The Oklahoma Sooners haven’t lost a Big 12 conference title since 2014 and head into the upcoming season as -170 favorites to win it once more
In Lincoln Riley’s third year as head coach, the Sooners are also after their third straight College Football Playoff appearance. In order to return to the promised land, however, transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts must make a seamless transition into Oklahoma’s offense, led last season by Heisman winner Kyler Murray, who was drafted as the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 2019.
Hurts, a former Alabama quarterback, has his work cut out for him, as Oklahoma isn’t the only team in the Big 12 with national championship potential. The Texas Longhorns are coming off a 10-4 season in Tom Herman’s second year as coach and capped 2018 with a Sugar Bowl win against SEC powerhouse Georgia.
The Longhorns could finally dethrone the Sooners in the Big 12, but a few other teams are worth keeping an eye on as well. Below is a breakdown of every contender and pretender in the conference and who’s most likely to come out on top at the end the year.
Hurts, a dual-threat quarterback, isn’t the only significant addition to the Sooners. Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch signed with Oklahoma during the offseason, in an effort to transform a defense that experienced issues in 2018. If Grinch can improve the defensive side and Hurts can play at a level similar to Murray, and Baker Mayfield before him, the Sooners have a shot at an undefeated season.
Tom Herman needed just one season to turn Texas into a football power again. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger experienced a breakout year, with 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns passing and another 482 yards and 16 scores rushing. Ehlinger lost only one of his top targets, but the defense said goodbye to eight starters. The Longhorns drew a more difficult schedule than the Sooners and will be battle-worn by games against LSU on September 7; TCU, Iowa State and Baylor on the road; and, of course, the Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma on October 12.
Iowa State Cyclones
When Matt Campbell took over as head coach in 2016, Iowa State hadn’t achieved a winning record since 2009. Campbell went just 3-9 his first season but earned an 8-5 record in both 2017 and 2018. Freshman quarterback Brock Purdy made the difference last year, as he threw for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns and ran the ball in for five more scores. As a sophomore he should only get better. The Cyclones lost leading rusher David Montgomery (1,216 yards, 13 TDs) and top receiver Hakeem Butler (1,318 yards, 9 TDs), and will need to make up for their production. The defense ranked 31st in efficiency last year and should continue to be Iowa State’s strong suit in 2019.
Matt Rhule’s embarrassing 1-11 season as first-year Baylor head coach is a thing of the past. A year later in 2018, he led the Bears to a 7-6 campaign and 4-5 record in the Big 12. The Bears return 16 starters from the previous season, including quarterback Charlie Brewer, who tallied 3,019 passing yards and 19 touchdowns through the air, along with 375 rushing yards and seven rushing TDs. They’ll host Iowa State in Week 4, as well as Oklahoma and Texas on November 16 and November 23. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Baylor upset one of the two top contenders for the Big 12 title and end up with an eight- or nine-win season.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Head coach Mike Gundy has yet to name a starting quarterback, but it’ll come down to redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders and Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown. Whoever takes the job will inherit a receiving corps that features star wideout Tylan Wallace (1,491 yards, 12 TDs) and an offensive line with five upperclassmen. Junior receiver Dillon Stoner (603 yards, two TDs) will step in to help replace the production of Tyron Johnson (845 yards, seven TDs), while the run game will continue to hum with Chuba Hubbard (740 yards, seven TDs). The defense will need to improve to make Oklahoma State a contender in the Big 12, but the Cowboys should at least find themselves in the upper half of the standings.
TCU Horned Frogs
Gary Patterson will reveal the name of TCU’s starting quarterback Tuesday, with hopes that name will lead TCU to a better record and resurgence in the Big 12. Last season the Horned Frogs went 7-6, with a 10-7 win against California in the Cheez-It Bowl to end the year. Injuries plagued the team and quarterback play was inconsistent. The offense will return seven starters in 2019, while the defense will bring back five. Receiver Jalen Reagor is the star of the offense (1,061 yards, nine TDs), and the defense should again rank as one of the best in the conference. Look for TCU to improve on last year’s record but remain a middling team in the Big 12.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Kliff Kingsbury left for the head coaching job of the Arizona Cardinals and was replaced by Matt Wells, the former head coach of Utah State. Wells led the Aggies to an 11-2 record and No. 22 AP ranking to end the season. He’ll take over a team that ranked 17th in offense and 86th in defense, though the defensive unit will return several upperclassmen. Wells should best last year’s 5-7 record, but it’ll take at least a season to rank among the upper echelon of the Big 12.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Dana Holgerson turned in an 8-4 season at West Virginia last year, then left for the coaching job at Houston. Former Troy coach Neal Brown is the new man in town, while Oklahoma transfer quarterback Austin Kendall will come in to fill Will Grier’s shoes. The run game will be fine, with senior Kendall McKoy (802 yards, eight TDs) leading the way. Defense is the issue in West Virginia, but Brown brought in Alabama transfer Vandarius Cowan, junior college defensive end Taijh Alston and defensive back Dreshun Miller to help solve the problem. Still, the Mountaineers will take a hit in Brown’s first season.
Former LSU coach Les Miles has taken over at Kansas. All he has to do to make Kansas a better program is win more than three games, the most Kansas has won since 2009. The star of the Jayhawks is sophomore Pooka Williams, who ran for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018, but he is facing some off-field issues going into the season. Williams will sit out the season opener against Indiana State because of a suspension related to a domestic-battery charge. In time Miles might turn Kansas into a football school, but it’s not happening in 2019.
Kansas State Wildcats
Another Big 12 team with another new hire at head coach, Kansas State brought in Chris Klieman at the end of the Bill Snyder era. Klieman previously coached at the FCS level at North Dakota State and won four of the last five FCS championships. Last season the Wildcats ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring offense (22.5 points per game) and total offense (344.7 yards per game). Kansas State will keep its starting quarterback, Skylar Thompson (1,764 total yards, 14 total TDs) but lost leading rusher Alex Barnes (1,355 yards, 12 TDs) and running back Dalvin Warmack. Expect another down year.
Big 12 title winner
There’s just too much going for the Sooners in 2019. Hurts probably won’t be the third consecutive Heisman winner to come out of Oklahoma, but he’ll get the job done. Texas will be the Sooners' biggest test, while Iowa State at home will provide another challenge. A road game at Baylor and a rivalry road matchup against Oklahoma State to close out the regular season could cause Oklahoma to slip up. On paper, though, Oklahoma is the best in the conference. With the defense set to improve in 2019, Oklahoma will celebrate its fifth straight Big 12 title in Norman.