We are now merely hours away from the start of the 2015 college football season and the Big 12 Preview is back in action. It was a tumultuous offseason for the conference after being left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff so it’s fun to get to discuss actual football being played on fields in front of people again. All ten teams are in action this weekend so let’s jump right to the picks.
Oklahoma State @ Central Michigan
Kelly/Shorts Stadium (Mount Pleasant, MI)
6:00 PM CT (Thu.), ESPNU
Line: Oklahoma State (-23)
The 2015 Big 12 season gets underway in...Mount Pleasant, Michigan? I know Baylor has some peculiar non-conference dates but Oklahoma State gets their campaign underway with a super weird one. The Cowboys come in with a good bit of momentum after closing last season with pulling an upset at Oklahoma and then followed up with a win over Washington in the Cactus Bowl. OSU was plagued by injuries and quarterback ineffectiveness for much of 2014 but Mason Rudolph came in and performed extremely well in the final three games and will take over the reins as the starter to begin this season. Add in that he's got some solid depth in his wide receiver corps and I would expect the Cowboy offense to take a step forward from their 2014 production. Running back is a big question mark entering the season though. On the defensive side, All-America caliber DE Emmanuel Ogbah returns along with a strong linebacking core and more experienced secondary. OSU has some holes to plug up front but they could be very salty if those newcomers respond. As for their opponents, Central Michigan was a middle of the pack MAC team last season and lost their head coach Dan Enos who took over as offensive coordinator at Arkansas. They do return a solid QB in Cooper Rush and a decent amount of skill position talent for what you would expect out of a MAC opponent. The Chippewas' passing game should be a good early test for the OSU secondary. CMU may make a game of this for about a quarter but the Cowboys should dominate on both lines of scrimmage and pull away. I would also be re-midst if I didn't bring up the fact that Central Michigan last season was involved in the greatest Bahamas Bowl to ever be played.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 45 Central Michigan 17
#2 TCU @ Minnesota
TCF Bank Stadium (Minneapolis, MN)
8:00 PM CT (Thu.), ESPN
Line: TCU (-16.5)
REMATCH OF THE CENTURY! Well that's what Jeff Long would lead you to believe anyway. The much ballyhooed meeting between TCU and Minnesota takes place tonight in Minneapolis in front of a national TV audience on ESPN. This is a far cry from last season's meeting in Fort Worth that, at the time, seemed like a rather ordinary 30-7 win for TCU. We all know how the rest of the story goes so I'll stop right there. This should be the beginning of Trevone Boykin's Heisman campaign and he'll have plenty of help as the Horned Frogs return nearly every key contributor from an offense that was 2nd in FBS with 46.5 points/game. Aaron Green was a breakout star at RB for TCU and should be even better with a full season as the starter. On the outside, Boykin has Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee, Deante' Gray, etc. back at his disposal which will make the Frogs a nightmare matchup for most defenses. Add in a senior-laden offensive line and there's no reason that expectations not be sky high for TCU offensively. In a strange twist, the questions about the Frogs this year come on the defensive side of the ball as Gary Patterson has to replace most of his back seven along with a new defensive coordinator. How quickly those new pieces adapt and perform could be the difference between TCU falling back to something like 9-3 or reaching their national championship caliber. Turning our attention to Minnesota, the Golden Gophers could be primed to make a run at a division title in a wide open Big Ten West. The big keys for Minnesota in this game will be how their defense can hold up against TCU's frenetic and varied offensive attack and whether or not the Gophers can establish a ground game as they are replacing 1600 yard RB David Cobb. If QB Mitch Leidner is forced to beat TCU with his arm, I don't see this going well at all for Minnesota. And while the Gopher defense only allowed 30 points in last season's meeting, the Frog offense wasn't yet the well oiled machine that it turned into by the end of 2014. TCU has something to prove and you know Gary Patterson will have his team out for blood. I think this one gets ugly. But here's a dilly bar anyway.
