2014 Big 12 Football Conference Predictions
It was a bit of a mystery who would come away with the Big 12 title in 2013, but this year it won't be.
Oklahoma and Baylor are the favorites coming off solid seasons. The Sooners' big win over Alabama set the tone heading into the 2014 season, while the Bears proved they could play with the best by winning their first Big 12 title and playing in the Fiesta Bowl.
While most focus on Oklahoma and Baylor, Kansas State could be in the running if coach Bill Snyder can use his magic to surprise as he did in 2012, with a senior quarterback and talent on the defensive end.
Other teams in the mix might be Texas, who will now be led by head coach Charlie Strong, as well as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. It’s expected that the Pokes and the Red Raiders will finish in the middle of the pack, but you never know in the wild Big 12.
A dark-horse candidate will be TCU, who will be trying to forget what occurred in 2013. Going 4-8 is almost unheard of for a Gary Patterson team, but the Horned Frogs could be a threat to be reckoned with if the offense can click right away with new offensive coordinators.
The Big 12 will be highly competitive this season for the most part and should see at least two teams advance to major bowl games at the end of the season.
Prediction: 11-1, 8-1 (1st in Big 12)
The Sooners are a top-5 team and national title contenders after what they displayed in last season’s 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight had a breakout performance in that game, passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns. With the hype of Knight under center and nine returning starters back on defense, there are high expectations in Norman.
Knight was shaky most of his freshman season and will need to be the consistent dual-threat quarterback that he is capable of being. Protecting his body from heavy hits, even though he is the team’s leading returning rusher (445 yards), will be necessary in the success of the Sooner offense.
Junior wide receiver Sterling Shepard (603 yards, 7 TDs) will be Knight’s main target in a receiver unit that will be inexperienced with three of its top four receivers gone. Tight ends such as Taylor McNamara and former quarterback Blake Bell will be other targets for Knight to look to as well.
Like the receiving corps, the running back unit lacks experience but has the potential to be solid with young talent this season. Sophomore Keith Ford (134 yards, 1 TD) will head a unit that will also consist of sophomore Alex Ross and 5-star recruit Joe Mixon. Mixon's status is currently unclear after an off-field incident.
The line loses All-American center Gabe Ikard, but it will likely be the strongest unit of the offense with senior tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams back.
In his third season back as defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops has the defense back where it should be. The Sooners held opponents to just 22.1 points per game (second in the Big 12) and 350.2 yards per game (first).
First-team All-Big 12 junior defensive end Charles Tapper will head the defensive line after leading the team last season with 5.5 sacks. Senior Chuka Ndulue will return at the other defensive end position.
The Sooner linebacking corps is full of talent and will be among the best in the country. Dominique Alexander was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, while Eric Striker finished second-team All-Big 12 and had three of his 6.5 sacks against Alabama. Geneo Grissom moves back to linebacker in the 3-4 scheme and proved how dominant he can be after finishing with two sacks, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown against Alabama.
Team-leading tackler Frank Shannon will be missed in the linebacking unit after being suspended for the entire season due to allegations of sexual assault. FWAA Freshman All-American cornerback Zack Sanchez, who recorded an impressive 13 pass breakups, will head a secondary that also returns senior safety Quentin Hayes.
Oklahoma’s best non-conference opponent will be Tennessee, whom it hosts on Sept. 13. As surprising as it is, one of the most difficult opponents the Sooners have faced the past two years is West Virginia. They’ve only defeated the Mountaineers by a combined 10 points and will make the trip to Morgantown on Sept. 20.
If no upset happens there, there could be one in October with difficult matchups against TCU, Texas and Kansas State. Like West Virginia, Oklahoma travels to play a TCU team that it also only defeated by 10 combined points the past two years.
The Sooners were shut down by Texas and had a 41-31 shootout road win at Kansas State last season. The Horns would like nothing better than to ruin their hated rivals' season, while the Wildcats could pull an upset with an improved team. Oklahoma will then hope to knock off Big 12 title contender Baylor on Nov. 8.
If undefeated after facing Baylor, Bob Stoops and Co. should be in good position to win the conference, even if they're upset at Texas Tech (Nov. 15). At the end of the regular season, the Sooners will be in contention for the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: 10-2, 7-2 (2nd in Big 12)
In five seasons at Baylor, Art Briles has turned a team that lived in the cellar for years into a team that can compete nationally.
