W ith the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? Previously: the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12, and the Big Ten. Next up: the Big 12, where the pinball wizards roam.
Spotlight Team: Baylor
It’s a new day. All days are new days, but for Baylor, this is a new day that looks like a new day:
To paraphrase the poet Tom Servo, we are experiencing a sensation altogether new to us. The Bears are coming off their first scrimmage in their new habitat. They also happen to be the reigning Big 12 champs, in football. It’s a new day in a new world, a world that comes with nonretractable claws and a fondness for wild berries. When last we saw this band of Bears, they were scoring 42 points in the Fiesta Bowl and losing. Now what?
A cluster of injuries conspired to keep us from seeing the best out of the Bears late last year, and with likely breakout hits such as running back Devin Chafin and receiver Corey Coleman held out of the team’s most recent scrimmage with injuries,1 the team’s best may take a little while to blossom in 2014. Quarterback Bryce Petty, naturally, is keeping on the sunny side, saying Saturday afternoon, “I kind of like it, honestly. Not that those guys aren’t in there, but it makes me be a lot better than I have to be. When you’ve got young guys in there, you’ve got to be more communicative and you’ve got to be very detailed about what you’re doing.”
Petty, who won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2013 as a first-year starter, returns for his final season of college ball after throwing for a round 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushing for an additional 14 scores as a junior. For offensive skill companionship, he’ll be joined by last year’s leading receiver, plus a crop of guys with whom you might not be familiar if you weren’t really paying attention in 2013.
Baylor lost thunder-and-lightning rushers Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, but returns new and scary forms of energy bolts in Chafin and Shock Linwood. Being “down” to these guys is not the problem you might think it is: These are the runners who, when both Seastrunk and Martin were out hurt last year, plugged in against Texas Tech and promptly rushed for a combined 287 yards. Meanwhile, Antwan Goodley, the team’s most productive pass target in 2013, already knows what it’s like to play without Tevin Reese, who went down in the same Oklahoma game that took out Seastrunk and Martin. Reese is now a San Diego Charger, but between Goodley, Levi Norwood, and this being Baylor (meaning there’s the plausible chance that you’ll see a guy you’ve never heard of, even if you have been paying attention, rack up a thousand-yard season), the receiving corps looks like an immensely fun unit to watch in 2014.
Of primary concern on offense is the line, a thin unit that lost star guard Cyril Richardson to the pros as well as Stefan Huber, last year’s starting center. The good news: Left tackle Spencer Drango returns following a back injury; we’ll revisit him in a bit.
Defensively, the Bears return the bulk of their front seven, most crucially linebacker Bryce Hager, but attrition has mowed a swath through their experienced defensive backs. This year’s schedule, however, will give the Bears ample opportunity to get good and menacing and work all available cogs into their war machine. Baylor opens at home versus SMU and Northwestern State,2 then begins a series of far-flung but winnable road trips to Buffalo, Iowa State, and Texas. Midterms come in the form of that Austin game and a home stand the following week versus TCU, and after visiting West Virginia and hosting Kansas, the Bears finish out the regular season with a compelling slate that includes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State. We shall be camping by the Brazos during that home stretch; please forward our calls.
Big 12 Story Hour
Three absorbing plotlines to follow into the mists in 2014.
• Oklahom— … huh. Taking the clinical view, it’s an interesting time to be following the Sooners, who are coming off one of the highest-profile victories of last season, having defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. We like talking about moving parts, and how they make the science of football such a wriggly one, but this Oklahoma squad’s on- and off-field uncertainties are unusually pronounced. Teams that begin the season overflowing with woulds and coulds end it replete with what-ifs all the time.
Right now, Oklahoma’s most troubling certainty gaps all come with headlines: Receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who ended his Missouri career under some frankly appalling circumstances, is trying to get one more year of pre-draft prep at a high-profile program, and everyone involved in the decision-making process seems determined to allow that to happen.3 The suspension of linebacker Frank Shannon, the subject of a Title IX investigation following a sexual-assault accusation, will go before the state Supreme Court this week. And running back Joe Mixon, who was charged last week in connection with a July incident that left a female Oklahoma student with extensive facial injuries, has just been suspended for the year.4 Three disturbing stories, two unresolved, all of which could tangibly affect the on-field product:5 Shannon led the Sooners in tackles in 2013 as a sophomore. Green-Beckham was a consensus all-world receiving prospect out of high school, and Mixon was an incoming five-star rusher, and given the Sooners’ already scant experience at both positions, using either would (would have?) be (have been?) a boon to a redshirt sophomore quarterback.
