After an underwhelming run through the non-conference slate of 2016, the Big 12 began the process of re-gaining national respect with a 4-2 record in the bowl season. The conference hopes to parlay such success into 2017’s non-conference schedule, and a few blockbuster match-ups afford the conference some great opportunities. Let’s look at the top five non-conference games for the Big 12 in 2017.
5. TCU at Arkansas
So where will TCU land this season? ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit picked them to win the Big 12, but others are not so sure they’ll finish in the top half of the conference. Last year the Horned Frogs fell to the Razorbacks in double overtime in their week two matchup. Arkansas also has mixed expectations heading into 2017, but returning quarterback Austin Allen hopes to take care of the Horned Frogs for a second year in a row. Kenny Hill needs to play up to his potential, and a talented corps of receivers should help him do that. This Big 12/SEC matchup will feature quality teams with much to prove. A TCU win would be helpful for the conference, but a road game against an SEC opponent is rarely easy.
4. Oklahoma State at Pitt
The Pokes, led by Mason Rudolph, Justice Hill and a fantastic corps of receivers, travel to Pittsburgh for an early season test against an ACC foe. Oklahoma State won a shootout in Stillwater a year ago, but all signs point to an even better Cowboys squad. Pitt had some ups and downs last season, but man, the ups were high.The Panthers beat BOTH Penn State and Clemson – two wins that proved to be mighty impressive when all was said and done. Pitt returns some talent but has to replace a quarterback, a great running back, an all-American guard, an all-conference tackle, and a bunch of pieces on defense. Look for Mason Rudolph and company to win, but a cavernous Heinz Field and an upset-prone Panther squad certainly will not make it easy.
3. Texas at USC
It’s hard to imagine a match-up between schools with names like these could finish third on any list like this. Expectations for each of these programs, however, are on different planes. Certainly folks expect a strong showing from the Longhorns in Tom Herman’s inaugural campaign, but the Trojans have their eye on a national title and a whole bunch of people are ready to hand Sam Darnold both the Heisman and the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The Texas/Maryland game will show us where these Longhorns are, but this September 16 match-up with USC will draw the eyes of a nation. A strong Texas showing in SoCal will only help the Big 12 brand, and a win could signal that Texas is, as they say, “back.” And if Texas is back… watch out.
2. West Virginia vs Virginia Tech
West Virginia doesn’t often get to play old rivals, but the 2017 slate opens with a battle against old foe Virginia Tech for the Black Diamond trophy. WVU comes in at #22 in the AP preseason top 25 and the Hokies are right in front of them, checking in at #21. Both teams are outsiders for their respective conference titles, but both have a fighter’s chance and are expected to have solid seasons. Virginia Tech brings back more experience defensively than does WVU, and both squads will be breaking in new quarterbacks. For West Virginia, though, this is welcome news as many in the program believe Florida transfer Will Grier will usher in a new era of success. Tech is a slight favorite, but look for a well-balanced Mountaineer offense and a re-loaded Tony Gibson defense to edge out the Hokies and score a big win for the Big 12.
1. Oklahoma at Ohio State
The biggest blockbuster of the bunch, Oklahoma heads to Columbus with vengeance on their mind after last season’s blowout loss in Norman. Life without Perine, Mixon, and Westbrook begins, but Heisman-hopeful Baker Mayfield is sure to have some help in OU’s talent-laden roster. The Buckeyes boast an incredible array of talent, led by their own veteran gun-slinger, J.T. Barrett. The coaching matchup is also attractive, as young Lincoln Riley takes his shot at one of the game’s best. It will not be easy, but a Sooner victory would have massive implications for both themselves and the conference. If Oklahoma can make a few plays and get some big stops, things could go their way.
We love college football because no one knows how this will all shake out. But it seems that the Big 12 would need to win three of these five games. An Oklahoma win would be huge, but unexpected from a national perspective. The same goes for Texas, though more people would predict a Sooner victory over the Buckeyes than a Longhorn victory over the Trojans. The Big 12 needs Oklahoma State (especially) as well as West Virginia and TCU to take care of business. College football is back.