Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2018 Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2018

Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2018 Season

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    Oklahoma has won three straight Big 12 titles. Is No. 4 on the way?
    Oklahoma has won three straight Big 12 titles. Is No. 4 on the way?Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Big 12 is trapped in a weird spot. More than half of the league should cruise to bowl eligibility, but no roster gives off a feeling of dominance entering the 2018 season.

    And that's largely a product of losing superstars.

    Last year, the league's key narrative surrounded the quarterbacks in a positive way. With Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Hill, the perception was the conference was loaded. However, the tune has changed, since all of those signal-callers used up their eligibility.

    Although the Sooners remain the commonly accepted favorite, the gap between OU and the Big 12's middle tier has narrowed. Plus, there's arguably a half-dozen teams in that group.

    Oklahoma has controlled the league recently, winning three straight Big 12 crowns. But can anyone overtake the Soonersand if that happens, will the program avoid enough losses be a College Football Playoff contender?

    Note: All pages with multiple items are listed alphabetically by school.

Biggest Stars

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

    No matter how he performs on the football field, Kyler Murray will be a professional athlete. Once the season is over, the No. 9 overall pick of the 2018 MLB draft will join the Oakland Athletics.

    Football, however, is his present. In 2015, Murray had an unsuccessful stint as Texas A&M's starter. But after collecting 501 yards of total offense as the backup last season, Murray enters 2018 with enormous expectations as the replacement for Mayfield.

          

    Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State

    Oklahoma State needs to replace a bunch of production on offense, but it can lean on Justice Hill. The elusive running back piled up 1,142 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman and then lifted his output to 1,467 and 15, respectively, last year.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, on his early big board, listed Hill as the second-best draft-eligible player at his position. With another standout year, Hill will likely be headed to the NFL.

          

    Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

    After transferring from Florida and sitting out 2016 due to NCAA rules, Will Grier performed up to his billing. The strong-armed quarterback completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns to only 12 interceptions.

    Unfortunately for West Virginia, he broke his finger in the second-to-last regular-season game, which effectively ended his season. The Mountaineers labored to a 7-6 finish. But in games he finished, the Mountaineers only lost three times (all to ranked opponents). That bodes well for 2018.

         

    David Sills V, WR, West Virginia

    Once a 13-year-old quarterback phenom, David Sills V has found a home at wide receiver for West Virginia. Last season, he posted seven multiscore games and finished the campaign with 18, tying Memphis' Anthony Miller for the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

    Sills' production trailed off toward the end of 2017, and it wasn't entirely a result of Grier's absence. The Mountaineers will be looking for a full season of elite production from Sills.

Top Storylines

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Does the Big 12 have an elite team?

    And by elite, we specifically mean College Football Playoff challenger.

    According to OddsShark, Oklahoma holds the seventh-best odds to win the national championship along with Wisconsin. Still, the Sooners lost All-Big 12 defenders in Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Steven Parker and D.J. Ward, plus leading tackler Emmanuel Beal and corner Jordan Thomas.

    Similarly, West Virginia has All-American talent on offense but must replace multiple key contributors at every level of the defense. Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas all have quarterback questions, and Iowa Statedespite its two marquee wins in 2017is still building.

         

    How will the young quarterbacks perform?

    Grier is a nationally respected signal-caller. Beyond him, the only undisputed returning starters in the Big 12 are Baylor's Charlie Brewer and Iowa State's Kyle Kempt. Kansas, Kansas State and Texas bring back experience but are holding a competition.

    Really, 2018 begins a new era of Big 12 football.

    Murray should start at Oklahoma, and Taylor Cornelius is expected to lead Oklahoma State. Shawn Robinson is assuming control of TCU's scoring attack, and McLane Carter is Texas Tech's likely choice. That quartet combined for 104 pass attempts last year.

         

    What's next, Texas?

    Two years removed from the epic season-opening win against Notre Dame, Texas finds itself in considerably better shape to win. But, uh, about the quarterback.

    Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger effectively split 2017 because of injuries. During the 7-6 campaign, three losses were largely the product of mistakes by Ehlinger, and Buechele was a non-factor at TCU. It didn't help that Texas had no semblance of a running game.

