NCF Nation: Kansas State Wildcats
Still, that doesn't mean every Big 12 nonconference game will be a bore. Texas goes to Notre Dame. Oklahoma travels to Tennessee. Texas Tech returns a trip to Arkansas.
But which team has the toughest nonconference slate? And which has the softest? The rankings are below, going from most difficult to least (*denotes FCS opponents):
1. TEXAS: at Notre Dame (8-5), Rice (8-5), Cal (5-7)
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .552
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: Rice
- 2014 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Longhorns continue their recent trend of challenging nonconference schedules, opening with a trip to South Bend. The Fighting Irish were up-and-down last year, but they finished with a victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl. Even though it didn't make a bowl, Cal was one of the most improved teams in college football last season, going from 1-11 to 5-7 in Sonny Dykes' second year. Rice is a solid non-Power 5 opponent. It won't take long to find out what Charlie Strong has in Year 2 in Austin.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .675
- Toughest opponent: Memphis
- Weakest opponent: South Dakota State
- 2014 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: David Beaty will be baptized by fire. The Jayhawks have a tough nonconference slate, including South Dakota State, which made the second round of the FCS playoffs last year and defeated Kansas the last time the two met in 2012. Memphis is coming off a 10-win season; Rutgers on the road will be a big challenge, as well. This is a brutal early series of games for a program transitioning to a new coaching staff which will have the fewest returning starters in the Big 12.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .378
- Toughest opponent: Tennessee
- Weakest opponent: Tulsa
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: The Sooners face potentially the toughest nonconference game of any Big 12 team with a road trip to Tennessee. The Vols have struggled in recent years, but could be on the verge of turning the corner after a series of elite recruiting classes. The Vols also return an SEC-high 18 starters, including Joshua Dobbs, who is one of the up-and-coming quarterbacks in college football. The Sooners will have to play well -- and much better than they did toward the end of last season -- to prevail in Knoxville.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .595
- Toughest opponent: Arkansas
- Weakest opponent: Sam Houston State
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: The Razorbacks smacked the Red Raiders around in Lubbock last year. The return trip to Arkansas is a game the Red Raiders can win. But they have to hold up way better in the trenches. Tech struggled with UTEP last year, too, foreshadowing struggles the rest of the season. The early tilts against Sam Houston State -- a quality FCS program -- and UTEP figure to serve as a harbinger again.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .641
- Toughest opponent: Maryland
- Weakest opponent: Liberty
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: After playing the toughest nonconference schedule in the Big 12 last year, the Mountaineers have a more manageable slate this time around. Still, it's not a cupcake one. Georgia Southern won the Sun Belt last year. Maryland, once again, will be one of the pivotal games on West Virginia's schedule. If the Mountaineers can beat their Atlantic rivals, they should head into Big 12 play with a boost of momentum.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .625
- Toughest opponent: Iowa
- Weakest opponent: Northern Iowa
- 2014 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Cyclones are actually capable of winning all three of these games -- and losing all three, as well. Iowa State has dropped its last two openers to FCS opponents, including two years ago to Northern Iowa. QB Logan Woodside is back to lead a Toledo offense that ranked 15th nationally last year. The Cyclones have had success against Iowa under Paul Rhoads, but the Hawkeyes will be out for revenge after losing on a last-second field goal. This stretch will determine whether the Cyclones will have a shot at getting back to bowl eligibility.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .447
- Toughest opponent: Minnesota
- Weakest opponent: Stephen F. Austin
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: Minnesota surprisingly became a quality nonconference victory for TCU last year. A win at Minnesota, which has 13 returning starters, could be an even better win in 2015. At least the Horned Frogs better hope so. The rest of the nonconference schedule will do little to help TCU's strength of schedule résumé.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .459
- Toughest opponent: Central Michigan
- Weakest opponent: Central Arkansas
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: After opening with defending champion Florida State last year, the Cowboys have dialed down their nonconference slate in 2015. The opener at Central Michigan could be a little tricky; the Chippewas qualified for the Popeye's Bahamas Bowl, and almost rallied to stun Western Michigan with a 34-point fourth quarter. But the rest of the schedule should be a mere warm-up for the Cowboys for Big 12 play.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .395
- Toughest opponent: Louisiana Tech
- Weakest opponent: South Dakota
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: After facing Miami and Auburn in recent years, this schedule is more reminiscent of the early Bill Snyder nonconference slates. Louisiana Tech is decent. But this schedule should give the Wildcats time to adjust after losing so many key starters from last season's team.
