Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2017 Season

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2017

Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2017 Season

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    Can Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley team up to take Oklahoma to a third consecutive Big 12 title?
    Can Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley team up to take Oklahoma to a third consecutive Big 12 title?Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Big 12 enters the 2017 season looking to prove a few things. In three years of the College Football Playoff, the league has had only one playoff qualifier (Oklahoma in 2015, which took a 37-17 rout at Clemson's hands in the Orange Bowl). Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the 10-team league hope to buck that trend this season.

    To do so, the league reinstated its championship game for the first time since 2010. The Big 12 does not have divisions, but its top two finishers will qualify for the league title game. It will ensure a rematch as the league will keep its round-robin schedule, and the Big 12 hopes it won't backfire by creating an upset that keeps its champion out of the College Football Playoff again.

    Two-time defending champion Oklahoma is the clear favorite to win a third regular-season title, but the Sooners aren't a shoo-in by any means. A number of teams feel they have what it takes to knock OU and new coach Lincoln Riley off their perch. Will it happen? We’re breaking down the Big 12—from its stars to contenders and pretenders—in our 2017 season preview.

Biggest Stars

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    Baker Mayfield is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the nation's top players.
    Baker Mayfield is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the nation's top players.Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

    Oklahoma OT Orlando Brown

    The late Orlando Brown played for more than a decade in the NFL, anchoring offensive lines with fiery passion for the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. His son, Orlando Brown, is moving in the same trajectory. The younger Brown has emerged as one of college football's top offensive tackles, measuring in at 6'8", 345 pounds.

    He has power, strength and agility and does an excellent job protecting Baker Mayfield's blind side. Brown became an immediate starter as a redshirt freshman and hasn't relinquished the job since. He's a strong early-entry NFL candidate but is ready to help the Sooners offense thrive one more time before he goes.

            

    Texas LB Malik Jefferson

    Texas has a new leader in Tom Herman, and new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando faces a big task in turning around a defense that returns 10 starters but gave up 31.5 points per game last fall (No. 90 nationally). However, the Longhorns do have a very nice building block in junior linebacker Malik Jefferson.

    Jefferson is an athletic force who can make things happen in opposing backfields. He had 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last fall. If Texas turns it around in Herman's first season, the defense will need improvement, with Jefferson surely leading the way.

           

    Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

    Riley has some question marks on offense (particularly at running back and receiver) but has a key piece returning in quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is a tough, aggressive player and a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. He threw for 3,965 yards with 40 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season and has the ability to scramble for first downs and move in the pocket.

    If the Sooners challenge for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth, the rugged senior will be right in the middle of the success.

            

    Oklahoma State WR James Washington

    Oklahoma State should be right in the mix for the league title with 12 returning starters, including seven from a potent offense. With Mason Rudolph throwing to senior receiver James Washington, the Cowboys give opposing defenses plenty to fear. Washington is one of the nation's premier deep threats, averaging 19.4 yards per reception (best among all FBS receivers with at least 70 receptions).

    He had 71 catches for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016 and has 26 touchdowns through three seasons. Washington leads all active FBS receivers in receiving yards and will be a cornerstone of one of the nation's most prolific offenses.

          

    Texas OT Connor Williams

    Texas fans expect big things from Herman in his debut season, and it certainly helps that Connor Williams is returning to anchor the offensive line. A returning consensus All-American, the 6'6", 315-pound junior is one of the best linemen in college football. He is a talented player who can run- and pass-block successfully.

    Williams also has an intense, physical nature in the trenches, but he can also play with agility and has great footwork and awareness. He'll play an important role in keeping sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele upright and keeping the Longhorns' fast-paced offense moving smoothly.

Top Storylines

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    How quickly can Tom Herman turn around Texas?
    How quickly can Tom Herman turn around Texas?Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Can Lincoln Riley Keep The Sooners Booming?

