How Good is the Big 12?
It is funny how quickly a narrative can change. Prior to the season starting, I (and I think others) were all discussing how difficult the Big 12 was going to be this season. In a league where QB play is paramount, the league brought back 8 out of 10 starting QBs. Furthermore, basically every team but Baylor brought a ton of their overall team back. Baylor ranked 108th in preseason returning production, and the next lowest teams were Oklahoma and Texas Tech at 82nd and 81st, respectively. It is not always easy to predict, but I think every team other than Baylor had a strong argument that they’d be better this year than they were last.
Well, the league has mostly gotten off on the wrong foot. Two teams—Baylor and TCU—have yet to play. Oklahoma and West Virginia trounced FCS opponents, and Texas the worst team in all of FBS. But everyone else—Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State—did little to inspire any confidence after subpar performances in Week 1.
Fans and the media are notoriously quick to overreact to week 1, so it will be interested to see how much of this narrative holds up over the course of the season, but suffice to say it has been an inauspicious start for the Big 12.
I am going to be doing my power rankings using tiers. I find this better because it more accurately depicts the state of teams, where often the difference between two teams is negligible and/or it is very clear what needs to happen for one to separate itself from the other.
The Big 12 media preseason poll essentially created several tiers. The results were as following:
As one can see, the media essentially saw it as:
- Tier 1: Oklahoma
- Tier 2: Oklahoma State, Texas
- Tier 3: Iowa State
- Tier 4: Baylor, TCU
- Tier 5: Kansas State
- Tier 6: West Virginia, Texas Tech
- Tier 7: Kansas
Tier 1: Oklahoma
One of the common phrases you’ll hear in the media is that “you have to put them there until someone proves they can knock them off.” I think that’s a bit lazy. I’m not just putting OU here because I need to wait and see what happens, but instead because they’re probably going to be the best team in the Big 12 this year. They lose Hurts but could potentially see an upgrade in Rattler who has some of the best arm talent you’ll ever see. Riley once again has a very good offensive line, tremendous WRs, and now a QB who can really get them the ball.
On defense they’re more of a mixed bag, losing many of their best players up front who hid a substandard secondary last year. I have zero doubt their offense will once again be top 5 in the country, but the play from their defensive line and linebackers could well determine whether they can finally win a playoff game.
Preseason SP+ projection: 8th in country, 22 points better than average team.
Tier 2: Texas
The perennial team that is “back” looks to finally get “back.” There are no excuses for Herman this year. This is the most talented team in the conference and they have a senior, 4 year starter QB. They have new coordinators, but Herman fired his old ones so that’s not much of an excuse. If Herman can finally get things cooking, this team has the talent to be atop the Big 12. But that stands for most of Texas’ teams for the past 10+ years.
I have Texas in this second tier, but if I had to bet on a most likely outcome I would pick one of the teams from the tier below to jump them and finish 2nd in the conference.
Preseason SP+ projections: 14th in country, 17 points better than an average team.
Tier 3: Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, West Virginia, TCU
This is where it gets tricky. All of these teams have the potential to finish second in the conference, or perhaps better, but need some clear things to break in their favor to do so. I’ll address each team in turn.
Iowa State had the now notorious clunker in week 1 against Louisiana. It was a weird game, Louisiana scored two special teams TDs but also missed two field goals, all while doing basically nothing on offense until ISU gave up late in the 4th Q. Anyway, ISU has started slow in each of the past few years and it looked much the same against Louisiana. Brock Purdy, touted as a potential high draft pick, looked pretty bad with shoddy accuracy and when he did throw an accurate pass it was often dropped. Most worryingly, Iowa State looked to have absolutely zero dudes at wide receiver who could create any separation on the outside. With an almost completely new offensive line, ISU needs some wide receivers to create separation if they want to ever be more than average on offense.
On the bright side, the defense looked terrific and should be one of the better ones in the conference. If they don’t get improved WR play, they won’t finish top 2 in the Big 12.
Preseason SP+ projection: 30th, 10 points better than an average team.
Oklahoma State was picked second in the preseason poll, but I have been lower on them for most of the offseason. First and foremost, they saw departures (medical retirements and kicking guys off the team) from 3 likely starting OL. This turned a position of strength into a major question mark. They are led by stud Tevin Jenkins at right tackle and WVU transfer Josh Sills at LG, but everything else is very questionable. As Baylor saw for parts of last season, if you can’t pass protect then you can’t utilize your superior WR talent. Furthermore, while it has been easy to predict that Spencer Sanders will take the next step and become one of the league’s better QBs, he has yet to do so. There’s definitely a scenario where Sanders remains athletic but erratic and the OL struggles leaving OSU struggling to take advantage of their league-best skill talent at RB and WR.
On defense they bring back a lot of experience and few younger guys, namely Trace Ford, who have a lot of upside. However, I remain worried that their secondary, while experienced and savvy, is overall a very un-athletic group that could get burned by the better passing teams in the conference. I wouldn’t be surprised to see their D handle the weaker offenses in the league but really struggle against offenses like Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor. Their wild card is Trace Ford, who probably needs to go bananas this year to elevate their pass rush so that it is good enough to cover up a weaker secondary.
