Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A big picture perspective on the Big 12

I've not blogged enough about the Big 12 this season given how fascinating the conference has been this year and I wanted to touch, however briefly, on the main programs in the league and where they are right now from a big picture perspective.

If that perspective includes competing for the Big 12 title great, but some of these other teams have a lot else going on as well. Let's start with....

The Texas Longhorns

You can find tons of content on Texas at Inside Texas, either by me or by some truly great and knowledgeable writers like Justin Wells, Scipio Tex, and Eric Nahlin. I recently broke down where Texas is in terms of firming up some major weaknesses after the West Virginia game.

The picture at Texas right now is fairly murky. The best possible outcome for this season (from a wins and losses perspective) is 8-5 with a nice bowl victory (if you care about that kind of thing) while my own money is on a 6-6 outcome that concludes with Gary Patterson thumping Charlie for the third consecutive year.

Scipio Tex recently went on the radio in Austin and provided some great perspective on where Texas is right now and what should come next. Check it out here.

The Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners are still rolling towards a likely 10th Big 12 championship for head coach Robert Anthony Stoops. Big game Bob has that program to a point where they are a full notch below the elite programs that Sooner fans would like to use as a measuring stick but also a full notch above the rest of the Big 12. That's not a terrible place to be, even if it means a frustrating postseason in Norman every year.

Baker Mayfield has done a predictably good job of managing the offense and distributing the ball to the tremendous talent around him. Dede Westbrook at full speed has been terrorizing the league, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are both phenomenal backs, the OL is always good, Mark Andrews is a matchup problem...

It's a great offense and Lincoln Riley has done a good job of balancing all of the threats at his disposal, save for that Ohio State gameplan which I thought was a little stubborn. The defense has struggled, but they have some playmakers on that side of the ball that usually do enough to allow their own offense to win shootouts.

I'm planning on previewing their game against West Virginia later this week, which could very well determine the Big 12 title or else set up Bedlam as the de-facto championship game.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys

Mike Gundy has once again maneuvered his program into "no. 1 contender" status within the league after temporarily yielding that ground to the private Texan school upstarts in Ft. Worth and Waco. The Cowboys are back up in Texas recruiting as well right now. Gundy always gets the most out of his roster, developing a few legit stars to build around and then casting everyone else into roles that serve the identity.

I wrote all offseason on how this team would have a devastating passing attack and a fundamentally solid defense that was strong up the middle but that their ceiling would be determined by whether they finally built a functioning run game again and if they could find some athletes on the perimeter of their defense.

Well they predictably focused on zone blocking this offseason and developed a Pistol-I formation to help supplement their run game and now freshman back Justice Hill is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and is on track to reach 1k yards before the year is done. On defense, they haven't quite found the athleticism they need at DE or CB to build a truly good unit but they've done well enough and they've gotten a lot out of star DT Vincent Taylor. Bedlam will be a fun game.

Long term you really have to wonder if they'll be able to hang on to Mike Gundy as he's getting mention to replace Les Miles at LSU (whom he replaced at Oklahoma State) and he could be in line for other jobs this offseason as a reward for about a decade's worth of making the most of Oklahoma State's resources.

The West Virginia Mountaineers

Before the year it seemed likely that Dana Holgorsen was going to seek or be pushed to new pastures at the end of the year with the Houston job a leading contender if Tom Herman left town. Now it looks like Holgorsen will come back for another round with new QB Will Grier, a ton of returning skill talent on offense, and a really strong supporting staff including OL guru Joe Wickline and star DC Tony Gibson.

In the meantime, the Mountaineers are in nice position to win the Big 12 after surviving against Texas in Austin last Saturday. They get Oklahoma at home, then get a sort of break traveling to Ames to take on Iowa State, then they finish at home against a Baylor team that's in a free fall right now and no longer looks like a contender. For fans of the Big 12 this would be sort of a letdown save for the fact that many fans of the Big 12 are as delighted to see Baylor implode as they would have been to see a compelling end of the year game. Personally I'm torn, I prefer having compelling football to watch but I'm not crying any tears for the Bears save for Seth Russell.

The Baylor Bears

When it became clear that the misdeeds of the Briles era were as egregious as they were the right answer was to burn things down, reset the foundation, and get started on rebuilding as quickly as possible. Instead Baylor tried to tease things out and prevent the dip from going to low in order to protect the massive investments into the football program that had helped to put Waco on the map in a major way.

They brought in Jim Grobe to put a pleasant face on the situation, kept as much of the Briles infrastructure in place as possible to keep the gravy train rolling, and then hoped that purging the goose that lays the golden eggs and the AD would be enough and buy time to find a HC that could keep the Bears competitive.

