1.Oklahoma (Ranked #5 Nationally)
2018 #1 overall pick Baker Mayfield will go down among the greatest players in Oklahoma history, but even with Mayfield off to Cleveland, Lincoln Riley and company are still far and away the favorites in a Big 12 that has a logjam in the middle with no single team emerging as a potential challenger to the Sooners. Five-star Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray was expected to be the man to replace Mayfield, but after Murray agreed to a contract with the Oakland Athletics that stated he would leave Oklahoma after this year, that has fallen into some doubt, and the more pro-style sophomore Austin Kendall made it a competition in spring camp. Because of the uncertainty at QB, I would expect the offense to revolve around running back Rodney Anderson. The junior rushed for 1,161 yards last year despite only starting the back half of the year, and he put up an incredible 6.2 YPA. The first half starter, Trey Sermon, also returns (744 yards, 6.1 YPA) and I predict the two will combine for well over 2,000 yards this year. Mayfield will clearly be the biggest hole to replace, but with the Sooners also needing to find substitutes for Mark Andrews, Dimitri Flowers, Orlando Brown, and others, I expect this offense to take a slight step back after being one of the best in the country last year.
On the positive side, the defense will probably improve a little bit with some added experience after putting out a pretty young unit on that side of the ball in 2017. There will still be some underclassmen in starting roles, but I would expect another above-average year as far as the Big 12 goes. The schedule is very interesting with a solid out of conference slate featuring Florida Atlantic, UCLA, and Army. In conference, the Sooners get both TCU and West Virginia on the road. I expect a loss at some point in Big 12 play, but this team is still a front-runner for a college football playoff bid.
Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1 (8-1 Big 12)
T2.TCU (Ranked #16 Nationally)
In the six years since joining the Big 12, TCU has gone a solid 32-22 in conference games, but if you shorten that to just the back half of the Horned Frogs’ stint as a power five team, that record shoots up to 18-9, just two games back from Oklahoma as the best team in the conference over that span. That has mainly been due to the incredible coaching of Gary Patterson, who is undoubtedly one of the best in the country. Patterson took a middling Mountain West team and has turned them into a perennial College Football Playoff darkhorse. Despite all of that, I do see TCU taking a bit of a step back this year after going 11-1 against teams not named Oklahoma last year. With Kenny Hill graduated, the quarterback spot falls to sophomore Shawn Robinson, one of the best pass throwers of the 2017 recruiting class. Robinson has the potential to be even better than Hill, but I am always weary when you start an underclassman at QB. The rest of the skill group looks solid, with the #1 rusher and receiver both back in Darius Anderson (768 yards, eight touchdowns, 6 YPA) and Jalen Reagor (576 yards, eight touchdowns, 17.5 YPC), although depth may be an issue at receiver and this offense will take a step back because of the loss at QB.
TCU’s defense (5.1 opponent yards per play) was the best in the Big 12 and was the best Patterson defense since the 2014 team that won a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach). The defense gets a lot of depth back, although will lose some playmakers in Nick Orr, Travin Howard, and Matt Boesen. DE Ben Banogu may be the best defensive player in the conference and is certainly an All-American contender after 8.5 sacks in 2017. This defense should be the best in the conference again. All in all, I see the offense taking a step back and the defense performing about the same, and with a really tough schedule that features Ohio State out of conference, I expect the record to slide, but my computer still calls for a Big 12 title game appearance.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
T2.Oklahoma State (Ranked #23 Nationally)
How many schools have had the exact same record for three straight years (and four of the last five)? Mike Gundy has built the Cowboys into one of the most consistent ten-win teams in the country over his 13 years in Stillwater, but OSU will be lucky to get back to that double-digit mark again this year. Gundy loses star QB Mason Rudolph and star WR James Washington, the top passer and receiver in school history, both of whom were taken by the Steelers on day two of the 2018 NFL draft. Last year’s #2 receiver, Marcell Ateman also was drafted (Raiders) and this offense loses a ton elsewhere. The new man at quarterback will be decided by a competition between two seniors, Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown and last year’s backup Taylor Cornelius. The receiving room, despite losing the top two, does return two-500 yard pass catchers though, so whoever wins the battle should have some big targets to throw to in senior Jalen McCleskey (645 yards, 12.9 YPC) and sophomore Dillon Stoner, who started the last six games of 2017, racking up 576 yards (13.1 YPC). This offense, however, will not rely on the passing game that was ranked 1st in the nation. Instead, running back Justice Hill will lead the team after a 1st team All-Big 12 season in 2017 (1,467 yards, 5.5 YPA), and while the offense will take a pretty big step back because of the two huge losses, Hill will help stop the bleeding to an extent and this should still be a top-20 offense.
