Shortly after the Camping World Bowl between Iowa State and Notre Dame, which was a disaster for the Cyclones, TE Charlie Kolar announced he’d be returning for 2020. That was probably the right call, Kolar has NFL talent but he’s still developing his tool box. He ended up with 51 catches for 697 yards and seven TDs last season for Iowa State and defined their offense in some games but he could make another leap after spending this offseason working on his route-running.
Kolar’s return is significant for the Big 12 title race because it secures the main thrust of the Iowa State offense, the triangle of threats they create in the middle of the field with pump fake Purdy working his magic while Kolar stresses the seam and then RB Breece Hall does his thing from the backfield. Those three have tremendous synergy because all three are “dual-threat” players. Kolar can block and catch, Hall can run and catch, and PFPurdy can throw and run.
Given that the Cyclones also return eight starters on defense, they’re yet another team with a strong case as a Big 12 title contender. I thought I’d give an early look at how the league is shaping up before grad transfers start flying in to shakeup the balance of power.
These are in order, also, so feel free to be furious if you think the rankings within the tiers are disrespectful.
Tier 1: Undisputed favorites
The Oklahoma Sooners
Six returning OL with starting experience, including an interior OL that was dominant in 2019, a ton of dangerous weapons across the offense, Jalen Redmond and what might be the best LB corps in the league. There’s also a lot of continuity within the program, Riley always maximizes the offense and has developed a plan over time for all these parts while Alex Grinch is now in year two with his system.
The Sooners need to get better in the secondary despite losing ace cornerback Parnell Motley. Also complicating that issue, right now the prospective trio of CBs in nickel would be 5-8 Brendan Radley-Hiles, 5-10 Jaden Davis, and 5-10 Tre Brown. That’s obviously a pretty small group to ask to hold up in press-quarters vs sideline jump balls.
They also have to bring Spencer Rattler along as a redshirt freshman. I think Rattler will begin the season as a more dangerous player than Jalen Hurts simply for his ability to execute the vertical passing game that Lincoln Riley won’t struggle to create with this OL, these FB/TEs, and these RBs. His ceiling in 2020 probably needs to be higher than that to hold off the teams below though.
Offensive tackle also needs to improve to get the GT counter game rolling again and to protect Rattler while he’s taking those deep shots. Rattler can move but he’s not going to be involved in the run game like Hurts was in 2019.
Tier 2: It’s B12 title game or bust!
Oklahoma State Cowboys
I broke down everything the Cowboys have going for them the other day. The offense is loaded with both experienced infrastructure and overwhelming skill talent. The defense looks sturdier, returns most of what made it good (at times) in 2019, and has a couple of emerging young talents that could end up being significant persons in the 2020 Big 12 race.
Is Spencer Sanders ready to make the most of this supporting cast of skill players? He spent a fair chunk of 2019 playing with reads like, “throw to Tylan Wallace executing a double move or scramble” and “read the DE for hand-off to Chuba Hubbard or keep.” Don’t get me wrong, that was pretty effective because of the athleticism and arm talent involved in those transactions, but OSU becomes overpowering if Sanders gets closer to Taylor Cornelius in his understanding of the offense.
Beyond that, the DL needs to get better. Cameron Murray, Israel Antwine, and Tyler Lacy need to continue to grow in holding the point of attack and Trace Ford needs to learn what he’s actually doing to realize his scary athleticism. Also, A.J. Green was a good corner they could play on an island at times and finding another guy like that or better could push them to the top tier.
Texas has the best player and the most overall talent of any team in the league. Sam Ehlinger returns as something close to a 4-year starter with all of Colt McCoy’s records in his sights and he’ll have both OTs, several 4/5 star skill talents, and then something like seven defensive starters all guided by an overhauled staff to help him.
Texas’ best defender Joe Ossai will finally be playing his natural position as a DE/OLB and new DC Chris Ash intends to leverage Texas’ athleticism into a simpler, press-quarters, “we’re going to get in your face and make you beat us” base defense.
