Early 2014 Big 12 power rankings: Oklahoma and Baylor on top

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 looks likely to have two favorites heading into 2014. While it's too early to nail down standings predictions, Patrick Vint eyeballs how things could line up.

1. Oklahoma Sooners

2013 finish: 11-2 (7-2), second in Big 12, Sugar Bowl winner, No. 6 in AP and Coaches
Returning starters: 14 [Always a fuzzy estimate, since returning starter data is never official.]

For Oklahoma, 2014 is fairly simple: If the Sooners get the Trevor Knight who lit up Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for 348 yards and four touchdowns, they immediately become a national championship contender.  If they get the Trevor Knight who went 10/20 for 119 and two interceptions against West Virginia and yet again look at Blake Bell (who'll likely play tight end otherwise), it could be another long, strange season in Norman.

Despite waving goodbye to 25 seniors, the Sooners return more starters than any serious Big 12 contender.  Those include three offensive linemen and nearly all of a young, talented defense that was only finding its footing in late November. Senior-to-be Dionte Savage, who made his first start in the Sugar Bowl, is ready to step in at guard, and center Ty Darlington is also not lacking in experience.

Oklahoma could be starting a pair of true sophomores in the defensive secondary, but are otherwise loaded on defense. The entire defensive front seven is set to return, including all-conference linebacker Eric Striker, all-conference defensive end Charles Tapper, Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Dominique Alexander and Sugar Bowl star Geneo Grissom.

The biggest hole is at running back, where there aren't any established options. Oklahoma's top rusher, Brennan Clay, is out of eligibility, while second-leading rusher Damien Williams was dismissed from the team in November. The third back, Roy Finch, is also graduating. As a result, Oklahoma's top two returning rushers are both quarterbacks. Keith Ford and Alex Ross, who combined for 26 carries and 153 yards last season, will likely compete for the spot. Incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine could also be in contention for the starting position. Mixon is a five-star halfback prospect, while Perine has the size (5'11, 238 lbs.) to play immediately.

Looking for an inside runner? This kid continues to be remarkably effective when running between the tackles. It is this characteristic that makes him a compliment and change of pace to nearly anyone in the country. Combine his running ability with a talent for blocking and it becomes clear as to why Perine is a real competitor for early and consistent playing time.

The Sooners also have to replace top receiver Jalen Saunders, but have a greater abundance of options for that spot. Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal should emerge as Knight's top targets.

Oklahoma has enough on defense that it becomes the favorite to win the conference if it gets some help from the offense. It's Oklahoma. They'll have an offense.

2. Baylor Bears

2013 finish: 11-2 (8-1), Big 12 champions, Fiesta Bowl loss, No. 13 in AP and Coaches
Returning starters: 9

Baylor has to feel like it looked into the abyss this January. First, the Bears lost as massive favorites against UCF in their first BCS bowl game appearance. And the vacancy at Texas lingered around Art Briles.

Then the Texas job proved to be a premature concern, if not completely unfounded. Then quarterback Bryce Petty, who put up 4,200 yards passing, opted to return for his senior season. Then the Bears signed one of their best recruiting classes ever.

Briles' offense needs solid protection to work properly, and the Bears will have some holes to fill on the offensive line. Just two starting offensive linemen are returning, left tackle Spencer Drango and right guard Desmine Hilliard. Troy Baker, who started at right tackle for the Bears in 2012 before missing much of 2013 with a knee injury, returned late in the season and should return to bookending the line.

While preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Lache Seastrunk wasted little time in declaring for the draft, freshman Shock Linwood was more than a capable replacement last year when Seastrunk missed time due to injury.

And while the Bears' offense got the headlines and accolades, the secret to Baylor's success in 2013 was a senior-laden defense. Baylor loses both starting defensive ends, both starting linebackers -- the Bears run a 4-2-5 base alignment -- and six players out of the defensive secondary two-deep. In their place: Youth. Baylor did not have a junior listed on the defensive depth chart before the Fiesta Bowl, and just 13 on the entire roster.

If the line holds up and the defense doesn't allow opponents 30 points per game, Briles has the horses to make another title run. Those are two big "if"s, though.

