Well Baylor fans, it is finally here. The 2015 football season has arisen from its slumber and is ready to climb out of bed and pour itself a cup of coffee. For fans of the Green and Gold, this season looks remarkably like last season. The Bears are coming off of a conference championship, there are questions in the defensive secondary, and there is another Big 12 team that is favored to win the conference by the narrowest of margins. The things that are different about this season are that the gunslinger under center is wearing #17 instead of #14 and McLane stadium is just plain awesome rather than awesome and kicking off its inaugural season.
So let's talk a little bit about the stories that have dominated the headlines this offseason. Is Trevone Boykin good? Yes. Is the Baylor defensive line good? Yes yes. Has anyone else picked up on the fact that people are focusing on the TCU quarterback and the Baylor defense? That is a 180° reversal from the norm. Is this opposite day? Is the red needle of my compass pointing South? I didn't think so, but thought I would check. So what are TCU and Baylor lacking? Bryce Petty is now playing for the New York Jets. His eligibility finally ran out and his otherworldly talent has moved on to the NFL. It is a similar story the for the TCU defense. They lost 6 starters on that side of the ball and are having to replace an incredible amount of disruptive defensive skill. Ok, lets take a survey. Everyone that thinks that Art Briles isn't going to have one of the best, most productive quarterbacks in the country on the field this fall raise their hand. No one? I see. Ok, now raise your hand if you think that Gary Patterson won't have a wrecking ball of a defense that leaves the majority of opposing offensive coordinators trembling in the corner of the locker room with hot tears running down their cheeks at halftime. No one? Bueller? That is what I thought, no takers on either account. This season is going to be a fun one.
Another interesting aspect of the Big 12 is the amount of parity in the league. The top and bottom teams, at least on paper, are fairly clear cut. Slots 4-8 are anyone's pick. Any one of those teams can beat the others or beat the teams positioned ahead of them. To put it a different way, there are three teams that are likely to win the league, but there are 8 teams that have at least a legitimate shot at it. This level of parity will be very interesting for a conference that has something to prove after having two teams dressed up with nowhere to go when invitations were handed out to last year's playoffs. Will an up-and-comer knock out a contender like last year? No one knows the answer to that question, but enough of last year, on to the business at hand...
For the preseason edition of the Sunday Morning Quarterback we will take a look at how each Big 12 team is coming into the 2014 season and how they stack up against the Bears. We will go in pre-season power ranking order according to the best guess of the Sunday Morning Quarterback. We will also include bowl predictions throughout the season as well as this edition's pre-season dart throws.
So without further adieu, on to our first competitor and predicted Big 12 Conference champion, the TCU Horned Frogs.
1 TCU Horned Frogs: 2014 12-1, Beat Ole Miss in Peach Bowl
No need to fear Baylor fans, this exact thing happened last year. If you recall, the Sooners and Bears were too close to call and the tie went to the home. The Bears had to go to Norman where they had never won and were expected to lose a close one. Given the way that game turned out, it makes sense to predict this season the same way (wink, wink).
As stated above, TCU's only question mark is the defense and that has traditionally been a major strength for the Frogs. Losing 6 starters from last year's solid team will be a challenge but should be overcome-able by a defensive minded head coach such as Gary Patterson. Even if there are growing pains early on, they will certainly be ironed out by November 27th. By the way, circle that date on your calendar... On the offensive side, Trevone Boykin is back as the league's most hyped trigger man and the rest of the squad is fairly well loaded with the likes of Kolby Listenbee and Josh Doctson at receiver. The version of the spread that TCU installed last year clicked well and really brought Boykin out of the haze of lack of clear role to focused, dual-threat weapon. The only issue was that he had a tendency to throw deep balls up for grabs at times, but his receivers climbed the ladder to get them more often than not.
