The 2019 bowl season was a big L for the Big 12 conference. The nuanced understanding of the Big 12 is that it’s a league that has two programs with “blue blood” and nationally competitive resources, but then eight other programs that in a given year can play at a top 25 or even top 10 level. Commentators assume it’s a lower level league, and it isn’t as top loaded as the SEC West or Big 10 East, but it’s stocked deep with strong programs.
This year’s league was definitely down. That was almost always going to be the case with Will Grier and Kyler Murray moving on, three new head coaches coming in, and Oklahoma aiming to make the best of a transition year by inserting Alabama’s back-up QB at the helm. This year was a huge opportunity for Texas to be “back” and win the league but Tom Herman spectacularly whiffed. Instead Lincoln Riley adjusted to his personnel in a truly impressive fashion and defended the league crown while Matt Rhule adapted his D and put together a fantastic unit that was able to dominate the league’s down offenses.
However, Oklahoma predictably didn’t have the horses to handle what’s probably the greatest LSU team of all time and Baylor’s beat up, young, and limited offense was a poor foil for even a depleted Georgia defense. The Bulldogs had one of the three best defenses in the country and even with some starters out they still had their starting cornerbacks, nickel, and strong safety to erase the Baylor passing game that produced most of their wins this season.
Now that the bowl season is out of the way, the hunt for 2020 is underway and there’s already been a number of developments here that will have varying levels of impact.
Oklahoma’s defense of the crown
The 2019 season for Oklahoma was primarily a transition year from the transfer QB era to the home grown Lincoln Riley program. Some people believe that if Spencer Rattler had enrolled for spring ball that OU wouldn’t even have taken Jalen Hurts as a transfer and in 2020 he’ll have had a fair bit of time digesting the Sooner offense.
That offense will include Kennedy Brooks, a TE/FB crew of Jeremiah Hall and Brayden Willis, flex TE Austin Stogner, and then probably Charleston Rambo plus the trio of superstar freshmen they landed in the 2019 class (Haselwood, Wease, Bridges). Perhaps more importantly, all six OL that saw significant time as starters in 2019 will be back in 2020.
It’s going to be way too easy for Riley to package together some more power run game concepts that creates easy play-action and RPO opportunities for Rattler which he will hit with far greater precision and consistency than did Jalen Hurts.
Defense will be interesting. Alex Grinch mostly overcame a secondary that wasn’t as rangy and physical at safety as he would have liked with some effective press coverage outside and then the superior athletes that he deployed very effectively up front. He’s losing 2.5 NFL caliber athletes up front in Neville Gallimore, Kenneth Murray, and allegedly something like half a season of Ronnie Perkins.
Gallimore is a huge loss, it’s hard to find NTs that can cause disruption inside like he did this season. Oklahoma foresaw the issue and landed the no. 1 rated JUCO DT in the country, then later in the season they snagged the no. 2 rated JUCO DT as well just to be safe. I think replacing Perkins will be easier, even though he was terrific this season. LaRon Stokes and Marcus Stripling were both solid and Jalen Redmond could break out after a healthier offseason. I mean, more than he already has.
Replacing Kenneth Murray I think may be toughest for the opportunity cost of deploying him in 2020 rather than replacing his production in 2019. He’s going to be drafted because he’s an elite athlete that projects to be able to do a ton of different things, he hasn’t yet put it all together yet. To replace him the Sooners have Brian Asamoah and maybe David Ugwoegbu or Caleb Kelly, all of which have the potential to be similarly effective if playing behind another disruptive front.
The key is the secondary. I imagine Patrick Fields and Dellarin Turner-Yell may hold onto their starting spots given all the experience they accumulated this last year. The Sooners replace Parnell Motley and they have Brendan Radley-Hiles to either continue to hold down nickel or replace Motley or they could just promote Jaden Davis. Overall it’s easy to see the Sooners at least treading water on this side of the ball and potentially taking a big step forward with all of the returning experience and some of the potential impact pieces up front.
This is easily your frontrunner.
