College Football: Every Big 12 Team's Biggest Concern This Offseason
Numerous Big 12 teams spent chunks of the 2013 season figuring out their quarterback situations.
The same scenario won’t play out in 2014.
Bowl season served as validation for part of the league, including Oklahoma beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Texas Tech taking down Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.
How much should be read into bowl season is never easy to tell, but the Big 12 couldn’t afford a disastrous performance during the postseason because of public perception that the league was down.
Despite Baylor’s dismal defensive performance in a Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF, the Big 12 largely showed reason to believe this year will be better than last.
The following are topics that will likely be addressed by each coach between now and when the 2014 season kicks off on August 30.
Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty returns at quarterback for the Bears, offsetting any concerns about superstar running back Lache Seastrunk turning pro.
Still, there will be some work to do on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Tevin Reese is gone, as are three of the five starting offensive linemen. Guard Cyril Richardson—the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year—will be the biggest loss.
With Petty's return, though, 2014 will be about finding out if Baylor is prepared to contend on the national level.
An improved, more experienced Big 12 should provide a greater testing ground than it did in 2013 when the Bears won the conference.
Now Baylor needs to show greater ability to have its defense win games when the offense sputters, as it did against Oklahoma State.
That one loss denied the Bears what likely would have been a chance against Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Then again, UCF scored seemingly at will against Baylor during the Fiesta Bowl.
If the Bears make significant strides on defense next year, they must do so with seven new starters.
Significant parts of the Bears' defense need to be replaced.
First-team all-Big 12 players defensive lineman Chris McAllister, linebacker Eddie Lackey and safety Ahmad Dixon have all exhausted their eligibility.
Despite all the departures, Petty coming back means Baylor will enter 2014 with high expectations—possibly to repeat as conference champ.
To have a chance, though, the Bears must improve drastically on defense.
Even with two wins over FBS teams in 2013, it’s difficult to find too much optimism about next year for the Jayhawks.
Kansas loses running back James Sims, the engine and heart of the offense last year. Sims accounted for 1,276 of the team’s 3,534 total yards of offense.
Coach Charlie Weis made it clear during the preseason that he believed quarterback Jake Heaps would make the difference in turning around the program.
Heaps, a rising senior, could still be part of a great comeback story, but he has a long way to go.
He completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (eight) in 2013.
Perhaps another year in Weis’ system can make the difference, but the program can’t feel great about the position heading into what will likely be a key season for the coach.
The Jayhawks finished as one of six FBS teams that failed to score 16 points per game a year ago. Only two others—South Florida and Purdue—play in BCS conferences.
Defensively, at least Kansas returns linebacker Ben Heeney. Coaches named Heeney second-team all-Big 12.
Still, the unit must come a long way from the one that ranked 96th in the nation in scoring defense a year ago.
Myriad concerns exist around Kansas' football program, but the biggest for Weis should be surviving to see a fourth season—something that likely won’t happen if the Jayhawks don’t see marked improvement in 2014.
Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State received great news when receiver Tyler Lockett elected to return for his senior season.
Lockett is already one of the conference’s top receivers and could emerge as one of the best in the nation.
Who throws him the ball—and how quickly coach Bill Snyder reaches that decision—might be the key to the team’s success next year.
Quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams split duties in 2013, with Waters ultimately winning the bulk of snaps by the season’s end.
Still, Snyder utilized both players, creating a non-unified identity on offense.
Waters seems the likely starter next year. He must play better in key games. Waters accounted for just one touchdown in consecutive losses to Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
K-State returns one of the most overlooked defensive linemen in the nation in defensive end Ryan Mueller. The returning junior had 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2013.
Safety Ty Zimmerman will be tough to replace on defense, though.
Dante Barnett enjoyed a stellar season at safety, but can he fully cover what the team loses in Zimmerman? He sure looked capable of doing so in the bowl win over Michigan, in which he recorded eight tackles and an interception.
The Wildcats must also replace linebacker Blake Slaughter, who led the team in tackles this year.
How Kansas State reloads on defense should determine the team’s ability to contend for a Big 12 title.
Iowa State Cyclones
Winning the final two games of the season allowed Iowa State to gain some momentum after a 1-9 start.
Three of the Cyclones’ seven Big 12 losses came by one possession, so coach Paul Rhoads turned to former Kansas coach Mark Mangino to spark an offensive turnaround. Mangino will certainly bring fire to a unit with far more talent than many realize.
Quarterback Grant Rohach played well when the coaching staff turned him loose. He must cut down on turnovers, but he accounted for seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in wins over Kansas and West Virginia.
Tight end E.J. Bibbs returns, as does receiver Quenton Bundrage.