He’s created an offensive juggernaut that averaged an astounding 52.4 points per game (first in the country) and 618.8 yards per game (also first in the country) last season. With a dynamic offense and an improved defense, the Bears clinched their first Big 12 title and played in their first BCS game in school history.
This team expects to be just as dangerous this season as it moves into its new home at the $260 million McLane Stadium.
After finally getting his time to shine behind center, Bryce Petty became one of the best quarterbacks in the country by passing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with three interceptions last season.
The Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year didn’t just cause problems for opposing defenses with his arm but on the ground as well. Petty rushed for 209 yards and led the team with 14 rushing touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Petty, who finished second nationally in passer efficiency, is in the running to win Baylor’s second Heisman Trophy in four years. He’ll need help from his weapons on offense, though.
The only loss in a dangerous receiving corps is Tevin Reese. Third-team All-American senior Antwan Goodley, who led the Bears with 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, will be joined by Levi Norwood (733 yards, 8 TDs), Corey Coleman (527 yards, 2 TDs) and Clay Fuller (512 yards, 3 TDs). Running back Shock Linwood (881 yards, 8 TDs) replaces All-Big 12 rusher Lache Seastrunk as the premier back in a backfield with depth.
The offensive line loses All-American left guard Cyril Richardson and has dealt with injuries, most notably to All-Big 12 left tackle Spencer Drango, who is recovering offseason back surgery.
The defense was much improved from 2012, but it managed to get exposed in the Fiesta Bowl by surrendering a season-high 52 points to a talented UCF team. Despite losing seven starters, Baylor has the potential to be solid under fourth-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
The defensive line could be a major threat to opposing offenses with defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer. Oakman had 10.5 tackles for loss as a backup, while Palmer recorded five sacks. They’ll be joined by tackles Beau Blackshear and Andrew Billings.
Senior Bryce Hager is the lone starter in the linebacking unit and was still battling a groin injury in the spring. Like Hager, safety Terrell Burt is the only starter back in the secondary and missed the entire spring rehabbing a shoulder injury. All-American safety Ahmad Dixon’s safety spot will be taken over by sophomore Orion Stewart.
The Bears have an opportunity to run over their first four opponents of the season.
Their first test of the season will be at in-state foe Texas, whom it has defeated three of the past four years. Baylor then hosts TCU on Oct. 11 and then makes the trip east to West Virginia. The offense has scored a combined 136 points against the Mountaineers in the past two years.
After a road test in Morgantown, there is a solid possibility that Baylor will be undefeated heading into Norman on Nov. 8. It ruined Oklahoma’s conference title hopes in 2013 by crushing the Sooners 41-12 at home. Unfortunately, the Bears will have difficulty winning two in a row, as they haven’t had much luck at Memorial Stadium.
Following a difficult loss to the Sooners, they’ll finish the regular season with three difficult games against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State.
Art Briles’ team should be good for a major bowl game for a second consecutive season.
Kansas State Wildcats
Prediction: 8-4, 6-3 (Tied 3rd in Big 12)
Bill Snyder’s Wildcats reeled off six of their final seven games in 2013 and should carry that momentum into the 2014 season. Quarterback Jake Waters has year one under his belt and has the opportunity to have a breakout senior season with a lethal target in Tyler Lockett.
The schedule will be difficult, but no one can ever count out a Snyder-coached team. Kansas State finds ways to win games it's not supposed to—just look back at what it did in 2012.
Waters, a dual-threat quarterback, no longer needs to split time under center, after passing for 2,469 yards and scoring 24 total touchdowns. He will rely heavily on Lockett, who finished All-Big 12 with 1,262 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Not only will Lockett cause problems for opposing secondaries, but senior Curry Sexton (39 catches, 446 yards) and junior college transfer Andre Davis will be in the mix as well. Without the No. 2 rusher in school history, John Hubert, the running game will look to senior DeMarcus Robinson and potentially true freshman Dalvin Warmack to head the backfield.
Sophomore fullback Glenn Gronkowski will also be relied on at times to get tough yardage for the offense. A critical part to the success of the Wildcats offense will be the talent up front. All-Big 12 and potential All-American center BJ Finney will anchor a line that returns juniors Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson.