Of course it wasn't, Art Briles didn't take too well to receiving so much blame for something that was systemic to the entire institution and in his battle to clear up his image and find a new job he dragged the B.O.R. into a fight that has exposed cracks in the foundation that the program wished could have remained hidden. His assistants publicly took his side while appearing to mail in the football season, leading to a collapse down the stretch that is playing out before our eyes.

The blowout defeat at home against TCU that featured both fans and boosters taking a public stand for Art Briles was probably the worst thing that could have happened. Now the program is looking at having to make a hire this offseason who will be willing to replace a coach who achieved legendary things in Waco, left a bare cupboard in terms of the roster, and still has support from some of the key supporters of the program.

Now they have a skeleton roster filled with players that are going to be checking out their options in the transfer market next offseason, a scant freshman class that was pillaged by the rest of the league when things went down last offseason, and two commits thus far in the 2017 season. They also have an alumni base and B.O.R. that is close to being at war with each other over the direction of the University.

Who is going to want to step in to replace Briles in the midst of this political madness and horrible football situation? Not P.J. Fleck, the dream hire of Baylor faithful. Not top candidates that could be interested in coming to Texas, like Sonny Dykes, Larry Fedora, or Chad Morris. They may end up having to stick with Jim Grobe for a period at this rate while turning over most all of the assistants.

They should have owned everything from the beginning and started to clean house before the season started, now they're already a year behind and in a protracted political battle over control of the process.

This is all fairly good news for...

The Kansas Jayhawks

I think Kansas is one of the main beneficiaries of Baylor's total collapse as they now have a chance to climb out of the cellar simply by stepping on the Bears' rotting corpse. Coach David Beatty may or may not be a good long-term answer at Kansas but he's slowly but surely improving their talent level and play.

They're still horrible though.

The Kansas State Wildcats

Let's be honest, even just a few years ago Bill Snyder would have had his program in position to take advantage of a down year in the Big 12 and they'd be competing for the conference championship to the dismay of pundits everywhere. But things are slipping in Manhattan and it seems that they are always a little too preoccupied with plugging leaks resulting from a thin roster that prevent them from fielding the kind of veteran-laden team that Oklahoma State or West Virginia are currently riding to the top.

Meanwhile, Jerry Kill is basically taking over the Kansas State football program as associate athletic director or whatever made-up title they gave him to oversee the Wildcats' transition to the post-Snyder era. It truly sounds like he's thriving and he's essentially setting himself up as the Barry Alvarez of K-State football, there to make sure they always have staff and process in place to make the most of their program. This is what I predicted last offseason when he was brought aboard.

I'm betting Snyder sees the writing on the wall, retires but with some assurance of a spot for his son Sean, and then perhaps Kill brings his pal Tracy Claeys over from Minnesota to lead things in Manhattan. Whoever coaches at K-State next is clearly going to have to be okay with Jerry Kill looking over their shoulder all the time which I think helps make the Brent Venables option all the more unlikely.

If I'm a K-State fan though, this is probably all a good thing. Kill is a great mind and overseer to have and many of the likely HC candidates for the Wildcats (Sean Snyder, Dana Dimel, Tracy Claeys, Brent Venables) are guys that would probably benefit from Kill's oversight.

The Iowa State Cyclones

Matt Campbell has this team playing some fairly solid football in terms of fundamentals but he just didn't inherit a roster with the kind of OL or DL he needs to make his style work, nor did he inherit QBs that could help him make up for it.

However, the Cyclones are currently ranked third by 247 in Big 12 recruiting with 20 commits. Y'all probably know I don't put a ton of stock in recruiting rankings but there's no doubt that Campbell is elevating the process in Ames. He's already signed 11 OL/DL and all of them are at listed as being at least 6-3. Naturally two of the DTs are JUCOs intended to instantly elevate the quality of their trench play for 2017.

Kansas should continue to trend up but they're not going to be very good for a long time. K-State's ability to stay competitive will depend on how well Jerry Kill orchestrates the transfer of power from Bill Snyder. Oklahoma State could potentially lose their head, Baylor is starting to look like Chernobyl, and Texas is still wandering around in the wilderness waiting for Joshua to emerge.

The opportunity is there for Campbell to elevate Iowa State into the power vacuum.

The TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs have quietly and predictably rebounded on defense, now ranking 43rd nationally in S&P, and have a chance at finishing 8-4 and looking good for the future if they can overcome Oklahoma State, Texas, and Kansas State down the stretch.

Their problem has been in the turnover department, they're -2 on the year and while Kenny Hill has made a habit of giving it away a few times per game (10 INTs on the year) the TCU secondary has only picked off seven passes (four by weak safety Nick Orr). The best TCU defenses regularly confuse and turn over offenses and they just aren't there yet. Hill's shoddy impersonations of Johnny Manziel have been getting him in trouble for his entire collegiate career and have exacerbated the issue.