Playing great base defense requires savvy play at linebacker and safety and then a dominant DL. Unbeknownst to most B12 fans, Texas actually has the latter but the former is a huge question mark. Juwan Mitchell was one of two inside-backers with any real know-how or experience and he just entered the transfer portal, they’ll probably have to convert multiple safeties down this offseason. Press-quarters requires phenomenal CB play, Texas has the blue chip names there but not many skins on the wall yet.
Offensively, Texas loses senior WRs Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson and their 2020 offense will go based on their ability to find an outside receiver in Mike Yurcich’s scheme who can destroy teams over the top. They have lots of options but nothing proven.
Also, Texas went into 2019 with the roster to be the hands down favorite and instead went 7-5 before their bowl game triumph over Utah. Everyone’s been watching the Longhorns screw the pooch for a decade now with virtually zero exceptions save perhaps for 2018.
Iowa State Cyclones
PFPurdy and the triangle of him, Hall, and Kolar on offense mentioned above. Also the eight returning defensive starters that include all of their best players save for NT Ray Lima. Campbell has had his program rolling along for a while now and although they didn’t achieve the breakthrough in 2019 that was hoped for, they had injuries to arguably their three best players (Bailey, Eisworth, Purdy) and were in every game.
I don’t think there are many questions on defense, the Cyclones simply have too many guys that have been around getting developed. They coach DL very well and still have Mike Rose at LB and Greg Eisworth at middle safety. Their weak spot a year ago may have been the middle of their defense, after Lima, because Vance didn’t always nail his run fits and Eisworth was hurt. They could be shored up overall with another year and most of the main cogs back.
The big question is offensive tackle and the secondary question is outside receiver, the former is a much bigger issue. Whoever plays outside at receiver will benefit massively from the attention commanded by Kolar, PFPurdy, and Hall who are each among the very best at their position in the league. Think 2017 OU with Mayfield, Sermon/Anderson, Flowers, and Mark Andrews. Sean Shaw was also promising here a year ago, their next 6-6 target who can Moss CBs.
But OL has been the big issue for ISU all along in the Matt Campbell era, they solved for that last year by moving all-purpose Julian Good-Jones out to LT simply because he was their best athlete even though he’s probably like 6-3. Now he’s gone along with starting RT Bryce Meeker. Some of the younger guys Campbell has been recruiting and developing will be coming up now, most notably Trevor Downing and Colin Newell who have each played a fair amount over the last couple of seasons. Neither are tackles though so we’ll find out in the coming year if the younger prospects here that haven’t seen the field much yet are ready to pan out or not. Finding one All-B12 caliber tackle could be the difference for this team in competing for a title game appearance or not.
Tier 3: I mean, if a few things go right…
TCU Horned Frogs
I’ve heard a lot of arguments for why the Horned Frogs should be higher, I think there’s some optimism in the fanbase relating to the return of Max Duggan and a customary number of really solid defensive players. They are losing Ross Blacklock, Darius Anderson, Sewo Olonilua, Jalen Reagor, both OTs, and Jeff Gladney which are pretty grievous losses.
The line is stocked with some up and coming, tweener types though and they just took a grad transfer LT from Colorado State. The biggest thing is whether the Max Duggan we saw flashes of down the stretch is ready to grow and emerge as a dominant force in the Big 12. If that happened and Gary Patterson cobbled together another strong D, obviously TCU is in the mix. To that end, they return all three starting safeties and LB Garrett Wallow. We’ve seen the “steady QB play plus Patterson D” team a few times before and they typically win 10 games.
While structurally it might have been brilliant to put Jerry Kill in a position of oversight over the offense, it’s notable that Kill is A) a ball control maestro and B) a close friend of Patterson’s.
That raises the question of whether Patterson is really evolving or just going down with his inner circle, a la Mark Dantonio up in Lansing. This team wasted Jalen Reagor for a couple of seasons and now they’ll have to build a steady offense with new faces at RB and outside WR and OT. Really their only hope of being a great offense is to be aggressive pushing the ball down the field to Taye Barber and I don’t know if that will be the actual plan.
