On this final edition of “What We Learned” we review some takeaways from the regular season in the Big 12. Yes, we have some Big 12 games sill on the calendar this year, but now seems as good as any to reflect on what happened through 46 conference contests and 30 non-conference games. Below, we walk through impressions of each team from this year, and put a bow on another regular season in the books.
1. Turnarounds Don’t Take Long..If You’re Good
I’m specifically directing this at everyone who has – and who will – talk about how it “takes time” to turn a side of the ball or a whole football program around when there’s high level talent on campus. “Exhibit A” would be Alex Grinch and what he did with the Oklahoma defense in 2019. As good as the athletes were that the Sooners had recruited, you had to think a good coach could come in and at least get that unit to be average.
In one season, what he’s done is just flat scary – you could argue that the Sooners have the best defense in the entire conference. In Big 12 play, Oklahoma is first in rush defense (132.1 yds/g), first in pass defense (198.5 yds/g), and third in scoring defense (24.5 pts/g). For the first time in a while, players on that side of the ball were actually developed, and played with unbelievable confidence in their scheme. All of that, again, in one year. Don’t tell me the right coach can’t have an immediate impact.
2. Holy Success, Matt Rhule
For me, Baylor this season was like one of those chicken sandwhiches people have been acting insane to get their hands on. You don’t believe it’s that good until you get to experience it first hand and realize it’s actually that good. I would argue, though, that the Bears gave us adequate reason to be skeptics. They started off 3-0, but squeaked out an eight point win against lowly Rice (who finished 3-9 this year).
Then, they beat Iowa State, once considered a dark horse, only to squeak by Texas Tech in a game with screwy officiating. Baylor was undefeated, and they absolutely ran away with the game in Stillwater against Oklahoma State. Three of their last five games were one possession outings, cementing a fitting theme to the season for the Bears: finding ways to win. The defense stepped up big all season for Baylor, and veterans on the offense made plays when they were needed. Rhule had an experienced group of players all pulling together week-in and week-out, and it’s led to one of the best seasons in that school’s history following a 1-11 initial start in 2017.
3. Texas Might Have A Ways To Go
I will not use that four letter word here – the one that starts with a “b” and ends with a “k” and gets overused – but this year proved that the football program in Austin is not yet in a position to expect to win 9-10 games every year. Will they get there? Three straight winning seasons after three straight losing seasons would suggest progress, albeit not at the kind of pace fans want. And let’s not forget that, despite the rough season, Texas finished in the top third of the Big 12 for the third year in a row under Tom Herman.
Still, expectations are high for the Longhorns, and this season was underwhelming by those standards. Texas started off 4-1, losing a 45-38 shootout to No. 1 LSU to establish that maybe lofty goals weren’t unrealistic for them. A leaky defense and an offense that seemed to regress as time went on caused the Longhorns to go 3-4 down the stretch and prompted Herman to clean house on his staff. Now, Texas will enter 2020 with plenty of issues to resolve in the new year.
4. Big 12 Teams Should Recruit Canada More
Another year, another finish in the top half of the Big 12 for Mike Gundy. After finishing ninth in the conference in 2018, the Pokes ended this regular season as one of three Big 12 teams in the Top 25. That’s not bad for a guy who wears a mullet, and it serves as a reminder that this elder statesman of the Big 12 is well regarded for a reason.
The real surprise of 2019, though, was Chuba Hubbard for the Pokes, whose 1,936 yards helped the Canadian become Big 12 Offensive Player Of The Year. A player who will go down as one of the best running backs in school history, Hubbard made 100 yard games the expectation for the Cowboy offense. Were he to return next season alongside a healthy Spencer Sanders at quarterback, Oklahoma State will (justifiably) have high expectations in 2020.
5. Chris Klieman Can Coach At This Level
How about those Wildcats, huh? Klieman has often been billed as Bill Snyder 2.0 and…its actually hard to argue with that. The players in purple and silver looked the same but different – physical, tough, and disciplined. Quarterback Skyler Thompson had his best season yet as a Wildcat, and Klieman’s staff announced their presence with their upset 48-41 upset of Oklahoma in Manhattan.
