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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Observations on the rest of the Big 12 through Week 4

Kansas State and Baylor are off to promising starts as conference play begins.

NCAA Football: Stephen F. Austin at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With Big 12 play starting up, we’ve already looked at how the Oklahoma Sooners graded out in their first three games of the year. What about the rest of the league?

Here are a few observations on the rest of the teams in the conference through the first month of the 2019 season.

Baylor Bears

We don’t know much about Baylor if we’re going strictly off of the Bears’ opponents. In fact, last week’s slogfest versus Rice indicated BU’s strong start has more to do with who they’re playing. The game with Iowa State on Saturday should tell us plenty.

I bet the Bears will acquit themselves well. Their offense is still rolling with junior quarterback Charlie Brewer at the helm. The bigger story has been the strides made by coach Matt Rhule’s defense. A year ago, BU was allowing 5.6 yards per play in the first three games of the year, and the Bears have cut that down to 4.1 so far in 2018 against somewhat comparable competition.

As of now, the Bears look like potential spoilers in the conference race.

Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones looked like their old selves last week in a blowout of Louisiana-Monroe and finally showed signs of life on offense. Prior to that in an overtime win over Northern Iowa and a hard-luck loss to Iowa, ISU was giving off a serious disappointment vibe.

Putting up 72 points against any FBS team makes a statement. Importantly, Tarique Milton has offered hints that he can step in as ISU’s next standout receiver after topping 140 yards receiving in consecutive games.

But if coach Matt Campbell’s plan is to win with talented QB Brock Purdy throwing to Milton, tight end Charlie Kolar and the like, I have questions about whether or not it will work in the long run. Begging for shootouts doesn’t seem to fit ISU’s identity.

Kansas Jayhawks

KU is a smaller degree of terrible this year. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether or not the Jayhawks owe that lesser awfulness to the leadership of Les Miles.

How will their improvement translate in the win-loss column the rest of the way? KU blew one opportunity to notch a conference win last week, falling 29-24 to West Virginia. Their most realistic shot at victory may come on Oct. 26 when Texas Tech visits Lawrence.

Sadly, I don’t have much more to offer on the football situation at KU, other than it’s still not very good.

Kansas State Wildcats

K-State has to be the most pleasant surprise in the conference so far. The Wildcats have adapted quickly to first-year coach Chris Klieman’s regime, propelling them to a 3-0 start. Next to KU’s 24-point demolishing of Boston College, KSU’s grinding win at Mississippi State two weeks ago may be the most eye-catching victory for any Big 12 team so far this year.

Can the Wildcats keep it up? They’re building off a physical running game fueled by graduate transfer James Gilbert, who is putting up 6.4 yards per carry. That has taken some of the pressure off of quarterback Skylar Thompson and an unimposing cadre of receivers.

Assuming the defense holds up in conference play, K-State will return to being the change-up game for every team in a league built around high-powered offenses. At worst, a bowl game should be well within reach.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Pokes have looked at times like a team capable of competing for the Big 12 crown. Their volatile play in a loss to Texas felt like something closer to what they really are.

The offensive line that hamstrung OSU a year ago has shown marginal improvement in front of shifty QB Spencer Sanders, who is making good use of experienced wideouts Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner. The running game has upped its explosiveness by giving Chuba Hubbard more of the touches, with his attempts per game rising from 9.5 last year to almost 26. Sanders’ elusiveness also makes him more of a big-play threat than predecessor Taylor Cornelius.

In shifting from Cornelius to Sanders, OSU has gained offensive upside in exchange for some of the youthful mistakes we saw versus the Longhorns. The Cowboys haven’t made a big leap on defense, so those indiscretions will start to hurt more as Big 12 play heats up.

TCU Horned Frogs

I understand the temptation to write off Texas Christian after last week’s debacle versus SMU, but I wouldn’t just yet. That’s unless you believe the Horned Frogs are going to fumble six times on a weekly basis, of course.

On the other hand, if the TCU passing game has you ready to abandon ship, don’t let me stop you. Wide receiver Jalen Reagor is wasting away as they struggle through growing pains with true freshman Max Duggan behind center. Gary Patterson and his staff are running out of time to figure out a patch for it.

All things being equal, the Horned Frogs may have the strongest defense in the Big 12, and it’s complemented by a bruising ground game. If they can figure out a way to get more out of Duggan and the aerial attack, they can still get back in the conference race (big “if”).

Texas Longhorns

From a win-loss perspective, UT is tracking with what I expected coming into the season. However, people around Austin should take it as a good sign that the Horns are dominating teams like Louisiana Tech and Rice. You couldn’t say that about the 2018 team, and the difference suggests Tom Herman won’t have to manufacture wins this season to the same extent as he seemed to do in his first two years as head coach.

Another step in the right direction for the Horns — they smacked around OSU in the trenches. Offensive line coach Herb Hand, in particular, deserves praise for helping to bring UT along up front.

On the other hand, the Texas defense’s slow start doesn’t reflect well on coordinator Todd Orlando. Injuries definitely struck a blow on that side of the ball, but not to the extent that the performance should be so uneven. The Horns survived against OSU over the weekend, but those defensive deficiencies will likely cost them at least one more game before the end of the year if they don’t clean them up.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

To say watching the Red Raiders this year has been disorienting would be an understatement.

TTU has tumbled from No. 23 in Offensive SP+ last season to 69th at this point in 2019. The Red Raiders gave a pretty clear indication of where things stand when they hung all of 14 points on Arizona in week three. The loss of quarterback Alan Bowman for an extended period won’t help matters.

On the other hand, coach Matt Wells and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have done stellar work getting the Tech defense up to speed. Frankly, the D looks better in the first three games of the year than at any point with Kliff Kingsbury running the show. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks is playing particularly well in averaging 12 tackles per game.

West Virginia Mountaineers

New head coach Neal Brown went through a significant bloodletting in the offseason, with expected contributors like safety Kenny Robinson and wideout Marcus Simms lighting out of Morgantown. In that sense, WVU’s 3-1 start to the season is commendable. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, I don’t see it holding up once they get into the meat of the Big 12 slate.

WVU needed some serious good fortune with turnovers to beat James Madison and Kansas, the two weakest teams on the schedule. The Eers may steal another game between now and the end of the year, but not much more than that. On the plus side, Brown and his staff have their players going hard. That bodes well for the program beyond this season.