Dallas Colleges: West Virginia Mountaineers
1. TCU: All-Big 12 kicker Jaden Oberkrom will be a four-year starter, as will punter Ethan Perry. Cameron Echols-Luper is also back after ranking 16th nationally in punt returns. TCU’s coverage units have also been spectacular. Not only did the Horned Frogs lead the country in punt return coverage last year, they became the first team to allow negative punt return yards in the 14 seasons that the statistic has been tracked. Special teams is just one reason why TCU figures to be a playoff contender in 2015.
2. Kansas State: Freshman Matthew McCrane led the Big 12 in field goal percentage after taking over for Jack Cantele in September; McCrane connected on 18 of 19 field goal attempts. Freshman Nick Walsh had a decent season punting. The outgoing Tyler Lockett is irreplaceable, but Morgan Burns averaged more than 30 yards per kick return.
3. West Virginia: The Mountaineers are third here despite sporting the worst coverage units in the league last season. Punt returns have also been an utter disaster. But the combination of Lou Groza finalist kicker Josh Lambert and punter Nick “Boomstache” O’Toole is elite.
4. Baylor: After a shaky start, kicker Chris Callahan got better as his freshman season wore on, making all four field goals and the game-winner against TCU. The Bears have to replace All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth and return specialist Levi Norwood. But they have several electric options from which to choose on returns.
5. Oklahoma: Alex Ross led the Big 12 in kick returns, including two touchdowns. Austin Seibert was the nation’s No. 1 ranked kicker recruit, and will succeed Michael Hunnicutt. The Sooners, however, ranked seventh and eighth in kickoff and punt coverage in the Big 12 last season, respectively, which cost them dearly in the loss to Oklahoma State.
6. Iowa State: Kicker Cole Netten is coming off a solid sophomore season, in which he nailed the game-winning field goal that beat Iowa. Colin Downing was also a serviceable punter as a true freshman. Though Iowa State’s return units got wiped out by attrition, the Cyclones led the Big 12 last year in kickoff coverage.
7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys would be much closer to the top if they still had Tyreek Hill. It’s unclear who will take over returning punts and kicks, but the Pokes are sure to audition several candidates this spring. After struggling as a freshman, kicker Ben Grogan had a nice bounce-back sophomore season. Oklahoma State also led the league last season with six blocked kicks.
8. Texas: Nick Rose made only 14 of his 21 field goal attempts, though he nailed 51- and 47-yarders in Texas’ final two regular-season games. He also led the league in touchback rate. Armanti Foreman is back after returning kicks as a freshman; Daje Johnson can be a dangerous returner when he’s not in the doghouse.
9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders ranked 114th in kick returns and 124th in punt returns last year. Cameron Batson and Jakeem Grant are capable as returners, but they didn’t produce. The Red Raiders’ coverage units, however, were steady, and didn’t allow a TD all season. Someone will have to fill Kenny Williams’ tackling prowess on special teams. Taylor Symmank had a solid year punting, though Tech will be breaking in a new place-kicker.
10. Kansas: All-Big 12 punter Trevor Pardula is gone. So are returners JaCorey Shepherd and Nick Harwell. Matthew Wyman is back, but he ranked last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage with only nine makes.
1. West Virginia: Strong safety Karl Joseph, the hardest hitter in the league who will be a four-year starter, is a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Free safety Dravon Henry is coming off a freshman All-American season. Daryl Worley is an All-Big 12 caliber cornerback. The Mountaineers also inked two more dynamic corners in Tyrek Cole (ESPN 300) and Rasul Douglas (ESPN 50 JC). This unit is loaded.
2. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys own the deepest cornerback group in the league, with four players boasting FBS starting experience in Kevin Peterson, Ramon Richards, Ashton Lampkin and Michael Hunter, a graduate transfer from Indiana. Jordan Sterns is a rising star at free safety.
3. Kansas State: Danzel McDaniel and Morgan Burns quietly formed one of the league's top cornerback tandems last season. Both are back, too. McDaniel brings the hammer; Burns can cover ground. Dante Barnett is among the Big 12's top returning safeties with a nose for the ball. With better hands, he could have finished with double-digit interceptions last year. The Wildcats do have to find a replacement for Randall Evans, who was an anchor at nickelback.
4. TCU: The Horned Frogs were hit hard by attrition. All three of its All-Big 12 defensive backs are gone in cornerback Kevin White, strong safety Sam Carter and weak safety Chris Hackett, who bolted early for the draft. Still, this unit has the remnants to be stout again. Ranthony Texada had a banner freshman season playing opposite of White, and seems primed to take over as TCU's No. 1 corner. Free safety Derrick Kindred has been a cog the past three seasons, and former juco transfer Kenny Iloka was a key reserve in 2014. Those three form the core of what figures to be another stout TCU secondary.
5. Baylor: The good news is the Bears return four starters in the secondary; that might be the bad news, too. Pass defense was Baylor's Achilles heel last season, culminating with Texas Tech true freshman Patrick Mahomes torching the Bears for almost 600 passing yards. Deep safety Orion Stewart is the best of the bunch; he's a playmaker. Cornerbacks Ryan Reid and Xavien Howard should be better in their second years as starters. Cover safety Terrell Burt has the most experience, but struggled greatly in coverage late last season. It will be interesting to see whether this group collectively improves off a shaky 2014 performance.
6. Texas: Outside West Virginia, no secondary in the league has more upside than Texas. Safety Jason Hall was one of the league's top true freshmen last season, and incoming cornerbacks Holton Hill and Kris Boyd and safeties DeShon Elliott and Davante Davis are all elite blue-chip prospects. The Longhorns will lean on Duke Thomas, Sheroid Evans and Dylan Haines until the young guns are ready. But when they are -- look out.
7. Oklahoma: The Sooners ranked ninth in the Big 12 in pass defense last season, easily Oklahoma's worst finish in the Bob Stoops' era. The best player of the group is cornerback Zack Sanchez; he gives up big plays, but he makes some, too. The Sooners desperately need their young defensive backs to coalesce around him. Ahmad Thomas, Hatari Byrd, Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas all looked discombobulated at times in their first seasons as rotation players. The antidote could be this month's signing class. P.J. Mbanasor was the No. 6 CB recruit in the country; William Johnson was the No. 2 juco CB. Safety Will Sunderland Jr. was another ESPN 300 addition. If any of those three contribute right away, the chance is there for dramatic improvement.
8. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders return the entire two-deep from a secondary that held up reasonably well. Of course, opponents were also merely content to just hand the ball off most of the time against Tech's porous run defense. Still, this secondary has potential. Cornerback Nigel Bethel II leads the way in the potential department. After serving a three-game suspension he held his own as a true freshman starter. Bethel II, Justis Nelson and Tevin Madison, who was also a true freshman last season, have promise and a ton of experience for their age. If they can stay healthy, Keenon Ward and J.J. Gaines have the chance to form a competent safety duo. ESPN 300 signee Jamile Johnson Jr. could be an immediate factor there, too.
9. Iowa State: Safety Kamari Cotton-Moya is the reigning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year; he and cornerback Nigel Tribune are quality players. T.J. Mutcherson, Cotton-Moya's wingman at safety last season, has since been dismissed from the team. But Sam Richardson returns at corner opposite Tribune. This unit looks good on paper and should be the strength of Iowa State. And yet, the Cyclones are coming off a season in which they ranked last in the league defending the pass.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks graduated All-Big 12 performer JaCorey Shepherd, who was one of the best corner covers in the league last season. With Shepherd gone, the Jayhawks will be counting on a big sophomore season from Matthew Boateng, who started opposite Shepherd as a true freshman last year. The Jayhawks also need safety Isaiah Johnson, who was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year two seasons ago, to return to his 2013 form.
1. Oklahoma: The Oklahoma linebackers didn’t quite live up to expectations last season. But Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans are two of the top five returning tacklers in the league. Eric Striker was also tops among Big 12 linebackers with nine sacks, and has All-American potential even if the production wasn’t quite there in 2014. The Sooners are also banking on getting back 2013 leading tackler Frank Shannon, who was suspended from school last year for violating the school’s Title IX conduct policy. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Devante Bond bring depth and speed off the edge.
2. Oklahoma State: Ryan Simmons will be a three-year starter and brings plenty of speed from the inside. Seth Jacobs is also back after a breakout sophomore season. Simmons and Jacobs ranked 11th and 13th in the league in tackles last season, respectively. The Cowboys should also begin to feel the effects of their outstanding 2014 linebacking recruiting class. Gyasi Akem and Justin Phillips both played as true freshmen and warrant bigger roles in 2015. ESPN 300 signee Kevin Henry and junior-college transfer Jordan Burton could both challenge for time at the "star" outside linebacking spot.
3. Texas: The Longhorns graduated leading tackler Jordan Hicks, who chose not to seek a sixth year of eligibility. But veterans Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens are back to anchor the unit. The Longhorns also signed perhaps the best linebacking class in the country this month, headlined by four-star prospects Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler and Cameron Townsend.
4. West Virginia: No returning linebacker has more tackles the last two years than Nick Kwiatkoski's 189. Kwiatkoski is a tackling machine. K.J. Dillon had a solid season after moving down from safety to outside linebacker. Seniors Isaiah Bruce, Jared Barber, Shaq Petteway, and Edward Muldrow all have starting experience, as well. No Big 12 team has a deeper corps than the Mountaineers.
5. Baylor: Taylor Young is the AP’s reigning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. As a redshirt freshman, he produced 91 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and a fourth-quarter interception against Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Who will start alongside him remains a question after the Bears graduated longtime stalwart Bryce Hager. Grant Campbell will probably get the nod starting out in the middle, but Aiavion Edwards, Kendall Ehrlich, Raaquan Davis, and Xavier Phillips will all have opportunities.
6. Kansas State: Elijah Lee shined while getting significant snaps as a true freshman as a pass-rushing specialist. He has a chance to be the Big 12’s next version of Striker. Will Davis started out the season starting alongside Jonathan Truman, but lost snaps to Dakorey Johnson late in the season. The Wildcats will need Davis to bounce back to fill some of the massive production Truman supplied. A healthy return of Charmeachealle Moore from a season-ending injury would help, too.
7. Texas Tech: All eyes in Lubbock will be on Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell, whom the Red Raiders are hoping will deliver big. The Plano, Texas, native was an ESPN 300 prospect before signing with the Buckeyes. He has the potential to be a difference-maker. Micah Awe was third on the team in tackles last season from the inside. Redshirt freshman Dakota Allen and incoming freshman D'Vonta Hinton could both step into the rotation.
8. Kansas: The Jayhawks graduated one of the best defensive players in school history in linebacker Ben Heeney, who topped the Big 12 with 88 solo tackles last season. To help replace him, Kansas will have to hope that Jake Love can more consistently produce the kind of performance he delivered early last year against Central Michigan, when he had four tackles for loss and a sack. Courtney Arnick returns after finishing sixth on the defense in tackles. Former ESPN 300 signee Kyron Watson figures to play a much bigger role as a sophomore.
9. TCU: There wasn’t a better linebacking tandem in the Big 12 last season than All-American Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet. Both, however, are gone, leaving a gigantic void in the middle of the TCU defense. For the Horned Frogs to challenge for a playoff spot again, someone will have to emerge from the likes of Sammy Douglas, Paul Whitmill, Ty Summers, and incoming freshmen Alec Dunham, Mike Freeze and Ty Summers.
10. Iowa State: The Cyclones had one of the worst run defenses in the country last season. Better linebacking will help correct this Achilles' heel. Brian Mills eventually won a starting job as a redshirt freshman last season. He and Luke Knott have the chance to develop into a quality one-two punch from the outside. In the middle, Kane Steely, Jordan Harris, and Alton Meeks will battle for time. Whoever is most consistent will get the majority of the snaps.
Total commits: 5
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: The Bears got in early on Houston defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, who committed to Baylor last month. But the Bears will have to fight to keep him. Elliott received an offer from Alabama last week, and more big-time offers figure to pour in.
Total commits: 0
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: Iowa State continues to battle for in-state offensive lineman Jake Heinrich, whose recruitment outside the state has picked up. Heinrich is not expected to be at Iowa State's junior day this weekend, but his twin brother, John, and Urbandale offensive lineman teammate, Caleb Bright, are.
Total commits: 1
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Jayhawks are heading out West to try and land a QB. Last week, Kansas extended offers to a pair of California QBs in Devon Modster of Las Flores and Khalil Tate of Gardena. The connection is offensive coordinator Rob Likens, who previously was at Cal.
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: Oregon reportedly has offered Wichita defensive end Xavier Kelly, who has been committed to the Wildcats since November. Kelly committed to the Wildcats shorty after getting an offer from Nebraska, but it will be interesting to see if he gives the Ducks a look.
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 1
The latest: Off their junior day event, the Sooners picked up their first in-state commitment over the weekend in Tulsa's Jon-Michael Terry. Though Terry also plays tight end, the Sooners have targeted him as an outside linebacker. He had 103 tackles and 19 sacks for Victory Christian last season.