3. Oklahoma State Cowboys

2013 finish: 10-3 (7-2), third in Big 12, Cotton Bowl loss, No. 17 in AP and Coaches
Returning starters: 9

After destroying Baylor on November 23, all Oklahoma State needed was a home win over Oklahoma to take the Big 12 crown. The Cowboys imploded late, then lost a Cotton Bowl matchup with former Big 12 member Missouri, and now it feels like the window is again closing on Mike Gundy's program.

Gone are 13 starters from last year's squad, including quarterback Clint Chelf, top receiver Tracy Moore, fellow wideout Charlie Moore, both offensive guards, and seven defensive starters.

The offense should be in good shape. J.W. Walsh, who started five games in 2013 before being replaced by Chelf, will take over at quarterback. Even with the Moores' departure, he has plenty of weapons on the outside, led by Josh Stewart, who caught 60 passes for 703 yards and 3 scores last season. Desmond Roland, the Cowboys' top rusher, also returns. While the interior line could be young, they will be surrounded by experience: Tackles Daniel Koenig and Chris Grisbhy have a combined three years of starting experience. If do-everything lineman Travis Cross finds a home somwhere, the line -- and the offense -- could be good.

The defense, on the other hand, could be a complete rebuild. The Cowboys had 13 seniors in their final depth chart. The carnage is spread across the unit: The Cowboys lose two starting defensive linemen, two starting linebackers, and three starting defensive backs. Cornerback Kevin Peterson, in his third season as a starter, is going to have to be the anchor for a secondary that is especially decimated, while junior defensive end Jimmy Bean is the team's top returning pass rusher.

Much like Baylor, Oklahoma State's defense was the key to its attempted title run, and that defense is going to struggle to maintain its effectiveness during a rebuild in 2014.

4. Texas Longhorns

2013 finish: 8-5 (7-2), fourth in Big 12, Alamo Bowl loss, unranked
Returning starters: 13

Texas enters 2014 with a new coach, a giant question mark at quarterback, and holes on the offensive and defensive lines. For as good as Charlie Strong has been in recent years at Louisville, a coaching change after 16 seasons of Mack Brown is bound to make the gears grind. With new coordinator Joe Wickline now in the fold, there will be yet another new offense for the quarterback, ideally David Ash, to learn.

Ash, of course, presents another set of questions. The senior signalcaller missed nearly all of the 2013 season due to the aftereffects of a concussion. He has been cleared to return to workouts, but every hit he takes is going to make Texas fans hold their collective breath. And with the entire left side of the line graduating, there could be ample opportunity for breath-holding. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or freshman Jerrod Heard could take over.

Second-team all-conference halfback Malcolm Brown returns, as do top backups Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron and Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers Jaxon Shipley and Kendall Sanders.

Strong inherits a defense that underperformed early in 2013 but rounded into general competence by the end of the season. Six contributors on Texas' defensive front seven return, including linebacker Steve Edmond, who led the Longhorns in tackles until suffering a lacerated liver during the Texas Tech game in late November. The Longhorns lose two key members of the secondary, safety Adrian Phillips and cornerback Carrington Byndom, but Quandre Diggs returns.

Strong has shown the ability to build a defense quickly, and he has plenty of parts. Whether he can do that in Austin -- and whether the Texas offense can stay healthy and score enough to bolster that defense -- is up for debate. The talent is there, but asking a first-year coach to pull it all together might be too much.

5. TCU Horned Frogs

2013 finish: 4-8 (2-7), seventh in Big 12, no bowl, unranked
Returning starters: 15

TCU enters its third season of Big 12 play with more questions than ever. After a first season in the league in which they went a respectable 4-5, the Horned Frogs expected 2013 to be a return to the 10-win form that earned them a Big 12 invite in the first place. Instead of contending for the conference title, TCU fell on its face, finishing with four one-possession losses and condemning the program to its first bowl-less winter since 2004.

The Horned Frogs return seven starters on offense. Quarterback Casey Pachall has graduated, having never matched the promise of his excellent 2011 campaign. The offense now likely falls to junior Trevone Boykin, who was unspectacular in six starts last season (59.7% completion rate, 1,198 yards, 7 TD, 7 INT). Boykin played well in non-conference games against Southeastern Louisiana and SMU, but struggled against Big 12 defenses, throwing seven interceptions and just one touchdown in starts against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Texas.

