When the Big 12 begins its season, Oklahoma will be the clear favorite, Iowa State will be the equally clear choice as the runner-up, and Texas will probably be the third choice.
Oklahoma will be expected to win a seventh consecutive conference championship, while Iowa State — which won the Fiesta Bowl last year, its best bowl win — brings back a number of its best players and should once again be in contention to reach the Big 12 Championship Game.
Texas brings plenty of talent, enough to probably gain third place in the conference. After these three teams, how will the lower portions of the Big 12 fare? Let’s look at teams 4-10 in the projected conference standings as measured by expected win totals.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Expected wins: 7½ [Over -115, Under -115]
The Cowboys lost offensive lineman Teven Jenkins to the NFL and will have to figure out how to replace him. Oklahoma State’s offense averaged 30.2 points per game last year. In the Big 12, scoring 30 points is certainly not a good number for Oklahoma or Iowa State, teams that will regularly expect to score in the 40s or higher. Therefore, Oklahoma State needs to see if it can score more than 35 points per game.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders is experienced, but he hasn’t had a great season. That’s a big reason why their college football odds sit at just 7.5. The Cowboys committed 16 turnovers last season and will try to cut down on that number.
Oklahoma State can find more encouragement on the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys allowed 23.5 points per game last season, which is excellent in the Big 12. If replicated, Oklahoma State should exceed its win total. The Cowboys’ defense usually held up its side of the bargain. Maintaining a solid level on defense and improving on offense is the formula Oklahoma State needs this year.
TCU Horned Frogs
Expected wins: 7 [Over -115, Under -115]
TCU has a talented quarterback, Max Duggan, but he has been injured throughout his career. He takes lots of hits behind a leaky and inconsistent offensive line, and that position group is clearly the most important position group for the Horned Frogs this season.
If it thrives and exceeds expectations, TCU will win at least eight if not nine games, and be a steady bet for the weekly scores and odds. If the line stumbles, TCU could easily win just five or six games.
It’s most of the battle with this team, which has struggled to throw the ball and protect the quarterback in recent years. When TCU has a great downfield passing attack to supplement a strong defense led by coach Gary Patterson, this program has a high upside. We saw this when TCU went unbeaten in the 2009 regular season and then won the 2011 Rose Bowl with future NFL quarterback Andy Dalton. We saw this with the 2014 team led by quarterback Trevone Boykin, which won the Peach Bowl and finished in the top five of the national polls.
TCU’s defense allowed under 25 points per game last season, a typically strong performance for a school that has leaned on defense in Patterson’s coaching tenure. The one big weakness with TCU last season was allowing chunk plays. This didn’t happen in every game, but it happened against the better teams TCU faced. TCU allowed 19 plays of 40 yards or more. That number needs to be reduced this season. We will see if the Frogs are up to the task.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Expected wins: 6½ [Over -115, Under -115]
Head coach Neal Brown is trying to build this program but it’s a slow process. West Virginia was 6-4 last season, in the middle third of the Big 12. The Mountaineers are a respectable program, but they haven’t yet shown the high-end capacity that would suggest they are a top-tier contender in the Big 12. The Mountaineers’ defense was solid, allowing an average of under 21 points per game. The offense, however, averaged under 27 points per game, which is not going to lead to top-tier success in the Big 12.
West Virginia brings back running back Leddie Brown this year — he rushed for just over 1,000 yards last year. That’s a plus for WVU. The Mountaineers will ride or die, however, based on how returning starting quarterback Jarret Doege performs. He showed promise at times in 2020 but needs to be able to stretch the field and generate more big plays in the passing game. He can be a solid ball-control passer, but he has to become more explosive and force opposing defenses to guard more of the field.
A particular problem for the Mountaineers comes on defense, where a number of prime players are gone. Linebacker Tony Fields, cornerback Dreshun Miller, and defensive backs Darius Stills and Jeffery Pooler were important parts of a 2020 defense that allowed just 20.5 points per game. Replacing those four players will be very difficult for the Mountaineers and will lower the ceiling for this team.
One other simple but important detail about this team: West Virginia did not play the Oklahoma Sooners last year. Playing OU this year should translate into a loss for the Mountaineers. Picking the under in the over-under win total makes more sense on the college football lines as of this moment. There are too many strong teams in the upper half of the Big 12. West Virginia will need to beat a few of them to top the win total.
Expected wins: 5½ [Over -115, Under -115]
As head coach Dave Aranda settles into his position at Baylor, he has a lot of work to do. Aranda is a quality defensive coach. Last year’s Baylor team contained the Oklahoma Sooners’ powerful offense, so it’s clear Aranda has a great plan on defense. However, will he get enough offense from his 2021 roster?
Receivers and running backs are coming back, but Baylor has not made a firm decision on its starter for the season, and it can’t really say with confidence that it knows it will be potent and dangerous on offense. That is hope, but it seems like wishful thinking at this point. Baylor averaged under 24 points per game last season, and the team will need to be several points better if it wants to exceed its projected win total. Baylor was 2-7 last year though its defense allowed fewer than 30 points per game, which is a tremendous achievement in the Big 12. The offense was that bad, and it has to dramatically improve in order to lift this team to a respectable place in the conference standings.
Kansas State Wildcats
Expected wins: 5½ [Over -115, Under -115]
The Wildcats might be the most underrated team in the Big 12. They get quarterback Skylar Thompson back from injury. People who followed the Big 12 closely in 2020 are aware that Thompson led KSU to a road upset of Oklahoma, in a comeback from a double-digit deficit.
Kansas State was on track for a big season until Thompson got injured. His backups were terrible, and the Wildcats fell off the pace. With Thompson back in the saddle, Kansas State’s offense should live up to head coach Chris Klieman’s expectations. That’s really the main thing with Kansas State: Skylar Thompson makes this at least a seven-win-caliber team, if not an eight-win team.
Why might people be sleeping on Kansas State and not taking this team too seriously? It’s the defense, which allowed over 32 points per game last year. However, the defense was exhausted for much of last season when Thompson wasn’t on the field to lead a balanced ball-control offense. If the offense gets better, the defense will get better, because the defense won’t spend nearly as much time on the field. This is one of the easier calls to make all year: KSU will exceed its win total.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Expected wins: 4½ [Over -115, Under -115]
Texas Tech has regularly had terrible defenses — not just under current coach Matt Wells, but under previous head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his other predecessors, Tommy Tuberville and Mike Leach. Texas Tech allowed 36.7 points per game last season, and unless something significant happens on that side of the ball, the Red Raiders aren’t going to change. In a competitive Big 12, they will get buried near the bottom of the league, just as they were last year when they finished 3-6 in the conference and 4-6 overall, in eighth place.
Expected wins: 1 [Over -115, Under -115]
The Jayhawks have a new head coach, former Buffalo Bulls coach Lance Leipold. They are starting over from zero after going 0-9 last season. They are the worst team in the Big 12 — no one doubts that — but with Leipold they should at least win one game. The projected win total is so low that Kansas is good value to go over the win total this season. Leipold is worthy of respect — KU made the right hire.