The quarterback in question is Trevor Knight,6 last seen shredding Alabama in New Orleans and now riding a wave of outsize expectations into 2014. Like Baylor, Oklahoma will have some live game time to figure out just how and where to situate its quarterback and his new toy box, including running back Keith Ford. The Sooners’ August-September slate consists of Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Tennessee, and West Virginia; they get a bye week before upping the degree of difficulty with TCU, Texas, and Kansas State, then have another bye week and a trip to Iowa State before playing Baylor and Texas Tech. Then they play Kansas and get another bye week to prep for Bedlam. It’s all very convenient.
• In for a bucking. Speaking of Bedlam, keep those panicky ponies in the stable7 in the matter of Oklahoma State vs. the Immutable March of Time: Though the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback,8 second-leading rusher, three of their four top receivers, the majority of their starters on the offensive line, key players on the defensive line, two of their three best linebackers, and a horde of defensive backs, we honestly do believe they’ll be quite good.
We do not believe we’ll know how good for a long while, and their schedule is set up to create a number of potential mirages: Given the attrition at, well, everywhere, a poor showing against Florida State in the season opener seems likely. Given that the next two teams OSU plays are Missouri State and UTSA, things should pick right up after Week 1. For the true measure of this team, it’ll be even more necessary than usual to wait until November, when the Cowboys get to Kansas State, Texas, and Baylor before wrapping with Oklahoma in December. And given that their closing slate involves trips to Manhattan, Waco, and Norman, if the Cowboys look good then, it’ll really be saying something.
• Mind the gap. The Bears, Sooners, and Cowboys finished with 11-2, 11-2, and 10-3 respective records in 2013. If we take Baylor and Oklahoma as our given candidates for class of the conference in 2014, and ride on the belief that Oklahoma State will continue to hover up high, let’s next speculate on where the movement will be in that middle class, with that cluster of 8-5 Texas, Kansas State, and Texas Tech teams. K-State looks like the safest bet for upward mobility this season; though we don’t expect this iteration of the Wildcats to knock off either of the top three, we do expect to see Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett all over so many highlight reels. (And what do we get for making assumptions about Bill Snyder, campers? Hexed, that’s what.)
Texas, which finished in the upper echelon of the league last year in conference wins, has been assessed by the best team profiler in the business using that shrugging emoticon. We have almost nothing but questions: How is David Ash’s body going to hold up, particularly behind an almost entirely rebuilt line? How will that line in turn affect the run game, particularly Johnathan Gray, who says “the burst is back” but whose every early tumble is going to be watched with anticipatory wincing? What will a new coordinator and a defensively wired head coach make of a bumper crop of returning talent? How is Jaxon Shipley’s hamstring, and who is his roommate? All that said, we also have all kinds of confidence in Charlie Strong. That last thing said, keep in mind that another 8-5 season, given all the turnover in both the coaching ranks and the team itself, would be its own kind of improvement.
From the Reply Even Hazier; Try Again department: What to do with Texas Tech (which, remember, went 8-5 overall but 4-5 in league play in 2013)? Quarterback Davis Webb gets to play behind an offensive line that returns in its entirety, led by Le’Raven Clark, a guy we’re putting alongside Stanford’s Andrus Peat in our all–Game of Thrones O-line. There’s new blood on the sideline on special teams, and a host of defensive imports who are experienced college football players, but not for Texas Tech. There is also the admission that our assessment of Red Raiders football can be easily swayed by dance videos.
And who has the best chance of bootstrapping up out of the dregs? TCU, which probably didn’t belong there in the first place. The Horned Frogs are minus one Devonte Fields, but return an overwhelming majority of last season’s defensive talents, and are actively seeking an offensive raison d’être. Caveat: This is one bastard of a schedule, featuring Oklahoma, Baylor, and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks, beginning with the Frogs’ fourth game. TCU lost all three of those games last season, and they were close losses by the standards of their opponents, but even with all of those defensive veterans back, that’s an early gantlet that’s going to take some kind of toll.