Halfback B.J. Catalon returns, but the usually stout TCU running attack was largely ineffective last year. Catalon ran for 569 yards on the season, but never ran for 100 yards in a single game and broke 90 yards just twice. Boykin finished second on the team in rushing yards, and could be the team's top rusher in 2014. While the team's top receiver, Josh Boyce, returns, a pass-happy spread attack seem anathema to both Boykin's abilities and coach Gary Patterson's defense-first philosophy. The offensive line loses three starters, but the value of those starters is open to interpretation. Frogs O' War called the 2013 TCU line "a suckhole to Hell." Left tackle Aviante Collins returns, but the remainder of the line is up for grabs.

With all of those returning starters, all of that talent on defense, and all of those close losses to avenge, a rebound looks close at hand.

Patterson's defense, which finished No. 12 in Football Outsiders' F/+ last season, returns eight starters. Among those is defensive end Devonte Fields, who was all-everything as a freshman but played in only three games last season due in part to injuries. Fields has also run into some off-the-field issues. Tackles Davion Pierson and Chucky Hunter should anchor the run defense, and a trio of returning linebackers will likewise help solidify the conference's most consistent defensive unit. The Horned Frogs will have to find a replacement for potential first-round cornerback Jason Verrett, but otherwise return the bulk of the pass defense, as well.

With all of those returning starters, all of that talent on defense, and all of those close losses to avenge, a rebound looks close at hand. And yet, there's a hint of doubt creeping into the picture. If Patterson's troops can't turn it around in 2014, the question will no longer be whether TCU got a pile of bad breaks. It will be whether the Horned Frogs are doomed to mediocrity in the Big 12.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

2013 finish: 8-5 (4-5), sixth in Big 12, Holiday Bowl winner, unranked
Returning starters: 12

Which Texas Tech will we see in 2014? The Texas Tech that won its first seven games and rose as high as No. 10 in the polls? Or the Texas Tech that lost its last five regular season games by an average margin of 21 points?

The Red Raiders' performance in a 37-23 win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl suggests the former. Also indicative of a return to form: Eight returning offensive starters, including quarterback Davis Webb (who threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns against ASU), top rusher Kenny Williams, and receivers Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez.

It's not all great news for the Red Raiders: Tight end Jace Amaro, who caught a staggering 106 passes for 1,352 yards in 2013, has left early for the NFL, and No. 1 wide receiver Eric Ward (83 catches, 947 yards) graduates, but otherwise the offense remains largely intact.

Sure, the Red Raiders have to replace seven starters on defense, but Kliff Kingsbury's never really been about defense anyway. So long as Texas Tech can find serviceable replacements for all-conference defensive lineman Kerry Hyder and rebuild a secondary that's losing three starters, Webb and company can handle the rest.

7. Kansas State Wildcats

2013 finish: 8-5 (5-4), fifth in Big 12, Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl winner, unranked
Returning starters: 10

K-State spent part of the season trying to determine whether Jake Waters could be its most effective quarterback. The JUCO transfer finished with 2,469 passing yards on a 61 percent completion rate and another 312 yards on the ground. Waters earned a second season under center, but sophomore Daniel Sams (38/53 for 452 passing yards and 152 carries for 807 rushing yards) is going to make a push for the job and should still get some snaps at the least.

The quarterback duo's running ability will be needed, as Bill Snyder's usual run-heavy offense loses leading rusher John Hubert and backup Robert Rose. DeMarcus Robinson, the potential starter at tailback, has just 11 carries for 45 yards in three seasons.

It's a distinct possibility that none of that matters, because Tyler Lockett is coming back for one more season. Lockett became arguably the conference's most unstoppable player by season's end, finishing with 81 catches for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lockett always seemed to come through on the biggest stages: He went off for 278 receiving yards and three scores against Oklahoma, 237 receiving yards against Texas, and 116 yards and three touchdowns in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan -- and that's in addition to being the Big 12's Special Teams Player of the Year. As long as Lockett is on campus, Kansas State has a chance.