The November 27th showdown in Fort Worth will no doubt have major implications for both Baylor and TCU, and could very well decide the Big 12's one true champion. No one could have predicted the amazing game that took place in Waco last year and the impact that it would have on the Big 12 race, but this year it will take no one by surprise. TCU will have just rolled out of their toughest game against OU and Baylor will have just finished a road trip to Stillwater. If both teams win the games that they will have been favored in up to that point, TCU will be 11-0 and Baylor will be 10-0. That obviously is a huge IF for both teams, but it could be a national #1 vs. #2 matchup in cow town with Gameday in attendance ready to watch one of the biggest games of the year. I can't wait. Get your green and gold pants on, paint up an obnoxious 61-58 sign and head to Ft. Worth!
2 Baylor Bears: 2014 11-2, Lost to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has a still shiny, almost new stadium on the banks of the Brazos River and has a chip on their shoulder after a lackluster performance in the Cotton Bowl last year. This seems like déjà vu. 2014 opened almost exactly the same way with the Bears fielding a loaded team and coming off of a poor performance against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. With Shawn Oakman and Spencer Drango foregoing the NFL draft, and 18 starters back on both sides of the ball, expectations are high and the Bears have the talent to back it up. At #4 in the preseason polls the Bears have aspirations to get into the playoff this year, but they will have some tough tests if they want to impress the committee enough to make it happen.
The offense has to replace Bryce Petty, one of the best quarterbacks ever to wear the green and gold. In his place is Seth Russell, who got significant playing time last year in mop-up duty as well as a start against Northwest Louisiana when Petty was injured. Russell looked extremely sharp while on the field and showed flashes of RG3esque mobility. With Shock Linwood and co. in the backfield as well as a receiving corps that can only be classified as an embarrassment of riches, the offensive skill players will be second to none. Baylor's top 6 receivers would start for every D1 team in the country. Coleman, Cannon, Lee, Hall, Hawthorne, Zamora, Platt and last but not smallest, McGowan. Add to that a Chris Johnson QB-for-receiver set up and defenders won't know what to do. No school has ever had more than one finalist for the Belitnikoff Award, but that could change this year barring injury. Add in an offensive line with all 5 returning starters, 4 of which are seniors, and this team will be a lethal point-scoring machine.
The defense has a terrifying front four with Shawn Oakman and Andrew "Juggernaut" Billings among the best in the business at end and nose guard respectively. The linebackers are without team leader Bryce Hager (the other Bryce playing in the NFL) as well as nickel back Colin Brence. Led by Taylor Young, the linebackers should be fine. The real question mark is the backfield. Last year the Bear secondary was among the worst in the NCAA ranks while the defensive front was among the best. The front four will still be there, but will the secondary improve? Experience is a great teacher and all four starters are back from last year. If the injury bug can stay away this year, Baylor fans should be happy.
For the Bears to 3peat, they will need to do 4 things: win the games that they are supposed to win without a letdown, stay healthy, survive a treacherous November stretch and go to Fort Worth on November 27th and win. Simple, right?
3 Oklahoma Sooners: 2014 8-5, Lost to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl
Oklahoma has been an underachiever in recent years. That doesn't mean they have been bad, just that they have not lived up to expectations. This year they come into the season hoping to reverse that trend with Baker Mayfield as the probable starter at Quarterback, a #19 ranking and a roster laden with talent. Samaje Perine is one of best (and biggest) running backs in the nation and he is coupled with Sterling Shepard, arguably the best receiver in the league. The offensive line lost 3 starters from a squad that was among the best in the country last year, but this year's group averages well over 300 lbs and is expected to be of similar quality. The defense is led by all-Big 12 player Eric Striker, one of the top line backers in the country and returning starter at defensive end Charles Tapper. Given the lack of depth in the front 7 the Sooners are going to switch to a 4-man front from 3 in a hope to get more pressure on Big 12 passers and run games.
The Sooners might not have quite the same level of firepower that Baylor and/or TCU has, but they are certainly close in terms of talent and desire. They are always tough, especially in Norman and that will not change this year. If the ball bounces the right way for them they could easily find themselves on top of the Big 12 ladder and giving Coach Stoops another "Big Game Bob" moment.
