the Razorback signal caller. Arkansas will likely field a strong defense, as they’ll return 89% of tackles made last season. However, TCU’s offensive weaponry should be enough to overpower the Razorbacks and get the win in Fort Worth.
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders
SEP 3 – Stephen F Austin
SEP 10 – at Arizona State
SEP 17 – Louisiana Tech
A road test in the desert gives Tech the slight edge over TCU and OSU in schedule difficulty. FCS opponent SFA should not challenge the Red Raiders, but Tech fans shouldn’t look past La Tech. Remember the Bulldogs’ 59-57 duel with Johnny Manziel’s A&M team in 2012? Texas Tech will need to play well to avoid a similar scare against a lesser opponent. The real toss-up on the Red Raider’s slate is the Arizona State game in Tempe. I’ll put my money on a 3-0 start for Tech.
Toughest Test: at Arizona State (6-7, 4-5 Pac-12)
Expect a shootout to match last year’s Cactus Bowl between ASU and West Virginia. (WVU won 43-42.) Todd Graham will be seeking revenge against Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raiders for beating the heavily favored Sun Devils 37-23 in the 2013 Holiday Bowl. Arizona State might have a tough time keeping up with Patrick Mahomes and the Tech Air Raid; the Sun Devils must replace four offensive line starters and will be breaking in a sophomore or redshirt freshman quarterback. In fact, Phil Steel has Arizona State as the third least-experienced team in FBS football, placing 126 out of 128 in his experience rankings. If the Red Raiders can take a baby step forward on defense, I expect Tech to take down ASU by two touchdowns.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
SEP 3 – Missouri
SEP 10 – Youngstown State
SEP 24 – BYU
Another schedule with two legitimate opponents, West Virginia will be tested early. Skyler Howard and company will get an opportunity to show improvement against a fairly stout defense right out of the gate. Although expectations are low for the Tigers coming off a 1-7 season in conference play, Missouri can’t be taken lightly. The Tigers are an SEC foe and aren’t that far removed from playing in back-to-back SEC title games. Skyler Howard continues to show the serious progress we saw in the Cactus Bowl, but BYU racks up the points on a rebuilding Mountaineer defense: 2-1.
Toughest Test: BYU (9-4, Independent)
BYU has a nice opportunity to show the Big 12 it belongs. West Virginia will have the de facto home field advantage, as this game will be played in Landover, Maryland. The Cougars will have one of the most experienced teams in college football next season, led by Taysom Hill, back from an ACL tear, and new head coach Kalani Sitake. Don’t be surprised to see Hill splitting time with Tanner Mangum, who started 12 games for the Cougars in the wake of Hill’s injury. Running back Jamaal Williams also returns to what would appear to be a tough task for West Virginia’s young defense. Expect a relatively high scoring affair; I’ll say BYU pulls it out at FedEx Field.
4. Iowa State Cyclones
SEP 3 – Northern Iowa
SEP 10 – at #17 Iowa
SEP 24 – San Jose State
A couple of in-state rivalries populate the Cyclone’s out-of-conference schedule. The marquee matchup with Iowa puts Iowa State’s non-conference schedule as the fourth hardest in the Big 12. Don’t let Northern Iowa sneak up on you: the Panthers have finished the last two seasons in the top 10 in the FCS and took an upset bid late into the game at Iowa in 2014. But the big early season rivalry game to watch is clearly at Iowa in week 2, followed by their Big 12 opener at TCU. Matt Campbell won’t have much time to get used to his new head coaching role. Iowa State coasts to wins against UNI and SJSU, but the reigning Big Ten West champs overwhelm the Cyclones. ISU finishes 2-1 against non-Big 12 foes.
