Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVAugust 20, 2019

Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season

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    The end of the 2018 season and the offseason recruiting cycle pumped the Big 12 full of confidence. Losing another Heisman Trophy winner to the NFL and turnover at head coach and quarterback would be devastating to most, but this conference is deeply talented.

    Last year, the rise of Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Texas' Sam Ehlinger propelled the Sooners and Longhorns, respectively, to the top of the conference. Meanwhile, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier and Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell kept their teams in the thick of the race.

    The Big 12 appeared to be heading into a downturn after losing Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph to the NFL in 2018, but it overcame projections by reloading with stars.

    One year later, the Sooners are still expected to be a powerhouse and are joined by Texas as legitimate College Football Playoff contenders. Behind those squads is a deep conference. Nearly half of the teams have encouraging new head-coaching hires.

    Is this Texas' year to break the Sooners' dominant run? And does any program have enough to make noise if it reaches the playoff?

    We're going to delve deep into the Big 12 conference and preview the 2019 season from top to bottom.

                          

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

Biggest Stars

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    Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

    Arguably the nation's most improved returning player resides in Austin, Texas. Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger took a major jump in development in his sophomore season under head coach Tom Herman, raising his completion percentage to nearly 65 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25-5.  

    Even repeating the level of play he showed late in 2018 would give the Longhorns a chance to make the playoff this season. Last year, Ehlinger became just the sixth Power Five conference player in the past 20 years to throw at least 25 touchdowns and rush for 15 scores in the same season. His ability to make plays with his arm and his legs makes him a bona fide star to watch in 2019.

                               

    Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

    The most important transfer of the offseason was Jalen Hurts. The dual-threat quarterback is used to pressure situations after playing in 42 games at Alabama, and he was wise to find a situation in which he can compete for a national championship while refining his passing prowess under head coach Lincoln Riley.

    Though Hurts is not nearly as explosive as Mayfield or Murray, or as consistent as a thrower, he is a gamer who will give a deep array of receiving playmakers an opportunity to shine. His presence will keep Oklahoma in the thick of the Big 12 and playoff race. 

                                             

    Pooka Williams Jr., RB, Kansas

    Williams is an on-field star for the Jayhawks. His tremendous freshman season included over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns. 

    Regardless of whether new head coach Les Miles continues to harbor a run-dominant team, Williams will be a focal point. He's an explosive presence on one of the least-talented squads in the country. 

    The sophomore will miss the regular-season opener against Indiana State after receiving a suspension following a domestic battery charge. He signed a 12-month diversion agreement in which he admitted to grabbing and pushing a woman. 

                                            

    Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State

    Wallace, one of the best receiving threats in the nation, headlines an explosive set of Oklahoma State playmakers. Wallace and running back Chuba Hubbard will try to carry a Cowboys offense that's again replacing its quarterback. 

    Wallace is a solid route-runner in the Air Raid scheme of head coach Mike Gundy, but his natural body control, speed and short-area burst, as well as his polish, create easy separation. He could lead college football in receiving yards after hauling in 86 catches, 1,491 yards (second nationally) and 12 touchdowns last year.

                                          

    Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU

    Reagor has been the perfect player for head coach Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs through his first two seasons. The 5'11", 195-pounder became the youngest TCU receiver to break the 1,000-yard mark last season. His tape shows a speed demon who effortlessly creates space for his quarterback to work with.

    Even as the Horned Frogs rotated through three quarterbacks, Reagor was a consistent problem for defenses. His absurd 17.5 yards-per-catch average in 2017 came with a steadier situation under center. With 1,637 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons, he's established himself as a legitimate 2020 NFL draft prospect and one of the best weapons in the Big 12. 

Top Storylines

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    Does Lincoln Riley have another Heisman-level quarterback?

    After helping produce back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft, Riley has earned trust when it comes to quarterbacks. Though landing Jalen Hurts as a transfer was a no-brainer since the Sooners lacked a clear answer for 2019, his presence will lead to changes.

    Hurts, like Murray, is a tremendous runner, but he doesn't have the same anticipation and accuracy as Murray or Mayfield.

    Nevertheless, we know Hurts is good enough to win a national championship—just ask Alabama. His passing motion looked improved in the spring game. He notably had a tighter dropback and a quicker delivery. Expect Riley to continue maximizing Hurts' strengths by having him roll out to his right and rely on his ridiculously talented receiving corps. 

    Even if Hurts proves to be second-team Big 12-quality, that's enough for this team to make the conference championship. However, the Sooners have realistic title hopes should Hurts take a leap as a passer and put on a Heisman-level performance.

                                                                   

    Can Texas replace its departed talent?

    Texas is back, at least to a level that demands national respect and a top-10 spot in the AP preseason poll. Wins over Oklahoma and Georgia in 2018 showed they are trending in the right direction. Losing eight starters on defense and top wideout Lil'Jordan Humphrey will be a great challenge, though.

    Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are so dominant because of their ability to plug in quality replacements each season. The Longhorns have the recruiting accomplishments and talent to work with, but their development under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will determine their ceiling in 2019.

    The offense should do well with Ehlinger another year wiser in Herman's friendly system. Sophomore back Keaontay Ingram and senior receiver Collin Johnson have the potential to be dominant forces.

    In 2018, the defense gave up at least 30 points in six games. That's a dangerous amount for a team with championship aspirations. The Longhorns will need to do better than that this year despite losing eight starters. Otherwise, they will be a letdown performer.

                                            

    How will the new coaches fare?

    Four Big 12 teams needed a shake-up after the programs became stale. West Virginia (Neal Brown), Texas Tech (Matt Wells) and Kansas State (Chris Klieman) seemingly made shrewd hires, and the conference could be upended if the new coaching staffs can quickly solve major issues on each team. Even Kansas earned more respect by landing Les Miles.

    After Oklahoma and Texas, the conference is wide-open.

    Brown's Mountaineers and Klieman's Wildcats seem to have a larger climb than Wells' Red Raiders. Wells inherited what was a bad defense, but he has four returning starters on the offensive line, a budding star in quarterback Alan Bowman and a defense that features nine juniors or seniors. That experience gives hope that the Red Raiders are a sleeper within the conference.

The Favorites

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    Oklahoma

    The offense is replacing Murray, four offensive linemen and and wide receiver Marquise Brown, but there's little question the unit will be among the best in the country. Having Hurts will ensure the Sooners' elite running game won't slip, and the team has one of the most impressive receiving depth charts thanks to 5-star recruits Theo Wease and Jadon Haselwood, who are joining CeeDee Lamb. 

    The defense is again headlined by tackling machine Kenneth Murray at linebacker. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will be out to prove his value after a disappointing stint with Ohio State in 2018, and he has a handful of freshmen to bolster a pass rush that needed more speed and playmaking.

    The Sooners boast a favorable schedule in addition to their powerful offense. Though they'll take on the Longhorns in Dallas and travel to Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State, ESPN's FPI has them as favorites in all of their games. Home contests against Houston, Texas Tech and Iowa State stand out as major advantages. 

                              

    Texas

    The Longhorns defense is a major wild card, not only in the conference's outlook but also for the national title picture. They'll be tested early when LSU comes to town in Week 2. There are a few potential conference landmines waiting for them too. 

    Traveling to West Virginia one week prior to the Red River Rivalry isn't ideal, nor is going to Iowa State before facing an explosive Baylor team on the road. Even the season finale against the Red Raiders could prove treacherous. The defense, especially the young back seven, will need to be playing its best football.

    Nevertheless, the Longhorns pulled the No. 3 recruiting class in 2019. They've accumulated enough talent in recent years to think there's a chance they can jell quickly and withstand early tests. The offense shouldn't have as many issues finding a rhythm as it did in 2018 thanks to a talented set of blockers and emerging playmakers all over the field.

The Challengers

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    Iowa State

    The Iowa State program quickly gained traction after Brock Purdy took over at quarterback at Oklahoma State in October. The sophomore is an efficient passer (66.4 percent completion rate) who can move the chains and keep the offense on time as long as he's aided by an adequate running game and defense. He could also take a jump with almost one full season of experience. 

    The difficult test for Coach Campbell will be replacing two offensive stars on a unit that lacked them. Both David Montgomery (1,373 yards from scrimmage, 13 touchdowns) and Hakeem Butler (1,318 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) were game-changers, and their departed production will force Campbell and his staff to be creative. 

    The defense should keep them in most games, though. They return 2019 preseason All-Big 12 selections JaQuan Bailey, Ray Lima, Marcel Spears Jr. and Greg Eisworth to a unit that ranked 33rd nationally last season.

              

    Oklahoma State

    The Cowboys have had one of the strongest decades of any team in the country. Coach Gundy's crew has won 10 or more games in all but three seasons since 2010, making the program as consistent as all but the upper-crust programs. Betting on him to outwit some of the younger, greener coaches is a smart play.

    The Cowboys have a terrific set of playmakers to surround whichever quarterback between Spencer Sanders and Dru Brown wins the position battle. Receivers Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner are joined by Chuba Hubbard and five upperclassmen along the offensive line. They simply need a functional quarterback performance to produce big plays.

    The defense has more uncertainty, though. The front seven has a lot to prove in terms of creating sacks and turnovers.

                           

    TCU

    Though it's tempting to take Matt Rhule's upstart Baylor Bears or Matt Wells' more experienced Red Raiders as the third main competitor, going against Gary Patterson and TCU isn't wise. Injuries crippled the Horned Frogs in 2018, and they limped to a 7-6 record. This is a program that continually outperforms its perceived talent level thanks to elite player development.

    Better health and an emergence at quarterback would greatly boost their outlook for 2019. 

    Bill Connelly of SB Nation's projected the Horned Frogs to again have the top defense in the conference. They're getting back defensive lineman Ross Blacklock from injury, and the trio of Blacklock, Corey Bethley and Jeff Gladney give the unit three star defenders.

