Kansas State returns the talent to compete for a Big 12 in '14.
Expect a lot more competition in the Big 12 during the 2014 college football season.
After a year that saw typical underdogs make some noise, expect to see the usual suspects creep back to the forefront in the race for the conference crown. A lot of that is due to a strong core of returning players.
Some teams will return players that will have them thinking national title while others will just be strategizing on how to reach .500.
All in all, players who are returning—and those who are not—will go a long way in determining the outcome of the Big 12 in 2014.
Join B/R as we break down which teams are positioned the best based on returning players.
Author’s Note: Returning starters are based off Phil Steele’s blog post.
Is this the year Weis turns it around at Kansas?
Returning Starters: 16 (7 offense, 9 defense)
Key Returners: LB Michael Reynolds, DB Isaiah Johnson
The Jayhawks have been a disaster during head coach Charlie Weis’ tenure.
In two seasons, the former Notre Dame head coach is just 4-20. On a positive note, he most recently helped Kansas snap a 27-game Big 12 losing streak last year.
Offensively, the team is as good as a lost cause. The quarterbacks are largely ineffective, and the only bright spot—running back James Sims—is graduating.
On defense, linebacker Michael Reynolds and defensive back Isaiah Johnson give the Jayhawks some reason to be optimistic. Reynolds recorded 10.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles while Johnson led the team in interceptions (five).
There’s really nowhere to go but up for Kansas and at this point, and even then, it’s still almost unrealistic to expect improvement.
Can Shel (left) provide the spark West Virginia needs?
Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Key Returners: LB Brandon Golson, S Karl Joseph, RB Rushel Shell
After going 10-3 in his first season, Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen is just 11-14 in the last two seasons.
And although the team returns 14 starters, West Virginia is still short on talent.
On offense, the team has no answer at quarterback. Both Clint Trickett and Paul Millard have failed to assert themselves in the competition. Instead, each has taken turns playing themselves out of the job.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh-transfer running back Rushel Shell could provide a nice boost to the offense. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Shell should be well rested to make some noise.
On defense, linebacker Brandon Golson—7.0 tackles, 4.0 sacks and five fumbles forced—will lead the way. But other than that, talent is low on that side of the ball.
In a season that can either make or break Holgorsen’s career as a head coach, the Mountaineers will need to pull a rabbit out of their hat to back up their coach.
Can Richardson's dual-threat ability help carry the Cyclones to a bowl?
Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)
Key Returners: QB Sam Richardson, WR Quenton Bundrage
The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in returning starters, including a whopping 10 on offense.
However, that doesn’t mean as much given the team finished last season 3-9.
Still, with the hiring of veteran coach Mark Mangino as the team’s offensive coordinator, Iowa State is making the changes necessary to compete. It will be interesting to see the effect Mangino’s hire has on dual-threat quarterback Sam Richardson and talented wide receiver Quenton Bundrage.
Defensively, the team is set back, losing both its All-Big 12 performers in linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington. That doesn’t bode well for a defense that ranked No. 106 in total defense and No. 109 in scoring in 2013.
Improvement should be expected, but contending for a bowl game is still a reach for the Cyclones.
Can Roland step up for the Cowboys?
Returning Starters: 9 (5 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returners: DL Jimmy Bean, RB Desmond Roland
Hopefully, the Cowboys didn’t get too attached to their recent run of success.
That’s because the team is slated to lose a whopping 28 seniors to graduation. Among those are quarterback Clint Chelf and heralded cornerback Justin Gilbert.
The holes on offense could be minimized if running back Desmond Roland can pick it up. But his inconsistent play could force Oklahoma State to turn to whoever starts under center in 2014.
Defensively, the team is in for a world of hurt.
The Cowboys are losing their top three leading tacklers and seven of their top nine. That will only increase the pressure on young defensive linemen Jimmy Bean and Emmanuel Ogbah.
Being honest, Oklahoma State shouldn’t expect anything more than a rebuilding season this fall.
Webb will no longer have any competition for the starting job.
Returning Starters: 12 (8 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returners: QB Davis Webb, WR Jakeem Grant
The Red Raiders got off to a surprising 7-0 start last season during head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year at the helm.
Although the team wound up losing their final five regular-season games, Kingsbury certainly has Texas Tech headed in the right direction. The Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State, 37-23, was evidence of that.
After rotating quarterbacks for much of 2013, the Red Raiders won’t have to worry about that as backup Baker Mayfield has transferred. In fact, three other quarterbacks on the team have left the school.
Still, sophomore-to-be Davis Webb seems to be the right man for the job. Look for him and receiver Jakeem Grant to make a lethal combination next season.
