After closing the book on the 2017 college football season, it’s time to move on to start speculating about how next year will play out. Below we’ve got a way too early conference ranking for the Big 12 in 2018.
As the reigning conference champion, the Oklahoma Sooners get the nod as the favorite heading into next season. There are plenty of teams who have some questions to answer, but the Big 12 looks to once again be a highly competitive conference.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
Major Losses: QB Baker Mayfield, TE Mark Andrews, FB Dimitri Flowers, DE/LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Starters Returning: 6 Offense, 5 Defense, 4 Special Teams
That leaves quarterback as the only real question for Oklahoma in 2018. Junior transfer Kyler Murray has blinding speed, but can he develop as a passer under Lincoln Riley?The Sooners power running game looks to be in good hands with returning running back Rodney Anderson, who’s received mention in some early Heisman conversations. Fellow star breakouts like wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb will also be back.
Blue chip talent is always showing up on the roster in Norman, but the Sooners will have to develop some new defensive leaders. Luckily, there were young guys who stood out late last season. Linebacker Caleb Kelly has the makings of a possible star and a struggling secondary started to look better with corner Tre Norwood in the lineup.
Riley won’t have to worry about replacements in the third phase of the game, since Austin Seibert is back to again do double duty punting and kicking.
Biggest Question: As Lincoln Riley enters what will be his first full season as head coach for Oklahoma, will he make any significant coaching changes or stick with the same staff that got him to the Rose Bowl? With Riley at the helm, there will probably always be offensive fire power, but how will he see to the improvement of the defense?
2. West Virginia Mountaineers
Major Losses: OG Kyle Bosch, WR Ka’Raun White, CB Kyzir White, LB Al-Rasheed Benton
Starters Returning: 7 Offense, 7 Defense, 4 Special teams
The Mountaineers have yet to win a Big 12 title since joining the conference, but this could be the year. West Virginia will have one of the most dangerous passing combos in the country in 2018 with quarterback Will Grier coming back to throw to wideouts David Sills and Gary Jennings. The offensive line will likely improve as well.
Defensively, coordinator Tony Gibson hopes to improve a unit that ranked last in the Big 12 in Rush Defense and eighth in Total Defense. Looking to help him do that will be linebacker David Long Jr., who was one of the best at that position last season. Additionally, even though there was a lot of youth on the defense last season, there’s significant experience coming back.
All of the specialists return for the Mountaineers. They were adequate last season, but improvement there could be the difference that brings a trophy to Morgantown.
Biggest Question: The Mountaineers have yet to win a Big 12 title since joining the conference, but this could be the year. Certainly they can be good, but can they be championship good?
3. TCU Horned Frogs
Starters Returning: 5 Offense, 5 Defense, 4 Special Teams
Major Losses: QB Kenny Hill, RB Kyle Hicks, DL Matt Boesen, LB Travin Howard
The Horned Frogs will have plenty to replace on the offensive side of the ball, but there’s talent in Fort Worth. Coordinator Sonny Cumbie will try to develop the much hyped Shawn Robinson into a more accurate passer, but weapons like Darius Anderson, Kevontae Turpin and Jalen Reagor should help that transition. His biggest task, however, will be an offensive line that only returns a couple of starters.
Defensively, TCU returns two top-notch lineman in Ben Banogu and Ross Blacklock. Defensive back Jeff Gladney will be a name to watch in 2018. Gary Patterson is known for developing defensive talent and it’s hard to bet against the Horned Frogs on that side of the ball.
TCU looks to have the best return man in Turpin next year and Patterson gets back his punter and kicker as well.
Biggest Question: With so much senior leadership walking out the door, how will TCU fare on offense? Can the young talent develop and be an upgrade or will the Horned Frogs have to rely more on their defense in 2018?
4. Texas Longhorns
Starters Returning: 9 Offense, 6 Defense, 3 Special Teams
Major Losses: OT Connor Williams, LB Malik Jefferson, DB DeShon Elliot, P Michael Dickson
Offensively, things were rocky in head coach Tom Herman’s inaugural season. He’s added help to coach the offensive line, which returns some experience. That unit was up-and-down last season, something that could be said for the rest of the offense. The wide receiver corps needs a consistent threat to step up, but running back Daniel Young could breakout in 2018.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando brought high level defense to Austin in his first year and will hope to make it two in a row. Despite the loss of NFL talent, he’s got players to work with
Both returners are back on special teams, but punter might arguably be the biggest hole the Longhorns have to fill on the entire roster. Place kicking proved problematic last season, so there might be a change there come next Fall.
Biggest Question: You could point to the losses faced by the defense, but the offense was downright dysfunctional at times last season. In a league known for offensive production, can Herman get this unit to take big strides forward? Can he keep his quarterbacks healthy enough to make a run at the conference title?
5. Iowa State Cyclones
Starters Returning: 7 Offense, 6 Defense, 1 Special Teams
Major Losses: OT Jake Campos, WR Allen Lazard, FS Kamari Cotton-Moya, LB/QB Joel Lanning
Plenty of offensive standouts are available for Campbell’s squad to make history. The situation at quarterback is somewhat uncertain, but there’s still reason for optimism. Even if returner Kyle Kempt can’t get another year of eligibility, Zeb Noland came close to engineering an upset of Oklahoma State and might end up having more potential.
Running back David Montgomery, who made the AP Big 12 First Team, is one of the best at his position. He’ll run behind an offensive line that returns experience, but they still have room for improvement. Hakeem Butler is the top playmaker outside, but others will need to step up to help the offense take their next step.
