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Oklahoma Football: Where Do the Sooners Rank Amongst the Rest of the Big 12?

Alex JosephAnalyst IOctober 25, 2016

Oklahoma Football: Where Do the Sooners Rank Amongst the Rest of the Big 12?

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    Can you feel it yet? We're only a month-and-a-half away from the start of the 2012 college football season, and the Big 12 Conference is shaping up to be, once again, extremely competitive. 

    Early favorites include the usuals—the Sooners and the Longhorns—but newcomers West Virginia and TCU are ready to prove to the world they can compete in a major conference. Don't count out last year's champions, either. The Oklahoma State Cowboys are rebuilding, but they bring back their fair share of talent on both sides of the ball. 

    Let's focus on the Sooners, though. After finishing the season with a meager 10-3 record despite being ranked No. 1 to start it, the Sooners are once again hopeful. A conference championship is an achievable goal for the Sooners, but a national championship is the ultimate prize. 

    Like most seasons, the Sooners have talent at every position, but do they have the best talent? I guess that all depends on what positions we're talking about. Ever wonder where the Sooners rank amongst the rest of the Big 12 at each position? 

    Here's a hint: They rank rather well. 

Quarterback

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1A—Oklahoma Sooners (Landry Jones); 1B—West Virginia Mountaineers (Geno Smith); 3A—TCU (Casey Pachall); 3B—Kansas State Wildcats (Collin Klein) 

     

    Let me begin this slideshow with a debate within a debate. Keep in mind, all of this information is subjective, so feel free to agree or disagree with anything posted—this is a projection, after all. 

    With Brandon Weeden and Robert Griffin III off to the NFL, the competition for "best quarterback in the Big 12" definitely becomes slimmer. Oklahoma's Landry Jones would have been the runaway winner if it hadn't been for the newcomers. With that being said, I still feel like it's a toss-up.

    Jones has progressed (albeit at a very slow rate) every season at Oklahoma and, through three seasons, is the most prolific passer in Sooners history. He has been shredding Big 12 defenses (insert SEC fan comment here) since he was a freshman, totaling 12,379 yards and 93 touchdowns. Jones has also never lost a bowl game—of course, he's never been to a national championship, either.

    As a senior, Jones will be expected to lead his team to his first national championship berth, but he is going to have to fix the inconveniences that have plagued his otherwise tremendous career in order to get to that point.

    Fellow senior Geno Smith, quarterback for the West Virginia Mountaineers, is coming off a very impressive season in the Big East. Smith hit a new high in every category worth mentioning, including pass yards (4,385), touchdowns (31) and passer rating (152.6). However, I think it's worth noting that the competition is going to only get tougher for Smith in the Big 12, so there's no way of knowing how he's going to react.

    With that being said, Smith did put up nearly 500 passing yards against LSU last season in a loss, and he did throw for over 400 yards and six touchdowns against Clemson in the Orange Bowl...

    It's going to be a fun to watch both Jones and Smith do battle against the Big 12 this season, but keep an eye on fellow newcomer Casey Pachall from TCU. In his first year as a starter, Pachall carried a rebuilding Horned Frogs team to an 11-2 record.

    Collin Klein out of Kansas State is also another name to watch due to his relentless ground attack abilities, but he's going to need to improve his passing game to bypass Jones, Smith or Pachall. 

Running Backs

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Oklahoma State Cowboys (Joseph Randle, Jeremy Smith); 2—Oklahoma Sooners (Dominique Whaley, Roy Finch, Blake Bell); 3—TCU (Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker, Waymon James) 

     

    The Sooners and the Horned Frogs may have more running backs (or quarterbacks) to hand the ball off to, but the Oklahoma State Cowboys have the best running back in the conference, and that alone gets them to the top of this list. Joseph Randle, if healthy, will have a great shot at being an All-American. 

    Randle amassed over 1,200 yards last season to go along with 24 touchdowns, while his backup Jeremy Smith ran for 646 yards and nine touchdowns. Yes, those are stats for a backup. With those two back in the lineup, the Cowboys will have the best backfield in the Big 12 once again. 

    After the Cowboys, the competition really gets close. You can make a case for either Oklahoma or TCU at the second spot, and then Texas isn't far behind thanks to Malcolm Brown. I'm ready for the "you're biased because you're a writer for the Sooners" comments, but I'm giving the nod to Oklahoma at No. 2. 

    Dominique Whaley was only able to play in six games last season before injuring his ankle and sitting out the rest of the season. Still, Whaley was able to gain over 600 yards and score nine touchdowns. If you extrapolate his production out (which admittedly wouldn't have been guaranteed), then Whaley is challenging Randle for the top spot in the league. 