Total commits: 1
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: Like the Sooners, Oklahoma State landed its first in-state commitment last week in Tulsa running back Justice Hill, who rushed for 1,426 yards and 22 touchdowns at Booker T. Washington as a junior. The Cowboys have done well replenishing their running back depth in these two latest recruiting classes, which included the signings of Chris Carson, Todd Mays and Jeff Carr earlier this month.
Total commits: 7
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: The Horned Frogs are in a battle with Texas Tech for three-star Dallas Skyline RB Da'Leon Ward, who is down to the two Big 12 rivals. Ward is expected to be in Fort Worth for TCU's junior day this weekend, then Lubbock for Tech's the weekend after that.
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 2
The latest: The Longhorns host junior day Feb. 28 and extended some 2016 offers last week in advance, including LB Dontavious Jackson and a trio of WRs: former Baylor commit Tren'Davian Dickson, LSU commit Dee Anderson and juco standout Taj Williams.
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Red Raiders are one of the schools that have jumped on ESPN Junior 300 athlete Christian Wallace, who decommitted from TCU a week ago. The Red Raiders have an in with Wallace in defensive back Collin Wilder, who is committed to Tech and high school teammates with Wallace at Katy High School.
Total commits: 4
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: West Virginia has always been working from a disadvantage in recruiting because of the lack on in-state talent. But this could be a banner year for the state. The Mountaineers have already locked up commitments from linebacker Dylan Tonkery and defensive end Reese Donahue, and they have extended an offer to Charleston quarterback Tyrhee Pratt. The last time West Virginia signed three in-state players was 2007.
Below are the rest of the spring start dates and spring game schedules for the Big 12:
- Spring practice begins: Feb. 23
- Spring game: March 20
- Spring practice begins: March 3
- Spring game: April 11
- Spring practice begins: March 24
- Spring game: April 25
- Spring practice begins: April 1
- Spring game: April 25 in Kansas City
- Spring practice begins: March 7
- Spring game: TBA
- Spring practice begins: March 9
- Spring game: April 18
- Spring practice begins: March 25
- Spring game: April 18
- Spring practice begins: Feb. 28
- Spring game: April 10
- Spring practice begins: Feb. 28
- Spring game: March 28 in Midland, Texas
- Spring practice begins: March 15
- Spring game: April 25
1. Baylor: All five starters return for the Bears, notably All-American left tackle Spencer Drango, who spurned the NFL draft to return for his senior season. The majority of the entire two-deep, in fact, is back, as well, including right guard Desmine Hilliard, who missed much of last year with a wrist injury. Despite being a two-year starter, Hilliard will have to fight to reclaim his starting job, as Jarell Broxton slotted in nicely in place of him during the second half of the season. This unit has a superstar in Drango, plenty of experience and a ton of depth.
2. TCU: The TCU offensive line was among the most-improved units in the league last year, setting the tone up front for the nation's second-highest scoring offense. Left tackle Tayo Fabuluje is gone, but the rest of the unit returns intact, including center Joey Hunt and right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who were both second-team All-Big 12 performers in 2014.
3. Texas Tech: Texas Tech encountered all kinds of problems last year, but offensive line wasn't one of them. All-Big 12 left tackle Le'Raven Clark was terrific protecitng the blindside of quarterbacks Pat Mahomes and Davis Webb, as Tech allowed only one sack per 43 pass attempts, which was among the best rates in the country. Center Jared Kaster and guards Alfredo Morales and Baylen Brown will all be three-year starters.
4. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were dreadful along the offensive line for much of last year. But the group rapidly rebounded late, due in part to the healthy comeback of Zachary Crabtree at right tackle. Crabtree will be able to stick on the right side, too, thanks to the mid-semester arrival of transfer Victor Salako, who started two years for UAB and is expected to man left tackle for the Pokes. Oklahoma State also should be deeper overall with junior college transfers Brandon Pertile and Matt Kellerman joining returning starters Michael Wilson, Jesse Robinson and center Paul Lewis. Mike Gundy still needs to hire a position coach for this group with Bob Connelly bolting for USC.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners were hit hard by graduation with longtime lynchpin tackles Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson both departing. Center Ty Darlington is back; so is veteran guard Nila Kasitati. Oklahoma also signed the nation's No. 1 juco guard, Jamal Danley, to play alongside them. Tackle is the big concern, but the Sooners are hopeful that either Orlando Brown Jr. or Kenyon Frison will be ready to step up after redshirting last year.
6. Kansas State: B.J. Finney was a four-year fixture at center for the K-State offensive line and will be dearly missed. But the Wildcats return the rest of the offensive line, including standout left tackle Cody Whitehair, who should take over for Finney as group leader. The Wildcats need guard Boston Stiverson to make a full return from the leg injury he suffered in the Valero Alamo Bowl. They also need more consistent pass protection from their right tackles.
7. Texas: The Longhorns got better up front as the season wore on, but this is still a unit with a bunch of questions. Left guard Sedrick Flowers was the only linemen to start every game, as Texas tinkered with six different combinations over the course of the season. Center Taylor Doyle and right guard Kent Perkins should retain their starting gigs, but junior college transfers Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson, as well as early enrollee freshman Connor Williams, all have a chance to overtake Marcus Hutchins, Camrhon Hughes and Jake Raulerson at the tackle spots.
8. Iowa State: Left tackle Brock Dagel missing most of last season with a knee injury could be a silver lining for the Cyclones in 2015. Jake Campos got valuable experience along the line, including left tackle. As a result, the Cyclones should be in good shape on the bookends, provided Dagel is 100 percent. Guard Daniel Burton is one of the more underrated players in the league. Cole Anderson and Kory Kodanko, who both redshirted last year, have a good shot of joining the rotation.
9. West Virginia: The Mountaineers weren't great up front last year, and now they've graduated their two best blockers in guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Tyler Orlosky bring stability on the inside at center, but tackles Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas need to take a step forward in their second seasons as full-time starters.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks don't have any difference-makers up front, at least not yet. But Jacob Bragg, one of the top center recruits in the country last year, has a chance to become one in time. Joe Gibson and Junior Visinia return along the interior. So does rising senior tackle Larry Mazyck, who may be asked to swing to the left side.
1. Baylor: The Bears just keep reloading at wide receiver. All-Big 12 selection Corey Coleman and freshman All-American KD Cannon return from 1,000-yard seasons to give Baylor one of the most electrifying one-two punches in the country. Jay Lee and Davion Hall headline the rest of the group, which is loaded with up-and-coming prospects such as Ishmael Zamora, Chris Platt, Devontre Stricklin and Blake Lynch.