Toughest Test: at #17 Iowa (12-2, 8-0 Big Ten)
Second year starting QB Joel Lanning will have his work cut out for him in Iowa City. Kinnick Stadium will have over 70,000 fans itching to watch their Hawkeyes’ build on last season’s success. The Hawkeyes return C.J. Beathard at the all-important quarterback spot and will look to feed senior running back LeShun Daniels early and often. Don’t overlook Daniels’ backup, Akrum Wadley, either. The Hawkeye’s pro-style offense combined with a stellar defense to run the table in the Big Ten West last season. Iowa might just have the best defense ISU will see all year. Cornerback Desmond King won the Thorpe Award and will look to lock down Allen Lazard. The Hawkeye’s defensive line was incredibly stingy in 2015, and should be solid again despite losing both defensive ends. Iowa State could be in for a tough day moving the ball.
3. Kansas State Wildcats
SEP 2 – at #8 Stanford
SEP 17 – Florida Atlantic
SEp 24 – Missouri State
KSU likely won’t be challenged in its first two home games, but the season opener is daunting, giving the Wildcats the third toughest schedule. Opening the season on the road is always scary, especially when it comes against a 12-win conference champion. Kansas State will follow the season opener with two relatively easy victories in Manhattan. Give the Wildcats a 2-1 non-conference record.
Toughest Test: at #8 Stanford (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12)
Another team that could have found themselves in the Playoff with a few more breaks, the Cardinal pose an extremely difficult challenge for K-State. Stanford’s last three games in 2015: defeated Notre Dame and blew out USC and Iowa. Superstar RB and legit Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffrey should help dampen any effects of losing QB Kevin Hogan. The Cardinal offense managed 37.8 points per game last season, but come into 2016 with glaring question marks at quarterback and offensive line. The defense also replaces a good bit of production up front, but Stanford has become a perennial contender out west. Bill Snyder has his guys well prepared and ready to play, but the road test proves too much for the Wildcats.
2. Texas Longhorns
SEP 4 – #10 Notre Dame
SEP 10 – UTEP
SEP 17 – at California
As the only other Big 12 team scheduled to play two Power Five programs in non-league games, Texas has a couple of tall tasks on its radar. Expect a win over UTEP, but all bets are off for the other two. California will look to continue its offensive success last season with former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb replacing Jared Goff under center. Last season’s tilt with the Golden Bears turned out to be an unforgettable heartbreaker for UT fans, as Jerrod Heard led a valiant 4th quarter comeback, only to see the Longhorns lose on an extra point. Luckily for Texas, The Bears may take a step back this season after losing the top pick in the NFL draft. I’ll predict a 2-1 start for the improving Horns.
Toughest Test: #10 Notre Dame (10-3, Independent)
Coming into another clash of blue bloods, Notre Dame comes off a season where it was a combined 4 points away from a perfect regular season and a spot in the college football playoff. Last second road losses at Clemson and Stanford may have kept the Irish from national title contention, but Notre Dame was still head and shoulders above the Longhorns last season. Texas’ 2015 season opener saw the Horns struggle to post a single field goal, as Charlie Strong’s team got blown off the field in South Bend, 38-3. Notre Dame’s quarterback situation remains up in the air, and the Irish’s defense struggled to stop the run at times last year. Couple those question marks with over 100,000 Longhorns, and I think Notre Dame barely inches by UT in Austin.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
SEP 3 – #15 Houston
SEP 10 – Louisiana Monroe
SEP 17 – #6 Ohio State
The Sooners have one of the toughest September slates in the country. Houston boasted a 13-1 record last season, capped off by a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Louisiana-Monroe is the lone “cupcake” on OU’s non-conference schedule, but sandwiched between two Top 25 opponents, could the Warhawks catch the Sooners in a trap game? The Sooners will have to come out focused each week to stay unbeaten, but 1-2 would not be all that shocking. That said, I’m predicting a 3-0 start for Oklahoma.
Toughest Test: #6 Ohio State (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten)
The college football world will be tuned in to Norman as two of the premier powers will square off. Ohio State lost an absurd amount of talent to the NFL, but Urban Meyer should have the Buckeyes reloaded and ready to contend in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes do return a quarterback with plenty of big-game experience, in J.T. Barrett. Last season, Barrett posted the Big Ten’s highest efficiency rating (162.6) in conference play. 84,000 rabid Sooner fans will no doubt provide a serious home field advantage. Can the Sooners take advantage of Ohio State’s youth?