The major question for the Sooners is whether their overall offensive output will go up. In the offseason, head coach Bob Stoops cleaned house on the offensive side of the coaching staff and brought in Lincoln Riley to be the offensive coordinator and play caller. It will be interesting to see if he is able to install a high-flying offense that can shake off the recent doldrums. Given the perennial high expectations that live in Norman, there will be not time from a gentle break-in of the new system. It can be done though, just look at where TCU was predicted to finish in the pre-season vs. where they actually finished. That was all about offense and a new system that worked. I am sure that Coach Riley is reading that case study carefully.
Baylor has had pivotal games against the Sooners in 3 of the last 4 years including a 48-14 beat down last year in Norman and this year should be no different. This will be a must-see game in Waco.
4 Kansas State Wildcats: 2014 9-4, Lost to UCLA in the Alamo Bowl
No one expects the Cats to finish this high which is exactly the reason that I am picking them there. Coach Snyder has been exceeding expectations for 24 years and why would this year be an exception? Jake Waters, Curry Sexton and Tyler Lockett are gone from the offense and Ryan Mueller is no longer on the defense, so the Cats have to replace some serious talent.
While they certainly have the potential to be extremely disruptive in the middle of the conference, it is probably a stretch to think that the Snydercats could compete for the conference championship like last year. They are not a team to overlook though and they will play tough, smart football just like they always do.
The offense is where the biggest changes will take place. With Waters, Sexton and Lockett in the stable last year, the air attack was extremely potent. The graduation of that triumvirate of players means that a running attack is probably in cards this year. Joe Hubener and Jesse Ertz will likely share time at quarterback, with precious little experience between them. Expect a simplified but effective scheme that will be well executed.
Baylor has to play Kansas State in the Little Apple this year and kicks off an extremely difficult November run there. A win could possibly make the season for both teams, giving the Bears some momentum going into the closing stretch or giving the Cats a win over a top opponent and a much better bowl seeding.
5 Texas Longhorns: 2014 6-7, Lost to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl
In his second year as head coach, Charlie Strong needs to show Horn faithful that he has righted the ship and is sailing toward a conference championship. He took a tremendous recruiting class last year headlined by linebacker Malik Jefferson and has one of the deepest rosters in college football. Last year Strong was selling change, this year he has to sell results if he wants to take another class glittering with stars. Those results have been exceeding difficult for Texas to seize in recent years and that trend could continue this year. In fact, in recent years Texas has been one of the most overrated, underperforming teams in the nation. Texas does remain extremely dangerous though due to the deep stable of thoroughbred athletes in Austin. If they start to click, the Horns could be dangerous.
The main thing that the Horns need to significantly improve is their production at quarterback. Tyrone Swoopes, though highly touted in the 2013 recruiting class, struggled as last year's starter. To be honest, he inherited an awful offensive line and a set of Longhorn expectations that were not realistic but he did not do himself any favors. Jerrod Heard is seemingly the 5* QB of the future and after red-shirting last year will see action in 2015 for sure. Will he be the starter late in the season? Only time will tell. Last year Swoopes started off performing at a pretty average level through a 2-2 season start. He seemed to be getting better, but the game against Baylor changed that. Swoopes had 2 interceptions against the Bears and took a major step backward. If a mid-season swoon happens again this season expect Heard to get a shot. Swoopes is getting a lot of positive press about his maturity and leadership in the locker room during the offseason though so it is clearly his job to lose.
Texas' defense while unheralded, should be strong (no pun intended), given the team's proclivity toward stinginess on that side of the ball. Texas has to replace studs like first-rounder Malcolm Brown, Jordan Hicks and Quandre Diggs, but has plenty of talent behind them. The defense will be tested early, as Texas plays 3 of its first 6 games against currently ranked opponents (Notre Dame, TCU, Oklahoma), with the other 3 coming against Cal, Oklahoma State and Rice. Texas is likely to be favored in only one of those games, but hey, Rice is 18-9 in the last two seasons. Texas is only 14-12 in the same time period. With a schedule that tough the defense will have no room for error.