Next up for the new head coach? Longevity. The worst thing about having a good first season is that it inevitably raises fan expectations. Klieman and staff have Navy up next in the Liberty Bowl, but the first task immediately after is continuing to build on this year’s success.
6. The Cyclones Can Compete With The Best
They weren’t able to pull it together to win a title in 2019, though. I have to own some of my own shortcomings here as well, as I was all in on Iowa State as a title contender this year. “In Matt Campbell I Trust” was my mantra, as I imagined the defense would be elite and the offense would find a way to gel by Big 12 play and not seriously miss the loss of high quality players from 2018.
Well, I was a little off there. Not about the offense, which was third in scoring in Big 12 play (32.3 points per game), and hit its stride with Brock Purdy finding ways to distribute the ball to all the weapons around him. All in all, though, the 2019 Cylcones – who had four losses by a total of 11 points this season – came up on the losing end of too few close contests to be in the mix in late November. Unfortunately, “almost” doesn’t count for anything in this game, and it’s hard to not feel like this season – as good as it was historically for Iowa State – contained its share of lost opportunities.
7. Watch Out For West Virginia In 2020
The Big 12 remains a conference with a lot of good coaches, and if Neal Brown is any measure of that, it’s not changing any time soon. Brown inherited a true rebuild from his predecessor, and Year One was proof of that. At one point this season, it looked like the Mountaineers might occupy the bottom of the Big 12, but West Virginia continued to improve as time wore on and ended 2019 with a strong road win.
A lot of that improvement is due to the play of transfer Jarret Doege, who took over a quarterback for the Mountaineers in November and helped the offense really move. In his limited starts Doege posted a 137.3 passer rating. Along with a defense that was certainly stout up front, a West Virginia squad that played in three one possession games in a season where they were just one game shy of bowl qualification.
8. The Horned Frogs Still Struggle On Offense
Things could have definitely gone better for the Horned Frogs this season, who’ve now had two straight losing Big 12 records under Gary Patterson. TCU’s struggles were primarily on offense, as they were unable to score 30 points or more six times in 2019, and the Horned Frogs ended up losing all of those contests. TCU also turned the ball over 20 times this season, something that stalled their offensive production on multiple occasions.
One positive to take away from the Frogs’ offense this season, though, was the emergence of true freshman Max Duggan, whose flashes of brilliance should give the Horned Frogs something to look forward to in 2019. Still, their offense woes – in addition to giving up 4.7 yards per rush in Big 12 play – will give head coach Gary Patterson more than enough to work on in the off-season.
9. Matt Wells Has To Go Up From Here
Possibly the biggest mystery entering the 2019 season was how Texas Tech was going to look under new head coach Matt Wells. The answer was inconsistent. Wells’ Red Raiders had poor showings on offense and defense, but ultimately didn’t make enough plays as a team to be better than their 4-8 record in their new head coach’s inaugural season.
Fans in Lubbock probably don’t want to hear about this being a “Year Zero” for the new staff, and only time will tell if this year is going to be the norm under the former Utah State head coach or an outlier. Texas Tech seemed grittier under Wells, but the fourth straight losing season for Red Raiders’ football team is likely difficult to stomach for fans.
10. Les Miles’ First Year Gave Fans A Reason To Believe
Was it me, or did Year One of Les Miles feel like the most optimistic 3-9 season in all of FBS? Maybe it was the 48-24 road win over Boston College. Or the near-upset of Texas. Or the actual upset of Texas Tech for their first conference win. Whatever the reason, games against multiple conference foes were more competitive than they’ve been for the Jayhawks in the past under Miles. Looking back on this season, there are three or four games where you can say that Kansas was only a few plays away from being bowl eligible right now. That’s the kind of hope fans of the Jayhawks had in mind when they hired the Mad Hatter.