    Bob Stoops surprised the college football world by stepping away from Oklahoma's program after 18 seasons, 190 wins and a national championship. But Lincoln Riley is a very capable replacement as head coach. The offensive coordinator revitalized the offense in 2015 by installing the Air Raid system, and the Sooners averaged 43.9 points per game (No. 3 nationally) and 554.8 passing yards per game (No. 2 nationally).

    And the cupboard is far from bare: Oklahoma returns 15 starters, led by Mayfield. After losing 1,000-yard rushers Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and fellow Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook, there are offensive issues. But beyond a Sept. 9 visit to Ohio State and Nov. 4's Bedlam visit to Oklahoma State, the schedule is relatively forgiving. This team has the tools to win a third consecutive Big 12 championship.

            

    How Fast Can Tom Herman Turn Around Texas?

    Charlie Strong made some positive changes following the end of the Mack Brown era at Texas, but ultimately couldn't get the results he needed and was fired following a 16-21 record in three seasons. Enter Herman, who quickly turned Houston around (22-4 in two seasons), including a 13-1 record and Peach Bowl win in 2015. Herman is flashy, a little over the top and hard-driving with a fast-paced offensive scheme.

    Can he win quickly at Texas? He authored a six-win improvement from 2014 to 2015, and if he did that in Austin, Longhorn fans would be giddy after a 5-7 season. Texas returns 16 starters, including Buechele, and the pieces are there for real improvement in 2017.

            

    Is Matt Rhule The Right Fit at Baylor?

    Following the departure of Art Briles and Baylor administrators in connection with the program's handling of sexual assaults and violence against women, Baylor had an up-and-down 2016 season. The Bears started the season 6-0 but lost their final six regular-season games before beating Boise State in the Cactus Bowl under interim coach Jim Grobe.

    Matt Rhule was lured away from Temple following consecutive 10-win seasons to stabilize the program and is already working to build a more grounded off-the-field culture. But he faces a tough road, especially with a roster that is upperclassmen-heavy due to recruiting issues connected to the scandal. The Bears return 10 starters but must settle on a quarterback and still have questions at receiver and on defense. Will Rhule's approach translate into immediate success, or will the Bears take a step back before they move forward? We’ll see starting now.

    Will Rhule's approach translate into immediate success, or will the Bears take a step back before they move forward? We'll see starting now.

The Favorites

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    Mason Rudolph will keep Oklahoma State near the top of the Big 12.
    Mason Rudolph will keep Oklahoma State near the top of the Big 12.Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

    Oklahoma

    Oklahoma is breaking in a new coach in Riley, but there's little reason to think that the Sooners will take a major step back in his first season at the helm. Riley had already built buzz as one of the nation's top young coaches following two seasons running OU's offense, and the only surprise is that the powers that be handed him the keys this summer.

    Oklahoma brings back 15 starters, led by Mayfield, and should again have a solid defense, although capable options must emerge up front with no returning defensive line starters. However, the Sooners should be at or near the top of the league standings again this fall.

           

    Oklahoma State

    He's a man. He's 50! Once known more for his attention-grabbing rant at a reporter rather than his team's on-field success 10 years ago, Mike Gundy has quietly built a solid program at Oklahoma State.

    The Cowboys won 10 games last fall and should be one of the Big 12's best teams again in 2017. They feature one of the nation's top passer-receiver duos in Rudolph and Washington, which keyed an offense that averaged 38.6 points per game last fall.

    Oklahoma State returns 12 starters, including sophomore tailback Justice Hill, who rushed for 1,142 yards and six scores as a freshman. Trips to Pitt, West Virginia and Texas could be tough, but the Cowboys host Kansas State and Oklahoma in November, which could be very advantageous for their push toward a berth in the Big 12 title game.

