Welcome back football fans from the wilderness of offseason. It is finally time for the Baylor Bears to christen McLane Stadium and get down to the business of pursuing a repeat Big 12 football championship. Mind you, Baylor fans weren't wandering too far into the weeds during the absence of football; Baylor teams saw great success on their various fields and courts this spring. For example, both basketball teams made deep runs into their respective tournaments, softball made it to the semis of the Women's College World Series, the track team brought home quite a bit of hardware, and both tennis teams won conference championships yet again. Great job teams, we are very proud of you. Now 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 Oklahoma Sooners.
1 Oklahoma Sooners
Don't get out the torches and pitchforks yet, Baylor fans... This is a very early prediction and will potentially change during the season, especially based on the result of a small contest in Norman on November 8th. In my humble opinion and in the opinion of most sportswriters in the country, Oklahoma has an excellent chance to win the conference championship and find themselves in the inaugural College Football Playoff. They are riding on a surge of momentum after hammering the Crimson Tide in last year's Sugar bowl. Frankly, after the way they played in that game, it is well deserved.
The Sooner's season hinges on one key factor - Trevor Knight. At times last season, the Sooner's QB play made them look like absolute giant killers, just ask the Alabama secondary if they remember who Trevor Knight is. At other times the Sooner signal callers staggered around the field wallowing in ineptitude. Blake Bell gave up 2 interceptions during a shellacking at the hands of Baylor in Waco and 2 more in an equally deflating loss against Texas in Dallas. Bottom line: Great play from Trevor = Great results for the Sooners.
The Eric Striker-lead defense should be pretty salty even with the suspensions and graduations. Losing Jalen Saunders will be felt by the offense, but good quarterback play could minimize that impact. Blake Bell has changed positions and is now a 6'6", 260 lb tight end, but don't be surprised if he runs some short yardage plays at QB. He was lethal in that roll during the 2012 season so I would be amazed if he is not doing it again this year. It looks likes neither Dorial Green-Beckham nor Baker Mayfield will get a waiver to play this year for the Sooners, so those two will be a topic for a future edition of the Sunday Morning Quarterback.
In terms of the Baylor game, put a big green circle around November 8th on your calendars. At this point in the season before a snap has been taken, there is good reason to believe that the matchup in Norman between the Bears and the Sooners could decide the Big 12 champion and potentially who gets a shot at the inaugural College Football Playoff. Baylor's offense will likely score somewhere in the 28-35 point range which will likely be less than their season scoring average but more than the OU defensive points allowed average. So at that point it really becomes a battle between Trevor Knight and a very young Baylor secondary. Also of note is that the last time Baylor won in Norman was - never. Only the future knows if 2014 sees the Norman hoodoo broken for the Bears.
2 Baylor Bears
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has a shiny new stadium on the banks of the Brazos River and has a chip on their shoulder after a lackluster performance in the Fiesta Bowl last year. Expectations are high and the Bears have the talent to back it up.
The offense has a Heisman caliber quarterback in Bryce Petty at the helm and a surrounding cast of outstanding weapons to deploy that includes Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood at receiver and Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson at running back. There are also true freshman phenoms KD Cannon and Davion Hall that could be catching balls for the Bears. The O-line will also be outstanding with a fully recovered Spencer Drango at left tackle and Troy Baker back to starting at right tackle. This offense will score points without question.
On the defensive side of the ball, the trenches will see one of the best defensive fronts ever to take the field in Waco lead by an imposing Shawn Oakman. I saw him in person last year at the March of the Bears before the Oklahoma game and I can honestly say that he is the most intimidating human I have ever beheld. He wasn't even after me and I was scared. I have chills of fright just thinking about it. The only question mark for this team is the untested but highly touted defensive secondary. Orion Stewart and Terrell Burt lead the charge in the backfield and Bryce Hagar anchors the linebackers in the middle. There are lots of new faces though in the remainder of the defensive backfield after the graduation of Ahmad Dixon, Meech Goodson, Joe Williams, KJ Morton and Eddie Lackey. Coach Bennett does not seem to be worried though and he has forgotten more about football than I will ever know.
For the Bears to successfully defend their title, they will have to do something that they have never done in their history, which is win in Norman. They will also have to be sharp for every game the rest of the season. There are a lot of people wanting to knock off the Bears this year and they will see the best from all of their competition.