Baylor plays Texas in Waco this year on the last game of the season and I think that this is a big-time trap game for the Bears. They will have just come off of their trip to Fort Worth either thrilled with a victory over the Frogs or stinging in defeat. Either way they will face a Texas team that is likely to be in the middle of the pack and fighting for bowl placement. If Texas comes together in the season, it could be for a lot more than that. Either way the Bears will have their hands full and need to finish the season strong.
6 Oklahoma State Cowboys: 2014 7-6, beat Washington in the Cactus Bowl
The Cowboy's climbed to a 5-1 record and a #16 ranking with their only blemish coming at the hands of then #1 ranked Florida State to open the season in Jerry World. The Pokes were on their way to disrupting the Big 12 and making their presence known. Then the back half of the season started. 5 losses in a row had the Cowboys reeling and with one victory still needed to secure a bowl bid the Cowboys decided to burn Mason Rudolph's redshirt. It ended up being one of the best decisions of the season. After a strong showing in a loss against Baylor, Rudolph and Tyreek Hill lead OSU to an overtime Bedlam victory over a top-20 Oklahoma and a bowl win over Washington.
Coming into 2015, Rudolph is without the dynamic playmaking of Tyreek Hill but has an extremely talented receiving corps to throw to. Brandon Sheperd and James Washington lead the way as two of the league's top returning pass-catchers. Rudolph will need to carry his late season heroics into 2015 as the named starter and if he does, the offense should be dangerous. Emmanuel Ogbah at defensive end is the star of the OSU defense and rightfully gets most of the press. The defense should be somewhat improved this year with added depth.
The Cowboys are probably the biggest wild-card in the league this year and to be honest, 6 seems a little too low. Numbers 4-8 in the Big 12 are a toss up though so it is really hard to pick the correct order of those teams. With exceptional quarterback play from Rudolph, a light first half of the schedule and a late season that has Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma all coming to Stillwater, the Pokes could legitimately be in the race for the Big 12 title in November. With some breaks against teams like Texas and West Virginia, the picture could include an 8-0 record and possible single-digit ranking. What an incredible scenario that would be with 4 games left in the season.
Baylor has traditionally had a tough time in Stillwater, literally not having won there since America was in the throes of the Great Depression. The word "curse" is typically used in all sentences containing "Baylor Football" and "Stillwater". I am not sure what Art Briles and company are planning to get the Bears fired up this year, but a séance might be in order. Anything it takes boys.
7 West Virginia Mountaineers: 2014 7-6, lost to A&M in the Liberty Bowl
West Virginia's biggest claim to fame last year was that it ruined Baylor's chance to go to the inaugural CFP playoff. That fateful day in October spelled the end for then #4 Baylor's chances to step into that lofty company. The Bears finished one spot out with that single blemish on their record. Although the Eers finished in the middle of the pack in the conference, their losses were all close and all against solid competition. They played #2 Alabama and #4 Oklahoma tough and brought #7 TCU and #12 Kansas State to the wire. All were an average of single digit losses. In my mind the Mountaineers had a much better season than their 7-6 record reflected, they just couldn't quite get over the top. Except on October 18th...
This season the Mountaineers return depth and talent on both sides of the ball, especially on the defense. The secondary headlines Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon at Safety and Darryl Worley at Corner. This backfield on paper is the best in the league. If the front seven can get just a modicum of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and slow down the run, then this defense is going to be very salty.
On the offensive side of the ball, Kevin White and Mario Alford are gone at receiver and Clint Trickett is replaced by Skylar Howard at quarterback. That is a lot of firepower to replace. Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood are still in the backfield as the staple of the running game. Offense has typically not been the issue for West Virginia and Dan Holgorson, with his offensive savvy, will have his team ready.
