Oklahoma opens 2018 looking to claim its fourth consecutive Big 12 title. Coach Lincoln Riley’s team was just a few plays away from earning a trip to the national championship game in 2017, and the roster is still loaded with talent for another run at the playoffs. Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray is expected to replace Baker Mayfield at quarterback, and the Sooners can lean on Rodney Anderson at running back until the passing game develops behind the new signal-caller. Texas appears to be the biggest threat to Oklahoma, but the gap between the Longhorns and the rest of the teams in the next tier is small. West Virginia, TCU, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas State are all capable of pushing for a spot in the top 25 next fall.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2018 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2018:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2018
The Sooners should begin 2018 as the clear favorite to win the Big 12. There’s no doubt this team will miss quarterback Baker Mayfield, but Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray should keep the offense performing at a high level. He’s also surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including running back Rodney Anderson and receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. The offensive line loses standout left tackle Orlando Brown but returns three starters from a group that was one of the best in college football in 2017. Even if Oklahoma’s offense is able to maintain a production level similar to last year’s version, reaching the playoff once again could hinge on defensive improvement. The Sooners gave up 5.84 yards per play in 2017 and are set to lose standout edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, safety Steven Parker and linemen D.J. Ward and Du’Vonta Lampkin. Will this unit take a step forward or maintain its production from last year in 2018? Oklahoma’s schedule features non-conference games against FAU and UCLA and road trips to Iowa State, TCU and West Virginia.
While Oklahoma is a clear favorite for 2018, anything from second to seventh seems to be up for grabs. Essentially, these teams are very close in Athlon’s early projections, so we could see a bunch of teams in the 5-4/6-3 conference record level. For now, Texas takes the No. 2 spot. Tom Herman’s first season resulted in a 5-4 mark in Big 12 play but five of the team’s six losses came by 10 points or less. The Longhorns need to find a spark on offense after averaging 5.2 yards a play in 2017 and settle on a quarterback between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger. The offensive line was inconsistent throughout 2017 and loses standout left tackle Connor Williams. Generating improvement out of the trenches would help provide support for the ground game, which only averaged 139.6 yards a game last year. Texas finished second in the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed at 5.2. Coordinator Todd Orlando is one of the best in the nation but is set to lose some key cogs from his 2017 defense. Cornerback Holton Hill, safety DeShon Elliott and linebacker Malik Jefferson are set to depart early to the NFL. Key swing games in conference play versus TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State take place in Austin next year.
3. West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen received good news around the draft deadline, as quarterback Will Grier and receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings all passed on the NFL for another season in Morgantown. With this trio leading the way, West Virginia offense is poised to be one of the best in the Big 12 once again. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first season under center for Holgorsen, with Jennings catching 97 passes and Sills grabbing 18 touchdown tosses. The offense loses guard Kyle Bosch, running back Justin Crawford and receiver Ka’Raun White, but there’s more than enough firepower to keep this unit performing at a high level. In a rebuilding year, West Virginia’s defense slipped to seventh in the Big 12 in points allowed after finishing second in 2016. This unit has to improve in pass coverage and get tougher against the run. Additionally, replacements must be found for safety Kyzir White and linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton. Linebacker David Long will be one of the best returning defenders in the Big 12 in 2018. Improvement should be expected on defense, but West Virginia’s offense can simply outscore most of the opponents on its schedule next fall.
4. Kansas State
Bill Snyder is returning for another season in Manhattan, which means the Wildcats will be in the mix to be in the top 25. The offense will have a new play-caller after Dana Dimel left to take over as UTEP’s head coach, but the overall approach won’t change. Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton will battle for the starting quarterback job in spring ball, while the ground game should be set with the return of Alex Barnes, Justin Silmon and Dalvin Warmack. Top receiver Byron Pringle left for the NFL, but Isaiah Zuber, Dalton Schoen and Dominique Heath are back on the outside. The biggest strength on offense is a line that returns all five starters, including standout tackle Dalton Risner. The defense needs to retool at linebacker for the second year in a row, top cornerback D.J. Reed declared early for the NFL, and standout tackle Will Geary finished his eligibility. Key swing games against West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State take place on the road, but an intriguing non-conference matchup against Mississippi State is at home.
After earning a trip to the Big 12 title game and finishing 2017 with an 11-3 mark, TCU and coach Gary Patterson has to retool in some key areas this offseason. On offense, quarterback Kenny Hill departs, leaving true freshman Justin Rogers and sophomore Shawn Robinson to battle for the starting job. Both quarterbacks are talented, but Rogers is coming off an injury suffered as a high school senior and Robinson has just 27 career pass attempts. The quarterback position is the biggest offseason storyline in Fort Worth, but a greater concern for Patterson is likely to be the offensive line that loses four starters. Sewo Olonilua, Darius Anderson and Kenedy Snell form a talented trio at running back, and receiver Jalen Reagor is poised for a breakout season after catching 33 passes as a true freshman in 2017. TCU will always be tough on defense, but Patterson loses standout linebacker Travin Howard, cornerback Ranthony Texada, tackle Chris Bradley, safety Nick Orr and end Mat Boesen. End Ben Banogu, tackle Ross Blacklock and linebacker Ty Summers are a good foundation to build around in the front seven. The Horned Frogs play Ohio State in a neutral site matchup in mid-September next year.