2. TCU: The Horned Frogs return their top three pass catchers in Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee and Deante' Gray, who all delivered big performances for the nation’s second-highest scoring offense in combining for 23 touchdown catches. Desmon White and Emanuel Porter also flashed potential as freshmen, and should offer even more help as sophomores.
3. Oklahoma State: Every single receiver that caught a pass for the Cowboys last season is back, including starters Brandon Sheperd, David Glidden and James Washington. Sheperd exploded once Mason Rudolph took over at quarterback; Glidden is one of the most experienced receivers in the league out of the slot; Washington was among the top true freshman receivers in the country. Jhajuan Seales, Marcell Ateman, Chris Lacy and Austin Hays, who all have starting experience, round out the deepest receiving corps in the league.
4. Oklahoma: The Sooners receiving unit fell apart last season after Sterling Shepard suffered a groin injury. The good news is that Shepard will be back -- and hopefully healthy -- for his senior year. He alone elevates this group into one of the better ones in the Big 12 when he’s on the field. Shepard should have more help next season, as Dede Westbrook was arguably the top junior-college receiver in the country and figures to be an instant starter in Norman.
5. Texas Tech: This group had a lackluster 2014 season, but the talent is still there. Jakeem Grant is an All-Big 12-caliber talent and should put up bigger numbers with more consistent quarterback play. After a slow start, Devin Lauderdale came on strong during the second half of the season on the outside. Ian Sadler, Reginald Davis and Dylan Cantrell all finished with at least 20 catches last season. The Red Raiders also signed a pair of four-star wideouts in Keke Coutee and J.F. Thomas, who was a late flip from TCU. There are concerns about Thomas qualifying, but if he makes it to campus, he could give the Red Raiders another playmaker on the perimeter.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones have major concerns at running back and on defense, but one place they are not weak is at wide receiver. Like Cannon and Washington, Allen Lazard was terrific as a true freshman and should become an even bigger focal point of the offense next season. The Cyclones also will welcome back 2013 leading receiver Quenton Bundrage, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury. D'Vario Montgomery gives the Cyclones a very capable trio at the position.
7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers face the unenviable task of replacing All-American receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford. Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts will have to play bigger roles. They were able to capitalize off all the attention defenses devoted to stopping White. Shelton Gibson has the talent to be a difference maker, but he finished with just four catches last season. Incoming freshmen Jovon Durante, who was the top signee in West Virginia’s class, and Gary Jennings could be immediate factors in the rotation, as could junior-college transfer Ka'Raun White, Kevin White's younger brother.
8. Texas: John Harris and Jaxon Shipley were responsible for more than 50 percent of Texas' receptions last season, and both are gone. The Longhorns will have to unearth a new No. 1 target for whoever emerges out of the QB derby. Armanti Foreman has a chance to be that receiver after playing some as a true freshman. Marcus Johnson is the lone veteran of the group, but is mostly just a burner. Texas desperately needs someone such as Daje Johnson or Gilbert Johnson, or one of its highly touted signees such as Ryan Newsome, John Burt, or DeAndre McNeal -- or even tight end Devonaire Clarington -- to emerge.
9. Kansas State: The Wildcats graduated the most prolific receiver in school history in Tyler Lockett, and the best wingman in the Big 12 in Curry Sexton. Those two combined for 185 catches and 2,574 receiving yards last season. That level of production won’t easily be replaced. Deante Burton probably takes over as the leading receiver, but he had only 17 catches last year. Kody Cook, Judah Jones and Andre Davis have some experience in minor roles. This could be a transition year.
10. Kansas: After years of mediocrity, the Jayhawks were better at receiver last season. But with their top five pass-catchers gone, they could be taking a step back again. Nigel King would have been the top returning receiver, but he curiously declared for the draft. Former Florida tight end Kent Taylor, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in 2012, transferred to Kansas last year and should help. The staff has high hopes for early enrollee Chase Harrell as well, but this group overall is completely unproven.
1. TCU: Trevone Boykin is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country and should open the season on the short list of legitimate Heisman contenders. Boykin was fabulous in Year 1 of the Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie spread offense, and could be even better with a season of experience under his belt. Depth after Boykin is a bit of a concern, though Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein were highly touted signees last year.
2. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys boast one of the top young QBs in the league -- if not the country -- in Mason Rudolph, who led Oklahoma State to wins over Oklahoma and Washington to end his true freshman season. In just three starts, he displayed a poise that could elevate the Cowboys into dark-horse Big 12 contender status. After Rudolph the Cowboys have a pair of quarterbacks with extensive starting experience in J.W. Walsh and Daxx Garman. They also just signed ESPN 300 passer John Kolar, who could have the luxury of redshirting.
3. Texas Tech: If Rudolph isn't the Big 12's best young returning quarterback, Patrick Mahomes is. He caught fire after taking over the starting job, throwing for 14 TDs in Tech's final three games, including a 598-yard passing effort in a near upset of Baylor. Mahomes has become such an integral part of the program, the Red Raiders have said they will tailor spring practices around his baseball schedule. Davis Webb was thought to be Tech's quarterback of the future going into last season, but struggled with turnovers, then injuries. He still has the ability to be a quality player.
4. Baylor: Bryce Petty is gone, but the cupboard is hardly devoid of talent. Seth Russell has been a solid backup the last two years, and will enter the spring as the favorite to take over as the starter. Russell, however, will have plenty of competition, notably via incoming freshman Jarrett Stidham, who was the top-rated QB recruit to sign into the Big 12. Stidham has all the tools to be a star in the league down the road. Dual-threat Chris Johnson will also be in his third year.
5. Oklahoma: Quarterback remains a huge question mark for the Sooners, but it also has the chance to be way better than it was in 2014. Baker Mayfield is finally eligible after transferring in from Texas Tech last year. Mayfield was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2013, and could be the favorite to win the job. Returning starter Trevor Knight was actually solid at times last season, but also killed the Sooners with costly mistakes, topping the league with three pick-six interceptions, all of which came in defeats. Cody Thomas, who started three games while Knight was injured, has given up baseball to focus on the QB derby, but might be a long shot after completing just 46 percent of his passes as a starter. Justice Hansen, who redshirted last year, is a former ESPN 300 recruit.
6. West Virginia: Skyler Howard sparked West Virginia with his wheels after Clint Trickett missed the final three games last year. But Howard was also hit and miss with his accuracy, which prevented him from locking up the job. Instead, he'll have to fend off William Crest, who actually beat out Howard for the No. 2 job coming out of fall camp before a shoulder injury forced a redshirt. Crest has a skill set reminiscent of former West Virginia standout Geno Smith. Paul Millard brings veteran depth after taking a redshirt in his fourth year. Freshman David Sills, who once committed to USC in junior high, will also take part in spring drills.
