Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

The Big 12’s only year as a 14-team conference is the last year with Texas and Oklahoma.

The two conference favorites are heading to the SEC in 2024 before Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah join to put the Big 12 at 16 teams for the foreseeable future.

Texas is an even-money favorite to win the league and a clear contender to be one of the two representatives in the conference title game. Defending champion Kansas State is the No. 3 favorite while TCU is the No. 5 favorite after losing a lot of key players from its undefeated regular season and run to the national championship game.

Here’s what you need to know about the Big 12.

Texas (+100 to win Big 12)

Unless the Longhorns win the Big 12 in 2023, they will head to the SEC without a conference title over the last 14 seasons. And if Texas can’t win the Big 12 this season, it’s fair to wonder if and when it can win a title in the SEC.

Outside of running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, every key contributor is back from Texas’ offense. QB Quinn Ewers can be a Heisman contender while Xavier Worthy and Georgia transfer AD Mitchell — if healthy — form the best receiving duo in the conference. All five starters are back on the offensive line, too. It should be a strength.

Linebacker Jaylan Ford returns to lead the defense and its success may hinge on the performance of the secondary. Texas added ex-Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon and former Wake Forest transfer Gavin Holmes. The Week 2 game against Alabama could give us an idea of just how good Texas can be — especially if Ewers is able to play the whole game.

Quarterback Quinn Ewers leads a Texas team that enters the season as the favorite to win the Big 12. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Quarterback Quinn Ewers leads a Texas that’s favored to win the Big 12. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Oklahoma (+325)

Brent Venables’ first season in charge was undone by a defense that somehow was worse in 2022 than it was in 2021. Let that sink in for a second. The Oklahoma defense allowed 30 points per game and 5.7 yards per play as seven opponents were able to score at least 35 points.

Oklahoma scoured the transfer portal for players who can step in right away on that side of the ball and added former Indiana linebacker Dasan McCullough and defensive linemen Trace Ford (Oklahoma State), Davon Sears (Texas State), and Rondell Bothroyd (Wake Forest). The focus on the front seven makes a lot of sense; opponents rushed for 4.5 yards a carry against the Sooners.

The offense should be very good again with the return of QB Dillon Gabriel. Oklahoma needs to replace the production from RB Eric Gray (1,595 total yards) and Marvin Mims (1,083 receiving yards) but the success of 2023 hinges largely on the defense’s improvement. If it doesn’t get a lot better, Oklahoma won’t be contending for the conference title.

Kansas State (+500)

The defending Big 12 champions should be firmly in the mix for the conference title once again. Will Howard was a revelation at quarterback down the stretch for the Wildcats in 2022 after he completed 60% of his passes for 15 TDs and four interceptions. Two of those four picks came in the bowl game loss to Alabama.

The offense loses RB Deuce Vaughn but DJ Giddens ran for 518 yards and six TDs on just 89 carries a season ago and former Florida State running back Treshaun Ward arrives as a transfer. The entire starting offensive line is back; the run game will not be a problem for the Wildcats. It should be exceptional.

The defense must replace a lot with the departures of DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah and nearly the entire secondary. Kobe Savage is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield and former NDSU DB Marques Sigle is a key transfer arrival. If K-State’s depth back there is as good as it hopes, then the defense shouldn’t regress much.

Kansas State QB Will Howard came in as an injury replacement midway through last season, and he performance admirably to help lead the Wildcats to a Big 12 title. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Kansas State QB Will Howard came in as an injury replacement midway through last season, and he performance admirably to help lead the Wildcats to a Big 12 title. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Texas Tech isn’t sneaking up on anyone in 2023. The Red Raiders won their final four games of 2022 after a loss to TCU dropped them to 4-5 on the season. QB Tyler Shough is back for another season in Lubbock but he must stay healthy if Texas Tech is going to be even better in 2023. Shough has played in just 11 games over two seasons at TTU since transferring from Oregon and backup QB Donovan Smith is now at Houston.

