The Oklahoma Sooners haven’t won the Big 12 football title since 2010, but they enter this season as a heavy favorite to get back on top of the conference and to perhaps do much more. The Sooners status as prohibitive conference favorite and serious national contender is testament to how much the perception of a program can change after two games.
OU was humiliated on a Thursday night in Baylor last November, and the belief was that Bob Stoops’ program was moving in the wrong direction—not that anyone thought the Sooners had suddenly become terrible, but the stature that the folks in Norman are used to was certainly damaged.
Then came the final game of the regular season. Oklahoma knocked off Oklahoma State, denying the latter a conference championship and getting the Sooners a Sugar Bowl spot. And oh, did OU capitalize on that chance—quarterback Trevor Knight was fantastic, Oklahoma decisively beat Alabama 45-31 and set the stage for positive press and momentum coming into this season.
I think the optimism is justified. While Knight will have more growing pains than he showed last January in New Orleans, the sophomore still showed he can bring stability to the position. Sterling Shepard is a solid receiver. But the defense is what I like the most about Oklahoma this year.
Stoops has experienced linebackers in the fold to man his 3-4 scheme. Eric Striker had 6 ½ sacks last year, and Dominque Alexander was Big 12 Defensive Freshman Of The Year. Three more starters return in the secondary, and defensive end Charles Tapper is an all-conference player.
The defensive strength alone is enough to justify Oklahoma as the conference favorite, with 2-3 odds to win the Big 12. If Knight comes through, the Sooners will be in the new four-team College Football Playoff come January.
Here’s the rundown on how the rest of the Big 12 looks
If Oklahoma stumbles, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State are the teams waiting to pick up the torch…
Baylor: The points are going to fly again in Waco for the team that won the conference championship last season. Bryce Petty is back for his senior year at quarterback, and he has the fabulous Antwan Goodley to throw to again, along with Corey Coleman. But the defense, the unit whose improvement was the real lynchpin to last year’s championship, has a huge overhaul ahead.
Texas: Charlie Strong takes over the coaching reins for the retiring Mack Brown. Strong’s specialty is defense, and end Cedric Reed had ten sacks last season, keying a good front four. The back seven has three starters back and the offense has some promise. David Ash has played well at quarterback when healthy, and if his concussion issues don’t resurface, he and Jaxon Shipley can make a productive combo. There’s some retooling on the offensive line, but don’t sleep on the Longhorns.
Kansas State: Last year was rebuild time for the team that won the league in 2012, and Kansas State came through it admirably. They won seven games, were competitive against OU, Texas and Baylor and then capped it off by physically manhandling Michigan in their bowl game. Now Bill Snyder brings back a defense with all upperclassmen in the starting lineup, senior quarterback Jake Waters and a good receiver in Tyler Lockett.
Oklahoma State: The smart people of Las Vegas rated Okie State a 10-1 shot to win the conference, which is the same as Kansas State, but I have a hard time seeing the Cowboys in that positive a light. They lose 28 seniors and will be particularly young in the secondary. In addition to inexperience, last year had a bitter ending. The loss to Oklahoma cost Oklahoma State the Big 12 crown and then the Cowboys lost a bowl game to Missouri. Running back Desmond Roland returns to Stillwater, but he’s not enough to keep the program from a temporary slide back to the 7-5 range.
Texas Tech: It’s the first year for Kliff Kingsbury, the former Red Raider quarterback, who now takes over as head coach. Texas Tech came flying out of the gate to a 7-0 start, but they played the top five teams in the conference to end the season, lost all five and rarely looked competitive in the process. Kingsbury has to replace 15 starters, which will keep expectations modest. Just getting bowl-eligible would be a significant achievement.
TIME TO MOVE UP
The last four teams all missed the bowl party in 2013, but all have experience on hand for the coming season. The pressure is in varying degrees, but all four need to make significant strides this year.
TCU: It’s not like Gary Patterson is on any kind of hot seat in Fort Worth after a 4-8 season, but Patterson has gotten too used to winning not to be burned up over last year’s setback. The Horned Frogs are going to have a vintage defense—they were good last year, and now they’ll have a healthy Devonte Fields, the defensive end who missed most of last year after winning Defensive Player Of The Year in 2012. Seven other starters on D return. It’s enough to carry a problem offense at least to bowl eligibility.
West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen is to offense what Patterson is to defense and Holgorsen has to get the Mountaineers back on track. The offense plummeted last year, but has six starters back, including quarterback Clint Trickett. The defense isn’t going to be good—it never has been under Holgorsen—but with five starters in the back seven returning, it should at least be improved.
Iowa State: A three-win year was a disappointment to a program that had gotten used to lurking around the range of 6-7 wins. Head coach Paul Rhoads brings back the entire offensive line, a good secondary, and brought in former Kansas head coach Mark Mangino—the offensive genius who led Kansas to an Orange Bowl win in 2007—to coordinate that side of the ball in Ames. It’s an opportunity for Mangino to reclaim his reputation after abuse allegations got him fired in Lawrence, and for Iowa State to get back in the bowl picture.
Kansas: Speaking of Kansas and offensive geniuses, let’s move to Charlie Weis, the head coach who is long on proclamations of his brilliance, and short on actual football victories. Weis has won four games in two years at KU. He’s got an experienced defense back this year. The offense has some work to do—but they are coached by the man who told the world he had a “decided schematic advantage” on everyone else in his days at Notre Dame, so if Weis can’t move this team to at least five wins or so, what exactly does he bring to a program?
I’m playing the chalk and picking Oklahoma to win this championship decisively. Of the challengers, I’d rank Kansas State as the best, with Texas close behind. I see Baylor more in the class of Oklahoma State—a step back this season. I also look for Iowa State and TCU to return to bowl games, with West Virginia right on the bubble.
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