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The Wild, Wild Midwest: 2016’s Big 12 Arms Race

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The Big 12 has typically been Oklahoma’s to take, but there’s more parity now than ever

Houston v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Big 12 hasn’t historically been the strongest conference in terms of parity. Let’s take a look at the last ten years of Big 12 champs:

2006: Oklahoma

2007: Oklahoma

2008: Oklahoma

2009: Texas

2010: Oklahoma

2011: Oklahoma State

2012: Kansas State/Oklahoma

2013: Baylor

2014: Baylor/Texas Christian

2015: Oklahoma

It’s a lot of Oklahoma, with a sprinkling of Texas, OSU, TCU, Baylor, and K-State. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Big 12, though: the SEC—the conference which, according to popular opinion, has the most parity between teams—has only had four champs in the last ten years (‘Bama, Auburn, LSU, and Florida).

The script is a bit different this year, it seems. While it remains to be seen just how good (or bad) Oklahoma will be, the rest of the Big 12 is waiting in the lurches, ready to snap up the crown.

For the first time I can remember, over half of the conference is close enough in talent to make this a compelling race. Let’s break it down for each team:

Oklahoma

Ohio State v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Let’s lead off with the good guys. They’re 1-2, but at the end of this season, we’ll likely look back at their two non-conference opponents as their toughest foes of 2016. Luckily, non-conference records are irrelevant in the Big 12 title discussion.

Before Oklahoma can begin thinking about a conference championship, though, they’ve got a few tricky games. In the next two weeks, the Sooners will be traveling to the DFW area: next Saturday in Fort Worth against the Horned Frogs, and then of course the Red River Rivalry in Dallas the week after. Decisive victories in these games could give the Sooners the boost of momentum they need for the home stretch of the season.

And they’re going to need that momentum: their last three matches include home games against Baylor and Oklahoma state, and a visit to Morgantown to play West Virginia.

One last thing: to have a shot at the title, their defense—especially the secondary—has to get going. OU is one of seven FBS schools without an interception. That simply won’t cut it.

Outlook: B+

Oklahoma State

Pitt v Oklahoma State Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

After a tough defeat in Waco, Oklahoma State is now 0-1 in conference play. They’ve got the Longhorns in Stillwater, which will go a long way in determining their viability for a Big 12 crown. If the Cowboys can emerge victorious, they’ll have to be considered serious contenders. If the Longhorns win, Texas will be vaulted into that first tier of contenders. It’s the most important conference game this week.

OSU’s schedule eases up a bit, until their last two games: on the road against TCU and Oklahoma. There’s a chance that Bedlam this year could be the de facto conference championship game.

Outlook: B

Texas Tech

Louisiana Tech v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

This year’s Tech team is just about the same as every Tech team: they air it out to the tune of 400 yards and three-plus touchdowns while giving up at least 35 points.

Patrick Mahomes is a force to be reckoned with, a fringe Heisman contender who likely won’t get an invitation to New York thanks to the emergence of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Michigan’s swiss-army-knife defender Jabrill Peppers.

Their schedule is relatively easy—they get shots at Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, and Baylor in Lubbock—but the defense is just too porous to allow them to contend. They’re going to have to eke out some games to have a shot, but their chances remain marginal at best.

Outlook: C

Baylor

Oklahoma State v Baylor Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Despite the off-the-field scandals that wracked the program in the offseason that caused the ousting of head coach Art Briles, the Bears are 4-0 after a convincing victory against Oklahoma State on Saturday.

They’ve managed to block out the distractions—and there have been a lot—effectively. They haven’t had many missteps through four games thus far: the Bears have outscored opponents 168-54.

Seth Russell hasn’t missed a step coming back from last year’s season-ending neck injury, running backs Terrance Williams and Shock Linwood compose a dynamic running attack, and wideouts K.D. Cannon and Ish Zamora continue the great tradition of Baylor receivers.

The Bears have made themselves easy to hate, but that doesn’t matter to them: they’re the favorites to win the Big 12 at this juncture. They have road challenges in Norman and Austin, but their schedule is cake outside of those two games.

Outlook: A+

Kansas

Ohio v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

HA! Yeah, right.

Outlook: F (because there’s no such grade as an F-, apparently)

Kansas State

Kansas State v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Bill Snyder is the best. There’s no two ways about it: give him an average squad, and he’ll churn out something much better than the sum of its parts.