The Challengers

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    Is Shane Buechele ready to work in Tom Herman's offense and make a move in the Big 12?
    Is Shane Buechele ready to work in Tom Herman's offense and make a move in the Big 12?Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Texas

    Following Strong's departure, Texas swung for the fences and hit a home run in luring Herman away from Houston. He was the top prize on the head coaching market, and pairing his skills with Texas' resources will be an intriguing story to follow. The real question: How quickly can Herman succeed in Austin? The Longhorns return 16 starters, including 10 on defense, led by Jefferson.

    Buechele should be able to adapt quickly to Herman's offense after running an uptempo scheme as a freshman and passing for 2,958 yards with 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Texas hosts Oklahoma State and Kansas State but must travel to Southern California, Baylor and West Virginia. Still, the potential for significant improvement is here in 2017, and the rest of the league should be on guard.

            

    Kansas State

    Count out Bill Snyder and Kansas State at your own peril. Snyder turned K-State from a college football laughingstock into a Big 12 power, and even as his career winds down (he'll turn 78 in October), he shows no signs of quitting just yet. The Wildcats put together an impressive 9-4 campaign in 2016 and return 13 starters, including versatile quarterback Jesse Ertz, who led the team in both passing and rushing last fall.

    The Wildcats are never the flashiest team in the Big 12, but they consistently produce results, like winning the final four games of 2016 to build momentum for this fall. They feature a deep backfield and offensive playmakers, and while there are questions at linebacker, the secondary should be very solid. K-State gets Oklahoma and West Virginia at home but must travel to Oklahoma State and Texas. They're definitely a sleeper title contender.

Best Rivalry Matchup

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    Oklahoma-Oklahoma State is one of the nation's best rivalries.
    Oklahoma-Oklahoma State is one of the nation's best rivalries.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State

    On a national level, Oklahoma and Texas still command plenty of attention for the Red River Shootout, played every October at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. But even with a pair of new coaches in Riley and Herman, it's hard to justify the Shootout as the best Big 12 rivalry game in 2017.

    That honor goes to Bedlam: Oklahoma and Oklahoma State's annual meeting, which will take place in Stillwater on Nov. 4.

    Oklahoma has won 12 of the last 14 meetings (with OK State winning in 2011 and 2014), but the 2017 matchup figures to be one of the most anticipated in recent memory. The Sooners are the two-time defending champion and the preseason favorites, while Oklahoma State returns 12 starters from a 10-win team in 2016.

    With a pair of potent offenses and plenty on the line, including College Football Playoff positioning and Big 12 title-game posturing, this edition of Bedlam figures to be one of its best ever. Coupled with two in-state rivals that don't really like one another, this game is one to mark on your calendar without question.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Kliff Kingsbury knows he needs to win at Texas Tech—and soon.
    Kliff Kingsbury knows he needs to win at Texas Tech—and soon.Associated Press

    Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

    When Kliff Kingsbury arrived in Lubbock in 2013, the prodigal son had returned to Texas Tech. The former star quarterback was expected to continue the tradition of fast-paced offenses and winning football, and while the offense has thrived (43.2 points per game, No. 5 nationally last fall), success hasn't followed.

    Kingsbury is 24-26 in four seasons and has losing seasons in two of his last three years, including a 5-7 mark last fall. Tech's defense has been awful; the Raiders allowed an FBS-worst 43.5 points and 554.3 yards per game last fall. He knows the heat is on, and the defense, which returns five starters but received an infusion of freshman and junior-college talent, must improve.

    The Red Raiders don't have an easy start with FCS foe Eastern Washington (which defeated Washington State last year), Arizona State, at Houston and Oklahoma State to start the season. Closing against Baylor, TCU and at Texas could ultimately determine Kingsbury's fate, but improvement is needed, and he knows it after acknowledging his hot-seat status this summer.

            

    David Beaty, Kansas

    The Big 12 has an unusual mix of established coaches to go with a recently arrived group of leaders (five teams have changed head coaches in the last three seasons). So finding a plethora of hot-seat coaches here is tough, but one to consider might be Kansas' David Beaty.