Wide receivers Jerand Bradley and Myles Price combined for 102 catches a season ago and should be even better in 2023. RB Tahj Brooks is back after tallying 855 yards on 173 touches, but the offensive line play needs to be better, especially at tackle.

The defense doesn’t appear to have a star like top-10 pick Tyree Wilson but it returns a ton of players who got significant playing time in 2022. Tech hopes that means improvement. The defense allowed 5.9 yards per play last season and gets a tough test in Week 2 against Oregon.

TCU (+2000)

TCU has a lot of replenishing to do to get back to the national title game. Gone are QB Max Duggan, RBs Kendre Miller and Emari Demercado, and WRs Quentin Johnston, Derius Davis and Taye Barber. Offensive coordinator Garrett Riley is also now at Clemson.

Chandler Morris takes over for Duggan. He’s appeared in eight games over two seasons with the Horned Frogs and has completed two-thirds of his 101 attempts. WRs J.P. Richardson (Oklahoma State) and JoJo Earle (Alabama) arrive via the transfer portal and Emani Bailey is set to be the top running back after tallying 250 yards on just 31 carries.

The defense loses players like Dee Winters and Dylan Horton (18 sacks combined) but brings back LB Johnny Hodges and Jamoi Hodge along with four starters in the secondary. The Big 12 schedule is tough too; TCU draws all four of the teams listed ahead of them in this preview and plays only one (Texas) at home.

Baylor (+2000)

While Texas Tech ended the season on a high note, Baylor ended it on a slide. Baylor was 6-3 after wins over the Red Raiders and Sooners and lost its last four games of the season. That stretch included a one-point loss to TCU on a last-second field goal.

QB Blake Shapen returns after he threw for nearly 2,800 yards and 18 TDs and 10 interceptions. He held onto the starting job during spring practice after the addition of Mississippi State transfer Sawyer Robertson. If Shapen improves dramatically in 2023, Baylor’s offense should be much better. RB Richard Reese is also back after rushing for over 900 yards as a freshman, but the offensive line has to replace four starters.

The defense returns five starters and just one in the secondary. That may not be as bad as it sounds. Baylor allowed at least 35 points four times in 2022 and opponents scored at least 29 in each of the last five games of the season.

UCF (+2500)

The Knights appear to be the conference newcomers best-positioned to make a splash in 2023. QB John Rhys Plumlee rushed for almost 900 yards a season ago and if he takes another step as a passer he could be the best dual-threat QB in the Big 12. RB RJ Harvey rushed for 796 yards in 2022 and averaged 6.7 yards a carry.

WRs Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson can be big-play threats as they combined for over 1,400 receiving yards on 95 catches in 2022.

The defense returns four starters among the front six and added CB Decorian Patterson (Middle Tennessee) and Rian Davis (Georgia) and the early part of the schedule is tough. UCF travels to Boise State and Kansas State in September.

Oklahoma State (+4000)

The Cowboys enter the 2023 season needing to replace nine starters on a defense that allowed 29 points and 5.7 yards per play. That defense is also switching to a 3-3-5 after former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason stepped down after a season in Stillwater. New defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo arrived from Division II Gannon University.

Former Texas Tech and Michigan QB Alan Bowman is in line to be the starter. He hasn’t seen significant playing time since he was in Lubbock. WR Brennan Presley returns and the team added De’Zhaun Stribling from Washington State in the transfer portal. OSU doesn’t have to play either TCU, Texas or Texas Tech in 2023.

Kansas (+4000)

The Jayhawks went to a bowl game for the first time since 2008 and bring back a ton on an offense that averaged seven yards a play and was one of the most fun in college football. Jalon Daniels should be fully healthy after injuries limited him to nine games in 2022. He had 25 total touchdowns and completed two-thirds of his passes. RB Devin Neal is back (6.1 yards a carry) and receivers Luke Grimm and Lawrence Arnold return too.