Prediction: TCU 47 Minnesota 20
South Dakota State @ Kansas
Memorial Stadium (Lawrence, KS)
11:00 AM CT (Sat.), FSN
Poor David Beaty. The new coach at Kansas has inherited the smoldering ruins of the complete dumpster fire that was left behind by Charlie Weis. On top of that, most of the talent that still existed either graduated, left the program, or was dismissed from the team. As such, Beaty is working with a clean slate as he begins his maiden voyage as the Jayhawks' coach. Montell Cozart will start off at QB after Michael Cummings injured his knee in the KU spring game. Beaty was formerly the WR coach at Texas A&M and brings with him a spread attack. It will be interesting to see how much he attempts to utilize Cozart's athleticism to create plays. On defense, the situation doesn't appear to be much better for KU. Ben Heeney, one of the Big 12's best linebackers over the last 2 years, is gone along with a host of other starters from a respectable 2014 Kansas defense. Kansas will probably be a better team at the end of the season as their younger players gain experience but their best opportunities for wins happen to be early. South Dakota State is coming off of its third consecutive appearance in the FCS Playoffs and expected to be in the hunt again in 2015. The Jackrabbits are a capable opponent and, with the current scholarship limitations at KU, are probably on a level playing field with the Jayhawks right now. I think SDSU takes a close, evenly matched game.
Prediction: South Dakota State 28 Kansas 25
Sam Houston State @ Texas Tech
Jones AT&T Stadium (Lubbock, TX)
2:30 PM CT (Sat.), FSN
Texas Tech fans begin their season wondering: Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb? Personally, if Tech doesn't go with Mahomes, I think they're crazy but I'm not Kliff Kingsbury. Speaking of Kliff, this is a big year for Coach Bro coming off a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2014. Tech brings in yet another new defensive coordinator in David Gibbs, previously at Houston. Gibbs will look to make Tech's defense more opportunistic by forcing the opponents into making mistakes to turn the ball back over to the Red Raider offense. Leading tackler Pete Robertson is back but should be buoyed by Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell. The big question will be how Tech defends against the run as they were one of the worst teams in all of FBS in run defense last season. On the offensive side, the Red Raiders should be explosive no matter who is playing QB. DeAndre Washington returns at RB and Jakeem Grant leads an experienced group of playmakers at WR. If Tech can avoid the turnover bug that has plagued them over the last 2 years, they are capable of hanging with any team in a shootout. On Saturday, they face one of the more prominent FCS programs in the country in Sam Houston State. The Bearkats have four straight trips to the FCS Playoffs including a surprise run to the semifinals last season. SHSU returns key pieces from a prominent rushing attack and will put Tech's new defense to the immediate test. If the Red Raiders' front continues to struggle defending the ground game, this could be as much of a struggle for them as their season opener against Central Arkansas was last season. In the end, I think the Tech offense will be too much and Kingsbury begins his redemption campaign with a win.
Prediction: Texas Tech 42 Sam Houston State 24
Akron @ #19 Oklahoma
Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium (Norman, OK)
6:00 PM CT (Sat.), PPV
Line: Oklahoma (-31.5)
The Baker Mayfield era at Oklahoma begins as the Sooners host the mighty Akron Zips. Oklahoma comes in a little bit under the radar in the Big 12 picture for a change, but if all the pieces come together they could be right in the thick of the conference title race before all is said and done. Mayfield, the Texas Tech walk-on who transferred to OU, stole the starting job from Trevor Knight in fall camp and will take the keys to new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's air-raid offense. Riley's offenses at East Carolina featured one of college football's most profilic passing attacks but he also didn't have Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon at his disposal to hand the ball off to either. The offensive line looks to be solid with three returning starters and Sterling Shepard is back at WR along with impact JUCO transfer Dede Westbrook so the onus appears to be squarely on Mayfield. No pressure, kid. On the defensive side, OU returns most of their high-level defensive contributors from a year ago including Charles Tapper up front, Eric Striker in the linebacking corps, and Zack Sanchez who may be the best corner in the Big 12. The question now becomes whether or not Mike Stoops can actually put his players in a position to succeed. It was painfully obvious at the end of the season that the Sooners' players did not feel that this was the case. This may not be as much of an issue against Akron, who went 5-7 last season out of the MAC. Akron is being viewed as a potential bowl team in 2015 but this matchup presents far too many issues for the Zips to make a game of this. OU rolls to a season opening win.