The big question mark comes on the defensive side of the ball. Texas Tech only returns four starters and will look to improve a unit that forced just 19 turnovers.
Expect a few steps backwards before the Red Raiders get moving in the right direction.
The Horned Frogs sure are happy to get Fields back.
Returning Starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
Key Returners: S Sam Carter, DL Jon Lewis, DE Devonte Fields
The 2013 season ranks as the worst for the Horned Frogs under head coach Gary Patterson.
However, injuries are a large reason for the disappointing play. Both quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Devonte Fields missed significant playing time last season.
Fortunately for TCU, Fields comes back to a defense that returns eight starters.
Along with Fields, defensive tackle Jon Lewis will help make noise on the line. Behind him, safety Sam Carter will be a threat in the secondary—five interceptions and a touchdown in 2013.
Offensively, the Horned Frogs will have to make a lot of changes. Specifically, the team will need to decide on whether Trevone Boykin or someone else will suit up under center.
Still, with a defense that looks to be really good, TCU should make significant improvements next season.
How will Ash handle the pressure now that he's healthy?
Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Key Returners: QB David Ash, DL Cedric Reed, RB Malcolm Brown, LB Jordan Hicks
The new regime in Austin under new head coach Charlie Strong will get a fresh start at quarterback.
With Case McCoy graduating, the Longhorns will have a decision to make. Do they turn to the experience of senior David Ash or will it be time to unleash the talents of Tyrone Swoopes?
If neither option pans out, Texas can still fall back on the legs of running back Malcolm Brown (214 CAR, 904 YDS, 9 TD).
Defensively, the team should make an attempt to turn back the clock to the days when Will Muschamp was the defensive coordinator. Talented defensive end Cedric Reed leads the way—77 tackles (16.5 for loss), 10.0 sacks and five forced fumbles—while the return of the injured Jordan Hicks will be a much-needed boost to the unit.
All in all, the days of constant disappointment for the Longhorns seem to be coming to an end.
Linwood (left) and Petty (right) will be in charge of keeping up Baylor's high-powered offense.
Returning Starters: 9 (5 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returners: QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, LB Bryce Hager, WR Antwan Goodley
One of the things head coach Art Briles prided him on last year was team depth.
With only nine starters returning in 2014, Briles will get the chance to put the Bears’ depth to the test.
Returning quarterback Bryce Petty—who accounted for 46 touchdowns and just three interceptions—is huge news for Baylor. Having running back Shock Linwood and wide receiver Antwan Goodley back should help the team return to its scoring prowess.
Defensively, coordinator Phil Bennett will have his work cut out for him.
Linebacker Bryce Harper will look to make up for the loss of Eddie Lackey. Meanwhile, sophomore defensive linemen Shawn Oakman and Jamal Parker will be called upon to take on an even bigger role.
The defense may struggle at first, but the Bears will score enough that it might not even matter.
Mueller's return was huge for the Wildcats.
Returning Starters: 10 (6 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returners: QB Jake Waters, WR Tyler Lockett, DE Ryan Mueller, DB Dante Barnett
After a rough start to the 2013 campaign—an opening week loss to the FCS’ North Dakota State—the Wildcats finished on somewhat of a hot streak, winning six of their final seven games.
Fortunately, the majority of the players responsible for the turnaround will return.
It all starts with quarterback Jake Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett. The duo began catching fire in the second half of the season, scorching opposing secondaries—including connecting for 278 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma.
But the biggest turnaround came on defense, with Kansas State forcing 19 of its 25 turnovers during the final seven games of the season.
Defensive back Dante Barnett and defensive end Ryan Mueller return to fuel the unit. Barnett led the team in interceptions (four) while Mueller dominated the line, recording 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
Look for these four to power the Wildcats in 2014.
Can Knight prove his 2013 finish was no fluke?
Returning Starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)
Key Returners: QB Trevor Knight, WR Sterling Shepard, DE Geneo Grissom, OLB Eric Striker
The Sooners were one of the Big 12’s biggest surprises in 2013.
After losing many key players on both sides of the ball, it was largely expected that the team would struggle through a rebuilding process. Instead, Oklahoma delivered yet another 10-win season, capped off by topping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 45-31.
There’s no reason to believe that the success can’t continue into 2014.
Offensively, the Sooners will have to deal with some losses on the line and at running back. However, if quarterback Trevor Knight and explosive receiver Sterling Shepard can continue their great play, the team should be fine.
Expect defense to be the strong suit, as Oklahoma returns its entire front seven. That includes hart-hitting linebacker Eric Striker and Sugar Bowl hero Geneo Grissom.
Given the return of nearly all of their key playmakers, the Sooners will not only be favorites to win the Big 12, but to also compete for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.