Baylor’s big offseason
I like Baylor as the no. 2 in the league for 2020 if they neither James Lynch nor Matt Rhule depart for the NFL and Charlie Brewer isn’t forced to medically retire due to concussions. However, I suspect that both Lynch and Rhule will be in the pros next season and it’s hard to get a good feel for what the heck is going on with Brewer. It sounds like the concussion against OU was a particularly bad one and he left the Sugar Bowl after getting his head bounced off the turf once more.
If Brewer is healthy and ready for next season an obvious priority will be trying to rewire him to protect himself better. If not, Jacob Zeno has some potential to upgrade their offense with his superior deep ball range pending his ability to read defenses and distribute as well as Brewer has done. If Lynch is gone that opens some major holes up front that will be hard to fill. If Rhule is gone then we’ll get to see what sort of contingencies AD Mack Rhoades has been developing behind the scenes. I wonder if he’s done any investigations or back channeling with the recently available Joe Moorhead?
So there’s a lot up in the air here and it may be a while before we can sort things out.
Tom Herman hits restart
Herman has been saying all the right things about how he was overextended trying to be HC and play-caller, the truth behind that is that his staff he had assembled was deficient and incapable of allowing him to effectively delegate with offering a ton of oversight. That’s pretty concerning given that staff management seemed to be a big plus for Herman coming out of Houston.
Meanwhile, he’s overhauling the staff by adding the “let’s be sound and play base” Chris Ash, fresh off failure of his own as HC at Rutgers, and then former Mike Gundy assistant Mike Yurcich. If his OSU offenses are any guide to his style, and they surely are to some extent, Yurcich is in the Dana Holgorsen mode of running an Air Raid that has journeyed pretty far down the path from Mike Leach’s system towards the smashmouth spread. Texas is returning Sam Ehlinger and then a ton of young talent that played this season with varying levels of effectiveness.
If the offseason doesn’t come together for Baylor, Texas jumps to the no. 2 spot.
Mike Gundy and Gary Patterson
These are the two programs I watched this season and thought, “I dunno if these seasons are just part of the normal cycle or indicative of them falling off.”
Oklahoma State has an uncanny knack for returning NFL skill talent in senior/fourth seasons. They got Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon back for 2011 and then Mason Rudolph and James Washington back for 2017, now Tylan Wallace is returning for 2020 and we don’t know yet on Chuba Hubbard.
Honestly, with Spencer Sanders in year two I think returning either of those two guys was going to guarantee that OSU made a big leap on offense in 2020 and now they’re assured of having at least one of them. On defense, OSU played some pretty solid ball in the defensive backfield with their new dime approach. Next year they return disruptors Amen Ogbongbemiga and Trace Ford and a variety of big DL (Israel Antwine) that might be much closer to solid after another offseason. I think Gundy still has things working at their normal level in Stillwater and that with a more savvy Sanders behind center we’ll see an 8-10 win kind of team.
I dunno about the Frogs though. The smashmouth spread has been giving Patterson fits all decade and he’s yet to really adjust his 4-2-5 to handle it. The three-down looks he mixed in late against OU this year could provide the solutions if he can make that adjustment…we’ll see. The Frogs are waiting to hear on whether Ross Blacklock or Jalen Reagor are coming back and Jeff Gladney is gone either way. The defense might put something good together but I think it’ll require the three-down shift, I don’t think the style of 4-2-5 they played last year is going to work. Particularly the way they used their DEs, which the Oklahoma teams abused with option schemes.
Then there’s the questions on offense. Rumors suggest Doug Meacham is going to be reunited with Sonny Cumbie, then Patterson denies it. Their OL coach left and Patterson slid the old one, who’d moved to another position, back over to replace him. TCU reminds me a lot of Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State right now, a program in need of some major updates and fresh ideas with an older, entrenched coach that may not be up for it.
We’ll circle back to some of the other schools as more puzzle pieces fit together.
In addition to breaking down how the spread offense has evolved in the Big 12, my book serves as a history for the conference from its inception to the current era.