7. Texas: For now, the Longhorns are basically where they were last year. Tyrone Swoopes is the only quarterback on the roster with any experience. He's had his moments, but also struggled late last season as the Texas offense cratered. Jerrod Heard is the X factor. He won a pair of high school state championships and was a highly touted signee, but clearly wasn't ready as a true freshman. Barring an unforeseen transfer, the Longhorns will have to ride with one of those two. Kai Locksley was a key late addition to last week's class, but his passing needs development.
8. Iowa State: When healthy, Sam B. Richardson was the least of Iowa State's problems last year. He did a solid job limiting turnovers and made plays with his feet. He should be the starter again. The Cyclones also return Grant Rohach, who has 245 pass attempts the last two seasons in relief.
9. Kansas: Michael Cummings pumped life into the Jayhawks after going from fourth string to starter following the Charlie Weis firing. Kansas also signed a pair of promising players at the position last week in three-star Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley.
10. Kansas State: The Wildcats are a blank slate at quarterback following the graduation of Jake Waters. Ex-walk-on Joe Hubener will get first dibs at the job entering his fourth year on campus. Hubener has good arm strength and good speed, but only 17 career pass attempts. He'll be pushed this spring by three-star signee Alex Delton, who is already in school.
Where did those players come from? An examination of every class revealed the answer.
Not surprisingly, the state of Texas remains the backbone of Big 12 recruiting. Just over 50 percent of Big 12 signees came from the Lone Star State. But the data also showed that the Big 12 is expanding its recruiting footprint into other states.
Some more observations on the data:
- Though it it continues to serve as the lifeblood of Big 12 programs, the competition for talent in Texas has intensified in recent years. Texas A&M, Alabama, UCLA, USC, Ole Miss, LSU and even Cal all swiped top-20 players from the state. Just five years ago, only a trio of top-20 Texas recruits bolted from the Big 12 (and one of those was to TCU). This year, 13 of the top 20 signed out of the Big 12.
- Despite this trend, the majority of the Big 12 relied on Texas once again for the majority of its signing classes. Texans comprised at least 40 percent of the classes from Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech.
- The rate of Texans headed to the Big 12 is actually up 4 percent from last year. Every Big 12 school signed at least three Texans, except for West Virginia, which for the second straight year didn't sign a Texas high schooler. (QB Skylar Howard was a native of White Settlement, Texas, but signed with the Mountaineers out of Riverside Community College in California.)
- With Texas recruiting becoming more competitive, several Big 12 schools have had success opening pipelines elsewhere, including in SEC country. Iowa State and Kansas State nabbed a combined eight players from Georgia. After landing three players from Blue Springs, Missouri, last year, K-State picked up another three recruits from the same school, Tucker (Ga.) High, including linebacker Elijah Sullivan, whom the Wildcats flipped from Auburn on signing day. Oklahoma State and TCU continued to make inroads into Louisiana, each landing three players from the Pelican State.
- Texas ended up with a top-10 class, but the Longhorns ventured outside their home state. A third of the class came from outside Texas, as Charlie Strong used his connections to add five players from Florida.
- Oklahoma signed recruits from all over the map, as well, including Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, California, Illinois and Canada.
- West Virginia, once again, had to show the most creativity, given the lack of in-state talent and its distance from Texas. The Mountaineers raided the East Coast, from New Jersey to Miami. West Virginia also did well adding depth to its class from just west, with four Ohioans in the class.
But as an exercise, I've compiled below what an All-Big 12 team would look like based solely on ESPN RecruitingNation rankings -- even though the actual All-Big 12 teams down the road are sure to look very different (jucos not included):
QB: Jarrett Stidham, Baylor (No. 2 QB-DT)
RB: Chris Warren, Texas (No. 9 RB)
RB: Tristian Houston, Texas (No. 20 RB)
WR: Jovon Durante, West Virginia (No. 13 WR)
WR: Ryan Newsome, Texas (No. 22 WR)
WR: John Humphrey, Oklahoma (No. 23 WR)
TE: Devonaire Clarington, Texas (No. 1 TE-H)
OT: Bobby Evans, Oklahoma (No. 16 OT)
OG: Patrick Vahe, Texas (No. 12 OG)
C: Jozie Milton, TCU (No. 8 C)
OG: Conner Dyer, Texas Tech (No. 31 OG)
OT: Madison Akamnonu, Texas Tech (No. 28 OT)
AP: DeAndre McNeal, Texas (No. 28 ATH)
DE: Ricky DeBerry, Oklahoma (No. 14 DE)
DT: Breiden Fehoko, Texas Tech (No. 10 DT)
DT: Neville Gallimore, Oklahoma (No. 16 DT)
DE: Louis Brown, Oklahoma State (No. 23 ATH)
OLB: Malik Jefferson, Texas (No. 3 OLB)
ILB: Anthony Wheeler, Texas (No. 3 ILB)
ILB: De'Amontae Jackson, Iowa State (No. 19 ILB)
OLB: Cameron Townsend, Texas (No. 17 OLB)
CB: P.J. Mbanasor, Oklahoma (No. 6 CB)
CB: Holton Hill, Texas (No. 14 CB)
S: DeShon Elliott, Texas (No. 5 S)
S: Will Sunderland, Oklahoma (No. 17 S)
Best players at each position who didn't make the cut:
QB: John Kolar, Oklahoma State (No. 3 QB-PP)
RB: Ja'Mycal Hasty, Baylor (No. 21 RB)
WR: John Burt, Texas (No. 25 WR)
TE: Stone Wolfley, West Virginia (No. 16 TE-Y)
OT: Johnny Wilson, Oklahoma State (No. 34 OT)
OG: Vaimoe Sekona, Oklahoma State (No. 37 OG)
C: Cody Wheeler, Texas Tech (No. 14 C)
AP: Blake Lynch, Baylor (No. 30 ATH)
DE: Gabriel Campbell, Oklahoma (No. 27 DE)
DT: Marquise Overton, Oklahoma (No. 20 DT)
OLB: Reggie Walker, Kansas State (No. 54 OLB)
ILB: Cecil Cherry, Texas (No. 20 ILB)
CB: Tyrek Cole, West Virginia (No. 19 CB)
S: Jamile Johnson, Texas Tech (No. 19 S)
A few observations:
- Everyone relax. Again, this is not a personal projection. It's based solely on the ESPN RecruitingNation evaluations and rankings. Some will be right. Some will be wrong. OK, you can all breathe again.