    The offense simply needs to develop a decent quarterback. Either Alex Delton or Max Duggan needs to provide stability and little else. After all, the Horned Frogs have wideout Jalen Reagor and presumably running backs Sewo Olonilua—whose status is still unclear following an arrest on drug possession charges—and Darius Anderson.

    There's enough firepower for Patterson's offense to hang with all but Oklahoma in the conference as long as the quarterback battle is successful in finding a worthy starter.

Best Rivalry Matchup: Red River

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    Texas and Oklahoma have been on the opposite ends of success since 2013, as the Longhorns have amassed a 41-36 record compared to the Sooners' 65-15 mark. But the Red River Rivalry has been more of a tossup than their individual records would suggest.

    The regular-season matchup is tied at three in that time span, though the Sooners did win their rematch with the Longhorns in the Big 12 championship last year. Texas has been right in the thick of the battles with Oklahoma, even when it is clearly inferior.

    Now that both teams are considered favorites and are coming off strong seasons, this year's rivalry game will have significant hype and tension around it. The Sooners should enter the showdown as the favorite Oct. 12 based on their preseason ranking (No. 4 in the AP Top 25) and easier schedule, but Texas deserves respect after holding its own in the past. The teams will play a neutral-site game at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas.

Best Offense: Oklahoma

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    On a national level, there may be only two other teams (Clemson and Alabama) capable of matching Oklahoma's talent and scheme. The combination of playmaking talent and coaching ingenuity blows away everyone else in the Big 12 now that the Mountaineers are without Grier and wide receiver David Sills V. 

    Since Riley joined the Sooners (first as offensive coordinator in 2015), the team has not finished lower than fourth in points per game, including a top-place finish last year. Riley has mastered the art of spreading the field and staying balanced, as well as keeping all of his talented players happy with targets and opportunities.

    Having Jalen Hurts practically ensures this unit will again average more than 40 points per game. The roster is oozing with blue-chip talent. 

    In addition to CeeDee Lamb and their 5-star freshmen, there's preseason All-Big 12 tight end Grant Calcaterra and running back Kennedy Brooks. Offensive lineman Creed Humphrey made the squad as well. Backup running back Trey Sermon could start at most programs, and it wouldn't be surprising if he ends up third in carries behind Brooks and Hurts.

    The Sooners will stretch defenses vertically and from sideline to sideline, and the individuals are as physically gifted as they come. The best hope to slow them is to attack their young offensive line and hope Hurts' passing suffers from the pressure. 

Best Defense: Iowa State

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    There are several quality contenders for the best defense in the Big 12. Texas has maybe the biggest star in Caden Sterns to rebuild around, and TCU has Gary Patterson and several all-conference-level players. Overlooking Iowa State would be a mistake, though.

    The Cyclones are returning 68 percent of their defensive production from last year, an above-average amount compared to the rest of the country. Preseason All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth (87 tackles in 2018) and end JaQuan Bailey (14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2018) headline a deeply talented unit.

    Four of their top five tacklers are back, including safeties Eisworth and Braxton Lewis. Mike Rose and Marcel Spears Jr. lead the best linebacker corps in the conference. These pillars anchored the second-ranked defense in the Big 12 and No. 33 defense in the nation last year.

    Matt Campbell will rely on them heavily to help an offense that will struggle to score after losing David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler to the NFL.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

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    1. Oklahoma
    2. Texas
    3. Iowa State
    4. TCU
    5. Oklahoma State
    6. Texas Tech
    7. Baylor
    8. West Virginia
    9. Kansas State
    10. Kansas

Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Oklahoma vs. Texas

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    It would be a reach to project any other championship matchup. It's clearly Oklahoma and Texas' conference to battle over, as other teams are undergoing major changes. And the talent difference between those two programs and their foes is significant.

    Even if Jalen Hurts is a massive disappointment in the passing game, his running ability should propel the Sooners through a tough end-of-year stretch against Iowa State, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State. Losing one of those games could affect their title hopes, but the lack of competition outside of the Longhorns means there's a margin for error in the conference race.

    Texas can't be quite as confident since it lost more important defensive pieces, but the lack of high-end quarterback play in the conference will allow the defense to jell and overcome early struggles. That unit has difficult back-to-back tests against Baylor and Texas Tech to end the season, and poor offensive showings could dash the Longhorns' title hopes in a hurry.

    The Big 12 has been unpredictable even though the Sooners have established themselves as the alpha program this decade. It would be a massive failure for Oklahoma or Texas to miss the championship game—and it'd also take an improbable leap by an underdog.

    As far as the potential title tilt, the Sooners simply have too much depth to lose to the Longhorns and their revamped defense. Last year's Texas would have had what it took to force Hurts into disadvantageous situations, but this year's young defense will have trouble dealing with Oklahoma's size at receiver and powerful rushing attack. It's too much offense for them to keep up with.

    Winner: Oklahoma