    Ehlinger is expected to start, but if either player steadies the offense and avoids making repeated game-altering mistakes, the Longhorns could rise toward the top of the Big 12.

    Otherwise, Texas will be irrelevant by November. Again.

The Favorites

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    Cooper Neill/Associated Press

    Oklahoma

    Murray is unproven, but Oklahoma is the Big 12 favorite thanks to a combination of recent performance, returning talent at skill positions on offense and Lincoln Riley's system.

    While the personnel losses on defense are significant, the Sooners have enough experience to prevent serious regression. Four rising juniors played significant snaps up front, while linebackers Caleb Kelly and Kenneth Murray were top-seven tacklers on the team.

    The development of Murraythe quarterbackand OU's young secondary will dictate whether another Big 12 title awaits in December.

          

    Texas

    Yes, the cloud of uncertainty hovers over the quarterback position. However, there's plenty to like about this Texas roster.

    The Longhorns return leading receivers Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, and Cal transfer Tre Watson will provide a boost at running back. If the offense can be above-average, Texas' defense should regularly give the team a chance to win.

    Following a dreadful season-opening display against Maryland, the Longhorns only allowed 18.9 points per game. That clip would've tied for 14th-best nationally and led the Big 12. A similar defensive display would make Texas a league title contender.

         

    West Virginia

    If Grier stays healthy all year, the Mountaineers should boast a top-10 scoring offense. They averaged 39 points in the 10 games he finished in 2017.

    Four starting linemen return in front of Grier, whose key targets will be Sills, Gary Jennings Jr.the nation's returning leader in catches (97)and Marcus Simms. Kennedy McKoy rushed for 596 yards as the backup last season and will start this year.

    West Virginia's biggest challenge will be navigating an unfriendly schedule while likely rolling out a suspect defense.

The Challengers

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Iowa State

    October victories over Oklahoma and TCU announced Iowa State's rise. November losses to West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State reminded the Cyclones they're not there yet.

    Kyle Kempt receiving a sixth year of eligibility will be a huge benefit to a retooling offense, especially since the opening slate is brutal. Within the first seven weeks, Iowa State takes on Iowa, Oklahoma, TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

    Matt Campbell's teams have annually overachieved, so the Cyclones get a small benefit of the doubt. But whatever success Iowa State manages in 2018, it will be hard-earned.

          

    Oklahoma State

    Mike Gundy has built a reliable program, recording eight seasons of nine-plus wins in the last decade. That trend will be tested as Cornelius replaces a program legend in Rudolph.

    On paper, the Pokes have enough experience all over the roster that veterans could steady the team. Hill is a creative playmaker, and the receiving corps is built to withstand losing James Washington and Marcell Ateman. Plus, 10 of the top 16 tacklers are back.

    But the last three regular-season games are at Oklahoma, vs. West Virginia, at TCU. Oklahoma State cannot afford a sloppy start to conference play, because that finish is about as challenging as possible in the Big 12.

         

    TCU

    Based strictly on OddsShark's championship list, TCU has the fourth-best odds in the Big 12. However, there's a legitimate case for the Horned Frogs to be considered the No. 2 team.

    Last season, they forced two turnovers or allowed 0-14 points against every Big 12 opponent except Oklahoma. All-Big 12 defensive end Ben Banogu highlights the large group of returning players, and Northern Illinois transfer Jawuan Johnsonwho collected 18 tackles for loss as a juniorstrengthens the unit.

    However, as is normal for Big 12 teams in 2018, the question is the quarterback. Robinson attempted only 27 passes last season, but he could propel TCU to its second straight Big 12 title appearance.

Best Rivalry Matchup: Red River

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Since 2013, Texas has slumped to a forgettable 31-32 record, while rival Oklahoma has racked up a 53-13 mark. Nevertheless, the Longhorns have consistently been a thorn for the Sooners.

    Oklahoma only holds a 3-2 advantage during that span andoddlyeach of those victories had a five-point margin. Texas has outscored its rival since the Sooners won a 63-21 laugher in 2012.

    Even when both programs aren't national contenders, the Red River Shootout Rivalry Showdown was still competitive.