Prediction: Oklahoma 55 Akron 10
South Dakota @ Kansas State
Bill Snyder Family Stadium (Manhattan, KS)
6:00 PM CT (Sat.), KStateHD.tv
Bill Snyder begins his 24th season as K-State head coach as the Wildcats open at home against the FCS South Dakota Coyotes. KSU is coming off of a solid 9-4 season which was marked by an efficient offense and a bend but don't break defense. The problem is that Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, Ryan Mueller, BJ Finney and other key cogs to that team? They're gone now and Snyder is left to rebuild at the young age of 75. Jesse Ertz was named earlier this week as Waters' replacement at QB and should see plenty of reps in the early part of the season as the Wildcats have a fairly easy road in non-conference. Including Ertz, there is simply a lot of unknowns about who will be K-State's key playmakers in 2015. FB Glenn Gronkowski returns and I'd expect WR Deante Burton to play a much bigger role this year but we're really just going to have to sit back and see what offensive coordinator Dana Dimel comes up with. Ball control has always been a key tenant of recent K-State offenses and I would expect that this year will be no different. The KSU secondary could be a strength this year led by SS Dante Barnett and CB Danzel McDaniel. The Snydercats will likely get better throughout the course of the season as they gel but I doubt we learn much about them at all in this game against a South Dakota team that went 2-10 a year ago. K-State should cruise.
Prediction: Kansas State 34 South Dakota 6
Texas @ #11 Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, IN)
6:30 PM CT (Sat.), NBC
Line: Notre Dame (-9.5)
The Longhorns travel to Notre Dame in what will be the first meeting between the two programs since 1996 when John Mackovic and Lou Holtz were roaming the sidelines. Texas comes in off a 6-7 season in Charlie Strong's first rodeo as Longhorns coach. Strong is going young this season after bringing in a really nice 2015 recruiting class as there are 16 true freshmen listed on the depth chart including four starters. Tyrone Swoopes was named the starting QB for this game but I would expect UT to feature Jerrod Heard quite a bit as well. Texas is going to try to speed up their tempo a bit more this season so it will be imperative for whoever is playing QB to make better decisions that Swoopes did at times in 2014. Johnathan Gray is back as the workhorse in the UT backfield but the Horns are going to have to do a better job on the offensive line to maximize his effectiveness. The defense was clearly the strength for Texas last season and will probably need to be a stingy unit again in 2015 for the Longhorns to improve their win total from last year's 6. Malcom Brown and Cedric Reed are both gone from the defensive line but Hassan Ridgeway leads a cast that should capably fill in. The big story with the Texas D is that true freshman Malik Jefferson has already locked in the starting middle linebacker position. Jefferson was one of the top recruits in the nation and I'll be curious to watch his progression throughout the year. As for Notre Dame, the Irish come in with big expectations this season and pressure is on coach Brian Kelly to deliver after a couple of subpar seasons by Notre Dame standards since the surprising run to the national championship game in 2012. Everett Golson transferred out but Malik Zaire filled in admirably at QB in the Irish's win over LSU in the Music City Bowl and will take over the starting reins in 2015. ND also returns several key skill position guys including one of the best WRs in the country in Will Fuller. If Zaire can limit the big mistakes that plagued Golson's tenure in South Bend, the Notre Dame offense could be really good this year. Speaking of things that should be good, the Irish return almost all of their defense but will look for that unit to be more consistent in 2015. Both of these teams will probably get better as the season moves along but for right now, I like Notre Dame's ability to move the ball better than I do Texas'. Don't be surprised to see this game turn into a bit of a slugfest.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28 Texas 16
Georgia Southern @ West Virginia
Milan Puskar Stadium (Morgantown, WV)
6:30 PM CT, FSN
Line: West Virginia (-19.5)