Second-team All-American defensive end Ryan Mueller, who surprised last season by recording an impressive 11.5 sacks, will head a Kansas State defense with five returning starters. Joining Mueller up front will be run-stopper and Big 12 Honorable Mention defensive tackle Travis Britz (three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss) as well as junior college transfer Terrell Clinkscales and Marquel Bryant.
Jonathan Truman finished second on the team with 89 tackles and will be the lone returning starter in the linebacking corps. The secondary loses a leader in Ty Zimmerman, but safety Dante Barnett should be able to fill his shoes.
Barnett, who recorded 75 tackles and four interceptions last season, was the defensive MVP of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and should be an even bigger impact this season. Senior defensive back Randall Evans (12 pass breakups) will be the other returning starter in the defensive backfield.
The big game on the schedule will be a Thursday night home game against Auburn on Sept. 18. A win over the 2014 BCS runner-up would catapult the Cats into the national spotlight.
Texas Tech could be trouble at home Oct. 4, but the next four games could make or break Kansas State’s season. A road trip to Oklahoma (Oct. 18), followed by home games against Texas (Oct. 25) and Oklahoma State (Nov. 1) will all be difficult wins.
Making it through 11 games with only two conference losses may give the Cats a chance to share its second Big 12 title in three years, that’s if it can upset Baylor on the road in the season finale. The Bears have won the last three meetings in Waco. Kansas State should finish with no fewer than eight wins this season and be bowling for a fifth consecutive year.
Prediction: 8-4, 6-3 (Tied 3rd in Big 12)
The Mack Brown era is over, and in comes Charlie Strong, who went an impressive 23-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville. The Horns were one win away from taking the Big 12 last season, but they were still not a team that was a threat nationally.
Texas hasn’t been in the national spotlight since 2009 and are hoping Strong can be the savior in Austin. The main focuses will be on quarterback consistency and playing better defense.
It all starts with having a healthy and reliable quarterback. Senior David Ash played in just three games last season, due to concussions symptoms. He also had surgery in the spring to repair a fractured left foot. Ash has all-conference potential, but it depends on if he can stay healthy and make it through the season.
A solid aspect to the offense will be its running game, which is among the best in the country with juniors Malcolm Brown (904 yards, nine TDs) and Johnathan Gray (780 yards, four TDs).
With talent in the backfield, there won’t be any success unless the offensive line can step up. Senior center Dominic Espinosa and sophomore right tackle Kennedy Estelle are the only two returning starters on a line that gave up just 16 sacks. The receiving unit, led by senior Jaxon Shipley, will look to be more of a threat to defenses, after averaging just 212.5 yards per game last season.
The defense was inconsistent throughout 2013, and it showed when BYU and Ole Miss combined for 84 points in back-to-back weeks at the beginning of the season. Vance Bedford, who left Louisville with Strong, will take over a defense with eight returning starters.
Team-leading tackler and sack leader Jackson Jeffcoat is gone, but the defensive front will be the highlight of the Longhorns defense. Second-Team All-Big 12 defensive end Cedric Reed (79 tackles, 10 sacks) will anchor one of the best lines in the country with returning tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson, as well as new starting defensive end Shiro Davis.
The linebacking corps should be among the best in the country as well, if Peter Jinkens, Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks can all manage to stay healthy. Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs has All-American talent and will be in charge of a secondary that will have the potential to be the best in the conference.
The Horns draw BYU (Sept. 6) and UCLA (Sept. 13) in difficult non-conference games, prior to a challenging October conference schedule. Texas plays Big 12 title contenders Baylor and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks, then travels to Kansas State at the end of the month, where it has not won since 2002. Its last remaining tests will be a road game at Oklahoma State (Nov. 15) and a home game on Thanksgiving against TCU (Nov. 27). Eight wins in Year 1 for Strong would be a good start.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Prediction: 7-5, 5-4 (5th in Big 12)
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys were on the verge of winning their second Big 12 title in three years, until in-state rival Oklahoma ripped the Pokes' hearts out in Stillwater with a 33-24 affair. A 10-3 season, which included a Cotton Bowl loss to former Big 12 foe Missouri, was still a good season for an offense that didn’t have a true starting quarterback until midway through the season.
J.W. Walsh, who eventually lost the job to former quarterback Clint Chelf, had a good spring and will be the starter heading into the season opener. Walsh must be consistent with a team that returns just eight starters.
