By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
In the 2018-19 college football season, the Big 12 Conference produced 26 selected players in the NFL Draft, 11 of whom were chosen within the first three rounds, second-consecutive Heisman Trophy winners, and of 10 teams, only three (Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas) lost more games than they won.
Of the seven teams with winning records, all made bowl games and four came out with victories, including Baylor’s 45-38 win in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl against Vanderbilt.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby clarified that 2018 wasn’t the only year of post-season success, yet it was defining for the conference.
“We have been 13-8 over the last three seasons and have a winning record against every one of the autonomy conferences that we have played,” Bowlsby said. “Last year of our seven bowl games, six of the seven opponents were held below their season averages offensively by Big 12 defenses.”
Now heading into the 2019 season, according to 247 Sports and based on ESPN’s Preseason Rankings, the Big 12 ranks third behind the SEC and Big Ten Conference.
With that said, as some teams try to build off successful seasons and others try to rebuild, let’s take a look at the conference.
Last year marked OU’s fourth straight Big 12 title, and despite losing their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and four offensive linemen to the NFL, the Sooners are comfortable coming into a new season with transfer veteran quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The biggest difference, head coach Lincoln Riley explained, is the defense with new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. In 2018, Oklahoma fell to last in the league in scoring defense.
“It’s not like you’re starting from scratch,” Lincoln said. “We don’t plan on the offense dipping. The second part of that, we definitely expect our defense to be better…That’s why we have recruited as hard as we have. That’s why we made the changes on the coaching staff that we’ve made.”
Prior to his arrival to OU, Grinch spent three years (2014-17) at Washington State and in 2018 held a co-defensive coordinator position at Ohio State. At WSU, Grinch’s defensive improved from averaging eight turnovers to 28 by his last season.
Additionally, of the 2019 signing class, nearly half of the 24 commits are defensive players, including ESPN 300’s No. 5 recruit safety Jeremiah Criddell, and defensive end Marcus Stripling.
Combined, Stripling and Criddell totaled 63 tackles and four fumbles their senior year.
Third year head coach Tom Herman leads the Longhorns into the fall coming off their first 10-win season since 2009 (13-1).
Aside from junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger who will try to improve on a 3,000 yard season, Herman noted some players to look out for, including senior offensive center Zach Shackelford, who he called “the quarterback of the offensive line and the glue that holds that group together,” and junior tight end Cade Brewer, who will be replacing now, New England Patriots TE, Andrew Beck.
Herman also emphasized establishing a run game, and is especially excited about tailbacks Keaontay Ingram and Jordan Whittington.
Notably, Ingram as a true freshman rushed over 700 yards, including a career-high 110 yards against Baylor. Herman also said that Whittington has been “remarkable,” and never in his 22 years of coaching has he seen a player come take a position like “a fish to water.”
Although confident with his offensive talent, Herman acknowledged that there’s needed improvements on defense.
“We’re going to be young. There’s no secret to that,” Herman said. “But young and talented is better than young and not talented.”
Even with a young defense, the head coach is confident in Todd Orlando, who enters his third year at UT as the defensive coordinator and last year led the defense in allowing only 131.4 rushing yards per game.
West Virginia (8-4)
West Virginia is one of four teams in college football to face a schedule of 11 Power Five opponents this season. The attitude going into a tough season is a “one-game mindset,” first-year head coach Neal Brown said.
According to Blue Gold News, the Mountaineers are losing at least four players, who enrolled in the NCAA Transfer Portal.
They include safety Kenny Robinson who averaged 14.5 tackles a game last season and senior wide receiver Marcus Simms who ranked in the top 20 in Big 12 receiving yards per game (63.5) and receptions per game (4.2).
With that said, West Virginia enters 2019 with some gaps in their roster. Brown explained the program will have to take a creative approach with a focus on rebuilding depth and experience.
“We’re young, very inexperienced. What we’re going to look like in the fall I’m not sure yet. I’m really not,” Brown admitted. “We’re going to be a group that really grows and improves as we go through our Big 12 Conference and what is a very challenging schedule, but I do like our guys.”
Although a lot of uncertainty floods the roster, one thing WVU has to look forward to is graduate quarterback Austin Kendall who transferred from Oklahoma. Kendall was a backup for Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and during his tenure with the Sooners completed 72% of his passes (28-39) for three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Iowa State (8-5)
The Cyclones enter 2019 with a bulk of experience, as their roster contains 21 seniors.