If Kansas is going to post a winning record in 2023, the defense needs to get better. KU gave up 35.5 points per game and needs new starters at all four defensive line positions. KU went into the transfer portal for defensive help and signed LB JB Brown (Bowling Green), edge rusher Austin Booker (Minnesota) and CB Damarius McGhee (LSU) among others.

Iowa State (+5000)

It’s a murky outlook for the Cyclones in the wake of a sports betting investigation that involves multiple players, including QB Hunter Dekkers and RB Jirehl Brock. Their potential absences loom large. Assuming Dekkers isn’t available to play, Rocco Becht is the favorite to start ahead of JJ Kohl and transfer Tanner Hughes.

The defense brings back multiple starters, though DT Isaiah Lee is no longer with the team because of that same investigation. LB Gerry Vaughn led the team in tackles in 2021 and safety Beau Freyler had 68 stops. Freyler is one of four starters back in the secondary.

BYU (+8000)

Former USC and Pitt QB Kedon Slovis transferred to BYU in the offseason and the Cougars also added former Louisville and UNLV RB Aidan Robbins. Slovis has shown flashes over the past three seasons, but his best year was still his freshman campaign with the Trojans. Robbins rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 total TDs in 2022. WRs Kody Epps and Keanu Hill also return.

The defense brings back leading tackler Ben Bywater and defensive back Micah Harper. How BYU replenishes the talent lost on both the offensive and defensive lines may determine the course of its first season in the Big 12. Games against Arkansas and Kansas in back-to-back weeks in September could be revealing.

Cincinnati (+10000)

Former Louisville coach Scott Satterfield takes over after Luke Fickell’s departure to Wisconsin. The offense looks significantly different from the one that got to the College Football Playoff two seasons ago and will be likely led by former Florida and Arizona State QB Emory Jones after Ben Bryant transferred to Northwestern and Evan Prater switched to wide receiver.

The defense has many more returning contributors than the offense and could keep Cincinnati competitive in its first Big 12 season. Deshawn Pace and Bryon Threats anchor a solid secondary. The defensive line looks pretty good, too. The Bearcats do avoid Texas, Texas Tech and TCU, so there’s a chance to sneak into a bowl game.

West Virginia (+20000)

Is this Neal Brown’s final season at West Virginia? The Mountaineers haven’t won more than six games in any of his four seasons with the team and it’s hard to see Brown returning for a sixth season without a big improvement in 2023. Longtime backup Garrett Greene is competing with Nicco Marchiol to be the team’s starting quarterback.

The offensive line is back in its entirety and that should be a good thing for RB C.J. Donaldson. He had 526 yards and eight TDs in seven games a season ago.

Improvement is needed across the board on defense after opponents scored 33 points per game and averaged six yards a play. LB Lee Kpogba (92 tackles) is back along with DL Sean Martin (4 sacks) and DB Aubrey Burks (66 tackles).

Houston (+20000)

It appears to be a season of transition for Houston after the departures of QB Clayton Tune and WR Tank Dell. Ex-Texas Tech QB Donovan Smith will start in Week 1 against UTSA. He completed 66% of his passes for 1,505 yards and 12 TDs to eight interceptions in appearances across 12 games in 2022.

RB Stacy Sneed is the team’s leading returning rusher and the left side of the offensive line returns intact.

The defense added a host of transfers including LB Ish Harris (Texas A&M), CB Malik Fleming (East Carolina), S Adari Haulcy (New Mexico) and LB David Ugwoegbu (Oklahoma). Houston allowed at least 27 points in 10 of its 13 games in 2022. That won’t cut it in the Big 12.

Overrated team

Nick: Baylor.

Sam: Texas Tech.

Sleeper team

Nick: UCF.

Sam: Oklahoma State.

Title pick

Nick: Texas. I’m going to regret this pick, but I do think the Longhorns are the most talented team in the conference and will beat Kansas State in the Big 12 title game.

Sam: Texas. Championships aren’t won on paper, but this roster is just superior in talent compared to the rest of the Big 12. I don’t see the Longhorns getting to the playoff, but I think they finally win the Big 12 before the move to the SEC.

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