Defensively there’s also some signs that ol Gare is slipping, such as the OU and OSU games from a year ago when they applied unsound measures against option tactics. They really need DE and CB to pan out this offseason with some of the younger players they’ve been desperately stockpiling to shore up those spots. CB is probably okay but DE is a bigger question mark and it’s the most crucial position of this defense unless they move to a 3-down full time.
West Virginia Mountaineers
It seems a really tough loss for the Mountaineers to give up Josh Sills to Oklahoma State, but they actually already had to replace him in 2019 because he was out all year with an injury. Neal Brown’s team has seen a massive exodus of transfers out and they took their lumps with some walk-ons and underclassmen last year, yet managed to cobble together a 5-7 team despite Austin Kendall starting at QB most of the year.
For 2020 they’ll have Jarrett Doege installed at QB throwing to talented young wideouts that return such as Sam James and Bryce Wheaton with T.J. Simmons still around as well. The interior OL is now settled and improved after shuffling around last year. The defense returns the interior of the Stills bros, Josh Chandler and Dylan Tonkery at ILB, and then several young DBs that got in on the act last year. The simple fact that they’ll be building this offseason around Doege throwing deep and the Stills bros up front is enough to make a solid case for a good Mountaineer team. If you believe in Neal Brown’s program then it’s easy to see this team making a leap.
Keith Washington, Hakeem Bailey, and Josh Norwood gave them three veteran DBs to handle a lot of coverage assignments for their blitz package a year ago. Now they’ll need to fill that group out and improve to make the most of the Stills bros. It’s a tall order to improve in the secondary after losing three veteran seniors. They’ll will benefit from getting Vandarius Cowan back healthy at Jack LB, that might allow them to get pressure with four pretty often and not need to send five.
The other big question is tackle. While they nailed down their interior OL and return it intact for 2019, they didn’t run the ball that well in 2019 and the OL’s strongest suit was keeping the QB clean with Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline, both of whom are now gone. They added an Iowan JUCO tackle to the mix and may need him to start immediately.
Kansas State Wildcats
It’s not unfathomable that K-State could improve upon last year’s 8-5 (5-4) mark. Senior QB Skylar Thompson returns and will probably have a much better group of weapons around him with WRs Malik Knowles and Wykeen Gill getting older while speedster Joshua Youngblood gets more time to learn how to translate his speed.
The defense played smart football a year ago and has a lot of interesting pieces back, including star DE Wyatt Hubert, emerging DT Drew Wiley, a pair of ultra-veteran LBs in Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes, and then a secondary that will have AJ Parker back at CB along with Walter Neil, Jr and several returning faces at safety.
The OL is gone. All of it.
Tight end and fullback will be better and they have some young RBs that will be ready to step up now that the mercenary grad transfers they relied on in 2019 are gone but the seniors that executed all of their variations on power and sweep last year are now gone. Snyder didn’t leave the cupboard totally bare here and they’ll add JUCOs and transfers but it’ll be hard to match what they did a year ago.
The 2019 Wildcats also lacked the kind of strong safety that makes this system work like Robbie Grimsley at ND State for Chris Klieman or Andrew Wingard at Wyoming for Scottie Hazelton. The guy that can hawk down from depth and fit the run behind the LBs, they tried to use Wayne Jones here a year ago and it didn’t go that well. He’s young and could emerge here, or maybe JUCO Jonathan Alexander, someone needs to in order to make this scheme come alive.
Primarily because there are whispers that the Bears will secure the transfer of Clemson QB Chase Brice, who then elevates their RPO/play-action passing game and helps them fully weaponize Tyquan Thornton, Josh Fleeks, etc. Without Brice or a similar transfer, I don’t like Baylor’s chances of amounting to all that much on offense next season and even with a upgrade at QB (or a healthy Charlie Brewer that doesn’t get any more concussions) Joe Wickline still has his work cut out for him translating their young OL into a group that can keep anyone upright.