The Wildcats haven’t had a large sample size—just 2.5 games, since their game with Missouri State was cut short due to lightning—but their defense has been impressive, especially in a league where defense comes at a premium. They’re ranked first in the nation in terms yardage allowed (537) and passing yards allowed per game (106.7), and fourth in points allowed (33). They held Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffery in (relative) check, allowing him only 126 rushing yards.

The sample size is small, and the offense hasn’t done much to distinguish themselves against real competition. This week’s game against West Virginia will go a long way in determining their fate. I like them as an outside contender, but I think even a fifth place finish for Snyder’s squad would be an overachievement.

Outlook: C+

West Virginia

BYU v West Virginia Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Mountaineers are 3-0 so far, with quality wins against tough defensive teams in BYU and Missouri. They’re the only other team in the conference besides Baylor without a blemish in their record.

Yet they’re still outside of the AP top 25. When asked about it, coach Dana Holgorsen deflected the question, deferring instead to talk about the prize: the Big 12 title.

Quarterback Skyler Howard has sparked the West Virginia offense so far, completing almost 70% of his passes for 974 yards, including six touchdowns. The savvy senior has also been well-protected by his line, giving him plenty of time to find receivers.

Their toughest bouts will come on the road against Texas and Oklahoma State, but they get to face Kansas State, Texas Christian, Oklahoma, and Baylor in the friendly confines of Morgantown.

Outlook: B+

Iowa State

San Jose State v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa State is a perennial cellar-dweller in the Big 12, and likely will be until:

A: Conference expansion

B: The conference’s demise

It seems right now that that latter option is more likely.

Coach Matt Campbell got his first Cyclone victory against San Jose State, but looking at the ISU’s schedule, there may not be many more opportunities to add on to that win total. There’s a very real chance that Iowa State could go 1-11.

They do have the edge against Kansas in talent, though, and a Thursday night matchup in November against Oklahoma has the makings of a classic trap game.

Outlook: D

Texas Christian

TCU v SMU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

No. 21 TCU is one of the more compelling Big 12 teams this season. Gary Patterson typically fields one of the toughest defenses in the conference.

This week’s matchup against Oklahoma is pivotal for both teams: whichever team wins will have an inside track to the title. Worth noting: since TCU joined the conference in 2012, the largest margin of victory has been seven points in TCU-OU matchups.

Kenny Hill seems to be on the track to success again with TCU after losing his scholarship at Texas A&M. He’s already thrown for almost 1500 yards and six touchdowns. He has, however, thrown four interceptions on the season—an interceptionless Oklahoma defense could take advantage this Saturday.

TCU does already have one loss to Arkansas, and road tests against West Virginia, Baylor, and Texas could prove fatal for their season. It’s tough to predict the future of such an unproven team, but they’re undeniably talented, and the coaching pedigree of G-Pat should serve them well.

Outlook: B

Texas

Texas v California Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It’s entirely a coincidence that I waited until the end of this list to talk about Texas. I promise.

After beating a clearly overrated Notre Dame squad, the declaration reverberated throughout college football: Texas is BACK!

Well, after a crushing 50-43 loss on the road to the Bears of Cal, the brakes were pumped a bit on that talk.

Still, they’re undeniably talented, and Charlie Strong and company have created a winning culture in Austin after the twilight years of Mack Brown’s career left the Longhorns in shambles.

Freshman Quarterback Shane Buechele has been sensational, averaging 240 yards per game, tallying seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. For perspective, Baker Mayfield is averaging 264 yards per game, also throwing for seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Their secondary is suspect, though: they gave up almost 400 yards and four passing touchdowns against Cal. They face a similar passing attack in OSU this Saturday.

The week after that, they face Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. Then, their schedule gets easy: their toughest road test is against Kansas State in October.

We’ll learn a lot about this Texas team after their next two games.

Outlook: B+


For those averse to counting, that’s six teams who I graded at a B or better. Obviously, the grades are highly objective—believe it or not, I don’t own a crystal ball—but it’s no stretch to think that any one of those six teams (OU, OSU, Baylor, WVU, TCU, and UT) could snatch the Big 12 title.

The Big 12 may be on its way out, but college football fans could potentially enjoy a tight Big 12 title race, for once.