- The teams above underscore how dominant the defensive classes from Texas and Oklahoma were. The Longhorns landed the league's two best linebackers in Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler, and its best safety in DeShon Elliott. Bob Stoops, meanwhile, called this the best secondary class the Sooners had signed in his tenure, and it's difficult to argue with Oklahoma bringing in a pair of blue-chippers in P.J. Mbanasor and Will Sunderland. Both Red River rivals have difference-makers coming in at every level. It will be interesting to watch how they all develop.
- Oklahoma State and Texas Tech quietly put together a pair of noteworthy classes up front. Besides loading up on transfer offensive linemen, the Cowboys signed two of the Big 12's best high school blockers in Johnny Wilson and Vaimoe Sekona. On the other side, Louis Brown is a little raw, but he has the athleticism to be a big-time playmaking defensive end down the line. In Lubbock, Madison Akamnonu and Conner Dyer have the chance to be cornerstones for future Tech offensive lines. The Red Raiders also scored a potential stud up front defensively in tackle Breiden Fehoko. Both the Cowboys and Red Raiders successfully beefed up their trenches, after enduring major struggles last year (OSU offensively, Tech defensively).
- Once again, Baylor and West Virginia are two of the leaders in incoming skill talent. Jovon Durante is top-rated receiving coming into the Big 12 and has a chance to help the Mountaineers in 2015 at a position of need. Also watch out for his Miramar, Florida, cohort, cornerback Tyrek Cole, who will be joining a potentially loaded West Virginia secondary. Baylor signed the league's top QB in Jarrett Stidham, one of its top-three running backs in Ja'Mycal Hasty and a dynamic receiver in Blake Lynch. Once again, neither the Bears nor the Mountaineers will be lacking firepower.
- TCU doesn't show up much on the above teams, but last season's 12-1 record will have a much bigger effect on the Class of 2016. In fact, it already has. The Horned Frogs are off to a phenomenal start on next year's class with eight 2016 commits already on board, including four in the ESPN Junior 300.
With that in mind, below is a breakdown of the most exciting piece of each Big 12 recruiting class heading into the big day:
What to get excited about: A stud quarterback
The player: QB Jarrett Stidham
The skinny: Stidham is the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the country, who originally committed to Texas Tech before signing with the Bears. He is already on campus and primed to challenge Seth Russell for the starting job vacated by Bryce Petty. Either way, Art Briles has yet another quarterback prospect who could be special in time.
What to get excited about: Juco defensive reinforcements
The players: DT Demond Tucker, CB Jomal Wiltz, S Jarnor Jones, DT Bobby Leath
The skinny: After ranking 128th out of 128 teams this past season in total defense, the Cyclones went out and picked up a quartet of junior-college defenders who could step in and help right away. Tucker, an ESPN Junior College 50 prospect, and Wiltz are already on campus and could secure starting jobs before the end of the spring. Once he arrives, Leath could team with Tucker to solidfy a tackle rotation that was undermanned last season.
What to get excited about: The Lone Star State influx
The players: DE Dorance Armstrong, WR Jeremiah Booker, OG Aaron Garza, WR Emmanuel Moore, WR Steven Sims, CB Shaquille Richmond, RB Taylor Martin, WR Chase Harrell, CB Shola Ayinde, OLB Osaze Ogbebor
The skinny: The Jayhawks hired David Beaty in part because of his recruiting ties to the state of Texas. Beaty wasted no time putting those connections into play, giving the Jayhawks 10 commitments from high school Texans heading into signing day. Beaty also signed six more junior-college players from the Lone Star State. If he can keep those Texas waves coming, Kansas’ talent pool has a chance to rapidly improve.
What to get excited about: The potential backfield of the future
The players: RB Alex Barnes, QB Alex Delton
The skinny: Barnes, the No. 2 prospect from the Sunflower State, rushed for more than 2,300 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns as a high school senior. Delton, a three-star dual-threat quarterback, was the first to commit to this K-State class. The Wildcats have holes at both quarterback and running back heading into the spring, and the two are already on campus and set to participate. Even if they don’t contribute immediately, Delton and Barnes could become the heart and soul of the K-State backfield in time.
What to get excited about: Wide receiver help
The players: WR John Humphrey Jr., WR DeDe Westbrook
The skinny: Oklahoma’s passing attack went downhill after Sterling Shepard suffered a groin injury that hampered him the second half of the season. Shepard could have more help in 2015 with the arrival of Humphrey and Westbrook, who are already in Norman. Westbrook, an ESPN JC 50 signee, is reportedly already turning heads. Humphrey is an ESPN 300 prospect who picked the Sooners over Notre Dame. Both receivers could elevate Oklahoma’s receiving corps and ease the pressure off Shepard as the Sooners transition into Lincoln Riley's air raid offense.
What to get excited about: The defensive linemen
The players: DE Louis Brown, DT Darrion Daniels, DT Motekiai Maile, DT Taaj Bakari
The skinny: Last year, the Cowboys loaded up with a strong linebacker class. This year, Oklahoma State successfully focused its efforts up front. Daniels, a four-star pickup, and Maile, an ESPN JC 50 prospect, offer immediate impact in the middle, which the Cowboys need with James Castleman and Ofa Hautau both graduating. Brown, an ESPN 300 commit, has the range and athleticism to develop into a playmaking end. The combination of the last two classes could translate into Oklahoma State becoming a load up front defensively for years to come.
What to get excited about: A shutdown corner
The player: CB DeShawn Raymond
The skinny: From Jason Verrett to Kevin White, the Horned Frogs have featured some of the best cornerbacks in the Big 12 since joining the conference. They could have another lock-down pass-defender on the way in Raymond, a four-star addition who had offers from Florida State, Georgia and LSU. TCU has other replacement options for White. But Raymond has the ability to be a factor for the Frogs in 2015, and certainly beyond.
What to get excited about: The defensive star power
The players: OLB Malik Jefferson, ILB Anthony Wheeler, S DeShon Elliott, CB Holton Hill, CB Kris Boyd, OLB Cameron Townsend, S Davante Davis
The skinny: Charlie Strong has put together one of the strongest defensive classes in the country with seven ESPN 300 recruits on that side of the ball alone. The Longhorns might not be done, either, with five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack still strongly considering signing with Texas. This class could be the foundation of a future fearsome Texas defense.
What to get excited about: A big-time defensive tackle
The player: DT Breiden Fehoko
The skinny: The Red Raiders had one of the worst run defenses in the country last year, but help is on the way in Fehoko, who as the No. 51 overall recruit in the country chose Tech over the likes of Oregon and Alabama. At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, Fehoko has physical maturity already to impact the Red Raiders in 2015, and develop into a game-changing defensive lineman down the line.