- Opponents’ 2014 combined winning percentage: .405
- Toughest opponent: Rice
- Weakest opponent: Lamar
- 2014 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: Once again, Baylor's nonconference schedule is miserable. Then again, Rice would've destroyed anyone Baylor faced last year, so at least it's an upgrade. If the Bears get into the playoff mix again, their nonconference schedule could come back to haunt them. Again.
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.
Here's a brief selection of our favorite moments from throughout the season.
1. Spurrier and Saban talk golf
Outside of their success and longevity, Steve Spurrier and Bill Snyder wouldn't appear to have that much in common, but both coaches keep a golf bag just to the left of their desk. The difference is Snyder hasn't had the time to even fill it with his clubs while Spurrier always seems to find time.
Later in the season, Saban got a chance to respond.
"I don't play any golf during the season, man," Saban said. "When does [Spurrier] find time to play golf? I don't even have time to do this interview."
2. Chris Petersen's shower interview
Washington's head coach has an office equipped with a shower. We're pretty sure this was the first time he used it.
3. Ohio State's Nike mockup
Sharp viewers of the feature on Urban Meyer noticed what appeared to be a mockup from Nike of a potential black uniform variant for Ohio State. A write-up by the Buckeyes blog Eleven Warriors drew enough attention to the mockup to warrant a comment from the university saying it was not considering using the jerseys.
4. Stoops' boxing buddy
A look into the office of the Oklahoma head coach revealed Stoops' friendship with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, who grew up in the same neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, as Stoops. The coach tells it best:
5. Bill Snyder's trophies
What do you get for the coach who has everything? Many coaches in this feature have fully stocked trophy cases, and nearly half have won a coach of the year award at some point. So what makes Kansas State's coach different?
For starters, he doesn't keep them in a polished display fit for a museum. He leaves them on the floor. Next to a bookcase full of career mementos lies a plaque commemorating him as a member of the Big 12 Legends' inaugural class. It's still wrapped in cellophane.
Just behind it rests a clock he received for winning the 1993 Copper Bowl. Compared to today's ostentatious bowl trophies, it looks like a C-minus wood shop project. But it means a lot to Snyder.
"It was the first bowl victory for us at Kansas State," Snyder said. "I was so proud of our fan base. We had more than 22,000 there, and at that time, that was an awful lot. We had a pep rally at the hotel, and we had somewhere around 5,000 people. We had no way to get them all in. That meant a lot to our players, team and coaches. Our kids prepared well and played well, and obviously we won the ballgame. It was our first bowl win, so it was significant and something I'll never forget."
For a look at all 15 offices, click here.
TCU took a giant step toward playoff inclusion Tuesday night as the College Football Playoff committee bumped the Horned Frogs all the way up to No. 3 in the fifth update to the rankings.
Committee chairman Jeff Long has said that Baylor's head-to-head edge over TCU would only come into effect as a tiebreaker if the teams were close in the rankings. With Baylor being three spots behind TCU at No. 6, the Bears would seemingly have a long way to go before pushing that tiebreaker into effect. The good news for Baylor is that its next opponent, Kansas State, moved up three spots to No. 9. That gives the Bears at least a shot at a statement, top-10 victory to give the committee.
Either way, it should be a fun weekend in Fort Worth and Waco.
K-State remains in line for the Valero Alamo Bowl, though the Wildcats could play their way into one of the New Year's Six bowls with a win over Baylor. There's even a scenario in which K-State could emerge onto the precipice of the playoff with a series of upsets. On the other hand, if the Wildcats get blown out in Waco, Oklahoma could still get scooped up by the Alamo Bowl, where the Sooners have never played before.
Oklahoma State remains the only non-bowl team in the Big 12 at the moment that can still play its way to bowl eligibility. But the Cowboys are almost three-touchdown underdogs at Oklahoma this weekend.
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual): TCU
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Baylor
Valero Alamo Bowl: Kansas State
Russell Athletic Bowl: Oklahoma
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Texas
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: West Virginia
Cactus Bowl: None eligible