    And now, the Longhorns should continue trending toward relevance with Tom Herman at the helm. Oklahoma will likely remain the favorite as Oct. 6 arrives, but this Texas roster has repeatedly proved it will give the Sooners a 60-minute challenge.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    David Beaty, Kansas

    According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, the Jayhawks return the second-highest percentage of production in college football.

    Neat, I guess.

    Typically, that returning talent suggests a surge, but Kansas is a different animal. In the three seasons David Beaty has overseen the program, the Jayhawks have exactly one victory over a power-conference opponent. Beaty took over a losing situation, but he has to win something soon.

         

    Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

    "You're running out of time," quarterback Nic Shimonek told Kliff Kingsbury as the clock wound down on Texas Tech against Texas, per Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News.

    Had the fifth-year coach not inserted Shimonek and the comeback didn't happen, Kingsbury might not be readying for a sixth year.

    Entering 2018, he owns a 30-33 record. The Red Raiders have appeared in three bowls but never won more than eight games, and it happened in 2013. If they don't reach that mark in 2018, it's difficult to see Kingsbury sneaking in a seventh year.

Best Offense: Oklahoma

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    Doug Benc/Associated Press

    Between the Sooners and Mountaineers, this is a challenging answer. Truly, it's reasonable to call them 1A and 1B.

    However, we'll give the tiebreaking edge to Oklahoma, which will likely be more efficient than a dynamic West Virginia attack. That's a credit to the experience returning on the offensive line in All-Big 12 picks Ben Powers, Dru Samia and Bobby Evans.

    They'll be opening running lanes for Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, who combined for 1,905 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground last season. New quarterback Kyler Murray will also provide a more mobile element than Baker Mayfield.

    Murray still has plenty to prove as a passer, since his brief tenure at Texas A&M didn't go well. But if his limited action from 2017 was any indication, Murray will efficiently spread the ball around to a talented pass-catching corps of Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Mykel Jones and Grant Calcaterra.

    In addition to Anderson and Sermon getting targets out of the backfield, receivers Nick Basquine and A.D. Miller could also contribute. They both missed last season due to injury.

Best Defense: Texas

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    The loss of Ross Blacklock to TCU's defensive line cannot be overstated. Due to an Achilles tear, the co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year won't be available for the Horned Frogs in 2018.

    And his absence could be the reason Texas is on the favorable side of the razor-thin gap that'll probably separate the units.

    While the Longhorns lost notable names in Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson, Naashon Hughes, DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill, there are experienced players ready to fill each of those voids. Reloading the secondary is a small concern, but Texas brought in a stellar group of defensive backs in the 2018 recruiting class.

    Plus, the front seven should consistently generate pressure. Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu, Gary Johnson, Anthony Wheeler and Malcolm Roach all posted at least four tackles for loss last season and are back.

    That disruption up front should benefit the updated secondary, and it'll make the Longhorns difficult to score against.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    1. Oklahoma

    2. Texas

    3. West Virginia

    4. TCU

    5. Oklahoma State

    6. Iowa State

    7. Kansas State

    8. Baylor

    9. Texas Tech

    10. Kansas

Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Oklahoma vs. Texas

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Projecting this matchup requires a lot of confidence in the Texas offense. Neither Shane Buechele nor Sam Ehlinger have proved anything beyond an occasional flash of brilliance.

    However, given the questions about TCU's offense, West Virginia's backloaded schedule and the consistency of Iowa State and Oklahoma State, it's not like any other program is guaranteed success. Picking Oklahoma's opponent can feel like a blind dart toss.

    The Longhorns have a bit of leverage since they host TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State. Home-field advantage could serve as the small, yet meaningful, edge that propels Texas.

    But the Oklahoma offensive line is one of the rare blocking units capable of handling the Texas front seven. Also, the Sooners' skill-position talent is superior to every team's, save for maybe West Virginia's.

    Although a fourth straight Big 12 title for OU is largely contingent on Murray's performance, consider this a vote of confidence in Riley's ability to shape the offense to his quarterback's strengths.

    Winner: Oklahoma

          

    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.comcfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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