Thanks to struggles on defense over the course of Gundy’s stint in Stillwater, there is a new coordinator on defense, former Duke DC Jim Knowles. The Cowboys haven’t held opponents to under five yards per play since 2013, and that will need to change if they want to balance out the losses on offense. The secondary may be an issue, as both safeties are gone. There will be two sophomores in starting roles and three of the four backups will be freshmen. I expect the back four to get torched, but with seven starters back overall and a new face that claims to bring an “attacking mentality” to lead the group, I would call for some improvement on this side of the ball and this should be at least the best D since that 2013 squad. The schedule looks manageable, although Boise State out of conference is tricky. Oklahoma and TCU are both on the road, but they get my #3-#6 teams all at home. A conference title berth is not out of the question.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
T4.Texas (Ranked #24 Nationally)
Texas has burned me too many times for me to go much higher than “fringe top 25 team,” but I must say, this roster looks very promising. Year one under Tom Herman was far from perfect, the offense took a step back, but the defense was superb and the Horns ended up winning seven games. The offense should improve with some added experience after playing a lot of youngsters last season, but the QB race will draw headlines again after both Sam Ehlinger (1,915 yards, 58% completion rate, 11 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 124.1 QB rating) and Shane Buechele (1,405 yards, 64% completion rate, seven touchdowns, four interceptions, 126.8 QB Rating) struggled last season. Longhorn fans will need one of the two to step up if they want a shot at making the conference title game.
The defense loses an NFL-caliber player at each level, with NT Poona Ford gone from the line, LB Malik Jefferson gone from the second level, and S DeShon Elliot gone from the secondary. The special teams unit also loses a player to the NFL in P Michael Dickson. Texas has recruited well enough that these departures won’t kill the Longhorns, but I would expect the defense to take a step back after their best year in recent memory. The schedule is quite difficult, with games vs USC and @ Maryland out of conference. As far as Big 12 play goes, UT gets just TCU at home out of my top three teams in the conference, although with games against Iowa State and West Virginia at home, they should have a winning record in the Big 12 for the second straight year.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big 12)
Last year’s 8-5 season was the best year for Cyclone fans since 2000, and Matt Campbell and company did it in style, beating then #3 Oklahoma and then #4 TCU within the span of a month to earn their first top 25 ranking since 2005. A Liberty Bowl victory over Memphis put a perfect bow on the season, and Campbell actually decided to stay in Ames despite rumors swirling he was looking for a better job. Last year the Cyclones had great success despite a tumultuous situation at quarterback, but I would not expect lightning to strike twice, so senior Kyle Kempt will need to stay healthy. Kempt, who was injured for much of the year in 2017, returns for his sixth season with ISU. Kempt had a solid 145.9 QB rating when healthy last season, throwing for 1,787 yards on a 66.3% completion rate, 15 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Also back is 1st team All-Big 12 running back David Montgomery, who went off for 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns (4.4 YPA). With (hopefully) better injury luck and a strong offensive line, this offense should improve.