What to get excited about: The Miramar trio
The players: WR Jovon Durante, CB Tyrek Cole, WR Kahlil Lewis
The skinny: Miramar (Fla.) High School is the West Virginia pipeline that keeps giving. The same school that sent Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey to West Virginia is sending three more blue-chippers to Morgantown. Durante and Cole are ESPN 300 prospects. Lewis was hotly pursued, too, with offers from Miami, Ohio State and Nebraska. All three have a chance to help the Mountaineers as soon as next season.
RB: Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State. Roland ran for more than 100 yards for the first time all season and finished with 123 yards on 32 carries in Oklahoma State’s TicketCity Cactus Bowl win.
RB: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma. Perine was about the Sooners’ only positive in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Playing on a bum ankle, he ran for 134 yards to finish his true freshman season with a Big 12-best 1,713 rushing yards.
WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. Lockett fueled a furious second-half comeback in the Valero Alamo Bowl with 164 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The rally came up short, but Lockett was fabulous in his final game at K-State.
WR: Kevin White, West Virginia. White was unstoppable yet again in his last college game. He finished with 129 yards receiving and a touchdown in West Virginia’s loss to Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
WR: K.D. Cannon, Baylor. By hauling in eight caches for 197 yards and two touchdowns, Cannon became just the seventh receiver and first underclassman in Baylor history to finish with more than 1,000 yards receiving.
AP: Aaron Green, TCU. Green ignited a 42-3 onslaught of Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl by hauling in a 31-yard pass on a trick play for TCU's first touchdown. He scored the Horned Frogs’ second touchdown too and finished with 114 yards rushing and receiving.
OT: Halapoulivaati Vaitai, TCU: With “Big V” locking up one of the edges, the Horned Frogs dominated the line of scrimmage and finished with 177 yards on the ground.
OG: LaQuan McGowan, Baylor. The 400-pound backup guard delivered one of the most unforgettable plays of the bowl season, when he lined up as an eligible receiver then snagged an 18-yard touchdown pass to give Baylor a 20-point lead.
C: B.J. Finney, Kansas State. With K-State struggling to protect quarterback Jake Waters through the first half, Finney swung from center to right tackle after halftime. The Wildcats had no trouble moving the ball the rest of the way.
OG: Brady Foltz, TCU: Foltz had one of the best games of his TCU career as the Horned Frogs rolled up 423 total yards against Ole Miss’ talented defense.
OT: Zach Crabtree, Oklahoma State. Crabtree’s return to the lineup late in the year helped stabilize the line. With Crabtree, the Cowboys controlled a Washington front seven that featured three All-Americans.
DE: Ryan Mueller, Kansas State. Mueller finished with seven tackles and produced a huge forced fumble of the Bruins in the third quarter that sparked K-State’s rally.
DT: James Castleman, Oklahoma State. Castleman’s biggest contributions actually came on offense. In Oklahoma State’s heavy set, Castleman rushed for a 1-yard touchdown, then late in the game hauled in a 48-yard yard reception off play-action that helped propel the Cowboys to victory.
DT: Malcom Brown, Texas. Brown did what he could in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl by leading Texas with eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a pair of QB hurries.
DE: James McFarland, TCU. McFarland essentially ended the game when he came up with an acrobatic, diving interception of Bo Wallace in the Ole Miss end zone that put the Frogs ahead 28-0 just before halftime.
LB: K.J. Dillon, West Virginia. Dillon had a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave West Virginia a 10-point lead over the Aggies and early command of the game. Neither the lead nor the command lasted, however.
LB: Marcus Mallet, TCU. The Horned Frogs brutalized Ole Miss’ offense, and Mallet was a big reason for that. He put up a game-high 10 tackles and forced and recovered a fumble, as the Rebels finished with just 9 yards rushing.
CB: Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State. In addition to providing solid coverage all night, Peterson came up with the game-clinching interception of Washington in the final seconds.
CB: Ramon Richards, Oklahoma State. The sure-tackling true freshman had perhaps the best performance in his young career and finished with six tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups.
S: Karl Joseph, West Virginia. Joseph led the Mountaineers with 10 tackles and delivered yet another devastating hit that resulted in a forced fumble.
S: Derrick Kindred, TCU. Kindred picked off the Rebels in the first quarter and finished with five tackles and a tackle for loss as the TCU secondary swarmed Ole Miss' receivers all game.
K: Matthew McCrane, Kansas State. McCrane nailed 47-yard and 29-yard field goals and nearly pulled off a remarkable onside kick using the “Rabona” soccer technique. Honorable mention honors here go to West Virginia’s Josh Lambert, who broke the FBS season record with 39 made field goals.
P: Kip Smith, Oklahoma State. Smith placed all four of his punts inside the Washington 20 to help the Cowboys control the field-position battle.
Returner: Mario Alford, West Virginia: The electric Alford had two big kick returns, as well as a 45-yard touchdown reception off a quick pass in his final game as a Mountaineer.
One more night to go in the 2014-15 Big 12 football season. Everyone enjoy it.
Now, on to the 'bag:
Trotter: Outside TCU, the Big 12 is 0-4 in bowl games, so I don't know what point the rest of the league is proving. But with their 42-3 dismantling of Ole Miss, they Horned Frogs certainly showed they are one of the four best teams in the country.
@Jake_Trotter TCU proving their playoff point or the Big 12 playoff point?— Toby Garza (@CaptainToby_2) January 2, 2015
Trotter: Given what they'll have coming back, my guess is that Ohio State will be the preseason No. 1 next season, but TCU could be right behind them at No. 2. The Horned Frogs have as much coming back as anyone else in the country, and the bowl performance against Ole Miss will be fresh in the minds of voters when they cast their ballots. At the very least, the Horned Frogs are a lock to be in everyone's top five.
@Jake_Trotter can TCU be preseason #1 next year?— Johnny STANziel (@Lord_stanley1) January 2, 2015
Trotter: A five. This is a total toss-up game to me. K-State should be motivated to get that 10th win and to send its strong collection of seniors out with a victory. But UCLA is a quality team with a quality QB in Brett Hundley. I picked K-State to win, but I could see this game going down to the wire.
@Jake_Trotter on a scale of 1-10, 1 being likely, 10 being extremely likely, how likely is it that K-State wins?— Benjamin Graves (@BenjaminGraves4) January 2, 2015
Trotter: This is a great question, and I'm not sure I'm ready yet to give you an answer. A bunch can happen between now and August, but the team to keep an eye on is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have something that Oklahoma and Texas don't, and that's a clear and promising QB of the future in Mason Rudolph. And while K-State and West Virginia graduate a bunch of firepower, the Cowboys basically return their entire receiving corps as well as eight starters defensively. The schedule also lines up for Oklahoma State next season, with TCU, Baylor, OU and K-State all having to go to Stillwater. Tonight's bowl game against Washington should give us more of an idea of how good the Cowboys could be in 2015. But the potential is there.