To be honest, preseason discussions are all about how a team looks on paper and behind Baylor and Oklahoma the Texas Longhorns look the best from that perspective. So why are they not predicted to be in third place in the conference? For the opposite reason that Kansas State is predicted to be in third place. Throughout his 23 years as head coach of the Wildcats, Bill Snyder always seems to exceed expectations and get more out of less when it comes to talent. Kansas State always has decent but not earth-shattering recruits and always punches above their weight. Texas of recent years has been the exact opposite, but more on that in a moment.
With Jake Waters returning at QB throwing to the best receiver in the conference (not wearing green and gold) in Tyler Lockett, the Cats offense should be solid. Add in standout Ryan Mueller at defensive end and Kansas State's defense should also be strong. There are still some holes to be filled like at running back, but the perennial X-factor is Coach Snyder. People that overlook him do so at their own peril. He always seems to pull out a game or two each season that there is no plausible reason that they should have won. But they did...
The Bears match up with the Snydercats the last game of the season and it will be very likely that most of the questions conference-wide will have been answered at that point, but who knows. It might boil down to that game for the conference championship. The last time K-State came to Waco it was as the #1 team in the nation and they got their proverbial backsides handed to them in a bucket. They will be out for revenge without a doubt.
4 Texas Longhorns
Who knows about the Horns. They have one of the deepest rosters in college football with enough 5* recruits running around Austin to fill up the steerage section of a 747. The problem? Those recruits have amounted to not much since McCoy the Elder hung up his cleats. Texas has been a habitual underachiever for all of this decade and it is unclear whether that trend ends this year. Even last year when Texas was one game away from a conference championship and a BCS bowl berth, they were still hanging on by a thread most of the season. Their season opened as a 4-alarm dumpster fire and they needed a dodgy call to get by Iowa State. They were embarrassed by Oregon in San Antonio and limped into the offseason with a coach-management mess on their hands. UT was in desperate need of some changes, and changes they have gotten.
Those changes would suggest that something has got to give in Austin. Incoming head coach Charlie Strong has addressed the team and the press with some firm rhetoric about entitlement and complacency. He has sent a fair number of players packing that were brazen enough to test his resolve. With a new coach, a new system, a ? at quarterback and several players suspended, Texas is likely in the middle of the pack again this year even with a gilded roster coveted by NCAA coaches nationwide.
The defense will be strong again in 2014 even after losing Jackson Jeffcoat. Cedric Reed and Quandre Diggs will see to that. The offense returns Malcolm Brown and Johnathon Gray at running back and David Ash at quarterback. Although listed as healthy and in the starting position, Ash's history of concussions draw questions as to whether or not he makes it through the season. Joe Bergeron is one of the big name players that have been suspended indefinitely. He may or may not ever put on a Longhorn uniform again, but if he does he likely sees minimal playing time this year.
Baylor plays Texas in Austin early in the season on October 4th and the Bears should have a chip on their shoulder for this game after getting smack-talked by Horn linebacker Steve Edmonds during spring ball. Baylor will want to show him what their definition of "trash" is. The UT defense should be tough and will offer the Bears their first serious challenge. This game will also offer both teams an early opportunity to make a statement. If the Horns manage to beat UCLA in Austin two weeks earlier then this could be a matchup of undefeated, top-10 teams which would be very exciting and potentially College Gameday worthy. The UT defense will likely keep the game reasonable, but the big question is whether or not the UT offense can score enough points to exceed reasonable. If the Horns are undefeated when the Bears roll into town, that means that they will have sorted out a fair bit of the confusion of the offseason, are getting production out of their stud recruits and will be extremely dangerous. If not, then it is probably middle-of-the-pack for the Horns and trip to the Texas Bowl.
Whether his watch is real or not, Coach Bro has made a positive impact on the Red Raiders. For a fleeting moment last year the west Texans were undefeated and ranked in the top 10. Not bad for a first year coach. A 5 game losing streak to close out the regular season brought the Red Raiders back to earth, but the finale saw a big-time bowl victory over Arizona State.
