A lot can change in a year.
In August of 2016 the Big 12 Conference was in the midst of a silly and ill-advised expansion process with an all-comers procedure that produced over two dozen wannabe candidates.
In the 360 or so days since then, the expansion plug was (smartly) pulled. Plans proceeded on the resurrected championship game that will match the top two teams in the standings. And the school with the most Big 12 titles saw the coach that had won those trophies unexpectedly retire.
Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops stepped down in the first week of June, leaving college football flabbergasted. He was the longest tenured FBS coach but at 56 decided it was time to spend time not being a football coach. OU still has a notable FBS coach, though. The school promoted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who at age 33 is the youngest coach in FBS.
Riley joins two other new coaches. His Red River Rival will be Texas coach Tom Herman. If Riley fulfills his promise and if Herman is indeed one of the nation’s hottest young coaches, then the annual game in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl will be served with an extra side of spice.
Matt Rhule was hired to a seven-year contract at Baylor. The school remains stained by the sexual assault scandal that cost Art Briles his job in May of 2016 and derailed the program’s rocket ride to near the top of the sport. Rhule’s longer-than-usual deal indicates both sides understand the rebuilding – of both the team and the school’s image – will take time.
Riley inherits a team that is favored to win a third-consecutive Big 12 title. Bedlam rival Oklahoma State, along with TCU and Kansas State, are all capable of knocking off Oklahoma.
Team to Beat: Oklahoma Sooners
Until another team can step up and keep the Sooners from collecting more Big 12 hardware, they have to be considered the team to beat.
In his two seasons as offensive coordinator, Riley has impressed everyone in the program down to the team managers. Running an offense is one thing; running a big-time program is another. The most concerning aspect for Oklahoma is Riley’s learning curve as he deals with “head coach” as his title.
Riley will remain in charge of the Sooners’ offense; were he not also the head coach, this would be a challenging season for an O-coordinator. Oklahoma must replace deep threat Dede Westbrook and the running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. All they did was combine to score 53 percent of the team’s touchdowns and 4,063 combined rushing and receiving yards.
Last season the defense was hot and cold. Coordinator Mike Stoops, Bob’s brother, needs his unit to stop surrendering chunks of yardage and crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
Team Most Likely to Surprise: West Virginia Mountaineers
When Dana Holgorsen has a strong-armed, accurate quarterback, his offenses can be highly productive.
Florida transfer Will Grier is a strong-armed, accurate quarterback. That means the Mountaineers, who are as always well-stocked at running back and wide receiver, could roll up lots of points.
Grier went 5-0 as a freshman starter at Florida before being suspended by the NCAA for a positive PED test. That led him to transfer to Morgantown.
“As far as arm strength, it’s unmatched,” WVU middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton told Charleston-Gazette Mail about Grier’s arm talent. “I’ve seen him fit the ball into really small windows. You definitely can’t give him an inch. If you give him an inch on a pass, that throw might go for a mile.”
There will be another new factor for West Virginia’s offense. Holgorsen shuffled his staff and hired Jake Spavital to be the offensive coordinator. That means that Holgorsen is stepping into more of a CEO-type role.
Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Texas Longhorns
With great hype comes great expectations. Ever since Herman was hired, “Coach Mensa” has been pushing the envelope to get Texas back in the national spotlight. Herman isn’t all hype; though a small sample size, he proved at Houston that he understands how to build a program.
But his two seasons with the Cougars was in the under-the-radar Group of Five. This is now the University of Texas, where all eyes are always upon the football team. And over the last seven years, those eyes have either been closed or crying as UT has produced mediocre football.
In this three seasons in Austin, Charlie Strong amassed some serious talent that will benefit Herman’s first season. The Texas staff has been killing it in recruiting for 2018 so expect dividends to start paying … but maybe not this season.
The Longhorns could go 10-2 or 8-4 but they’re just an injury to sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele to coming closer to a 6-6 finish. Herman has changed the culture and the players’ attitudes but it might not be until Year Two for Herman to significantly impact the won-loss record.
Offensive Player to Watch: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Just call Your Veteran Scribe by a different name – Captain Obvious. But in a league stacked with electric playmakers, Mayfield might have the most juice.
The senior was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season while shattering the NCAA record for passing efficiency. With so many key weapons (see above) no longer lining up, Mayfield’s value to the Sooners is magnified.
Mayfield has ultimate confidence in his arm and sometimes attempts ill-advised throws into coverage – however, last season in particular, they worked out. His leadership and experience as he works with so many new offensive play makers will make or break Oklahoma’s season.
The senior from Austin’s Lake Travis High School also has Johnny Football-like qualities. According to Pro Football Focus’ College Football site, Mayfield led the Big 12 with 10 touchdown passes when pressured. His scrambling and mobility make him particularly dangerous when rushed.
Defensive Player to Watch: Malik Jefferson, Texas
Hey, remember which conference we’re discussing. The Big 12, whose unofficial motto is “Defense Optional.”
That being said, there are some offensive wreckers who know how to tackle ball carriers and sack quarterbacks. And because Texas will (see above) draw a lot of eyeballs, junior linebacker Malik Jefferson.
In the Class of 2015, Jefferson of Mesquite Poteet was the top recruit in the state of Texas. His decision to attend UT was a coup for former coach Charlie Strong and Jefferson was quickly considered the “face” of the program.
He was the Big 12’s freshman defensive player of the year but last year was inconsistent and even benched at one point. In his career, he has started 18 out of 22 games and has 123 tackles along with eight sacks. If he skips his senior year, he’s projected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Jefferson needs to acclimate himself to defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s read/react/search/destroy philosophy. If the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder has a monster season he could make coach Tom Herman’s first year in Austin extremely enjoyable.
“In February we had a really good heart-to-heart about what he wanted to get out of this season,” Herman told the Austin American-Statesman. “He said, ‘Coach, I want to be as good a linebacker and good a leader and teammate as I can be.’ I said great.”