The Pokes averaged an impressive 39.1 points per game and will look to rack points up on opponents again. Walsh’s ability to be a dual-threat quarterback is a plus for the offense, but his success won’t happen if an inexperienced line, led by seniors Chris Grisbhy and Daniel Koenig, doesn’t step up right away.
A running game which averaged 171.6 yards per game will rely heavily on the offensive line as well. Senior Desmond Roland (811 yards, 13 TDs) heads a backfield consisting of sophomore Rennie Childs and junior college transfer Tyreek Hill. Hill, who has world-class speed and finished fifth at the NCAA Championships in the 200-meter, will also look to be a threat at the slot receiver position.
The receiving corps loses top playmakers Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart, meaning it will be up to sophomores Jhajuan Seales (571 yards, three TDs) and Marcell Ateman (22 receptions, 276 yards) to be Walsh’s main targets in the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer had a solid first season in his role, as the Pokes finished first in the Big 12 by surrendering just 21.6 points per game. Oklahoma State has depth and potential, despite having only tackle James Castleman (33 tackles, one sack) and end Jimmy Bean (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) returning on the line from last season.
Junior middle linebacker Ryan Simmons is the lone returning starter in the linebacker corps, after finishing fourth on the team with 67 tackles and eight tackles for loss. Junior cornerback Kevin Peterson will need to take charge and lead a secondary that lost All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert and safety Daytawion Lowe in the secondary.
Oklahoma State will get its toughest challenge in Week 1 when it faces national champion Florida State in Arlington. This game should give a good indication of what things could look like for the Pokes this year. Fortunately, after playing the Seminoles, the schedule will be in their favor.
They get Texas Tech at home, whom they’ve defeated in their last five meetings, along with Iowa State, Kansas and West Virginia. The only two games that are likely to be difficult for the Pokes before their final three games of the season will be at TCU (Oct. 18) and Kansas State (Nov. 1).
The last three games will be critical in making a major bowl game this season. Oklahoma State hosts Texas (Nov. 15), whom it's defeated in three of its last four meetings, then faces conference contenders Baylor and Oklahoma on the road. The road team has lost the last four meetings between the Pokes and the Bears, while Oklahoma has owned the Bedlam series by taking 10 of the last 11 meetings.
Gundy’s squad will likely not be in contention for a Big 12 title but will have a good enough season to get to a ninth straight bowl game.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Prediction: 7-5, 4-5 (Tied 6th in Big 12)
Former Texas Tech star quarterback Kliff Kingsbury brought a spark back to Lubbock in his first year at the helm. The Red Raiders climbed all the way to No. 10 in the country after a 7-0 start. They went on to lose their final five games of the regular season but had a solid performance in the Holiday Bowl by running all over Arizona State in a 37-23 win. Texas Tech will look to expand on last season and be more competitive.
There will be no questions at the quarterback position heading into the 2014 season. Sophomore Davis Webb had a breakout performance in the Holiday Bowl by passing for 403 yards and four touchdowns. Webb will look to returning playmakers on a Red Raiders offense that averaged 35.8 points per game (23rd in the country) and a whopping 392.8 passing yards per game (second in the country).
The receiving corps will now be led by Jakeem Grant (796 yards, seven TDs) and Bradley Marquez (633 yards, six TDs), who switches to the inside Y position, with the losses of Jace Amaro and Eric Ward.
A Texas Tech run game which averaged only 118.2 yards per game in a pass-heavy offense will rely heavily on junior DeAndre Washington with leading-rusher Kenny Williams switching to linebacker.
Webb will also look to an improved offensive line with four of five starters back. The line will be headlined by All-Big 12 tackle Le’Raven Clark, while incoming junior college transfer Dominique Robertson looks to make a quick impact by earning a starting spot.
If there is any questions heading into the season for Texas Tech, it’s the defense. The Red Raiders defense surrendered 30.5 points per game (87th in the country) and 201.5 rushing yards per game (98th in the country). Not only does that leave fans worried, but only three starters are back from last year’s defense, leaving a lot of pressure on junior college transfers.
The defensive line will be impacted by junior college transfers—nose tackle Rika Levi, defensive tackle Keland McElrath and defensive end Brandon Thorpe.
