Things are starting to fall into place as the NFL draft deadline approaches, the coaching silly season resolves, and we see who has to figure out what. The biggest chips fell the other day when Texas’ Lil’Jordan Humphrey declared for the NFL…
…and then Oklahoma lost Bobby Evans and Kyler Murray to the NFL draft as well. I’ll have much more to say on Kyler Murray in the future, but for now it’s notable that Oklahoma is going to have to raise up four new starters on the OL this offseason in addition to replacing yet another Heisman-winning QB.
There’s still some big chips to fall in the transfer market. Texas used that avenue to secure their LT Calvin Anderson as well as RB Tre Watson that started most of the season and led the team with 786 rushing yards. Dana Holgorsen tended to use transfers to fill out some of his key roles at West Virginia although he’s gone now, Matt Anderson did the same at Utah State and he’s now at Texas Tech. The biggest potential one right now is Jalen Hurts, who could end up at Oklahoma (doubtful) or TCU (very plausible) the latter of which would really shake up the landscape.
But in the meantime, here’s how I would rank the teams based on how far along they are right now in building a championship team:
No. 1 Texas Longhorns
Texas lost their best player when Humphrey departed, but they have most of the other key pieces to their breakthrough offensive season and a lot of growth potential as a unit. Collin Johnson is back outside, Keaontay Ingram will have a year of S&C to try and grow into a feature back, Tom Herman has multiple young recruits that will be stepping into their own across the unit, and the OL could very easily be better.
Texas is losing a pair of OL in Anderson and LG Patrick Vahe who were both four-year starters, which is no joke, but they might have the best LT in the league with RS sophomore Sam Cosmi and C Zach Shackleford will be another four-year starter that made a leap in 2018 as a junior who was finally healthy enough to have a real offseason after 2017. Now it’s just a matter of finding 3-5 more quality pieces from a collection of redshirted sophomores and juniors.
Most importantly, they have the best QB in the league in Sam Ehlinger who will only now be an upperclassman. At Inside Texas I wrote about their challenges this offseason, which are fairly minimal on offense and on defense mostly revolve around getting a deep collection of freak athletes up to speed.
No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners
The standard practice is to default to a four-time defending champion until they prove they don’t have it anymore or someone else proves they can take it from them. That’s more or less the lamest sort of analysis, as it isn’t analysis at all but simply hedging.
Oklahoma has a LOT of work to do this offseason and yet it’s entirely reasonable that they’ll be able to get it done. The biggest challenge is replacing the infrastructure of their offense. Whoever plays QB for Lincoln Riley next season will have tremendous weapons to hand or throw the ball to but he’ll have to figure it all out against B12 defensive disguises behind an OL that will also be asked to learn against live bullets.
Creed Humphrey will likely be the best center in the league and one of the best OL but EVERYONE else on the OL will be new to picking up blitzes, trading off stunts, executing combo blocks, wrapping around the kickout on counter, etc, etc. Sooner fans will point to the talent level of the new OL and potentially the QB, especially if Spencer Rattler ends up taking over, but there’s no substitute for experience.
The real risk is that Oklahoma will slip from “historically dominant” on offense to being “great” or even just “good.” To make up for that they’d need to finally achieve breakthrough on defense.
This is plausible. They have as many as 10 starters from the postseason returning in 2019 and some of them, like Ronnie Perkins, have some untapped upside. They also hired a DC in Alex Grinch that seems to understand the in between the snap chess match that is modern football and the need for speed and versatility. The problems are still culture and fit. Does Oklahoma have the kind of culture that can produce a physical and cohesive defense and do these defensive players fit into a lineup that can withstand the stress of Big 12 spread-iso tactics?
No. 3 Iowa State Cyclones
The recruiting hounds who follow blue-chip ratio and recruiting rankings are not going to want to put the Cyclones this high. Especially after they lost David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler to the NFL, a pair of players that I myself had 1st team All-B12.
Here’s the deal though, they return nine starters on defense, QB Brock “pump fake” Purdy, and all five starters on the offensive line. If you’re betting against Iowa State you’re betting on Matt Campbell failing to improve the OL and QB with another offseason and failing to develop some good skill players and putting them in position to make plays. That’s a really dumb bet. This team will be as good as 2018 in all likelihood and probably better.
No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs
The Frogs return five OL next season that have had substantial playing time as starters, key weapon Jalen Reagor, both RBs, and some key defenders like Garrett Wallow, Innis Gaines, and CB Jeff Gladney.
The defense has a lot to figure out, particularly at DE which is a crucial piece of their defensive structure and loses Ben Banogu. But, Gary Patterson generally seems to figure things out and he’s made some tweaks in recent years that have allowed his defense to remain a “plug and play with athletes” sort of unit.
All they really need to be a B12 title contender is…a quarterback. The bar isn’t even all that high, if Patterson can generate another top 25 defense (not a given without Banogu but totally feasible) then the improved OL play and run game combined with Jalen Reagor should make a game manager sufficient for generating 10 wins. Michael Collins and Justin Rogers might have that upside next season, Jalen Hurts absolutely does if he comes to TCU.