    He inherited an absolute mess of a roster from Charlie Weis and is working to build it from the ground up. But he is just 2-22 in two seasons at KU, although a late-season upset of Texas offered hope and sealed Strong's fate with the Longhorns.

    KU officials have shown a commitment to improve, including a planned $300 million upgrade of football facilities. But at some point, the progress has to show on the field. It's unlikely that they'd cut bait on Beaty after three seasons, but if the Jayhawks backslide, watch this closely.

Best Offense

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    James Washington is one of the nation's most explosive wide receivers.
    James Washington is one of the nation's most explosive wide receivers.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Scoring has never been an issue for Gundy and his Air Raid offense at Oklahoma State. And 2017 might be one of Gundy's best offenses yet.

    A year ago, the Cowboys averaged 38.6 points per game (No. 17 nationally) and 494.8 yards per game (No. 14 nationally). With seven starters returning, along with wide receiver Marcell Ateman (who redshirted last season with a broken foot after making 45 catches for 766 yards and five scores as a junior in 2015), this edition should be even more potent.

    After all, Rudolph is a Heisman candidate after passing for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2016, and he's throwing to one of the nation's best receivers in Washington. Hill is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,142 yards, best among FBS freshmen.

    Three starting offensive linemen return to protect what will be a high-powered offense that rates as the best in the Big 12, just ahead of Oklahoma, which must replace its top two tailbacks and a Heisman finalist in Westbrook.

Best Defense

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    Jordan Thomas leads one of the nation's best secondaries for Oklahoma.
    Jordan Thomas leads one of the nation's best secondaries for Oklahoma.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    While Stoops is gone, another intense Stoops will still roam the Big 12 sidelines this fall. Younger brother Mike Stoops remains as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator, and his unit should provide some cover just in case Riley and the offense go through any growing pains in his first season as head coach.

    While there are questions about the defensive front, which must replace all four starters, the secondary is the Big 12's best and the linebacker corps is experienced and solid. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is the team's leading returning sacker with nine, and fellow senior Emmanuel Beal had 81 tackles as a junior. Meanwhile, sophomore Caleb Kelly is emerging as one of the league's top outside linebackers.

    With three starters in the secondary returning, led by shutdown senior cornerback Jordan Thomas, the unit will be a huge luxury in the pass-happy Big 12. Sophomore corner Jordan Parker is solid in his own right, and senior safety Steven Parker has made 30 career starts.

    Overall, this is a group that is talented across the board and can help Oklahoma win games and pursue a College Football Playoff berth.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

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    Lincoln Riley has inherited plenty of talent in his first season as Oklahoma's head coach.
    Lincoln Riley has inherited plenty of talent in his first season as Oklahoma's head coach.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
    1. Oklahoma (11-1, 9-0)
    2. Oklahoma State (10-2, 8-1)
    3. Texas (9-3, 7-2)
    4. Kansas State (8-4, 5-4)
    5. West Virginia (7-5, 5-4)
    6. TCU (6-6, 3-6)
    7. Baylor (6-6, 3-6)
    8. Texas Tech (5-7, 3-6)
    9. Iowa State (4-8, 2-7)
    10.  Kansas (3-9, 0-9)

Projected Conference Championship Matchup

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    Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma have no interest in giving up their hold on the top of the Big 12.
    Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma have no interest in giving up their hold on the top of the Big 12.Ray Thompson/Associated Press

    For the first time since 2010, the Big 12 will play a league championship game, but after keeping its round-robin schedule, we're guaranteed a rematch. At least this will be a good one. By what should be an Oct. 21 win over Texas, Oklahoma State will make the title game despite losing Bedlam to Oklahoma on Nov. 4.

    Like the first game, this will be an offense-filled matchup with plenty of points to keep AT&T Stadium's giant scoreboard humming. But just like the first time around, Oklahoma will make a few stops of Rudolph and the Cowboys and take a close win for its third consecutive Big 12 championship. Will it be enough for a College Football Playoff berth? We'll have to wait and see.

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