Defensive issues, however, never got sorted out in 2013. Iowa State finished 112th in the nation in scoring defense—a trend that must correct itself for Rhoads to stay off the hot seat.
Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham also has a lot of work to do.
Linebacker Jeremiah George—Iowa State’s lone first-team all-Big 12 performer—graduated. So, too, did second-team all-conference selection safety Jacques Washington. That duo combined for 252 tackles.
Replacing them—as well as opening against reigning three-time FCS champ North Dakota State—will undoubtedly be Rhoads’ chief concern heading into next year.
The Sugar Bowl win over Alabama put one fear—the quarterback situation—to bed.
Quarterback Trevor Knight torched the Crimson Tide defense, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns. Knight opened the season as the starter but spent much of the year watching Blake Bell play.
Now coach Bob Stoops has apparently found his man heading into the 2014 season.
The Sooners had little trouble running the ball, finishing behind only Baylor in the Big 12. Look for Oklahoma to combine a physical attack in the run game—with a very good running quarterback to boot—with an improved passing game next season.
Center Gabe Ikard is gone, but the Sooners return three starters along the offensive line.
Furthermore, “Big Game Bob” made a triumphant return at season’s end. Stoops scored upset wins over Oklahoma State—denying the cross-state rival the Big 12 championship in the process—and Alabama to cap 2013.
So what will keep the coaching staff awake at nights this offseason?
Well, first of all, the haunting nightmares from this year’s Baylor game.
Oklahoma actually did a good job slowing the Bears during the first quarter-and-a-half before Baylor poured it on.
Baylor finished with 255 rushing yards—the same number Texas posted in Oklahoma’s most embarrassing loss of the season.
The Sooners actually finished second in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, but they showed weaknesses in some key games, including the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama finished with just 129 rushing yards in losing to the Sooners, but that included minus-43 yards from Oklahoma sacking AJ McCarron repeatedly. Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry ran over the Sooners to the tune of 100 yards and a touchdown—with a 61-yard touchdown reception on a short pass as well.
If Oklahoma shores up the run defense, it will be difficult to stop in 2014—and could find itself back in the national title picture.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
When Oklahoma State fans think back on 2013, they might remember it as the “What Might Have Been” season.
The Cowboys would have won the Big 12 if they had simply beaten what turned out to be a dreadful West Virginia team or come up with a stop against an Oklahoma team that couldn’t find a passing game until the final drive.
Instead, Oklahoma State finished in a second-place tie in the conference and allowed rival Oklahoma to seize the at-large BCS bowl slot.
Returning to the same position could be a challenge in 2014.
The Cowboys had six all-conference performers a year ago, including Justin Gilbert—the league’s leader in interceptions.
All six will be gone next year, as will be all-conference offensive lineman Parker Graham, quarterback Clint Chelf, receiver Josh Stewart and a host of others.
To make matters worse, coach Mike Gundy’s team opens with a neutral-site game against defending national champ Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
If the Cowboys are to repeat their success from a year ago, continuing to win the turnover battle would help. They finished fourth in the nation in 2013 with a plus-15 turnover margin.
Of course, this year they will have to do so while breaking in a myriad of defensive starters.
One of the positives of Gundy’s indecisiveness at the quarterback position is that J.W. Walsh—the likely starter next year—has already taken several meaningful snaps.
Walsh’s athleticism makes him a threat with his arms and his legs. In six-plus games as the starter, he threw for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing for three more.
Tailback Desmond Roland should provide Walsh a running back in the backfield after rushing for 811 yards and 13 TDs.
Gundy’s track record means it’s worth mentioning incoming quarterback Mason Rudolph as a possible contender.
Though Oklahoma State loses three of its top four receivers, the program never seems to lack for potential superstar replacements. This year is no different, with Jhajuan Seales apparently ready for a bigger role.
The bigger problems come with special teams and defense.
Special teams concerns might haunt Oklahoma State coaches this offseason. The unit likely cost the Cowboys the game against West Virginia, and kicker Ben Grogan made just 61 percent of his field-goal attempts.
The biggest concern, though, comes from a defensive unit that ranked toward the top of the Big 12 in several key statistics in 2013.
Can Oklahoma State reload instead of rebuilding on that side of the ball?
TCU Horned Frogs
TCU’s worst nightmare is simple: It's a repeat of 2013.
Coach Gary Patterson’s team managed just four wins—Southeastern Louisiana, SMU, Kansas and Iowa State—last season. The 4-8 season flew directly in contrast to preseason predictions, some of which had TCU winning the conference.
Instead, nothing seemed to click in year two of the Big 12 era for the Horned Frogs.
Quarterback Casey Pachall, named preseason first-team all-Big 12, suffered an arm injury early in the season and missed five games. When he returned, he struggled with inconsistency and turnovers.
