Jayhawks need to get their offense rolling; ’Cats need help on defense
Oklahoma won the Big 12 last season. And in 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015, losing just four times in conference play across these five seasons. The Sooners winning the conference title in getting predictable, and more than a little boring.
There's no bigger question facing the league as a whole than this: Who will — or who even can — threaten Oklahoma's dominance of the Big 12 and give the league more than one team in contention for the College Football Playoff?
After a marvelous 2019 under Matt Rhule, Baylor's staying power is in question as the program shifts to former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Texas is too erratic to be spoken in the same breath with the Bowl Subdivision's elite.
In 2020, the Sooners' biggest threats may come from teams such as Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State, programs without a Texas-like national pedigree but an enviable degree of consistency and continuity.
Here's one big question facing each team as the Big 12 gets rolling this month. (The date of each team's spring game or final scrimmage is in parentheses.)
Oklahoma (April 18): Will it be Rattler?
The next starting quarterback at Oklahoma will be redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler, barring injury or a major upset. He'll be given every opportunity to nail down the starting job after playing in three games during his first year on campus, including some garbage time in the Peach Bowl loss to LSU. It's understandable that Rattler's ascension will draw headlines — he's preceded under center at OU by Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. But the bigger issue for OU is improving a defense that lived a nightmare in the 63-28 loss in the national semifinals.
Baylor (April 18): How much will change?
The Bears will have a different look on defense with the arrival of Aranda, long considered one of the top defensive minds in the Bowl Subdivision. It's believed that the offense will undergo a similar shift under coordinator Larry Fedora, the former North Carolina coach who has a long history of running spread and high-tempo schemes. Change is afoot at Baylor. It's worth wondering if the Bears can make a shift in style and still make a run at the New Year's Six after losing some key components to last year's team that surprisingly finished ranked No. 12.
Texas (April 25): Is there evidence that this will work?
Not the Tom Herman era in general, which is now entering year four, but the sort of coaching shakeup seen at Texas this offseason in an effort to reclaim the momentum that bubbled throughout the program coming out of the 2018 season. The Longhorns will have six new assistants, including new coordinators on offense (Mike Yurcich) and defense (Chris Ash). The closest analog is Notre Dame, which refreshed its staff of assistants after the 2016 season and has reclaimed a place in the title conversation with 33 wins in three seasons. It makes sense that Herman spent time visiting with Brian Kelly to get a glimpse into how to make these sort of wholesale changes work, especially with the pressure on him to get Texas back.
Oklahoma State (April 18): Is this a playoff dark horse?
At minimum, Oklahoma State resembles a team capable of making a run at the New Year's Six and potentially taking home a conference title. That's because of 18 returning starters, including one of the nation's best players in running back Chuba Hubbard, a potential All-America receiver in Tylan Wallace, a hugely impressive young quarterback in Spencer Sanders and all but one starter from last year's defense. That pieces are there for the Cowboys to make a major run under Mike Gundy.
Kansas State (April 17): How do you start from scratch up front?
It's not an exaggeration: Kansas State loses every single one of its starts from last year's offensive line and 159 career starts overall. No line in the country is dealing with this sort of an overhaul. That's a concern given how the Wildcats' offense emphasizes a physical running game to set up the pass and control the clock, though second-year coach Chris Klieman's track record warrants the early benefit of the doubt.
Iowa State (April 25): And can this offensive line get ready?
There's plenty to like on the Cyclones' offense, namely quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen. There's also reason for concern with an offensive line that must replace nearly 150 career starts. Last year's group helped pace an offense that ranked 17th nationally in yards per play and sacks allowed.
West Virginia (April 18): Can WVU carry over the strong finish to 2019?
The five-game losing streak that began in October and ended in November is the primary takeaway from Neal Brown's debut season, which ended with the Mountaineers out of bowl play for the first time since 2013 and just the third time in 20 seasons. But how it ended may be telling: West Virginia won two of its last three, including a strong road win against Kansas State, to develop strong momentum heading into spring drills.
TCU (April 2): Where's the rebound?
TCU has had blips of ineffectiveness under Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs' coach since late in 2000. But with seven or fewer wins in three of the past four years, this marks the worst stretch of his Hall of Fame-worthy coaching career. During the program's Big 12 tenure, at least, TCU has typically bounced into the major-bowl mix when expectations are lowest — and while expectations aren't necessarily low in 2020, few will pick the Horned Frogs in the preseason to finish among the top three.
Texas Tech (April 10): What are fair expectations on defense?
Mediocrity would be a marked improvement on defense, and likely good enough to get the Red Raiders back into the postseason. Unfortunately, average is quite a distance off for a unit that ranked last in the Big 12 in 2019 in yards allowed per play and per game. The offense shares plenty of blame for last year's 4-8 finish; this was the program's weakest offense since at least 2014. But the defense failed Tech in narrow, upsetting losses to Kansas, TCU and Kansas State.
Kansas (April 18): What can Dearmon do with an entire off-season?
Offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon took over midway through last season and did a pretty good job, all things considered, justifying the six-year contract KU handed the Gus Malzahn disciple last October. While the Les Miles-led rebuild remains the dominant story line, an underlying theme for the Jayhawks this spring and summer is how the offense can develop with a full offseason under Dearmon's direction.