It will remain to be seen what happens this year but the off-season has been eventful to say the least. Throughout 2013 Tech saw a rotation of 3 quarterbacks under center all of which had moments of brilliance creating a bit of a QB controversy in Lubbock. Two of those three mainstay quarterbacks from last year's team defected in the offseason, so that controversy is solved. Of course there is a new issue now - who will play if Davis Webb gets hurt? Jarrett Stidham is arguably one of the best recruiting pickups that Tech has ever had, but his days of glory at the collegiate level are still well in the future. Patrick Mahomes would get the call if Webb were to fall to injury, but he is completely untested. Coach Kingsbury has a lot to worry about this year considering that he may be the next best quarterback on the team after Webb and he has no eligibility left.
Another big worry is replacing Jace Amaro. He was a man among boys last year and arguably the best receiver/tight end in the game. The Red Raiders are seldom short on offense but with the leading receiver in the NFL and a single QB with any experience that means there are more than enough reasons to keep the field house medicine chest stocked with Roll-aids.
Tech's season finale is against Baylor this year and will again be played in Dallas at the Deathstar. As always, this game should be a shootout and will be hugely entertaining. There isn't likely to be a tremendous amount riding on this game, but you never know. If Tech gets hot and pulls off some upsets during the year this could be an intriguing game indeed.
The Cowboy's were oh so close to greatness last year. The pulled off an arctic upset of #3 Baylor in Stillwater and were one Bedlam victory away from securing a Fiesta Bowl bid and a low single digit ranking. Instead the Boys lost to the Sooners and tumbled out of BCS consideration to the Cotton Bowl where they were handed a season ending loss at the hands of the Missouri Tigers.
Looking into 2014, the Cowboys have lost 13 starters including QB Clint Chelf and shut-down corner Justin Gilbert. JW Walsh should easily be able to carry the banner at quarterback, but the defense has some serious question marks. Everyone expects Okie State to have a down year this year, but middle of the pack is where I think that they will finish. Although young, they still have a talented team and a stable coaching staff. They open the season against pre-season national champion favorite Florida State which could be an embarrassing day for the Pokes.
The best part about Baylor's game against the Cowboys in 2014? It's in Waco. Not sure why, but the Bears have been absolutely horrific in Stillwater and will have a chance to exact some revenge on the Cowboys within the confines of McLane Stadium in 2014. This has the potential to be a letdown game though and the Bears need to be wary of it. They play the Cowboys after facing the Sooners with an open date in between. If the Bears happen to find themselves undefeated at that point in the season and in the discussion for the national championship, they could fall prey to two weeks of sportscaster compliments and could be ripe for a fall. Similar situation to last year, only in a different location.
I will say right up front that I am not bought-in to the Frogs turning the corner yet. They have had a rude introduction to Big 12 play and while their defense has been one of the top squads in the country, their offense has been mediocre at best. They did have some close losses last year and were a better team than their record suggested, but they were a long way from vying for conference elite status. For the 2014 season, being Devonte-less and Verrett-less on the defensive side of the ball and with Aggie-retread Matt Joeckel competing with Trevone Boykin for the starting QB job, there are some serious question marks for the Frogs. Throw in an all-new, revamped offensive coaching staff and it is anyone's guess how TCU finishes up.
Chucky Hunter and Sam Carter should be able to keep the defense stingy though and BJ Catalon will provide some spark in the offensive backfield so if a few things fall in the favor of the Frogs they could find themselves in a much improved position from last year at the end of the season, i.e. preparing for a bowl game.
The Frogs travel to Waco to face Baylor this year in October and this is going to be must-see TV. For some reason these teams hate each other and it shows on the field. TCU played their best game of the season against the Bears last year and were in position to win the game at the very end. Terrell Burt picked off a deflection in the end zone though and the upset bid came up just short. The post-game response? A rant by Coach Gary Patterson containing a veiled smear of the ethics of the Baylor program and Coach Briles as well as TCU QB Casey Pachall bandying about the fact that "we kicked their ass", despite disagreement from the scoreboard. I absolutely can't wait for this game. Baylor will come out with something to prove and TCU would love nothing more than to win what has become a bitter rivalry. Get ready.
8 Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State had a tough year last year with only 3 victories and some demoralizing losses. 2014 also figures to be a tough year for the Cyclones, starting with their first game. As many teams do, they are taking on an FCS opponent to open their 2014 campaign, but this FCS opponent is the North Dakota State Bison, 43-2 since 2011 and 3-peat winner of the FCS championship. This is also the North Dakota State that vanquished our own Big 12 conference member, Kansas State, in the season opener last year. Although not a typical FCS team, an opening FCS loss could set a bad precedent for the Cyclones.