A real interesting matchup takes place in Morgantown Saturday night as West Virginia hosts Sun Belt favorite Georgia Southern. The Mountaineers may just enter 2015 with the best defense in the Big 12 including a loaded secondary led by FS Karl Joseph and CB Daryl Worley. Add in playmaker in LB Nick Kwiatkoski and you have a defensive unit that is fast and fearless, as Baylor found out on a trip to Morgantown last October. The big question for WVU will be at QB. Skyler Howard took over for an injured Clint Trickett at the end of last season and had a fairly uneven performance, looking like a capable signal-caller at times and other times making Texas A&M's defense actually look competent. Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood both return in the backfield and, although they lost All-American WR Kevin White to the NFL, there is a good amount of young talent at receiver for the Mountaineers. Line play on both sides of the ball will also be a big key for WVU this season since they appear to have a bevy of speed and ability offensively and defensively. Dana Holgerson's team will be presented a unique challenge in game one as they take on a Georgia Southern team that won 9 games last season, it's first as a full-fledged member of FBS. The Eagles are coached by former Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz and they run the ball. Like they run it a ton. GSU led FBS in rush yards/game last season with a spread option attack that opened up running lanes and kept opponents guessing. Starting QB Kevin Ellison is suspended for this game but his backup Favian Upshaw filled in capably last season when called upon. The Eagles also return 1500 yard rusher Matt Breida. West Virginia will need to come well prepared against the option and have their defensive playmakers stay in their lanes and wreck havoc on the GSU offense. If Georgia Southern can establish a rhythm on the ground and Skyler Howard struggles, GSU is capable of winning this game. However, I think WVU will be able to create separation in the 2nd half with their athletes and win by double digits. And Nick O'Toole's facial hair? On point.
Prediction: West Virginia 31 Georgia Southern 20
Northern Iowa @ Iowa State
Jack Trice Stadium (Ames, IA)
7:00 PM CT, Cyclones.tv
Iowa State opens up an expanded Jack Trice Stadium against in-state foe Northern Iowa. The stadium added nearly 5,000 seats to a capacity of 61,500 which makes it the third largest in the conference behind only Texas and Oklahoma. This is a tribute to the Cyclones fans who regularly sellout despite often having a less than stellar product to root for. And although it appears that this may be another rough ride for ISU, there are some reasons for optimism for head coach Paul Rhoads. Sam B. Richardson is back at QB (and yes, ISU still has 2 Sam Richardsons) after having a fairly efficient 2014. He will have some weapons at his disposal as WR Quinton Bundrage returns after missing all of last season along with highly touted guys like Allen Lazard and D'Vario Montgomery. A decent offensive line and Richardson's ability to get out of the pocket could mask a lack of depth at RB. Mark Mangino's offense took a step forward in 2014 and could do the same in 2015. But then there is defense, and Iowa State was as bad as any team not named Texas Tech on defense last year. Most of the defensive line and secondary return but just how much improvement takes place from one year to the next remains to be seen. The Cyclones brought in a pair of JUCO LBs to attempt to plug a hole for one of the worst run defenses in FBS in 2014. Iowa State's opponent is a familiar one in Northern Iowa as this will be the 4th matchup between the two schools since 2010. UNI won the last matchup in 2013 and in fact, ISU will be looking to avoid a third straight season opening loss to an FCS opponent after FCS power North Dakota State walloped them in Ames last year. While Northern Iowa is highly ranked in FCS and is certainly capable of knocking off the Cyclones again, I think the experience of Iowa State's playmakers eventually make the difference and the home team wins in a bit of a shootout.
Prediction: Iowa State 37 Northern Iowa 34
AROUND THE COUNTRY
Utah 35 Michigan 28
Auburn 38 Louisville 17
Texas A&M 49 Arizona State 45
Alabama 27 Wisconsin 3
Ohio State 31 Virginia Tech 17
*UPSET SPECIAL* Temple 24 Penn State 21