@Jake_Trotter who has the best chance to push Baylor and TCU for the B12 ship next year?— John Wheeler (@J3Wheeler) January 2, 2015
Trotter: I've been told my multiple insiders that Oklahoma is in the process of making coaching changes. Who and when is still being hashed out but at this point, I would be stunned if there weren't at least of couple of new coaches on Bob Stoops' staff next year.
@Jake_Trotter Is Bob looking for new coaches?— Trey Batchelor (@TreyBatchelor1) January 2, 2015
Trotter: My money is on William Crest. Skyler Howard had some good moments filling in for Clint Trickett, but he really struggled with his accuracy in the bowl game. Though Howard can make things happen with his feet, passing accuracy is paramount in a Dana Holgorsen offense. Before the shoulder injury forced him to redshirt, Crest emerged out of preseason drills as the No. 2 QB ahead of Howard for a reason. From what I've been told, Crest has all the tools to be the next big-time QB at West Virginia.
@Jake_Trotter who do you think will be wvu starting QB next year— Jackson Byrd (@Byrdman301) January 2, 2015
Trotter: Brisket, but chopped, not sliced. Unless of course I'm in the Carolinas, in which case the correct answer changes to pulled pork.
@Jake_Trotter Pulled pork or brisket?— Ken Short (@kennethshort) January 2, 2015
Trotter: I like his speed. Not sure yet about his hands.
@Jake_Trotter Will LaQuan McGowan the next great wide receiver to come out of Baylor?— Justin Baer (@justin_baer) January 2, 2015
Trotter: I would still peg Seth Russell as the favorite, but I don't think it's a lock he wins the job, either. Russell was a little shaky replacing Bryce Petty in that Texas Tech game, which is one reason why the Red Raiders almost came back and won. Russell will still have the edge because of his experience in the system but watch out for incoming freshman Jarrett Stidham, who will be joining the Bears at mid-semester. Stidham is one of the most talented QB prospects in the country.
@Jake_Trotter do you think Seth Russell is the man for BU moving forward? Does he get seriously challenged in Spring?— Bobby Goodrich (@BobbyGoodrich) January 2, 2015
Trotter: Watching Gray, he wasn't the same running back he was last year before the Achilles injury. He wasn't a bad player this year. But he wasn't the overpowering, explosive force he was in 2013. With Malcolm Brown graduating, Gray could get more work next season. But at this point I would be surprised if he ever got all the way back to the level he was at before the injury.
@Jake_Trotter can Johnathan Gray fulfill his potential at UT?— Allen Wahlstrom (@AllenWahlstrom) January 2, 2015
Trotter: It would have been four years ago. But the Big 12 sat on its hands, and Pittsburgh wound up in the ACC. That ship sailed a long time ago.
@Jake_Trotter Should Big 12 go after Pitt? Renew the rivalry for WVU. Is this doable?— kevin hawk (@khawk_9) January 2, 2015
What is the biggest key for West Virginia?
Chatmon: Kevin White ’s return to the dominating force that caused all sorts of problems for West Virginia’s early season opponents would help, particularly if he can do it against double teams. But it will be the Mountaineers’ pass defense, led by cornerback Daryl Worley, that could decide the game. Facing the SEC’s top passing offense, WVU’s secondary has talent but faces a tall task against a Texas A&M offense that featured five different receivers that passed 400 receiving yards in the regular season. Thus, it will take a solid pass rush and strong performances from the WVU secondary to slow down the Aggies.
Olson: Don't overlook the reason why Texas A&M is searching for a new defensive coordinator. The Aggies allowed 298, 363, 335 and 384 rushing yards in their final four SEC games. The formula for beating them up late in the season was pretty obvious. With West Virginia's line healthy again, the Mountaineers should ride Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith and take advantage of the passing looks the run game sets up.
Trotter: Get Kevin White going early and often. The Aggies had one of the worst pass defenses in the SEC this year, and they have no one (who does?) who can physically match up with White. If the Mountaineers can devise ways to get White -- and wingman Mario Alford -- opportunities for big plays early, they can put A&M on its heels for the rest of the game.
What is the biggest key for Oklahoma?
Chatmon: Quite simply the Sooners' offensive line must win in the trenches. OU’s offensive front is among the nation’s top units but will face a fast, physical and athletic Clemson defense with all the traits to slow down OU’s offense. Offensive balance will be key, as well as winning on first down. The Sooners averaged 7.94 yards per first-down play in their eight wins. That number dropped to 6.13 yards per first-down play in their four losses. If OU faces a game full of third down-and-long plays, it could be a long 60 minutes.
Olson: It's not just about winning the trenches for Oklahoma. The protection of Trevor Knight is of the upmost importance against Clemson. I'm no expert on transient quadriplegia -- nor had I ever heard of it prior to Knight's injury against Baylor -- and I trust that OU was extremely careful with its testing to deem Knight cleared to play. But you know he will take tough hits in his first game back, and after such a jarring injury, you'd hope his line can keep him clean and playing without fear of getting hurt again.
Trotter: Clemson owns one of the best statistical defense in the country, which could put points at a premium for the Oklahoma offense. That's why it's imperative that the Sooners' defense shows up in this game. The Tigers aren't great offensively, so the Sooners ought to be able to impose their will. Then again, this is an Oklahoma defense that massively underachieved during the last two months of the season.
What is the biggest key for Texas?
Chatmon: The formula has been pretty simple for the Longhorns. When Charlie Strong’s team wins the turnover battle, it wins the game. When it loses the turnover battle it heads into the locker room full of disappointment. Arkansas did a decent job protecting the ball, with 17 turnovers in 12 games, but the Razorbacks' 11 fumbles provides some hope for the Longhorns to get one or two turnovers. More importantly, UT and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes must protect the ball much better than they did against TCU and give themselves a chance.
Olson: This might sound like a strange request, but I want to see Texas finally show up in the third quarter and score some points. The Horns put up a total of nine points in the third period in Big 12 play. Nine. After nine games that's not some anomaly; it's a weakness and a strange one. Arkansas is going to play UT close and has had real trouble scoring in the second half (7.5 ppg in SEC play). Any points Texas can muster after halftime could make all the difference.
Trotter: Whoever wins the battle in the trenches between the Arkansas offensive line and the Texas defensive front probably is going to win this game. When the Hogs struggled to run the ball this year they struggled to score. But when they got the run game going they were difficult to beat. Texas has the horses with Malcom Brown and Co. to win the battle with the Razorbacks up front. If the Longhorns do, odds are they'll also end their season with a win.