Right now Texas and Oklahoma are a tier above the rest of the league but if you add Hurts to the Frogs then they’re right there with them. He’s not a brilliant QB but he is a dominant athlete that’s really freaking hard to tackle who is a perfect fit for their “run and screen” base offense who could reliably make single reads and fling deep shots to Reagor.
No. 5 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Corndog gave the Cowboys a buffer year to develop everyone’s favorite QB in Stillwater, Spencer Sanders and also to teach the offense to Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown. Both will now battle for the role of handing to Chuba Hubbard and throwing to Tylan Wallace, two of the best skill players in the league.
Oklahoma State has a lot of promising young offensive players coming back, including along the OL and at TE with converted QB Jelani Woods. They also have plenty of guys to use to help isolate Tylan Wallace down the field, like Dillon Stoner and Landon Wolf. Their big questions are on defense and those questions may not be as serious as they seem.
The entire front is nearly wiped out by graduation, including pass-rushing weapon Jordan Brailford, but both CBs are back after undergoing trial by fire in 2018. I don’t know if they’ll have the horses up front but I do think that DC Jim Knowles understands how to blitz and attack offenses and can make a star out of some young pass-rusher. This has the feel of a team that will be good but inconsistent once again.
No. 6 Kansas State Wildcats
Chris Klieman inherits a solid passing QB in Skylar Thompson, a lot of experience and solid pieces on the OL, a program that also believed in using blockers at FB and TE (although they weren’t great here), and has already taken steps to fill out the skill positions. It won’t be a total cultural overhaul under Klieman, more like getting the standards back to where they were when Bill Snyder was rolling.
The defense also returns a ton of starters who are accustomed to playing a scheme that is similar to the one that Klieman is bringing. Getting Trey Dishon and Wyatt Hubert back is not inconsequential and they’ll probably start to work more stunts and twists in the coming year. I don’t know if this team has the star power talent to win a lot of games or not but they could be very solid across the board which is worth something.
No. 7 Baylor Bears
Now that he’s presumably done glancing at escape hatches to the NFL, Matt Rhule will probably spend his offseason trying to forge a defense out of the raw materials he’s been bringing in and putting Denzel Mims on a milk cartoon in hopes of finding the once uber promising wideout.
Of course OL is one of the biggest issues. That unit sets the floor for a team and there still isn’t much to indicate that Baylor is about to figure this out and field a title-caliber line. They also have to figure out DE, which like at TCU is a huge part of their approach on defense and Rhule hasn’t yet shown a Patterson-like aptitude for finding them outside of the northeast.
If they can find those floorplans than Charlie Brewer and the skill talent on O could really shine while the improving LBs and young safeties might find an easier time. It’s a lot easier to avoid looking ridiculous when the DL actually leverages the ball where you expect it to go when you start racing toward the point of attack.
No. 8 West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers will likely enter the “little man Tate” sweepstakes and see if Martell can offer an upgrade over Jack Allison in Neal Brown’s version of the Air Raid. The Mountaineer’s questions on offense are that much bigger as they replace several key cogs from last year’s unit without Dana Holgorsen to guide the process. DC Vic Koenning has some decent pieces to work with up front but the Mountaineers were recruiting to a 3-3-5 scheme he’ll be scrapping now and they may not have the edge-rushing OLB that his system likes to utilize.
There’s a lot of holes and not a lot of time or pressure for the new staff to start filling them out. Also that schedule…yikes.
No. 9 Texas Tech Red Raiders
I think there are four tiers to the Big 12 right now. There’s Texas and Oklahoma (and TCU if they get Jalen Hurts), then there’s TCU and Iowa State who are a notch above the next level, and then there’s Oklahoma State, K-State, Baylor, West Virginia, and Texas Tech who are all fairly comparable.
Kliff Kingsbury left behind some weapons in Lubbock as well as a highly experienced OL and two intriguing QB options in Alan Bowman and Jett Duffey. The defense is more of a mess but there are a few good players left and Matt Wells will surely aim to clean things up here quickly. You can already see the Red Raiders getting active in trying to track down the kind of TE their offense needs and I imagine they’ll be very active in the transfer market looking for pieces to ease the transition to the new schemes. Right now they look to be behind most everyone else but things could really shift with the transfer market.
No. 10 Kansas Jayhawks
It didn’t take very long for the Les Miles era to start to go off the rails. Star freshman RB Pooka Williams was arrested for domestic battery (status still unclear but they’re desperate enough that he’ll probably come back) and after Miles finally found a spread OC that would come to Lawrence that coach then left to take the vacant Troy HC job (Chip Lindsey).
This team is facing a long rebuild until they finally have an acceptable level of play and talent across the roster. In particular it’s been a long time since they’ve had a good OL or QB. I don’t see them climbing out of the ditch anytime soon.