While there will still be the potential of again missing out on a representative in the College Football Playoffs, the Big 12 looks like it could be more competitive and dramatic in 2017, after enduring plenty of derision a year ago. There’s talent aplenty, from newcomers to returning stars, both in terms of players and the coaches on the sidelines. Here, we attempt to make a few predictions for the upcoming season. Plenty of you are sure to disagree, and so please do leave some predictions of your own in the comments section below!
Winner: Oklahoma Sooners
A season ago, and despite some early struggles in particular during their non-conference schedule, The Sooners ultimately ran the table through the Big 12 conference, going undefeated on route to the title. Returning with many key pieces, from their senior quarterback who runs the show on offense, and a defense that will be hoping not to see a repeat of some of the injury issues that affected the unit in 2016, Oklahoma have every chance of repeating as champs.
Expect a closer challenge from their rivals however. Oklahoma State return their dynamic QB-WR duo of Rudolph and Washington, and a well-rounded defense. The Longhorns are a bit of a wildcard with untapped potential and raw talent, that might take a significant leap forward under the leadership of newly-appointed head coach Tom Herman.
Looking inwardly, the Sooners are also dealing with the relatively surprising resignation of long-time head coach Bob Stoops. While there will be a continuation of scheme with the promotion of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, there’s an element of the unknown as to how this will affect the overall dynamic around the team. While Mayfield is back, they lost a bunch of skill position playmakers in the likes of Mixon, Perine and Westbrook. In-state rivals the Cowboys, given their stability and experience among the first team, are one of several teams poised to exploit any slip-ups.
Dark Horse: Kansas State Wildcats
A dark horse pick can often be highly speculative, but the Wildcats have the potential to be a genuine threat to contend in 2017. Any time that a team can return a dynamic duel-threat quarterback of Jesse Ertz’s caliber along with one of the better offensive line units in the Big 12, then the foundations are there to compete in every game.
On the other side of the ball, they lose some talent and experience at linebacker, but have the top defensive back in the conference in D.J. Reed and a leader up front in Will Geary among their standout players. Bill Snyder continues to keep Kansas State highly relevant, and are set up to perhaps surprise some people. Having to travel to both Oklahoma State and Texas for road games does make for a tough path to crashing the top three spots.
Worst in the Conference: Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks are getting better. The defense in particular has talent, including one of the better playmakers in the entire conference in edge rusher Dorance Armstrong Jr, who piled up 20 tackles for loss and ten sacks a year ago. Ultimately though, Dave Beaty’s side are unsurprisingly still the choice of the Big 12 media to finish tenth and last this year.
Community College transfer and former Washington State Cougar Peyton Bender is the potential new starter at quarterback, and will need to perform significantly better than the play produced at the position in 2016. Still, don’t put it past the Jayhawks to find a shock win from somewhere, as they managed to achieve last season by beating the Texas Longhorns to end a 19-game Big 12 losing streak.
Offensive Player of the Year: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
There’s heaps of candidates here, but it would not be a surprise to see a second win for Mayfield in this category. Those would not be consecutive however, as his favorite target last year in Dede Westbrook was the 2016 recipient, but if the senior quarterback can keep his outstanding statistical production up again this year, despite the loss of many to graduation and the draft, he’ll be worthy of winning it again as he did in 2015.
Look to Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet to potentially be a go-to receiver this year, as a big-play threat who could be better exploited in Norman than he has been previously during his time in the SEC. A quarterback has won the OPOTY award 12 of the last 14 years in the Big 12, and Mayfield will aim to be the first double winner since another former Sooner QB in James White back in 2003/04.
Defensive Player of the Year: Travin Howard, LB, TCU
The aforementioned duo of Dorance Armstrong Jr. and D.J. Reed are both strong contenders for this title, and indeed, the former is the favorite of many. This writer is an unabashed fan of Howard though, and the under-sized but highly-active tackle machine will be aiming for his third straight year of triple digit stops, after 105 and then 130 over the past two seasons.
The Horned Frogs defense as a whole had its struggles at times last year, but if they do improve, expect Howard to continue to be at the heart of it. He’s added weight from where he played at last year that contributed to a few missed plays, was also playing hurt most of the year, and is expected to have his best season yet in his final year of college football eligibility. He was All-Conference first team last year, and might claim higher accolades after this season.
Coach to Watch: Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Sure, Tom Herman is the obvious choice, and how he gets on in year one with the Longhorns is going to be fascinating, as will Matt Rhule joining the Baylor Bears. However, let’s look a little further, beyond the names at the top of most pre-season lists. Campbell, at just 37-years-old and yet entering his sixth season as a head coach, second with the Cyclones, underwent a difficult initiation to Power Five college football that saw him suffer defeat to FCS Northern Iowa in his opening game in charge, and eight of his first nine in 2016.
Look at some of those games a little closer though, and they put the scare into a then-still undefeated Baylor and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks among some promising moments. The aim here will not be overly ambitious, but to look toward reaching bowl eligibility as a first step. Should Jacob Park take the next step at quarterback, that could be realistic after last season’s 3-9 effort.
The return of Jake Campos to an overall questionable offensive line will be critical, and staying healthy on a fairly thin defense will be required, but there’s talent from the likes of Allen Lazard and Trever Ryen at wide receiver. Campbell is an impressive young coach, and used to winning during his four full seasons leading Toledo in the MAC; expect progress in Ames in 2017.
Coordinator to Watch: Todd Orlando, DC, Texas
Tom Herman did not come from Houston alone, taking with him his defensive coordinator of the past two seasons with him in Todd Orlando, and for a rather hefty salary as well. Given that lofty contract, and struggles on that side of the ball for Texas last year, in particular in pass defense, there will be plenty pressure on Orlando to make significant improvements. Optimism to do just that can be justified though, given how strong the Cougars have been on that side of the ball during Orlando’s tenure. For all the praise of that offense ran by Greg Ward Jr., the defense was as big a factor in the team’s success.
The talent that Orlando will have with which to execute starts up front with a very talented defensive line group featuring Poona Ford and Chris Nelson, and front seven in general when including the linebackers led by future high draft pick Malik Jefferson. For the Longhorns to challenge for top spot in the conference, Orlando’s D needs to make a difference immediately.
Must-See Game: Oklahoma @ Oklahoma State, November 4th
There’s a good chance that the game that ends up deciding the winner of the Big 12 conference, will be Bedlam, between the Sooners and Cowboys. There’s no doubt that the Red River Rivalry is not to be missed either, and has an extra edge this year with the raised expectations for Herman’s Longhorns, but Oklahoma State are more of a known quantity to back.
An intrigue for Bedlam is the timing this year. Recently, the matchup has been the finale to the regular season for each of the teams, but comes quite a few weeks earlier in 2017. The return of the Big 12 title game for the first time since 2010 could be a reason for that, with the prospect of the sides facing each other twice in a row; perhaps a sign that the schedule-makers also believe that these are the best two teams in the conference this year. Will they be proved correct?
Have predictions of your own for the 2017 season in the Big 12? Discuss in the comments below!
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