The Wildcats have three holes to fill on the offensive line, including both tackle positions. On defense, Kansas State loses five starters, including linebacker Tre Walker and free safety Ty Zimmerman. Both have been crucial to KSU's recent success, but both have replacements ready to assume their positions.

Snyder has always thrived with experienced teams, especially when that experience is on offense. The offensive line issues are glaring, but if the Wildcats can find enough to open some holes for their two quarterbacks and protect long enough to let Lockett get open, Kansas State could make some waves in 2014.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

2013 finish: 4-8 (2-7), eighth in Big 12, no bowl, unranked
Returning starters: 14

Nobody needs a rebound season more than the embattled Dana Holgorsen, whose Mountaineers finished well out of bowl contention in 2013 and have won just four of their last 16 Big 12 games. Season-ending defeats against conference doormats Iowa State and Kansas have Holgo staring a long way up entering 2014.

Holgorsen should have some pieces to work with. Quarterback Clint Trickett (123/233, 1,605 yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) returns for his senior season, and awesomely monikered halfback Dreamius Smith looks ready to assume the role vacated by the graduating Charles Sims. The inconsistent play from the West Virginia receiver corps that crippled the offense at times last year should stabilize, as talented-but-inexperienced wideouts Mario Alford, Kevin White, and Daikiel Shorts enter their second seasons as contributors. WVU has some work to do on the offensive line -- both tackles graduate, as does center Pat Eger -- but otherwise should see significant improvement in 2014.

The Mountaineers' defensive front loses a pair of senior starters, but the defense is otherwise largely intact. Longtime starting safety Darwin Cook has graduated after a 74-tackle, four-interception season, but the remainder of the secondary returns and, much like the rest of the Mountaineers, should be better for the experience.

9. Iowa State Cyclones

2013 finish: 3-9 (2-7), ninth in Big 12, no bowl, unranked
Returning starters: 16

The Cyclones entered 2013 expecting a third consecutive bowl trip, but early intrastate losses to FCS Northern Iowa and the rival Hawkeyes sent the season off the rails early. Iowa State dropped its first seven conference games before rebounding with late wins against Kansas and West Virginia, and the late victories and returning starters are signs of hope entering 2014.

The Cyclones return 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Sam Richardson, top rusher Aaron Wimberly, and all five starters on the offensive line. The buzz in Ames is more centered on new additions, however. Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino replaces the much-maligned Courtney Messingham as offensive coordinator, and top wide receiver recruit Allen Lazard joins the program amid much fanfare. Lazard, wideout Quenton Bundrage, and tight end E.J. Bibbs give Richardson plenty of potential targets.

Iowa State loses three starters in the secondary to graduation, and a host of inexperienced underclassmen look set to inherit those roles, but the Cyclones are bringing back most of the defensive front seven. Defensive tackle Rodney Coe should anchor the Cyclones' run defense. Iowa State will be expecting some growth, both physically and tactically, from linebacker Luke Knott, who returns from injury after starting as a freshman.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

2013 finish: 3-9 (1-8), 10th in Big 12, no bowl, unranked
Returning starters: 16

After two seasons of The Charlie Weis Experience, the decided schematic advantage has not yet translated to wins in Lawrence. Unfortunately for Kansas fans, there doesn't appear to be much relief in sight.

Kansas brings back seven starters on offense, including quarterbacks Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart and top receiver Tony Pierson. But Heaps never found his footing in 2013, completing less than half of his passes and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, and Kansas' cadre of receivers did little to help. The one piece of the offense that had a modicum of success, the running game, is in rebuilding mode after the graduation of 1,100-yard halfback James Sims and three starting offensive linemen. Darrian Miller, Brandon Bourbon, and four-star freshman Traevohn Wrench will compete for the starting running back spot. There are no such simple answers on the line.

Defensively, Kansas brings back nine starters, with only defensive ends Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho graduating. But the Jayhawks were 94th nationally in scoring defense and 96th in total defense last season. Experience will help, but at some point the Jayhawks need an influx of talent to improve those figures. A mediocre recruiting class -- Kansas ranked ninth in the conference and 55th overall on Signing Day -- could eventually help, but 2014 might be too soon.

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