Power rankings: Why Big 12 football will be much improved in 2017

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tier 1

Oklahoma

Expectations remain as high as ever with Lincoln Riley in charge.

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The Big 12 was the worst power conference in the country in 2016. A few months after the season ended, the Big 12 also produced the fewest draft picks of any power conference. It’s funny how those two data points work in concert, isn’t it? We treat them like separate things, and we reacted to the Big 12’s draft problems like it was a sign of future doom instead of a reinforcement of what we already knew.

Make no mistake, though: This was not a good conference. And you can break the causes of this struggle into two categories: Texas and non-Texas.

  • This is Texas’ fault. Just as the SEC will struggle to reach its ceiling when Alabama is struggling, or the Big Ten with Ohio State, or the Pac-12 with USC, the Big 12 is not going to be at its full potential when one of its two blue-bloods isn’t acting like a blue-blood. Since losing in 2009’s BCS title game against Alabama, Texas has only once ranked in the S&P+ top 20 and has not won double-digit games in a season. Over the last four years — Mack Brown’s last season, plus the Charlie Strong era — the Horns had an average S&P+ ranking of 44.8 and an average win total of six. When Texas is playing like Georgia Tech (S&P+ No. 45 in 2016) or Memphis (No. 44 in 2015) instead of Texas, the Big 12 is not going to be its best self.
  • This is everyone else’s fault, too. Texas returning to a top-10 level would liven up the conference. But everybody was a problem in 2016. Oklahoma fell from third to 10th in S&P+ but ran away with the conference anyway, and the best non-OU and non-UT teams failed to do much of anything. Between 2007 and 2015, the top three Big 12 teams not named OU or Texas had an average S&P+ ranking between 11.7 and 18. In 2016, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Kansas State combined for an average ranking of 27.3.

The good news: almost everybody is projected to improve. This was a young conference — another reason for the draft issues — and S&P+ expects seven of 10 teams to perform better this fall. Two others (WVU and Kansas) have enough transfers to lead you to believe they might avoid regression as well.

Texas was one of the youngest teams in the country, and TCU wasn’t far behind. They’re both projected to surge. Oklahoma State might have the best passing game in the country. Kansas State could have one of the nation’s best running games.

Texas is projected 16th in S&P+, and the top three non-OU/UT teams are projected to improve their average to 23.7. Things aren’t A-OK all of a sudden, but there should be a bounce back.

Great. Now who challenges OU? There still isn’t a clear equal in my eyes. But there are a few candidates.

Tier 2

Oklahoma State

The Pokes might be the most fun football team on the planet. That’s good and bad.

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Texas

The Horns have been a totally average Big 12 team for years. That’s ending under Tom Herman.

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Kansas State

Is this Bill Snyder's final year? He's nearing a *second* Hall of Fame-worthy career.

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TCU

The Frogs have experience and upside, but far less benefit of the doubt at this point.

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I’m not going to lie: it’s easy to talk yourself into Texas. The Longhorns have major defensive questions like virtually everybody in the conference. But their level of returning production all but guarantees stark improvement, and, well, there might not be a better underdog coach in the country than Tom Herman.

In 2015, Herman’s Houston was a 3-point underdog against Louisville and won by three. The Cougars were 2-point underdogs to Navy and won by 21. They were 7.5-point underdogs in the Peach Bowl and won by 14. And in 2016, they did the deed twice in dramatic fashion, beating Oklahoma by 10 as 13-point underdogs and Louisville by 26 as 17-point dogs.

This is Herman’s one chance to be an underdog coach at Texas. We don’t know what he’s like as a program builder because we haven’t seen him build a program, but the lightning-in-a-bottle potential is high.

Tier 3

Baylor

Matt Rhule gets a mulligan year, but he might not need it.

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West Virginia

It's a rebuilding year in Morgantown. Top-25 hype isn't fair.

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Iowa State

The Cyclones haven’t had this much upside since Seneca Wallace was in town.

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Baylor could have the best defense in the conference but has major offensive questions. WVU is coming off a solid season and inked a lot of interesting transfers but has to replace more of last year’s production than any other power conference team. Iowa State is looking to move from being a three-quarter team to being a four-quarter team.

I can talk myself into any of the three — seriously, don’t be surprised if ISU turns out to be pretty damn good — but I feel they have bigger question marks than the four in Tier 2.

Tier 4

Texas Tech

As usual, the offense will be great, but the defense will probably waste it.

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Kansas

The Jayhawks might not be terrible!

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Texas Tech is still going to have one of the more dangerous offenses in the country, but has by far the most to prove defensively. Kansas could have one of the best defenses in the conference, but is playing catch-up after years of regression.

I like this conference’s bottom two more than I have in recent years, but they’re still the bottom two in my eyes.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the Big 12 laid out for 2017, with 0 equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2017 S&P+ projections here.)

Massive returning production and top-30 recruiting are enough to push Texas and TCU to the top of the "not OU" list, but OSU isn’t far behind. They’re all looking up at faraway OU, though.

2017 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

  • Oklahoma 7.3 (9.7)
  • Texas 5.9 (8)
  • Oklahoma State 5.6 (7.9)
  • TCU 5.5 (7.9)
  • Baylor 4.9 (7.3)
  • Kansas State 4.5 (7)
  • Iowa State 3.6 (5.8)
  • Texas Tech 3.4 (5.2)
  • West Virginia 3.1 (5.1)
  • Kansas 1.3 (3.1)

How these teams looked in 2016


Big 12 offenses heading into 2017

Eight of 10 teams were packed together from an efficiency standpoint in 2016, but big-play potential varied wildly. OU should fall back to the pack, but as long as coordinator Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield are in Norman, the ceiling’s really high.

Best 2017 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

There’s quite a bit of turnover at the skill positions, but eight teams return at least a part-time starting quarterback, and there are a lot of good linemen. And the best line in the conference will be protecting the best player in the conference.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Big 12 defenses

This conference does not have many slam-dunk stars at tackle or cornerback, but appears well set at end, linebacker, and safety.

Best 2017 defensive players by team (best overall in bold):

That’s right, Kansas might have the best defensive player in the league. Hell, the Jayhawks might have the best defense in the league.

OK, probably not, but top three at least.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images