    The Sooners also have great complementary backs in Roy Finch (who I like to compare to a video game running back), Brennan Clay and backup quarterback Blake Bell (they don't call him "Belldozer" for nothing). Also, the running game is greatly dependent on the quality of the line the backs are running behind. Due to the Sooners having such an experienced line, they were able to slip in front of TCU. 

    However, don't slouch on TCU and their three-headed monster at running back. Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker and Waymon James all totaled at least 700 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Combined, they totaled 2,303 yards and 24 touchdowns. Sure, the touchdowns equal one Joseph Randle, but the yards are ridiculous, especially considering Pachall also through for nearly 3,000 yards in his first season as a starter. 

Wide Receivers

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—West Virginia (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey); 2—Oklahoma Sooners (Kenny Stills, Trey Metoyer); 3—Baylor Bears (Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese) 

     

    There are quite a few respectable receivers in the Big 12, but, as of now, West Virginia sits on top. In fact, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey may be the two best receivers in the league, and are certainly one of the best wide receiver tandems in all of college football. 

    Austin caught 101 passes last season for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns, while Bailey caught 72 passes for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns. Getting at least one receiver to reach 1,000 receiving yards is normally an achievement, but having two guys gain over 1,000 receiving yards is just silly. Austin and Bailey will be a nightmare for most Big 12 secondaries. 

    After West Virginia, it again becomes more competitive and more complicated to predict the next two best groups. Once again, I'm giving the edge to Oklahoma at No. 2 thanks to a few different reasons. Reason No. 1: Kenny Stills and Terrance Williams are both great, so they cancel each other out. Reason No. 2: Trey Metoyer, though he's never played a down of D-I football, certainly appears to be a No. 1 option for any team. That gives him the edge over Reese, another more-than-qualified receiver for the Bears. Reason No. 3: Landry Jones vs. Nick Florence. 

    Jones, an experienced quarterback, will definitely help make it seem like the Sooners receivers have more talent and depth than the Bears'. Florence, who has been stuck behind RGIII, has some rather large shoes to fill. Williams and Reese are both talented, but their production could slip this season. 

Tight Ends

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Baylor Bears (Jordan Navjar); 2—Kansas Jayhawks (Mike Ragone); 3—Texas Longhorns (D.J. Grant) 

     

    This is the only category on this slideshow where the Sooners aren't anywhere in the discussion, and that's even with the Big 12 being way, way down at talent at this position. However, if freshman tight end Taylor McNamara (pictured) or Brannon Green (JUCO transfer) proves to be a threat in the passing game, the Sooners could skyrocket into the top three. 

    As of now, there are only a few names that have the possibility to be difference makers for their teams. Junior Jordan Navjar for the Baylor Bears has great size (6'6", 260 pounds) and proved last season he can in fact catch the ball (15 receptions, 146 yards, two touchdowns). With a new quarterback under center for the Bears, Navjar's production could really skyrocket. Having a solid tight end is always something new quarterbacks want to see—Navjar is a big target and could see a lot of passes coming his way. 

    Notre Dame transfer Mike Ragone has spent the majority of his college career injured. After graduating from Notre Dame, Ragone was awarded with the eligibility to play for a sixth season, and he chose to transfer to Kansas following quarterback Dayne Crist and ex-head coach Charlie Weis. Ragone is looking for a breakout year with a new team, and, along with Navjar, is listed as a candidate on the Mackey Award watch list. 

    The third spot could literally go to anyone, but I'm giving the edge to Texas tight end D.J. Grant, even though he may not be as utilized  next season with the Longhorns' running game philosophy. Last season, Grant finished with 16 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Grant has an athletic, stretch-the-field type of build at 6'3" and 230 pounds, and if the Longhorns can find a quarterback that can get it to him, Grant could be in for a big year. 

Offensive Line

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Oklahoma Sooners; 2—Texas Longhorns; 3A—West Virginia Mountaineers, 3B—Texas Tech Red Raiders

     

    Finally, we round out the offensive portion of the slide show with the big guys up front, and the Sooners not only have the best line in the Big 12, they also have one of the best lines in the country. For all the information you could possibly want on the Sooners' offensive line depth, read my last article here

    Here's a quick synopsis. The Sooners return four starters on the offensive line, three of which are now seniors, but every projected started has at least some experience starting at the D-I level. Junior left guard/center Gabe Ikard is one of the most talented and versatile linemen in all of college football. After giving up 19 sacks in 2010, the Sooners gave up just 10 sacks in 2011.  