Head Coach Matt Campbell pointed out their leaders, including offensive lineman Josh Knipfel, who has been an anchor in rebuilding the line, and wide receiver Deshaunte Jones.
Jones comes into his senior year with 38 games and 26 starts under his belt. Last year, he ranked second on the team with 43 receptions and four touchdown catches and was described by Campbell as “a guy that’s made a lot of plays in some critical moments.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the head coach noted linebacker Marcel Spears and defensive end JaQuan Bailey as two important players who have become “emotional leaders.”
With a veteran team returning, one thing Iowa State is especially confident in is their defense and ability to build upon “a powerful and strong front seven,” full of depth and “strength in the middle,” Campbell detailed.
Although full of experience, a prominent point of concern lies in the run-game after running back David Montgomery got drafted to the Chicago Bears.
“Fortunately or unfortunately at times we had to play without David last year and I think the thing that was really good for us is it put some of these guys that are competing for that starting spot in position to have to step up and make critical plays,” Campbell said.
With a mature and returning roster, Iowa State hopes to rebuild with running backs Kene Nwangwu, Johnnie Lang and Sheldon Croney.
In 2018, the Bears mostly struggled on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in pass rush. The defense allowed 39 big plays that not only all led to touchdowns, but also totaled 38% of total yards given up.
Head coach Matt Rhule has made a point to place an emphasis on sacks, which begins with beefing up his players. For example, he says defensive tackles Rob Saulin and Chidi Ogbonnaya bulked up in the post-season close to the 300-pound range.
Veteran leaders to look out for include junior defensive tackle James Lynch, senior defensive tackle Bravvion Roy and senior defensive end James Lockhart, who racked up a combined 85 tackles in the previous year.
A new and important face to see on the field is corner Kalon Barnes, who Rhule called “a special, special person” and a player who has “really developed where he has a chance to maybe become a big-time player.”
Offensively, the Bears will be led by returning junior quarterback Charlie Brewer, who threw for over 3,000 yards last year, has started 16 of the last 17 games for Baylor and holds a .638 completion percentage, the second-best in Bears history behind Robert Griffin III (.671).
Rhule sees his quarterback settling into the position as the offensive has began to come together.
“I thought he was a really good quarterback, and at the end of the year when we were able to run the ball and protect him I thought he was an excellent quarterback,” Rhule said. “What I’m excited about is his commitment to learning the game at a higher level, understanding the run checks, the pass checks, the protections, making himself a pro quarterback as a junior and I’ve seen great work from him and that to me tells me he’s ready to go be a great player this year.”
Texas Christian University (7-6)
The Horned Frogs finished 27th nationally in total defense last season. The first step for the team this year is to replace two defensive ends who were drafted. With the help of South Carolina transfer Shameik Blackshear and redshirt freshman defensive end Ochaun Mathis, TCU is placing an emphasis on creating depth.
“So our biggest thing is out of 42 players we have 22 redshirt and freshmen that we have to grow up,” head coach Gary Patterson said. “I think that will be the key for us. But anytime in this league if you can rush the passer without blitzing, and you can play you have guys that can run with everybody else, you’ve got a chance and I think we have the capabilities of doing that.”
Rebuilding the offensive line is important too, as last year TCU lost four offensive linemen to injury or to the NFL.
Yet, one position that isn’t lacking depth is quarterback. With six potential QBs and a returning offense, the offensive side of the ball is an area of strength and creates a growth mentality, which is something Patterson emphasized.
“I always found when you have a high competition level as a general rule you end up with a better product,” Patterson said. “They all want to be the guy and I don’t think you want it any different than that. I like guys that have stories and all six guys have a story. When you have a story usually they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and really all of them have a chip on their shoulder.”
Oklahoma State (7-6)
Oklahoma State is in a year of rebuilding with new coaching. To begin with, Sean Gleeson was hired early in the year as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Gleeson comes off an undefeated 2018 season with Princeton where the Tigers ranked within the top ten nationally in total offense and scored 470 points on the season.
Under Gleeson, Princeton’s quarterback led the Ivy League by averaging over 300 yards of total offense per game.
Now coming onto OSU’s coaching staff, the Cowboys have a unique quarterback situation filled with uncertainty between Spencer Sanders and Dru Brown. As a senior in high school, Sanders threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 54 touchdowns.
Yet, Brown comes in with previous collegiate experience as a red-shirted senior. In his 2017 season with Hawai’i, he averaged 232.1 yards per game with a completion percentage of 61.7.