Who’s That Guy? Baylor’s Spencer Drango!
Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.
Who Is He? Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango.
Where Is He From? Cedar Park, Texas.
Years Played: Drango is entering his third season of activity for the Bears.
Follow the Bouncing Ball: Drango redshirted as a freshman in 2011, earned the starting left tackle spot as a redshirt freshman in 2012, and proceeded to not miss a game until being sidelined by back surgery last November. He has since healed up and returned to join this sultry crew:
You know you want to … take them to Olive Garden.
Career Highlight: We could just point to Petty’s stat line, but might Drango’s back surgery count as a macabre kind of success indicator, given what happened to Baylor’s passing attack in his absence?
Should We Know Him? He cooks, can carry a ball carrier like a stuffed animal, and protects Petty’s blind side. What’s not to like?
Lesser luminaries of the league destined for bigger things in 2014.
• Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma. As with Knight, Striker is best known for an overachieving underclassman performance in the Sugar Bowl, where he thrice sacked AJ McCarron and made this happen:
Football Study Hall has a typically thorough look at Oklahoma’s defensive philosophies and how they pivot around Striker’s considerable abilities.
• Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State. Last year, he was a great player. This year, he becomes a household name. Mueller walked on to the Wildcats in 2010 and finished 2013 with 11.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, and All-American honors.
• Kenny Williams, [??], Texas Tech. Two-way players at power programs are so en vogue right now, and let it never be said that Kliff Kingsbury lets his team play off-trend. Williams joins UCLA’s Myles Jack and Washington’s Shaq Thompson as potential RB/LB combo guys to watch this fall.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State. Paul Rhoads has just named junior Sam Richardson as his starting quarterback, and Richardson will be throwing to, among many others, Allen Lazard, an Iowa native ranked as the second-best in-state prospect in the class of 2014 and the subject of a pitched recruiting battle.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia. Charlie Weis belongs in this conversation, and will probably still belong in this conversation 12 weeks from now, but for the moment, let’s consider the future of Holgo the philosopher:
The Mountaineers open the season against Alabama in the Georgia Dome, and have to play Oklahoma before the end of September and Baylor and Oklahoma State before the end of October. This team is not so much on a steep learning curve as standing at the base of a learning precipice, staring up. The WVU newcomer we’re most interested in following isn’t even on the field. The team brought in Penn State lifer and longtime Joe Paterno administrative consigliere Tom Bradley, and his effectiveness both as a mentor to new DC Tony Gibson and as an experienced program bureaucrat will play a large part in any sort of resurrection campaign.
Early Must-Watch Game, Conference Category
There’s not a whole lot of league play to be had in September; the first game of the year between Big 12 teams that had winning records in 2013 is Texas Tech’s trip to Oklahoma State, on Thursday in Week 5.
Early Must-Watch Game, Nonconference Category
But there’s something for every taste here: For resource-based upset potential, look to Iowa State’s opener against the back-to-back-to-back FCS national champion North Dakota State Bison. For back-thumping sideline reunions, try North Texas at Texas in Week 1. For the gnarliest possible combination of dueling fight songs imaginable, savor Tennessee at Oklahoma in Week 3. For grudge match magic, sample Texas vs. UCLA in Week 3. And for irresistible forces and immovable objects, run, don’t walk, to Auburn at Kansas State in Week 4.
We Cannot Find Fault With This Logic
For your weekly football devotional, look to Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt, who takes a refreshingly straightforward view of his duties:
Some team in this league will score 100 this season. This is the year. Somebody’s going to do it. Blessed with the gentlemanly sagacity of long experience, Art Briles doesn’t seem to be the likeliest candidate, though the Bears are certainly capable of such a stunt. Make it Texas Tech, then, behind a brash young head coach, in a game in which the Red Raiders are far ahead, and with some neophyte backup quarterbacks getting seasoning and turning out (much like last year’s gunslinging hatchlings), to be real, real good at making that scoreboard spark.
This article has been updated to remove an erroneous reference to Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett attending TCU. They play for Kansas State.