On the other side of the ball, new leadership will need to step up to replace the loss of some graduating seniors. Linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. and cornerback Brian Peavy will look to carry the load for a defense that was second in both Total Defense and Passing Defense. Iowa State will also have to develop a punter and kicker on their special teams units.
Biggest Question: After coaching the Cyclones to one of their best seasons this century, can head coach Matt Campbell do it again? Iowa State has never won more than five conference games in the Big 12, but there’s potential on the roster. With the loss of so many veterans, can Campbell’s staff develop the Cyclones to be as consistently competitive as they were last season? Will they make another big leap?
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Starters Returning: 4 Offense, 6 Defense, 4 Special Teams
Major Losses: QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington, LB Chad Whitener, CB Ramon Richards
It’s no secret that Head coach Mike Gundy will have plenty to replace offensively this upcoming season, especially at quarterback, wide receiver and along the offensive line. One player who won’t need to be replaced is rising junior Justice Hill, who led the conference in rushing and has posted two 1,000 yard seasons in a row.
Players like Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner return on the outside to work with whoever the quarterback will be. Gundy’s signal callers tend to all break the records of their predecessors, but the next guy up has some big shoes to fill.
Whoever ends up being the next defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State will have some experienced players to work with. Linebackers Calvin Bundage and Justin Phillips were both productive last season, but both veterans and newcomers will need to step up to improve the run defense. The defensive backfield gets A.J. Green back, who tied for first in the conference in interceptions with four.
The Pokes get back reliable legs at punter and kicker. McCleskey and Tyron Johnson returned punts and kickoffs last year, so there will be veterans at those positions.
Biggest Question: With Gundy making offseason moves to improve the defense, what’s the plan on offense? There always seem to be good skill players coming out of Stillwater, but will veteran departures mean the Pokes take a step back next season?
7. Kansas State Wildcats
Starters Returning: 10 offense, 6 defense, 0 special teams
Major Losses: DT Will Geary, CB D.J. Reed, WR Byron Pringle, FB Winston Dimel
There was a slight shakeup on the offensive staff, but most the offensive lineup itself will remain largely intact. At quarterback, presumed starter Alex Delton returns, but his backup in Skylar Thompson showed flashes in games he started last season.
The Wildcats churned out rushing yards last season, but they’ll need some offensive weapons to step up in 2018 and stand out. The passing game in particular will probably need to improve if Kansas State hopes to be in the mix for a championship spot.
Defensively, the Wildcats will have experienced defensive backs, but they have spots to fill in their front seven. Bill Snyder’s teams seem to always have good special teams units, but without a kicker, punter or returner coming back next season, that area will need some work in the offseason.
Biggest Question: Assuming there are no major shakeups with the staff, will the Wildcats be able to get more production out of their offense? Snyder’s squad showed some upside at quarterback, but who will step up as next year’s playmakers?
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Starters Returning: 5 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Major Losses: WR Keke Coutee, QB Nic Shimonek, DT Mychealon Thomas, DB D.J. Polite-Bray
The Red Raiders weren’t as explosive last season as they’ve been before, so hitting the reset button at a few positions might not be a bad thing on offense. The offensive line started to come on last year and it returns intact. A new quarterback and breakout skill position players will be on order for head coach Kliff Kingsbury, but they’ve developed those in Lubbock before.
After taking strides under the watch of coordinator David Gibbs, the defense will look to do so again. Losing only two starters should mean another year of improvement. All eyes will be on linebacker Dakota Allen, who racked up the honors last season in his return to the South Plains.
On special teams, the Red Raiders will need to find guys who can returns punts and kicks. Aussie Dominic Panazollo is a good punter, but place kicking was a problem all last season for the Red Raiders. Tryouts might be on the docket this Spring.
9. Baylor Bears
Starters Returning: 10 Offense, 7 Defense, 4 Special Teams
Major Losses: QB Zach Smith, RB Terence Williams, DE K.J. Smith, LB Taylor Young
After a revolving door at quarterback, Charlie Brewer looks like the quarterback for the Bears in 2018. All but one starter returns for them on that side of the ball, including standout Denzel Mims. Along with some big transfers, Rhule will hope to take a step forward, particularly along the offensive line.
The defense will hope to take a major step as well, particularly among the front seven. Players like Harrison Hand and Grayland Arnold will be back in the defensive backfield, which was probably the strength of the defense last year.
The Bears will rely on kicker Connor Martin for sure field goals again. They’ll have experience at punter and in their returners as well.
Biggest Question: How much progress can the Bears make in 2018? Matt Rhule’s team was competitive in almost every game they played last season, but Baylor still came away with only one win. After reportedly flirting with a job in the NFL, can Rhule show Bears fans that their faith in him will be rewarded?
10. Kansas Jayhawks
Starters Returning: 10 Offense, 10 Defense, 2 Special Teams
Major Losses: WR Ben Johnson, DE Dorance Armstrong
Offensive coordinator Doug Meachem will hope another season in his Air Raid system bears fruit for the Jayhawks. He’ll get back running back Khalil Herbert and wide receiver Steven Sims, so there will be some playmakers to work with. He’ll also have some experience: the offense only loses one starter and returns both starting quarterbacks in Peyton Bender and Stanley Carter.
Ten starters are back on defense. Linebacker Joe Dineen was quietly one of the best at his position in the Big 12 and Daniel Wise might be the biggest key to Kansas’s defensive success in 2018. Overall, the defense will need turn their experience into production.
Head coach David Beatty will need to find a new kicker and punter, but improvement in that area could be helpful for taking steps forward.
Biggest Question: With another disappointing season behind them, is up the only way the Jayhawks can go? David Beatty has extolled the virtues of starting upperclassmen and only loses two of his starting twenty-two, but what will that mean in terms of wins and losses?