Unlike the line, the linebacker unit will have experience with junior Pete Robertson (60 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss) and senior Sam Eguavoen (70 tackles, five tackles for loss). They’ll be joined by Utah transfer V.J. Fehoko and converted linebacker Kenny Williams.
Safeties Keenan Ward and J.J. Gaines return to a secondary that recorded only three interceptions in the regular season, while sophomores Justin Nelson and La’Darius Newbold look to start at the cornerback positions.
Starting 3-0 shouldn’t be an issue, but after a bye week on Sept. 20, the schedule gets difficult. Back-to-back road games at Oklahoma State and Kansas State will be no picnic, seeing as the Red Raiders are a combined 1-8 against both teams in the last five years. They’ll get a breather at home with West Virginia and Kansas before heading to TCU to close out October.
Nov. 1, 2008 is the last time Texas Tech defeated Texas, and it will get its shot on Nov. 1, 2014 to potentially do the same thing at home. A win over the Longhorns would give Kingsbury’s squad momentum heading into the following week, where it will be hoping to play spoiler to an Oklahoma team that is favored to win the Big 12. The season ends with a road game at Iowa State and a matchup against Baylor in Arlington.
If the offense is as explosive as last season and the defense can be at least average, there is no reason the Red Raiders can't win at least eight games.
TCU Horned Frogs
Prediction: 6-6, 4-5 (Tied 6th in Big 12)
The Horned Frogs looked to be a force heading into the Big 12, after going a combined 36-3 from 2009-11 as a member of the Mountain West. Since joining the Big 12, they’ve gone just 11-14 and missed a bowl game last year for the first time since 2004.
TCU lost five games by a combined 15 points and had the opportunity to win more games, but the offense struggled to put points on the board. With a new offensive scheme underway, expect Gary Patterson’s squad to be much improved.
The TCU offense, which averaged 344.8 yards per game, will get a makeover with former Texas Tech quarterback and co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, as well as former Houston co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham. Cumbie and Meacham will take over as co-offensive coordinators and look to incorporate an uptempo, no-huddle scheme. The offense won’t be successful, though, unless it can get the right quarterback to step up.
Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel joined the team in April and will be the man in charge, unless junior Trevone Boykin manages to win the job. Joining Joeckel or Boykin in the backfield will be quick returning running backs B.J. Catalon (569 yards, six TDs) and Aaron Green (232 yards).
Boykin should find himself back at wide receiver if Joeckel gets the starting quarterback job. Boykin would be joined by returning starters Josh Doctson and David Porter, who combined for 875 yards and nine touchdowns last season. The line will hope to be stronger with three returning starters, including potential All-Big 12 center Joey Hunt.
Eight starters return to a defense that was the heart and soul of the Horned Frogs last season. Opponents averaged just 130.8 rushing yards per game (21st in the country) and 356.4 total yards per game (24th in the country) on a stout TCU defense.
The line will be among the best in the country with returning starting tackles Davion Pierson and Chucky Hunter. Standout defensive end Devonte Fields was dismissed by TCU because of an assault investigation.
The linebacking unit will consist of returning starters Jonathan Anderson and Marcus Mallet, along with team-leading tackler Paul Dawson (91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss). All-American cornerback Jason Verrett will be missed, but there will be talent in an experienced secondary with weak safety Chris Hackett and strong safety Sam Carter back. The two players combined for eight of the team's 19 interceptions (tied for sixth in the country).
TCU has the opportunity to start 3-0 with nonconference matchups against Samford, Northwestern and SMU. Once the conference schedule starts, though, the nation will find out just how tough these Horned Frogs are with matchups against Oklahoma (Oct. 4), Baylor (Oct. 11) and Oklahoma State (Oct. 18).
Three of their final six games are winnable, but if seven wins is a possibility, the Horned Frogs will need to knock off either Texas Tech or Kansas State at home. In TCU's first two seasons in the Big 12, it has lost to Texas Tech and Kansas State by a combined average of 7.8 points.
Patterson and Co. can only go up after last season, but by how much? If the offense clicks early, eight wins is a possibility.
Iowa State Cyclones
Prediction: 4-8, 3-6 (8th in Big 12)
Iowa State is never a team in the Big 12 title race, but it fights for every opportunity to be bowl eligible. After two consecutive six-win seasons, though, it comes off its worst season since 2008 after going 3-9.