The D has been gutted, there’s virtually nothing left…except all the players that Matt Rhule had scouted and developed for a season or two now in Dave Aranda’s hands. I tend to agree with Baylor fans that think this roster probably has more talent on it than you’d think given all the names that are no longer listed but then it took Rhule about three years to turn last year’s D into what it was. Besides his breakthrough scheme, he also put a collection of 4th and 5th year players on the field behind a superstar talent in James Lynch and another great one in Bravvion Roy. That’s all gone now.
Well, that section above covers a lot. Wickline inherits three guys that have started games for them at tackle in Connor Galvin, Blake Bedier, and Casey Phillips and the overall athleticism level of the OL is pretty good. However, they sucked last year. Those guys have a long offseason ahead listening to Wickline dog-cussing their efforts trying to whip them into shape. Most everything regarding Baylor’s 2020 team revolves around OL play and then how Aranda approaches the issue of covering Big 12 teams.
At Wisconsin he played a lot of man coverage, believe it or not, which is what lead to their disastrous 59-0 shellacking against Tom Herman’s Buckeye offense in the 2014 B1G title game. At LSU obviously it was press-man and they got caught at times in it, despite rotating first round CBs every year. I keep hearing everyone praise Aranda for how he did “more with less” at Hawaii, Utah State, and Wisconsin but what do all those schools have in common? They don’t have to face B12 passing attacks. Todd Orlando looked really good before facing this stuff as well. Aranda has to figure some stuff out here, and maybe he will, but that’s another big question and it’s a bad bet that he’ll figure it out in year one.
Tier 4: I just don’t see it
The Jayhawks probably aren’t on the verge of breaking into the middle tier of the Big 12, but they might be more feisty within the lower tier. The promotion of Brent Dearmon to OC last year paid dividends as he developed a 21 personnel RPO offense that struck deep with WRs Stephon Robinson and Andrew Parchment while helping to free Pooka Williams.
They’ll have that going for them again, with a full offseason for development and more extensive install, and with better scholarship numbers. Seems like a lock that they’ll take a grad transfer QB as well.
Last year the Jayhawks had an NFL OT in Hakeem Adeniji, a solid and experienced QB in Carter Stanley, and a few really solid players on D like Azur Kamara and Hasan Defense. They’re all gone and have to be replaced. I think the roster may hold more answers than in past years but there’s a long ways between what we’ve seen from this program and winning three or more Big 12 games.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Red Raiders don’t have much going for them in 2020. Most of their best players are gone and the main hope in 2020 is that a healthy Alan Bowman leads a promising offense. The issue is that even if that happens, are they going to be better on O than they were with Kliff Kingsbury? Because the D doesn’t look any better than those previous units.
As has been the case for most every other pressure-oriented defensive coach coming into the B12, Matt Wells took it on the jaw in year one at Tech. His adjustment in the offseason? He tried to hire Todd Orlando after Texas sacked him and then was thwarted when USC came in and poached him. Will Texas Tech play any defense in 2020? I dunno, the roster looks pretty bleak. Wells was known at Utah State for developing players and then plugging in some talented transfers, often guys that had gotten into trouble at previous locations. He hasn’t had much time to develop this roster yet, we’ll see if they can find any white knights to ride in just ahead of pursuing investigators. I guess they have a few LBs coming in that might fit that bill.
The offense also needs to keep Alan Bowman healthy and upright and do so without 2019’s starting tackles Travis Bruffy and Terence Steele. They have a JUCO OT coming in and then perhaps Weston Wright or Jack Anderson can bump outside.
Tech has lots and lots of questions to answer, it seems they’ll need really positive answers for half of them just to have a shot at six wins.
The 2020 Big 12 looks very strong and reminscient of the 2008 “Ragnarok” season I break down in my book. That season included Colt McCoy in a 10 personnel spread, Sam Bradford running the OU offense at tempo, Graham Harrell as a senior throwing to Michael Crabtree, senior Chase Daniel, and Todd Reesing at Kansas. Things got wild.