Iowa State has brought in some impact team members during the offseason. As a player, true freshman Allen Lazard figures to make an immediate impact at wideout. At 6'5" he could prove to be a challenge for secondaries in the Big 12. On the coaching side, Mark Mangino returns to the ranks of active coaches as the Cyclone offensive coordinator. He will clearly be looking to turn around a struggling squad and time will tell how it goes. Despite the challenges that he has had in his past as a head coach, he is clearly a great offensive mind that has produced results and should have something to offer at OC.
Baylor plays Iowa State in Ames this year early in the season. The 64-point blowout loss in Waco last year was an embarrassment without parallel for Iowa State and the Cyclones will certainly want revenge. I would expect that they bring their A-game to face the Bears. The score won't be 71-7 like last year, but the Bears should be able to pull out a comfortable victory.
West Virginia is a team with potential and could finish anywhere from 5th in the league to 9th. Dana Holgerson, despite having an expensive buyout on his contract, is clearly on the hot seat and without a bowl game this year will most likely be looking for an offensive coordinator position at a new school in 2015. He is clearly a better coach than last year's up and down season would indicate, but the losses to Iowa State and Kansas heavily outweighed the big upset win against Oklahoma State.
For 2014, Clint Trickett is back at QB but Charles Sims has graduated from the RB corps. The defense has gotten some much needed help from highly touted recruit Dravon Henry at safety. With an opening season matchup against an Alabama team with plenty to prove after its poor outing in the Sugar Bowl, the Mountaineers will very likely start with a blowout loss. Towson, Maryland and Oklahoma round out their first four games. The ‘Eers could easily find themselves at 1-3 before the end of September and reeling into the meat of their schedule. If that happens it could get ugly for the WVU faithful.
Baylor visits Morgantown in mid October and will find a team that is desperate for a win and always tough at home. After a heartbreaking loss in 2012 at the hands of Geno Smith, the Bears will be looking for redemption. This should be a great matchup and will represent a solid road win for the Bears or a potentially season saving victory for the Mountaineers.
Despite the cool new crimson chrome uni's, things might be a bit rough yet again for the Jayhawks. Charlie Wies has been experimenting with transfers and JUCO players for the majority of his tenure and has only one Big 12 victory to his name in the two years that he has been coaching Kansas. He is another coach that has a pretty warm backside coming into 2014. Unlike West Virginia, Kansas is a basketball school and the lack of focus could be the only thing that saves Weis' job if he has a 3 or less wins this year. No one is expecting a miracle, but averaging 2 wins a year is not going to cut it in the Big 12.
Montell Cozart is in position to be the Jayhawk starting quarterback after coming in midseason in relief of transfer Jake Heaps last year. James Sims is gone at running back though but his position could be filled by incoming 4* recruit Traevohn Wrench. Defensively the Jayhawks have some talent and should at least be a middling Big 12 squad but there are question marks on that side as well. The bottom line is that Kansas just does not have the talent on either side of the ball as the upper echelon of the league and with the large number of transfers and JUCO players it will be even more challenging for the team to gel. 1-11 is not out of the question this year for Kansas but 3-4 wins is possible.
Kansas travels to Waco to play the Bears on November 1st. The typical reaction to this game would be that the Bears perform a summary execution at home against the bottom-of-the-league team. But not so fast... Baylor needs to be very careful with this game. The following week the Bears travel to Norman to play the Sooners and if the early part of the season works out as expected, that could be a top-5 matchup of undefeateds with College Gameday in attendance and a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line. So the main thing for the Bears to do against Kansas is to not look past them. Put the game face on and focus on getting a win.
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. For the sake of simplicity, this prognostication assumes that the conference champion is selected for the College Football Playoff and that no "at-large" selections are made in the major bowls (Cotton, Fiesta, Peach). Obviously this could change during the season. A perfect example would be the Cotton bowl selecting a one-loss Big-12 runner-up with a top 10 ranking. If Baylor or Oklahoma fight to a down to the wire, close result, then the loser could find themselves runner up in the conference and maintaining a very high ranking. We will save that discussion for when it is relevant though.