The Cyclones should benefit with 15 returning starters despite having issues on both sides of the ball last season. Winning all three nonconference games and scoring more than an average of 24.8 points per game would be a start to making a bowl game for the fourth time in six years.
Former Kansas head coach Mark Mangino takes over a Cyclones offense that averaged just 363.0 points per game (96th in the country). Sophomore Grant Rohach—who had back-to-back 300-yard games in Iowa State’s two season-ending wins—will return, but it appears junior Sam B. Richardson will win the job when it's all said and done.
The main threat on offense will be third-team All-Big 12 wide receiver Quenton Bundrage, who recorded 48 receptions for 676 yards and nine touchdowns. Bundrage will be joined in the receiving unit by second-team All-Big 12 tight end EJ Bibbs (462 yards, two TDs).
Senior Aaron Wimberly rushed for 567 yards and scored four total touchdowns, as he also made an impact in the passing game. All-Big 12 center Tom Farniok will anchor an offensive line with six returning starters.
The Cyclones finished last in the Big 12 in three of the four defensive categories. Five starters are back, after a rough offseason that saw seniors Rodney Coe and David Irving dismissed from the team, as well as senior Brandon Jensen almost quitting the team for good.
Potential All-Big 12 senior defensive end Cory Morrissey will be joined by Jensen and sophomore end Mitchell Meyers. The linebacking corps gets Luke Knott back, after he missed the final six games and underwent hip surgery in the offseason. Knott managed to record 45 tackles last season and will look for help from senior Jared Brackens.
The secondary returns both cornerbacks, Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson, but must replace both safeties. Recording more than 15 sacks—which ranked dead last in the Big 12—and creating turnovers will be critical in the success of the Iowa State defense.
Drawing three-time FCS defending champion North Dakota State won’t be an easy opening game, as the Bison have upset four FBS schools, such as Kansas and Kansas State, in the past four seasons. Not only will that be tough, but the Cyclones will host Kansas State the following week, then travel to in-state rival Iowa. A home matchup against Baylor will close out the month of September and setup what will be a potentially rough October.
The Cyclones travel to both Oklahoma State (Oct. 4) and Texas (Oct. 18) and will hope to come away with a second win at home against Toledo (Oct. 11). Besides hosting Oklahoma on Nov. 1, Iowa State has an opportunity to get wins against Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia and TCU to end the season. Those four conference wins would be what it needs to become bowl eligible again.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Prediction: 3-9, 2-7 (9th in Big 12)
Dana Holgorsen was forced to use three different quarterbacks in a 2013 season that saw the Mountaineers fail to have a winning record or receive a bowl bid. The program hadn’t had a losing record since its first season under Rich Rodriguez back in 2001.
If the offense can’t convert when it needs to and the defense doesn’t make any improvement, things could get interesting for Holgorsen’s future in Morgantown.
The key to success for the offense will be the performance of senior quarterback Clint Trickett, who battled through a shoulder injury and concussions for most of last season. While Trickett (1,605 yards, seven TDs) will start in the season opener against Alabama, the backup position will be left to senior Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard or walk-on Logan Moore.
Despite West Virginia’s offensive struggles last season, the passing game ranked 34th in the country with 262.3 yards per game. Senior wide receiver Mario Alford, who averaged 20.4 yards per catch, will look to be the main target in a passing game, which also includes returning starters Kevin White (507 yards, five TDs) and Daikiel Shorts (495 yards, two TDs).
The run game is without 1,000-yard rusher Charles Sims but should still be among the best in the Big 12 with Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell, Dreamius Smith and Andrew Buie leading the way. The Mountaineers rushing attack will look for help up front from second-team All-Big 12 senior left guard Quinton Spain and senior right guard Mark Glowinski.
Defense hasn’t been a strength for West Virginia the past few seasons. It finished no better than 90th in the country in the four defensive categories, as opponents racked up 33.3 points per game and 455 yards per game. There should be improvement this season, though, as Tony Gibson will take over the defense and implement a 3-4 scheme.
One of the biggest surprises heading into the season will be the secondary, which was the biggest weakness for the defense the past two seasons. Sophomore Daryl Worley has the potential to be one of the best corners in the country, after he started five games last season and had a solid spring. Worley will be joined by potential All-Big 12 junior safety Karl Joseph (68 tackles, one interception), as well as senior corner Ishmael Banks and either Jeremy Tyler or Dravon Henry at the other safety spot.
