One of the big questions I keep getting heading into the season is my official, 1-10 rankings of the Big 12 for the 2018 season. I’ve made my pick to win it already, the Texas Longhorns, but people are keen to see how I think the rest of the league will shake out in terms of final standings.
I’ve typically been resistant to investing a ton of time and energy sorting that out for the simple reason that teams 3-7 in the Big 12 are generally extremely close. The normal way things have gone is that there are 2-3 teams in a given year that are actually a cut above the rest of the league and then 3-5 other teams that are all just a cut above the top, perhaps only because they were less lucky with injuries.
Every team tends to have a few good skill players that no one else can really handle and then it’s a matter of how strong their depth is and whether the inevitable injures that occur hit them at a point where they have depth or not.
I like the Texas Longhorns to win the league this year because they have some DBs that could actually allow them to erase big time skill players along with two pass-rushing DEs that are going to be a real handful for opponents. Generally when a team has TWO good pass-rushers on the same DL, they win this passing-oriented league.
Just look at the champions since the round robin era:
2011: Oklahoma State. DEs, Jamie Blatnick (eight sacks) and Richetti Jones (four sacks).
2012: K-State. DEs, Meshak Williams (10.5 sacks) and Adam Davis (seven sacks)
2013: Baylor. DEs, Chris McAllister (five sacks) and Jamal Palmer (five sacks).
2014: Baylor. DEs, Shawn Oakman (11 sacks) and K.J. Smith (five sacks).
2015: Oklahoma. DE/OLB, Charles Tapper (seven sacks) and Eric Striker (seven sacks).
2016: Oklahoma. DE/OLB, Obo Okoronkwo (nine sacks) and a committee.
2017: Oklahoma. DE/OLB, Obo Okoronkwo (eight sacks) and D.J. Ward (four sacks).
Oklahoma won in 2016 and 2017 with just one legit pass-rusher and then a pair of historically great offenses led by Baker Mayfield. In 2015 the OL was still coming along but they had Striker and Tapper to bring some pressure on what was actually a solid defense. In 2017 they also won the Big 12 over TCU, who had the Mat Boesen/Ben Banogu combo at DE.
2013 Baylor was sort of an exception, McAllister and Palmer were both good but not great DEs, but even that proved a dangerous combo. Also, Eddie Lackey added another 4.5 sacks and the LB trio of him, Sam Holl, and Bryce Hager was one of the better LB units of the decade. The 2014 Bears had a similar deal going with Taylor Young capably replacing Eddie Lackey and adding four sacks as a blitzer. Ditto 2011 OSU, who had one great pass-rusher in Blatnick and then a solid second fiddle in Richetti Jones but also a particularly strong back seven.
The point is, if you can simultaneously bring good, consistent pressure simultaneously from two guys at two different areas of the protection scheme, you can do real damage to Big 12 offenses. Texas should be able to bring good pressure from two or even three spots this coming year while playing tight coverage with a pair of senior CBs with NFL futures. That’s a good formula for winning.
So there’s some of my reasoning for a Texas title, but the obvious follow-up beyond, “but Texas’ offense sucked last year” is “okay, so then where are you ranking OU, K-State, TCU, etc?”
I’m going to take this on differently this year. Instead of giving you a 1-10 power ranking, I’m going to build a list that we update all year of “teams that are good enough to win the Big 12.” That list is going to start on the high end and winnow down as we see how injuries shake out, which rising players are legit, and how team identities come together against good competition.
Here’s how that list is going to start and shake out.
Missing the cut right off the bat…
Kansas is not going to win the Big 12 this season. Their offense is probably going to be horrendous because of OL/QB play, like every other year, and while their D has some nice components that has rarely amounted to much in the way of real results for their team efforts.
Baylor ain’t gonna win it either. I know they have a lot of intriguing weapons on offense now with Mims back, Jalen Hurd joining the party, and Charlie Brewer back at the helm. They also have a pretty iffy OL though and a defense that lacks the kind of DL or DB play that you need to hold up in the Big 12. Baylor may have an intriguing season and have more games like the WVU or OU games last year when they offered a scare, but I just can’t see them competing for the title.