The ISU defense was probably just behind Texas and TCU as far as Big 12 defenses go, and this Cyclones group gets back six starters, although will lose top tackler Joel Lanning. The secondary may be an issue as Iowa State loses both safeties from a group that ranked second in the conference in opponent passing yards per game. Sophomores Greg Eisworth (JUCO) and Lawrence White (one start last year) will have to step up and fill a noticeable hole. The schedule is a little tough, as they will have to travel to face Iowa in the battle for the Cyhawk Trophy. West Virginia and Kansas State are both at home, but my #2-#4 teams are on the road. This Cyclone team has a good chance to have a winning record in the conference for the second year in a row, something this school has never done since joining the Big 12.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-4 Big 12)
I was much lower than most on West Virginia in 2017, and I ended up being pretty right (I had WVU at 6-6 and they finished 7-6). This year I am a lot more confident, but again I find myself lower than most with the Mountaineers, and I just don’t know what it is this time. Maybe it is the fact that Dana Holgorsen has been consistently good, but not quite great (7-6 average record the past five years) and I just don’t trust him to break that glass ceiling. Maybe it is the massive lack of depth or the fact that West Virginia relies so heavily on JUCO transfers that need to learn the playbook in one season. Whatever it is, at least Will Grier gives them a shot. Grier is one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and despite dealing with injuries, he still managed to throw for 1,204 yards, ten touchdowns, and just three interceptions on a 66% completion rate and a QB rating over 160. Three of the top four are back in the receiving core, as are four out of five of last year’s starters on the O-Line, and this offense has the potential to be the best in this loaded conference.
My problems start to pile up on defense, where the Mountaineers were already pretty bad (only Baylor and Kansas were worse last year out of the Big 12 teams) and they lose a ton. Plenty of freshman and JUCOs are going to need to see the field early, and this will be one of the worst in the conference again. The one bright spot on this D is the safety spot, where Kenny Robinson returns after 46 tackles last season in just eight starts. Senior Toyous Avery will fill into the other starting safety role. The schedule is really tough. WVU gets the top and bottom two teams in the conference at home, meaning pretty much all of their “toss-up” games will be on the road. The Mountaineers also face two power fives out of conference away from home, and while this team should make a bowl, any Big 12 title talk needs to be slowed.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-5 Big 12)
Bill Snyder is one of the best coaches in the country, but assuming he sticks around, even he will struggle to get this Wildcat team to bowl eligibility, a feat that Snyder has accomplished every single year since he took back control of K-State in 2009. Snyder will have to work with two new coordinators: Last year’s WR coach Andre Coleman takes over the offense and former K-State DE coach Blake Seiler and former Baylor and Tulsa DC Brian Norwood take over the defense in co-defensive coordinator roles. That will be tough for K-State to get used to, but even more important than that is figuring out their crazy QB situation. Jesse Ertz, Skylar Thompson, and Alex Delton all played meaningful time last year due to injuries and poor play, combining for 2,256 yards through the year, 1,103 on the ground, 15 touchdowns, and eight interceptions on a rough 57.8% completion rate. Ertz, the best of the three, is gone, and it will be up to Snyder to decide if he wants to hand the reigns to the better passer, Thompson, or the dual-threat, Delton. Whoever takes over, this team returns their top rusher, two of the top three receivers and the entire offensive line, so this offense could actually improve.
The defense should be about as good as they were last year. Dealing with a coordinator change is tough but a strong secondary that returns three of four starters should lead the way. CB Duke Shelley is a name to watch. Shelley racked up 56 tackles and 11 PBUs last season and should only improve as he is the new captain of the group with DJ Reed’s departure. The schedule looks pretty tough. Mississippi State out of conference is a challenge, and this team only gets four games at home in conference, but I still expect a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big 12)
With a career record of meh (30-33), Kliff Kingsbury finds himself on the hot seat, in fact, if it wasn’t for a late-season upset @ Texas, I’m not sure Kingsbury would be in this job today. The Big 12 has the most crowded middle in power five football, so it takes a lot to stand out and out and put together an eight-win season without feeling a harsh rebound effect like Kingsbury did (eight wins in 2013, eight losses in 2014). The offense has a lot of question marks, but the entire offensive line returns (and almost nobody else). Four of the top five rushers are gone, as are five of the top six pass catchers and QB Nic Shimonek. Despite all that, it is hard to worry about a Kingsbury offense, this team will obviously take a step back, but will still be pretty good nationally. The new QB is junior McLane Carter (359 yards, 50% completion rate, two touchdowns, two interceptions as a backup last year) and while he did not look great as a sophomore, Kingsbury is one of the best QB whisperers in the nation and I have confidence in him to whip Carter into a Big 12-quality starting quarterback by September.
