This time last spring, the Big 12 was still in crisis management mode after being snubbed in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Ohio State had leapfrogged both Baylor and TCU in the final week of the season, prompting a barrage of unrelenting questions: Does the Big 12 need to revamp its conference scheduling philosophy? Is league expansion imminent? What does “One True Champion” really mean?
What a difference a year makes. Oklahoma finished 11–1 as the undisputed Big 12 champ last fall before losing to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Though the Sooners didn’t take home college football’s ultimate prize, they set the table for the league moving forward, as four Big 12 teams finished inside the top 20 of the final AP poll.
So, what’s at stake this spring? Will Oklahoma take steps toward defending its title? Or will another program put the pieces in place to make its own run this fall? Here are the storylines to watch for each Big 12 team over the coming weeks.
Baylor: How will the Bears replace tons of experience in the trenches?
Baylor’s offense was predictably great again last season, averaging a national-best 48.1 points per game. Yet while guys like Seth Russell and Corey Coleman got the majority of the credit, the unit thrived behind a veteran offensive line. All-America tackle Spencer Drango and guard Blake Muir are gone, meaning position coach Randy Clements will need to mold a raw group into form this spring. On the other side of the line, defensive terrors Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings are bound for the NFL, putting the onus on K.J. Smith and Brian Nance to take larger roles.
Iowa State: What will Matt Campbell’s vision for the program look like?
The Cyclones went 3–9 in 2015, but their performance wasn’t as bad as the record indicates. Every one of their defeats came to opponents that became bowl eligible, and a couple were finger-stuck-in-the-car-door levels of painful. (For example, they led Kansas State 35–14 before surrendering 24 unanswered points on Nov. 21.) The questions this spring are whether new coach Matt Campbell can instill a culture that will turn close calls into victories and how he plans to maximize the roster he inherits.
In Campbell’s final two seasons at Toledo, the Rockets had a balanced rushing attack, ranking 22nd and 10th, respectively, in average yards per carry. If he can devise ways to get the most out of rising sophomore tailback Mike Warren (who ran for 1,339 yards last fall), the Cyclones could be a dangerous offensive outfit.
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
Kansas: Can the Jayhawks improve in every facet of the game?
Kansas’s 2015 season was an unmitigated disaster. Coach David Beaty’s debut saw the defense allow an FBS-worst 560.8 yards per game as the Jayhawks lost by an average of 30.8 points en route to going 0–12. Trying to find the highlight would be like trying to identify the lighthearted scene in The Revenant—it doesn’t exist. But spring brings hope, and Kansas has several areas in which it could get better in the coming weeks. Redshirt freshman quarterback Carter Stanley should challenge rising sophomore Ryan Willis for reps, and defensive tackle Daniel Wise could build on his 3.5-sack total in his first year of college action. The road back to relevance has to start somewhere, and in ’16 this team has nowhere to go but up.
Kansas State: Will playmakers emerge in the receiving corps?
Two seasons ago the Wildcats’ Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton composed one of the most fearsome receiving tandems in the Big 12. In 2015, however, Kansas State’s wideouts were nonfactors; only one player (DeAndre Burton) finished with more than 500 receiving yards, and the roster’s second-leading wideout (Kody Cook) has since graduated. For Bill Snyder’s squad to charge up the conference standings, it will need one of its young pass-catchers to establish a rapport with rising senior quarterback Joe Hubener this spring.
One guy to keep an eye on here? Dominique Heath. The 5’9”, 175-pounder has the speed to be a difference-maker, and he gained experience as a punt returner last fall. He was also the star of Kansas State’s 2015 spring game (217 kick return yards, 157 punt return yards)—a performance he’ll look to reprise this year.
Oklahoma: Who will lead a revamped defense?