6. Iowa State
In coach Matt Campbell’s second year, the Cyclones improved their win total by five games and claimed the Liberty Bowl trophy over Memphis. Can Iowa State make another jump in 2018? It’s certainly possible. Priority No. 1 for Campbell is the quarterback position. Will Kyle Kempt return for a sixth year or will Zeb Noland take over? Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the offense can lean heavily on running back David Montgomery (1,146 yards in 2017). Top target Allen Lazard will be missed, but Hakeem Butler (41 catches), Deshaunte Jones and Matthew Eaton are a good foundation at receiver. Left tackle Jake Campos is a big loss in the trenches. Iowa State’s defense finished second in the Big 12 in fewest points allowed per game in 2017. This unit is set to lose linebacker Joel Lanning, lineman J.D. Waggoner and defensive backs Reggie Wilkerson, Kamari Cotton-Moya and Evrett Edwards. However, cornerback Brian Peavy did not enter the NFL Draft early and is headed back to Ames for his senior year. End JaQuan Bailey (11 TFL) should also push for All-Big 12 honors.
7. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are seventh here, but as we mentioned above, the gap between Texas and Oklahoma State in the early power rankings is very small. Mike Gundy’s team begins 2018 by having to replace two of the most productive players in school history. Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington closed out their career after the Camping World Bowl and leave big shoes to fill this spring. Keondre Wudtee, Taylor Cornelius and incoming freshman Spencer Sanders are the frontrunners to replace Rudolph under center, while Jalen McCleskey, Dillon Stoner and Tyron Johnson are poised for a bigger role in the receiving corps after Washington and Marcell Ateman expired their eligibility. Regardless of who starts under center, look for the offense to feature running back Justice Hill after he posted 1,467 yards as a sophomore in 2017. The line must replace three starters, including center Brad Lundblade and right tackle Zachary Crabtree. There’s some uncertainty on defense after Gundy announced coordinator Glenn Spencer wouldn’t return to Stillwater for 2018. This unit gave up 29.4 points a game in 2017 and loses safety Tre Flowers, linebacker Chad Whitener, tackle DeQuinton Osborne and defensive back Ramon Richards. The new coordinator isn’t inheriting an empty cupboard in terms of talent, but there’s room for improvement on defense this offseason.
8. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders rebounded from a 5-7 record in 2016 to reach the postseason and ease some of the pressure on coach Kliff Kingsbury last year. While Kingsbury has to replace quarterback Nic Shimonek and receivers Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell and Cameron Batson, this team could take a step forward in the win column. Former junior college recruit McLane Carter and Jett Duffey will compete for the starting quarterback spot, with T.J. Vasher (18.8 ypc) expected to become an even bigger part of the offense at receiver. Most importantly for the offense, the line returns all five starters. Additionally, the defense is trending in the right direction. Texas Tech surrendered 43.5 points a game in 2016 but cut that total to 32.2 last year. More improvement should be noticeable in 2018, as coordinator David Gibbs returns nine of his top 10 tacklers from 2017, including linebacker Dakota Allen and end Eli Howard.
Baylor is trending in the right direction under coach Matt Rhule, but this program might be a year away from a bowl trip. Even if that’s the case, expect improvement in the win column. Charlie Brewer returns under center after an impressive debut as a true freshman. Receiver Denzel Mims is a big-play threat on the outside, while Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd is an intriguing playmaker on the outside. Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen should provide help for an offensive line that allowed 38 sacks in 12 games in 2017. Similar to the offense, Baylor’s defense should take a step forward by virtue of having most of the depth chart return next fall. Linebacker Taylor Young and lineman Brian Nance are the biggest losses for coordinator Phil Snow. Baylor also lost four games by eight points or less in 2017, so more production out of Brewer and better play on defense could translate into a couple of victories in 2018.
David Beaty has won just three games and one Big 12 contest since taking over in 2015, so pressure is building to get this program on track. Escaping the cellar of the Big 12 in 2018 is going to be a tough assignment for this team. The Jayhawks averaged only 18.7 points a game last year and need more consistency and production from quarterbacks Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley. Running back Khalil Herbert and receiver Steven Sims are two key playmakers for coordinator Doug Meacham to utilize next fall. The defense gave up 43.4 points a game but could see some improvement with most of the 2017 group returning. Standout end Dorance Armstrong decided to enter the NFL Draft, while tackle Daniel Wise is set to return to school. Joe Dineen (25 TFL) is one of the Big 12’s top returning linebackers. Just getting to four wins would be a good season for Beaty in 2018.