Defensively, TTU was… not awful last year! The Red Raiders tied with Oklahoma and Kansas State at 5.8 opponent yards per play, which was good for a three-way tie for fifth. This defense should be even better and may crack the top half, no strings attached. Imagine saying that about a Texas Tech team under Kliff Kingsbury. Almost the entire defense is back, including every single player with over 41 tackles, and all but one with 30 or more. The schedule isn’t awful, and this team should get back to a bowl if it can pull out a win in one of three big toss-up games on the schedule: vs West Virginia, @ Iowa State, or @ Kansas State.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (3-6 Big 12)
I’ve been hearing a lot of Baylor bowl hype this year, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. I had the Bears going 8-4 last year, and that was by far my biggest miss of the 2017 prediction cycle. I’m not about to be burned again. The Bears had so much roster turnover last year, and while the talent was there, the chemistry most certainly was not. With head coach Matt Rhule getting another year to put his scheme in place, I obviously expect some improvement, but just not a bowl trip. QB Charlie Brewer showed flashes as a freshman (1,562 yards in four starts/eight appearances, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions, 68% completion rate, 146.3 QB rating) and I think he has the potential to develop into a really good passer, but lets not put all our eggs in the “QB that had a few solid games as a freshman” basket. Despite me curbing my optimism, this offense will certainly improve.
Defensively, this group was arguably worse than Kansas last year, and the Bears let up an atrocious 6.5 yards per play. The Bears should have better depth and more experience, but the top tackler from last year, Taylor Young, does depart. Big 12 offenses will still rip this team to shreds, but I would expect a big dip in the 36 ppg this team let up last year. The schedule isn’t too tough, but a lot of the winnable games are front-loaded, so this team will need to figure everything out rather quickly. Games vs Duke, vs Kansas State, and vs Texas Tech (in Arlington) will probably all have to be wins for this team to make a bowl, and I just don’t see it happening.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
Kansas has gone an incredible 20-83 over the last nine years, including an awful last three years under head coach David Beaty where the Jayhawks have as many FBS wins as FCS losses (1). As many have pointed out, Sheahon Zenger got fired last year, and it certainly wasn’t for basketball, and Beaty is probably next, meaning he is on a very short leash. Despite all of that, this is the best roster that Kansas has had in a while, and Beaty has recruited well enough that for once you can actually say that this Jayhawk team has some depth. The quarterback situation is cloudy, junior Carter Stanley and senior Peyton Bender split time last year, and both were pretty awful, but on a positive note, this team returns running back Khalil Herbert, who was actually really good last year (5.5 YPA). The Jayhawks lose just one receiver or running back that had over 40 yards last season and are probably in the top five nationally in yards returning. I expect some massive improvement.
Defensively, this team should improve too. 11 of the top 12 tacklers are back from last season, and the Jayhawks have two playmakers in the front seven with DT Daniel Wise (seven sacks last year) and LB Joe Dineen (137 tackles, 22.5 TFL). This will probably be one of the most improved teams in the Big 12, and I have them quadrupling their wins from a season ago and probably pulling an upset at some point in Big 12 play. A bowl bid is not possible, but Beaty has built the Jawhawks far enough up that I am confident to say they will win more FBS games this year than in the last three combined. The question is, will it be enough for him to keep his job?
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (1-8 Big 12)