With the defense up to par, the Eers will compete for the top of the Big 12 middle class and could find themselves upsetting a league favorite or two. I just hope it is a different one this year. At least this year's game against the Bears is in Waco. This is a trap game for sure though. Sandwiched in between Iowa State and Kansas and with the meat of the season on the near horizon, the Bears need to be careful not to have a letdown.
8 Texas Tech Red Raiders: 2014 4-8
Tech started out the 2014 season 2-0 but it was clear that they were living on borrowed time in both of those victories. The Red Raiders won only 2 more the rest of the season against Iowa State and Kansas and their defense gave up an average of 48 points in their losses. The Raiders were also one of the most penalized teams in the NCAA last year and were plagued with turnovers. A bright spot was the late season play of Patrick Mahomes at Quarterback.
2015 will most likely see Mahomes as the starter over Davis Webb although at times Webb looked solid as well. Webb is the veteran of the two and can certainly add value if pressed into duty. DeAndre Washington returns as Tech's first 1000-yard rusher since before the Reagan administration and the offense, as usual, should put up some points.
The big question in Lubbock is the defense, especially the defensive line. The defense got blown off the ball last year and gave up big play after big play. Against Baylor and TCU the Red Raiders gave up over 1300 yards of offense. Ouch. Against the high-octane offenses of the Big 12, that won't fly, regardless of how many points your offense scores.
The Baylor vs. Tech game seems to always end up in a shootout though and I expect nothing less this year. Baylor will have to have its cleats on tight to avoid an upset in Jerry World.
9 Iowa State Cyclones: 2014 2-10
Paul Rhoads is a good coach in a tough situation. After going bowling in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, his Cyclones have only won 5 games in the 2 seasons following. That is pretty tough to swallow even for the typically realistic fans in Ames. Rhoads was on the hot seat last year and is on the hotter seat this year. Similar to Baylor a few short years ago, Iowa State has become a prime opponent for league homecoming games these days, which is never a good thing. That is if Kansas is already booked, but more on that in a minute.
Injuries certainly played a role in ISU's difficulties last season with Quenton Bundrage gone for the season after the first game. Mark Mangino was also in his first season as Offensive Coordinator and that also played a factor. Sam Richardson is back at QB and will be throwing to Allen Lazard and Quenton Bundrage. That should make for decent offensive output and behind good line play the Cyclones will score some points.
The defense will most likely struggle again this year against the big-time league playmakers. There aren't a lot of blue chip players on the defensive side of the ball, although the secondary is better than the front seven. Ranked at 128 in overall defense last year though, there is no where to go but up.
Baylor plays Iowa State in Waco this year, yes homecoming, and will likely be heavily favored. Barring a miraculous turn of events, Iowa State again finishes near or at the bottom of the Big 12 and Paul Rhoads might be looking for a job.
10 Kansas Jayhawks: 2014 3-9
Charlie Weis rolled the dice as the Kansas head coach and brought in a large number of JUCO and transfer players. Those guys are all gone now and Kansas has nothing to show for it. Coach Weis is also gone although he definitely has something to show for it. In 2015 he is still on the Notre Dame and Kansas payrolls to the tune of several million dollars. Not bad for not having to coach a down.
The man left trying to pick up the pieces is David Beaty. Beaty came in with the reputation for being a great recruiter and a solid citizen, but that is about all he has going for him this year. Probably the biggest issue to deal with is the lack of talent on the team. Through a combination of injuries, dismissals and defections the Jayhawk's depth chart is thinner than an order of flounder pancakes. Michael Cummings has a question marks about his ability to contribute at quarterback this season after a spring game knee injury. Montell Cozart, now the named starter, has question marks about his ability to contribute in general. The leading receiver on the team had 8 catches last year. It is going to be a long season in Lawrence.
Coach Beaty will very likely get the Jayhawks on track and competitive in the near to middle future, but unfortunately it won't happen this year.
It is somewhat ridiculous to speculate about bowl positioning before even a snap has taken place on the field but I just can't help myself. These positions will change throughout the season of course and represent a theoretical view based on the preseason assessments, spring/fall camp results and pure guesswork.