    The Longhorns are a definite No. 2 after returning four starters, but they have some major work to do after giving up 25 sacks just one season ago. Junior guard Mason Walters is one of seven Big 12 linemen to be on the Outland Trophy watch list. 

    The third spot is a toss-up between West Virginia and Texas Tech, but I'm giving the slight edge to West Virginia who return three starting offensive linemen, including center Joe Madsen, the No. 8 center prospect according to CBS Sports

Defensive Line

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Texas Longhorns; 2—TCU Horned Frogs; 3—Oklahoma Sooners 

     

    This one is no contest—the Texas Longhorns have the best defensive line in the Big 12, possibly the country. Led by senior defensive end Alex Okafor and junior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the Longhorns defensive line will be in a lot of teams' backfields this season. 

    Both Okafor and Jeffcoat are highly touted NFL defensive end prospects. According to CBS Sports, Jeffcoat is at No. 2 and Okafor is at No. 4 in terms of defensive ends in the 2013 draft class. 

    To put it into perspective the next defensive end prospects on that list from the Big 12 are Ross Forrest from TCU (No. 43) and David King from Oklahoma (No. 47). That's a big gap of talent. Jackson and Okafor combined for 14.5 sacks last season, and that number is likely to rise this season. 

    Though the rest of the conference doesn't come close to touching Texas, TCU slightly edges out Oklahoma for the No. 2 spot due to their star defensive end—junior Stansly Maponga. Maponga went off last season for nine sacks, which would have led the Big 12. The Horned Frogs return all four starters on their defensive line, and that experience is going to help their transition to the Big 12 significantly.

    The Sooners rank third solely for their experience. All five guys in their defensive line rotation have started, though defensive ends David King and R.J. Washington did play backup for the majority of last season. Losing defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis are a major hit in terms of production. The Sooners defensive line has to step up this season, get pressure in the backfield and actually produce some sacks. 

Linebackers

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Iowa State Cyclones (Jake Knott, A.J. Klein); 2A—Oklahoma Sooners (Tom Wort, Corey Nelson), 2B—Kansas State (Arthur Brown, Tre Walker)

     

    Rejoice, Cyclones fans! You're finally No. 1! Seriously, though, the Cyclones have two legitimate NFL-caliber linebackers in seniors Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. Collectively, they totaled 231 tackles last season. Let that number sink in for a second. 

    The only linebacker tandem that was better than them (statistically speaking, of course) last season were Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, who totaled a ridiculous 293 tackles. 

    Knott and Klein will undoubtedly be the best tandem in the Big 12 this season, so, once again, the real question lies in who will be the next best. I can honestly say the next best linebacker in the conference might be Kansas State senior Arthur Brown. Brown led the Wildcats in tackles last season with 101 tackles and is currently the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect in the 2013 draft class. 

    However, will Brown and junior Tre Walker be better as a whole than Oklahoma's Tom Wort and Corey Nelson? It's possible, but I'm not entirely convinced. At this point, it's a toss-up. Wort may not be as good as Brown, but he's going to play just as hard (if not harder). Wort is the hardest working defensive player on Oklahoma's roster, and it really shows when you're watching them play. 

    Oklahoma State isn't far removed from both Oklahoma and Kansas State, either. The Cowboys return all three of their starting linebackers, and senior Alex Elkins finished second on the team with 90 tackles last season. However, Wort and Brown's prowess keep the Sooners and Wildcats just a notch ahead of the Cowboys. 

Secondary

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Oklahoma State Cowboys (Brodrick Brown, Justin Gilbert, Daytawion Lowe); 2A—Oklahoma Sooners (Demontre Hurst, Tony Jefferson, Aaron Colvin), 2B—Texas Longhorns (Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs, Kenny Vaccaro)

     

    This is the hardest and most competitive position to judge. However you figure it, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas are likely the top three secondaries in the Big 12. West Virginia isn't far behind, and Kansas State's Nigel Malone is one of the best defensive backs in the conference. 

    If I had to pick (which I do, for the sake of the article), I'm giving Oklahoma State the No. 1 spot. All three of their returning starters in the secondary are going to be in the NFL, and cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert could be the best cornerback tandem in the country. 

    The smart choice for the second-best secondary would be the Texas Longhorns who get both Carrington Byndom and Kenny Vaccaro back. This is especially true when you consider the fact that Oklahoma lost their best defensive back (Jamell Fleming) and had a very disappointing season. However, the return of Mike Stoops and a new defensive scheme has me hopeful for their future. 