Until further notice, the two are expected to split reps.
Charlie Dickey was named the new offensive line coach, and the Cowboys also look forward to further development on defense with second-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who led the defense to finish 10th nationally in sacks, yet struggled with points allowed (32.5) per game.
Fans can expect “the system to stay the same,” head coach Mike Gundy said.
“Hopefully we can play it better. We need to be a more disciplined defensive football team…hopefully we will be better at executing those plays,” Gundy explained.
Texas Tech (5-7)
Newly hired head coach Matt Wells has his eye on consistency as Tech had a losing season three of the last five years under Kliff Kingsbury.
Wells comes off six seasons at Utah State, where his team made four bowl appearances. His mission with Tech is to create a new program and foundation.
“The biggest key for us in year one is instilling our culture, building our foundation, and we always talk about it at Tech and at Lubbock, what we do and how we do it,” Wells said. “What we do on offense, what we do on defense, our weight room, strength and conditioning with a major emphasis in nutrition, class, academics, all that stuff, but the key is to the “how” and that’s the biggest thing for us in year one is establishing the “how” the physicalness, the toughness, the discipline, mental and physical.”
Part of solidifying the Red Raiders has to do with taking in four graduate transfers — wide receiver RJ Turner, running back Armand Shyne, Penn State defensive back Zechariah McPhearson and linebacker Evan Rambo.
Tech plans to adjust to a “more run mentality,” that will be a well-rounded threat offensively. Claiming to be an offensive guy, Wells is eager to put his new graduate students to immediate use and distributing new talent, beginning with a focus on tight ends junior Donta Thompson and sophomore Travis Koontz.
“I think of our guys as a hybrid,” Wells said. “You’re going to see our guys flex out, where it looks like a wide receiver and wide receiver formations, you’re going to see him in line, in the backfield. They’re multi-faceted guys, they’ve got to be extremely smart, be able to run, be graceful, catch balls, hopefully their speed mismatches for linebacker and size mismatches for safeties. That’s what we want to get to.”
Kansas State (5-7)
First-year head coach Chris Klieman has a challenge ahead of him as his K-State team is picked ninth in the conference in pre-season polls.
Klieman replaces Bill Synder who coached at KSU since 1988, and with a few returning offensive line men, the new head coach wants to change the offense to establish more of a ground game full of balance.
“Having tight ends and fullbacks, we have to continue to recruit the bigger bodies, the tight ends and full backs, because we want to be able to line up in multiple sets,” Klieman described. “You would say, I still want to have great balance. We need to be able to run the football as effectively as we throw it, but the most important thing we need to do is get the ball into the playmaker’s hands and it starts for us with our quarterback.”
Klieman previously coached at North Dakota State and guided his previous team to an undefeated 15-0 record last year. With that said he explained that developing a team is based on strength and creating a culture with every player exhibiting the “same character and competitive fire.”
Controlling the line of scrimmage is also important to the Wildcats this year.
“I think if you’re going to be successful, it’s gotta start up front, whether that’s the offensive line or defensive line it has to start up front so you have the opportunity not to get pushed off the football,” Klieman expressed, making note of the defensive line being led by sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert and senior defensive tackle Trey Dishon.
The Jayhawks struggled on offense last year averaging 360.8 yards per game compared to 418.5 by opponents. Unsure of why offensive production lacked last year, head coach Les Miles says the key to the offense is talent and finding balance with junior Thomas MacVittie and senior Carter Stanley at quarterback.
At Mesa Community College, MacVittie played in six games and threw for a little over 1000 yards and 16 touchdowns, meanwhile Stanley has spent his collegiate career with KU, playing seven games last year the senior completed 34-47 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Another asset that will contribute offensively is utilizing running back Pooka Williams Jr. who averaged 102.3 yards per game. After struggling with domestic violence allegations, Willams is clear to play in the 2019 season.
Most notably, Miles illustrated the change on defense, shifting from a 4-3 to 3-4 and adjusting to faster play.
“On defense it’s got great speed, […] and it’s going to be a fast- paced, in-your-face style,” Miles illustrated. “We have a veteran secondary. We will put a very, very capable defense on the field.”
Defensive veterans include senior safety Byrce Torneden and senior linebacker Denzel Feaster.
The Big 12 looks forward to another season of development and competition. The conference’s first week of competition opens with OSU traveling to Oregon State on August 30, eight teams in play on the 31st, and closes with Oklahoma hosting Houston on September 1.