Preseason SP+ projection: 21st, 13 points better than an average team
Baylor is probably the team in the league with the highest amount of variance. I can envision scenarios where they finish anywhere from 2nd-7th in the conference. I am extremely bullish on the offense, which I think could end up being one of the league’s three best. Brewer’s health remains a big question mark, but health is sort of impossible to predict. Baylor’s offensive skill talent is about as good as it gets in the league. As pretty much every Baylor fan knows, just how good the offense can be largely depends on how big of a step the OL can take this year. If they can be league average, Baylor should have very high hopes for their 2020 offense.
Defense is much more varied. Baylor loses 9 starters from last year’s record-setting defense, and while they bring back a good amount of experience and upperclassmen, they’re still replacing 9 starters! A significant setback should be expected, the question is how much. Aranda and Roberts generally put a lot on their secondary, asking them to hold up in tough coverage in order to get more linebackers around the line of scrimmage. Early on I will be watching to see how the secondary holds up. They probably need to be pretty good for Baylor to finish 2nd or 3rd in the conference. Here’s my full Baylor season preview.
Preseason SP+ projection: 33rd, 10 points better than an average team
West Virginia is easily the most under-ranked team in the media poll, WVU had a really strong start to the season when they blasted FCS Eastern Kentucky. They were a tough team to predict entering year 2 under Neal Brown. Some projections, such as beta rank, had them as high as 31st, while SP+ was much lower at 64th. On offense they brought back some really good skill talent at WR and a QB who redshirted last year, Jarret Doege. Their QB was pretty bad last year until he played in the final 4 games. Head coach Neal Brown has had good offenses everywhere he has been.
On defense, WVU brings back two of the better players in the league with the Sills brothers on the defensive line. They absolutely destroyed Baylor’s offensive line last year and look to be similarly unstoppable in 2020. West Virginia sneakily recruits pretty well and has some good returning players at both linebacker and in the secondary. My bet here is that Brown has a good thing going and is able to parlay some good QB play with good DL play to escape the bottom of the Big 12. If certain things work out better for them they could finish even higher.
Preseason SP+ projection: 64th, 1.4 points worse than an average team
TCU is a team I would have had a tier or two lower before the news that returning QB Max Duggan started practicing this past week. Previously, all anyone knew was that he was out an indefinite amount of time after a discovered undisclosed injury. TCU missing Duggan isn’t like your average Big 12 team missing their QB; TCU has been skatebit at QB lately and has effectively zero depth at the position. The news that Duggan could be back soon is extremely good news for TCU’s 2020 hopes. They have pretty good talent at WR and RB, particularly with the addition of wide receiver JD Spielman from Nebraska, along with emerging talents like Te’Vailance Hunt. They lose a couple of pieces on the OL but have recruited well.
Their defense should continue to be dynamite. Boasting probably the best secondary in the Big 12, their main question is on the defensive line. Patterson has never had bad defenses, but their potency has slipped a bit over the past 4 or 5 years as his scheme is arguably running into some speed-bumps. Regardless, their defensive talent and coaching is superb and they should be one of the better defenses in the Big 12 this year. If Duggan comes back and improves on his promising freshmen year, they could lead up and be one of the better teams in the league. If he can’t go or is rusty, their options behind him are not good and TCU can’t reach the potential their talent suggests.
Preseason SP+ projections: 36th, 9 points better than an average team
Tier 4: Kansas State
The biggest question mark for Kansas State in 2020 was how they would play on offense while having to replace their entire starting OL. Head coach Chris Klieman runs a very downhill running scheme which orients itself around controlling the interior gaps and then utilize the play action game off of that. Against Arkansas State in week 1 they were wholly unsuccessful, as both their OL and RB talent looked subpar. QB Skylar Thompson continues to show great flashes but remains inconsistent while their WRs look to be pretty good.
On defense, they still have Wyatt Hubert who is a really good player at DE. Their secondary is experienced but was roasted by star Arkansas State WR Jonathan Adams. At this point I think it was just a great performance by a great player against a secondary that was still getting its bearings in week 1, but it is something to watch. Ultimately, I think Kansas State is a perfectly fine team this year but without much upside. They probably will finish with a similar record as several teams I have ranked above them, but I don’t think they have the upside to finish 2nd, 3rd, or 4th in the conference like the above teams have.
Preseason SP+ projections: 54th, 2 points better than an average team
Tier 5: Texas Tech
Texas Tech was in a weird spot entering 2020. While most programs take a big leap in year two, Tech lost a lot from its 2019 team so some downturn was expected. They spent the majority of 2019 without QB Alan Bowman who is a very good player when healthy. Their talent at WR and RB is pretty good, but OL remains a significant question.
Their bigger questions lie on defense where they bring back a decent amount from 2019 but the overall talent remains subpar. Furthermore, if what we saw against Houston Baptist was any indication, it is unclear whether they have an identity on defense. They are still moving players around positions and seem to searching for something to hold on to. I don’t think they’ll be Kansas bad this year, but I don’t see the stability of a Kansas State and don’t see much upside, either.
Preseason SP+ projection: 59th overall, 0 points better than an average team
Tier 6: Kansas
Look, I don’t know. They were projected to be really bad and looked even worse than expected in week 1 against Coastal Carolina. I don’t feel like writing any more about them. Let’s hope to see them in action this week!
Preseason SP+ projection: 113th overall, 13 points worse than an average team
Very likely, this will prove to be a disastrously wrong list. With limited practice times and teams missing significant starters for weeks at a time due to COVID and contact tracing the quality of teams from week to week is going to be much more fluid than usual.
Let me know what you think!