While the Big 12 features an abundance of prolific offenses, the Sooners boasted the conference’s best defense last fall, and it wasn’t close: They ranked first in the league in scoring defense (20.4 points per game allowed), passing defense (197.6 yards per game allowed) and rushing defense (149.7 yards per game allowed). Entering this spring, that unit loses almost all of its headliners, including linebacker Eric Striker, defensive end Charles Tapper and cornerback Zack Sanchez. For this program to contend for a repeat playoff berth, new standouts will need to step up, most crucially among a linebacking corps that loses five of its top six contributors. Here’s looking at you Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Tay Evans and Ricky DeBerry.
Oklahoma State: Can the offensive line become more effective?
The Cowboys ranked 93rd nationally in sacks allowed (32) in 2015, yet even that was a marked improvement from their horrendous effort in ’14, when they were 113th (40 sacks allowed) in the same category. To build on a campaign in which it raced to a 10–0 start, Oklahoma State will have to take a group that sputtered last fall and transform it into a formidable front. The good news is all five starters along the line return; the bad news is those guys haven’t played especially well thus far. Bolstering the ground game will be the focal point this spring, as last year’s offense was exceptionally one-dimensional—it had 2,942 more passing than rushing yards.
Big 12 players to watch in 2016
TCU: Will transfer Kenny Hill fill the void left by Trevone Boykin?
He’s back! Kenny Hill—he of the 511-yard, three-touchdown outing in Texas A&M’s season-opening beatdown of South Carolina in 2014—is now positioned to replace Trevone Boykin as the Horned Frogs’ starting quarterback. Hill, who burst onto the scene as the Heisman Trophy favorite in ’14 before losing his job to Kyle Allen (who has also since transferred from A&M), came to TCU last June and sat out all of the ’15 season in accordance with the NCAA’s transfer rules.
The question this spring is whether Hill can grasp co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham’s warp-speed offense, which should be a natural fit for a player who ran up-tempo schemes at both A&M and Southlake Carroll (Texas) High. Hill will compete with rising sophomores Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, but every indication is that he enters practice as the frontrunner.
Texas: Can coordinator Sterlin Gilbert rejuvenate a listless offense?
The Longhorns’ attack was abysmal for the second straight season, ranking 83rd nationally in scoring offense (26.4 points per game) and 118th in passing offense (145.9 yards per game) last fall. There was no single culprit, with Charlie Strong changing play-callers after one game and Texas struggling through inconsistent quarterback play, but the result was an underwhelming 5–7 campaign that leaves the staff with a win-or-else ultimatum heading into 2016. Gilbert, who came to the program from Tulsa in December, will install an Art Briles-type offense that must address several key questions this spring. Who should start under center? And who will establish himself among a receiving corps that returns just one player (John Burt) who had more than 11 catches in ’15? The next few weeks constitute the beginning of an offensive overhaul, and patience in Austin is growing thin.
Texas Tech: Will a defensive line rotation begin to take shape?
The Red Raiders’ defensive youth movement began last season, but it should reach an entirely new level entering 2016. Breiden Fehoko, who was named an All-Big 12 honorable mention as a true freshman, is one of the only major pieces to return on the Texas Tech defensive line. This spring will be spent sorting out who deserves playing time come fall, and it will be key for guys like Zach Barnes and Gary Moore to establish themselves; Kliff Kingsbury brought on six defensive linemen in this year’s recruiting class. No matter who separates from the pack, they will face plenty of work ahead. The Raiders allowed an average of 6.17 yards per carry last year, better than only two FBS teams (Idaho and Eastern Michigan).
West Virginia: Who will bolster the secondary?
The Mountaineers’ defense, which was regularly torched in the program’s first few years in the Big 12, proved to be one of the conference’s best in 2015. It finished second in the league in total defense (412.2 yards per game allowed) and showed a knack for capitalizing on opponents’ errors, tying for fifth nationally in turnovers gained (31). The secondary was decimated by departures, though, as Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, Daryl Worley, Terrell Chestnut and Rick Rumph all left for graduation or the NFL draft. This spring Dana Holgorsen’s goal will be identifying his next wave of defensive backs, and he’ll keep a close eye on the progress of cornerback Rasul Douglas. A four-star juco transfer out of Nassau Community College, Douglas has the frame (6’2”, 208 pounds) and athleticism to become a star in Morgantown.