The linebacking corps will be another strength for the Mountaineers with the experience of second-team All-Big 12 junior Nick Kwiatkoski, junior Isaiah Bruce and senior Brandon Golson. Kwiatkoski led the team with 86 tackles last season, while Bruce and Golson combined for 84 tackles.
The defensive line will be the biggest weakness with nose tackle Kyle Rose being the only returning starter. The line also was one of the worst in the country last season, as it only registered 16 total sacks.
West Virginia will have a huge test in Week 1 when it travels to Atlanta to take on SEC heavyweight Alabama. The rest of September includes Towson, Maryland and Big 12 conference contender Oklahoma. Finishing .500 after the first four games would at least give the team a little momentum heading into a difficult October schedule.
A home win over Kansas on Oct. 4 should be a guaranteed win, but other than that, games against Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State will be an uphill battle.
The Mountaineers finish the season with a road games at Texas (Nov. 8) and Iowa State (Nov. 29), as well as a home game against Kansas State (Nov. 20). Winning two of the final three games could be possible, as West Virginia has had close games with both Texas and Iowa State the past two seasons. Holgorsen’s squad will player better this year, but expect a disappointing three-win season.
Prediction: 2-10, 0-9 (10th in Big 12)
Charlie Weis enters his third year at the helm, after another disappointing season that left Kansas with only three victories. Just how bad has it been in Lawrence? The highlight last season was earning its first conference win in three years against a less-than-subpar West Virginia team. The last time the Jayhawks had won a game in Big 12 play was in 2010, when it defeated Colorado.
At least there will be a few positives heading into the season. The offense should benefit with Weis handing the offensive coordinator job to John Reagan, while the defense will hopefully benefit from nine returning starters.
With the hiring of Reagan to take over the offense, as well as the offensive line, Kansas has the potential to at least compete offensively with a no-huddle spread offense that will hopefully lead to more scoring than the pro-style offense did.
A big problem for the offense has been the quarterback position, as Weis is already on his third starting quarterback in three years. Sophomore Montell Cozart will be the starter this season, after a good spring game. Cozart, who passed for just 227 yards a year ago, will look to use his dual-threat ability to help improve a Kansas offense that averaged a terrible 15.3 points per game last season (118th in the country).
The backfield loses 1,100-yard rusher James Sims, but it doesn’t mean there will be any trouble finding someone to fill in the starting role. Senior Brandon Bourbon (191 yards, three TDs) should get most of the carries, while Taylor Cox and junior college transfer De’Andre Mann look to get in on the action as well.
The passing game, which averaged a less-than-impressive 140.4 yards per game, should benefit from the return of senior wide receiver Tony Pierson (333 yards, one TD) and senior tight end Jimmay Mundine (229 yards, five TDs).
The receiving corps will also benefit from the addition of Miami (Ohio) transfer senior Nick Harwell, who recorded a combined 3,166 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns in three seasons. The offensive line will be the main question going into the season with a majority of its starters gone from a line that struggled last year.
Even though the Jayhawks aren’t the best defensively, the offense needed to put more points on the board in a score-heavy Big 12. There will be optimism with talent returning in the linebacker and secondary units, though.
Senior middle linebacker Ben Heeney will look to improve on his 88 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss last season. Heeney, who earned All-Big 12 honors in 2013, will be joined by junior Jake Love on the weak side and sack leader Michael Reynolds at the Buck position.
The secondary will look to strong safety Isaiah Johnson to head the backfield, after recording five interceptions and being selected as the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year. Senior cornerback Dexter McDonald and senior free safety Cassius Sendish are back as well, while former junior college cornerback Kevin Short looks to prove himself.
Up front, the Jayhawks will rely on senior nose tackle Keon Stowers and junior defensive end Ben Goodman, who made the switch from outside linebacker.
Kansas starts with nonconference games against SW Missouri State, Duke and Central Michigan. With a Duke program becoming the new animal in college football, chances are the Jayhawks will be 2-1 in their first three games.
Once Big 12 play starts, their best chance to win will be at West Virginia (Oct. 4) and at home against Iowa State (Nov. 8). If Weis’ squad wants to pull an upset, it will likely be at home, seeming the program hasn’t won a road game since 2008. Look for another rough season in Lawrence.