Texas Tech is in this group as well. I just can’t see this team really coming up out of nowhere with this roster to win the league. For all the solid defenders on this team that the media put on the All-B12 lists they ranked 88th in defensive S&P+. Their offensive identity is also suspect due to the question marks at QB and how they’re going to use the inside positions to dictate matchups and stress points to the defense. The best case scenario I can see is that Kingsbury works more magic on offense and the defense continues to improve, but that’s the description of a team that wins something like eight games or MAYBE nine and not one that plays in Arlington on December 1st.
Still in the running…
Obviously I have Texas in the running and will continue to do so up until they prove that their offense is still hopeless or that they have some big flaw on defense (like struggling to stop the run without Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson, and DeShon Elliott). The big moment for this team will be that early stretch facing TCU at home and then K-State in Manhattan before they play Oklahoma. We should know before the RRS if this Texas team has B12-winning knockout power and stamina or not.
I still have Oklahoma as a league contender despite my serious doubts about their ability to carry on their winning ways of the past three seasons. Orlando Brown, Erik Wren, Dmitri Flowers, Mark Andrews, Baker Mayfield, and Bob Stoops were all major sources of cultural and schematic infrastructure for three-peat title run by the Sooners. One of two likely scenarios I foresaw for the post-Bob Sooners was that their struggling D would actually completely unravel without Bob’s quality control at the top. That proved to be the right one but now Mike is still back which begs the question of what will happen as more players are put into key positions that haven’t had ANY coaching from Big Game Bob?
The Sooners open with FAU and while that game won’t make or break their B12 title hopes, I think a defeat out of the gate would certainly say a lot and beg more questions like:
-Does Kyler Murray have the charisma, credibility, and conviction to lead this team past early struggles like Baker consistently did? After all, Kyler never even lost in HS and left A&M after they didn’t make him the starter out of the gate. His track record against adversity isn’t very long before you factor in the $5 million reasons for him to start focusing on baseball.
-Why should we believe that a team that can’t stop the spread run game will win the B12 in a year in which K-State, Texas, Oklahoma St, Iowa State, and TCU all loom as potentially dangerous spread to run teams?
West Virginia plays K-State early in the year, the week before Texas does, and that game could say everything about this team. Their offense is going to be good, that seems certain, but I’m also very confident that it won’t be near as good as the offense that OU just leaned on to win the 2017 league title. The Mountaineer D needs to be good, something like top 40 or better, in order for them to finally break through the ceiling. Kansas State figures to be good on offense and if they just roll over the Mountaineer defense that won’t be a good indicator.
Speaking of K-State, I could draw up a ton of packages and looks from their massive playbook that could suit either Skylar Thompson or Alex Delton so I can only imagine what Bill Snyder and his staff could do with whichever of those proves the superior option. They draw Mississippi State in week two and while that won’t be the final word it should be very revealing if they are or are not competitive in that contest. Then they get the early stretch against West Virginia and Texas so we’ll be crossing some of these teams off the list quick.
The Horned Frogs play Ohio State, Texas, and Iowa State over three weeks after warming up with Southern and SMU. I think the Buckeyes will tell us most of what we need to know as both Texas and Iowa State will bring some comparable physicality and approaches against Patterson’s young unit shortly afterwards. I’ll mostly be looking for Shawn Robinson’s grasp of the offense.
Iowa State plays Iowa in their non-conference every year but this year also comes after taking on the frisky South Dakota State Jackrabbits (who do have to replace Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke finally) and then they get Oklahoma before they even finish their non-conference run against Akron. What we need to see from this team is whether they have the OL to finally move some people out of David Montgomery’s way, Iowa will give us an indicator on that dimension.
If Campbell’s Cyclones, who may be playing for a chance to send their coach to Columbus the following year, blow Iowa’s defensive front out of the way then they’ll probably do unspeakable things to Oklahoma. The Hawkeyes are replacing a ton at LB but they train and turn over guys up front much better than OU at this point.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys didn’t seem to get the memo that B12 teams are expected to schedule P5 non-conference opponents, or else everyone gave them a pass because they invite Boise State to town in week three. Honestly, I’m expecting Boise State to beat the tar out of the ‘Pokes so anything short of that and I’m looking at Gundy’s crew in a different light for the 2018 season.
So for now we have seven teams that I think could feasibly round into Big 12 title teams depending on a variety of variables. We also have some big time early games not only in the non-conference schedules but in weeks one and two of Big 12 play that could narrow things down in a real hurry. Stay tuned as we whittle this down.