Heading into the back stretch of the 2019 college football season, the Oklahoma Sooners still look like the class of the Big 12. Sorting out the pecking order of the rest of the league isn’t so easy.
The Texas Longhorns are playing such putrid defense that their status as the conference’s consensus No. 2 team is in doubt. The undefeated Baylor Bears are rising after smacking down the Oklahoma State Cowboys last week. And what should we make of what appears to be a reinvigorated Kansas squad?
Here’s an attempt to rank the Big 12 teams as they currently stand based on my personal power ratings. These ratings reflect my efforts to formulate a measure of pure team strength that can be used to set point spreads on games, much like linesmakers in betting shops. Think of them as a depiction of which team would be favored over another on a neutral field. Since OU has the highest power rating, that implies I’d favor the Sooners over every other team in the conference, and so on.
We don’t need to spend a lot of time here.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners might have their most well-rounded squad in more than a decade. OU entered the season as the consensus favorite to win another Big 12 title – that hasn’t changed.
Playing for Arlington
I rate these three teams within about two points of each other.
2. Texas Longhorns
No, the Longhorns didn’t look like the second-best team in the conference last week when Kansas took them to the limit. A 50-48 win at the gun over the lowly Jayhawks feels like something close to the lowest form of victory.
What’s wrong? The Texas defense is subpar at best, while the offense’s lack of explosiveness forces the Horns to pound out extended drives far too often.
But how many of the Big 12 teams would you favor against UT on a neutral field? OU is an easy one. It gets tough after that.
I’d still lean to the Longhorns very slightly over everyone else on the strength of QB Sam Ehlinger and his weapons at the skill positions. Not to mention, the D may get a bump once some of missing contributors such as Caden Sterns heal up.
3. Baylor Bears
It’s getting hard to hold a weak nonconference schedule against the Bears as they continue to stack up wins. Likewise, you can balance close scrapes versus Iowa State and Texas Tech against compelling wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Down the stretch, keep an eye on Baylor’s overperforming defense. The Bears have already lost team leader Clay Johnston after the inside linebacker sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Tech game. It didn’t cost them against OSU, but BU can’t afford many more personnel hits entering the final month of the year.
4. Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones’ heartbreaking loss at Baylor earlier this season demonstrated that the line between the two squads is paper thin. Nevertheless, the line does exist.
The differentiation primarily comes at receiver. ISU has a solid group of pass catchers, including wideouts Deshaunte Jones and Tarique Milton and tight end Charlie Kolar. They don’t scare opposing secondaries the way that Tyquan Thorton and Denzel Mims do, however. Heady ISU QB Brock Purdy would likely make that trade after watching the Baylor duo haul in a combined 17 receptions for nearly 250 yards in their matchup.
Sure, it’s just one position group, but it’s an important one in the Big 12.
Chances are that at least one of these teams plays spoiler to the title game hopes of the teams in the group above.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys
I feel more ambivalent about where I have OSU ranked than any other team in the conference. The eye test and Mike Gundy’s track record tell me the Cowboys can play with any team in the Big 12. The results say this team got beat convincingly by three squads living in the same neighborhood of these power ratings.
The Pokes’ firepower will make them into a high-upside, low-floor squad down the stretch. If Gundy can get green QB Spencer Sanders to take better care of the ball, it would go along way toward avoiding the low-floor part. OSU also has to hope running back Chuba Hubbard doesn’t blow a tire.
Texas Christian could climb up this list quickly if freshman QB Max Duggan shows even a modicum of improvement in the final six games of the season. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, his play to this point hints that they’re going to have to live with his rookie mistakes. Inopportune timing for a team that may only have a few games left with Jalen Reagor as part of its receiving corps.
In the past, coach Gary Patterson could count on his defense to keep the team within striking distance, then wait around for the O to manufacture some points. That’s no longer a given in Fort Worth, though, as TCU currently ranks 32nd nationally in Defensive SP+, down from 16th overall a year earlier.
Patterson may have to consider a shakeup of his coaching staff in the offseason.
Seeing as Tech scored a double-digit win over OSU and nearly beat Baylor in Waco, putting the Red Raiders this low might seem harsh. Possibly. On the other hand, if they don’t get a healthy Alan Bowman back soon behind center, things could unravel quickly in coach Matt Wells’ first season.
Tech was actually fortunate to be in a tight game with the Bears, and the final margin in its loss to Iowa St. last week could have been much worse. (How did Jett Duffey manage to complete 40 of 52 passes and end the game against the Cyclones with 239 yards?) It shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Red Raiders lose one of their next two at Kansas and West Virginia.
If you dig special teams, you’ll love KSU. First-year coach Chris Klieman has his team attacking the third phase of the game with Snyderian aplomb. Witness the Wildcats’ special teams clinic last week versus TCU, which included a blocked punt to set up a touchdown.
The rest of the team? Klieman inherited a solid defense from the previous regime, and that has held up this year. The passing game is downright dismal, though: K-State is averaging slightly more than 170 yards passing per contest through six games.
KSU should still get to a bowl game this season, and EMAW should consider that a strong start in the Klieman era.
Better luck next year
These teams aren’t as bad as you’d think, so they have that going for them.
Les Miles might have lit a fire under his team by installing wunderkind Brent Dearmon as offensive coordinator prior to KU’s game with Texas. Bad break for the Jayhawks that they caught West Virginia so early in the season.
WVU has a great head coach in Neal Brown. A roster that continues to suffer from attrition means the Mountaineers should chalk 2019 up as a lost season.
Projected order of finish (conference record; overall)
1. Oklahoma (9-0; 12-0)
2. Baylor (7-2; 10-2)
3. Texas (6-3; 8-4)
4. Iowa St. (6-3; 8-4)
5. TCU (5-4; 7-5)
6. Oklahoma St. (4-5; 7-5)
7. Texas Tech (3-6; 5-7)
8. Kansas St. (3-6; 6-6)
9. West Virginia (1-8; 3-9)
10. Kansas (1-8; 3-9)
In light of the parity in the Big 12 (apart from the top), the process of determining the two teams to play in the conference title game in December could get murky down the stretch. (Technically, we’re talking about one of the participants because OU seems to have a firm grip atop the conference standings.)
In the end, I see Baylor losing two of three versus OU, TCU and Texas – let’s say the Sooners and Horned Frogs. Assuming the Bears handle their business against KU and WVU, that should put them in the title game versus the Sooners at AT&T Stadium in December.