Yes, the Big 12 finished the 2013-14 season with only three teams ranked in the Top 25, compared to four the previous season with the Texas Longhorns conspicuously and surprisingly falling from the nation’s elite. But Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners trumped all expectations by blasting defending national champion and SEC titans Alabama with a 45-31 Sugar Bowl victory to close out the season. It’s that late success and the golden arm of quarterback Trevor Knight that should propel the Sooners to the top of the Big 12 for the first time in four years and possibly a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Many have predicted the Sooners to pull out the Big 12 title, but the Baylor Bears and their unstoppable offense led by quarterback Bryce Petty should create a tight race throughout the season. The two squads will meet at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 8, and likely decide the conference’s champion, though Texas and new head coach Charlie Strong, along with Bill Snyder’s Kansas State, will also be lurking.
In terms of proven play, Petty certainly trumps Knight, but should the sophomore play half as well as he did in the Sugar Bowl, he’ll provide Oklahoma the type of balance it sorely lacked last season. The Sooners were the only team in the Big 12 ranked in the top three in total defense, rush defense, pass defense, and scoring defense, but ranked sixth overall in scoring offense. Knight’s development will be tied to how well he and junior transfer and 6-foot-6 receiver Dorial Green-Beckham mesh.
Much of Baylor’s hype is surrounding Petty and if he can repeat his 4,200-yard 32 touchdown junior season. The Bears were first in the nation with 52.4 points per game, and sixth in passing offense, but their defense was slightly underrated, coming up third in the conference overall. However, they will miss last year’s leading tackler Eddie Lackey, and sack leader Chris McAllister, and only field four returning starters. The Bears young secondary might be another concern, but that could allow junior defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer to shine. The duo combined for seven sacks and 23.5 tackles last season.
Strong takes over a Longhorns squad that stumbled last season with two early losses, and then lost three of their final four games, including a 30-7 pasting in the Alamo Bowl to Oregon. But many forget this is still a talent-rich team that took down the Sooners in the middle of a six-game win streak and nearly bested Baylor for the conference title. Still Strong does have an uphill battle, especially at quarterback with junior David Ash. He missed most of last season due to head injuries, and Ash failed to build off his solid 2012 campaign.
The defense should be more consistent this season, with defensive end Cedric Reed again leading the way after Jackson Jeffcoat’s departure, and senior cornerback Quandre Diggs will hold down the secondary after knocking down 20 passes and helping out on the pass rush as well with 2.5 sacks and three quarterback hits last season.
Snyder’s crew has been pegged as a bit of a dark horse. The Wildcats wound up fifth last season even with an offense that racked up nearly 33 points a game, and had the 31st ranked defense in the country. Like the Sooners and Bears, Kansas State will turn to their quarterback Jack Waters, who racked up 2,149 passing yards and 18 touchdowns while splitting time with since transferred Daniel Sams. Senior receiver Tyler Lockett, who led the conference with 105 receiving yards per game, will certainly help Waters improve.
Senior defensive end and last year’s sack leader Ryan Mueller will return to the Cats defense, but who replaces top tackler and linebacker Blake Slaughter will be an ongoing issue.
Below are predictions for the 2014 Big 12 standings, and who will face off in the conference title game.