    The Sooners have three NFL-caliber defensive backs starting in Demontre Hurst, Tony Jefferson and Aaron Colvin, so the sky is really the limit. At this point, though, I can't honestly say they're going to be better than the Longhorns. However, both the Sooners and the Longhorns gave up less passing yards per game than the Cowboys last season, so maybe I'm reaching a little. 

Special Teams

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Oklahoma State (Quinn Sharp); 2—Oklahoma Sooners (Michael Hunnicutt, Tress Way); 3—Iowa State Cyclones (Kirby Van Der Kamp)

     

    Quinn Sharp is a ridiculous man. Not only is he on the preseason watch list for the Lou Groza Award (nation's top kicker), he's also on the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award (nation's top punter). He is the only player in the country that can say that. 

    Last season, Sharp made 22-of-25 field goals with a long of 46 yards, 79-of-80 extra points and averaged 46.3 yards per punt, which was good enough for third in the country. Needless to say, Sharp puts the Cowboys at the top of the list when it comes to best special teams in the conference.

    Not too far behind are the Sooners, who finally found a reliable kicker last season in Michael Hunnicutt. As a freshman, Hunnicutt made 21-of-24 field goals with a long of 53 yards, as well as 55-of-56 extra points. Senior punter Tress Way has had a fantastic career with the Sooners, but each season his punting average has gone down slightly. Still, averaging 42 yards per punt (as he did in 2011) isn't something to complain about. 

    A number of teams could fill in the No. 3 spot, but I'm giving it to Iowa State based solely on its great punter. Junior Kirby Van Der Kamp punted the ball 68 times last season for a 43-yard average. However, his 46-yard average as a freshman proves that he can compete with Sharp for best punter in the conference. 

Coaching

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    Predictions for This Season (Top 3)

    1—Oklahoma Sooners (Bob Stoops); 2—Texas Longhorns (Mack Brown); 3—Oklahoma State Cowboys (Mike Gundy) 

     

    Before we get into the analysis and discussion, let me lay out some numbers for you since 1999.

    Coaches W L Conf. Title Games Conf. Title Wins Bowls Bowl Victories Nat. Championships Nat. Championship Victories
    Bob Stoops 139 34 8 7 8 3 4 1
    Mack Brown 132 36 4 2 4 3 2

    1

    The coaching records are nearly identical and both coaches have won one national championship. However, Stoops has been to eight major bowl games in his 13 years as a head coach—double what Mack Brown has been to. While Brown has a better winning percentage in those games, getting to them has to say something. 

    What it really comes down to, though, are Stoops' seven conference titles to Brown's two, namely because many of those titles came at the expense of the Longhorns. Stoops has won eight of the last 13 meeting between the two teams. 

    Both Stoops and Brown are in the top tier of coaches in college football and are therefore slotted in the top two spots on this slide. Coming in third is Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy who is really starting to turn the Cowboys into a national powerhouse. 

    Gundy led the Cowboys to a Big 12 title last season along with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The Cowboys haven't had the same amount of highly touted recruits that the Sooners and Longhorns have been so fortunate to have, but they're starting to get more recognition in light of their recent success. 

Overall

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    For the sake of this article, let's start adding numbers to all of these likely too early predictions. For every first place finish, the team will get awarded three points; second place, two points; third place, one point; and so on, and so on. 

    Here's how the Big 12 stacks out in terms of these numbers: 

    1. Oklahoma Sooners—20 points
    2. Oklahoma State Cowboys—10 points
    3. Texas Longhorns—10 points
    4. West Virginia Mountaineers—7 points
    5. TCU Horned Frogs—4 points
    6. Baylor Bears—4 points
    7. Iowa State Cyclones—4 points
    8. Kansas State Wildcats—3 points
    9. Texas Tech Red Raiders—1 point
    10. Kansas Jayhawks—1 point 

    Maybe I'm biased due to covering the Sooners on an everyday basis, but the numbers have the Sooners more than 10 points ahead of the projected second-best team(s) in the conference. OK, even that sounds a little fishy to me. 

    However, one thing is for sure: The Sooners are the most balanced team in the conference. After that, the projected second-best team in the conference becomes a toss-up between the Cowboys, Longhorns and Mountaineers—which is exactly the way it should be. 

    The point system shows the competitive balance in the Big 12, and even though the Sooners scored so highly, winning the Big 12 this season isn't going to be that easy. 

    So, hurry up and get here, September. We're all waiting. 

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