Trevone Boykin, the other quarterback to see meaningful snaps in 2013, moved to receiver late in the season.
TCU might not even have had its starting quarterback on campus at season’s end.
Coming up with an answer at the game’s most important position will be essential.
Whoever takes snaps doesn’t figure to have much of a run game on which he can rely. The Horned Frogs ranked ninth in the league in rushing, fewer than 0.5 yards better than Texas Tech.
Patterson turned to co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham (from Houston) and Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech) to spice up a lifeless attack.
Even the defense—long a hallmark of Patterson’s squads—faltered, allowing 30 points or more in four of the final five games.
At least TCU returns 2012 Defensive Player of the Year defensive end Devonte Fields, who missed nine of 12 games with a broken foot.
Patterson figures to get the Horned Frogs back to showing offensive toughness this season.
It won’t matter if Meacham and Cumbie can’t infuse energy into a flat-lining attack.
Well, the bulk of Texas fans got what they wanted when Mack Brown resigned before the Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon.
Now life continues for the Longhorns under new hire Charlie Strong.
Though Texas fans fancied a bigger name—cough, Nick Saban, cough—Strong should bring a tenacity to an underachieving defense that's lacked in the department for the last few years.
Despite hauling in key defensive players in recruiting class after recruiting class, Brown’s staff failed to get the most out of the blue-chip players for the last few years.
This year, Texas—even with Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat—finished sixth in the Big 12 and 57th nationally in points allowed.
Under Strong, meanwhile, Louisville led the nation in total defense.
If the defense can play to potential, the Longhorns have a chance to matter again in 2014. It bears mentioning at this point that they were one good second half against Baylor away from winning the conference this year.
For Texas to be “back,” though, it must find an answer at the quarterback position.
Texas will have the workhorses in the backfield, with tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray slated to return. Who will hand them the ball could determine whether the Longhorns contend for the conference again.
Quarterback David Ash’s status remains unclear after he suffered a series of concussions during the season. If he can’t return, rising sophomore Tyrone Swoopes—or perhaps incoming freshman Jerrod Heard—needs to give Texas greater balance.
The quarterback position could make the difference between Strong enjoying a good first season and being the toast of Austin.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
So much hope and enthusiasm surrounded first-year Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury when the Red Raiders jumped out to a 7-0 start.
Then the losses started mounting.
Texas Tech closed with the five best teams in the Big 12, losing to all five. Kingsbury’s team stayed within two possessions of only Oklahoma during that stretch.
Kingsbury again ignited the fanbase, however, leading his team to a surprising 37-23 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.
The Red Raiders finished 88th in the nation in scoring defense last year, and they don’t look to be substantially better on defense next year.
Two of Kingsbury’s greatest mentors—Mike Leach and Kevin Sumlin—aren’t exactly known for their defenses either, though both have found success.
If Texas Tech is going to win, it will do so with a high-scoring, gun-slinging offense.
The Lubbock faithful wouldn’t have it any other way.
Perhaps Kingsbury will even have some luck in the health department this year at quarterback.
Davis Webb showed great potential as a true freshman, throwing for 300 yards six times and 400 yards four times.
Webb and now departed freshman Baker Mayfield played as true freshmen because sophomore Michael Brewer missed virtually the entire year with a back injury. Brewer should be back to provide competition—and options—at the position this year.
Whoever wins the position won’t have tight end Jace Amaro or receiver Eric Ward as luxuries, though. Amaro turned pro after leading the league with 106 receptions and 1,352 yards. Ward finished just shy of 1,000 yards as a senior.
Still, the Red Raiders return plenty of receiving talent in the receiving corps.
Texas Tech must improve its woeful turnover margin to take a step forward. It finished 126th of 128 teams nationally in the department, with a horrifying minus-14 ratio.
Kingsbury proved he can direct his team into the end zone. He now needs better ball security from more experienced quarterbacks.
West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen’s primary concern heading into the 2014 season should be keeping his job.
It’s amazing he did this year.
The Mountaineers seemed capable of sneaking through the back door and into a bowl game, needing to beat Kansas and Iowa State to do so to end the season.
Instead, West Virginia lost to both teams.
Holgorsen’s defense struggled again, allowing 30 or more points in seven of the last nine games—and giving up 73 to Baylor.
Making matters worse, the Mountaineers lose their best—and at times only—offensive weapon because running back Charles Sims graduated.
Perhaps quarterback Clint Trickett can improve with a full spring under Holgorsen. He spent last spring trying fruitlessly to stave off Jameis Winston for the starting job at Florida State.
If West Virginia doesn’t play dramatically better in 2014, wins will be hard to find.
Another year like this, and it will be difficult to imagine Holgorsen continuing in Morgantown.