Still, they could finish 2016 reasonably strong and then head into 2017 with nearly all of the key pieces returning and the chance to revisit the QB situation with a more experienced Foster Sawyer pushing Kenny Hill to cut down on his errors. There's been a lot of talk that TCU is in decline on defense because of their Air Raid offense but I'm not buying it, this squad is going to be much healthier, deeper, and more experienced next season and we'll see what happens.

The Texas Tech Red Raiders

I recently wrote up a "what's next for Texas Tech" piece at Football Study Hall asking what Kingsbury was going to do to save his job in 2017 whilst losing star QB Pat Mahomes. The Raiders have a really young defensive front this year that has been totally porous against the run but I'm guessing that rather than stay the course that Kingsbury will be pushed to make staff changes and start over again on defense.

I don't know who he's going to be able to hire that will get things fixed in a single year, especially with Nic Shimonek the likely starter rather than Mahomes and consequently a decreased margin for error when the D gives up points.

The smart money probably has to be on Kingsbury failing to save his job next season and then taking an OC job somewhere and hopefully (for his sake) learning something about how to oversee a program that can be great on both sides of the ball. Maybe the OC job at Oklahoma or TCU will be open and he can learn from Bob Stoops or Gary Patterson.

The big picture perspective on the Big 12

The Big 12 is trending down as a conference. The big question after Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri left was whether some of the remaining programs in the league could pick up the slack and grow into nationally competitive programs or whether new additions TCU and West Virginia could help carry that mantle.

TCU and West Virginia have done credible jobs of growing into worthy programs but the leftover Big 12 schools have lacked the infrastructure to achieve the monumental tasks of replacing programs like Colorado or Nebraska (while those programs in turn have struggled when drawn away from the Texas recruiting base).

Baylor made the strongest push to be a new, major player but they sold their soul as part of the process and now may end up back where they were before, at least for a time.

Rather than continuing to carry the league, Texas and Oklahoma have really allowed the diminished status of the Big 12 to drag them down as well. As iron sharpens iron...

The Sooners haven't been maximizing their potential as a program for most of this decade but there's little impetus for change or overhaul so long as they can continue to win conference championships.

Texas almost retained a flailing Mack Brown because he went 8-4 in a dinky league back in 2013 and are now wrestling with whether or not to keep Charlie Strong whom hasn't managed to do even that. If the Longhorns were still regularly playing Texas A&M it would be clear that things aren't where they need to be but instead they're playing the Big 12, and while Gary Patterson is doing all he can to help the UT Admin make a call the rest of the league isn't really doing their part.

This is a fun league to watch but I don't think you'll see it rise up in the national estimation or in overall quality until Texas rights their ship, builds the kind of elite team they have the resources to build, and makes clear where the league needs to improve by stampeding over everyone else (including Oklahoma) in epic fashion. When that will happen is anyone's guess.


  1. Great post Ian. As a Sooner fan I can't disagree with any of it. While it is entertaining watching UT's struggles...OU needs UT to be great to get back to where they were last decade. As you said...iron sharpens iron.

    1. It's the reoccurring story of every empire or power. They rise up thanks to evolutions forced by the need to survive, they overcome their challengers, they get soft, and then they get knocked down.

      Stoops should be commended for maintaining a Byzantine like stand while Austin was burned down like Rome.

    2. That is what makes what Saban has accomplished even more amazing. He has conquered everyone but has figured out how to avoid getting soft and complacent. Totally against basic human nature. His energy is unbelievable. He must have some deep insecurities that keep him totally on edge.

    3. Well the SEC East is also fiercely competitive and usually produces at least one team that can really give Alabama all they want. There's also the playoff now, which forces them to measure up to Urban Meyer's Ohio State or other nationally competitive programs.

      But yeah, no one's better at the process than Saban.

  2. Thank you for the write up Ian. I'm seeing a lot of noise about Holgo moving on. The FoxSports guys mentioned Oregon, I've seen him connected to LSU. I'm hoping that's just noise.

    I like him a lot as a personality, love what he's built at WVU and would really like to see what his offense looks like with Will Grier at the helm. Pair that with a Tony Gibson defense and it should be a pretty exciting couple of years in Morgantown if the coaching staff stays.

    1. He's not going to LSU, they have bigger targets in mind, like Tom Herman or Jimbo Fisher.

      Oregon I could see happening but I bet he just angles for the best deal he can get from West Virginia and stays put. I think Oregon will look at Scott Frost, there's apparently some feeling around there that they elevated the wrong Kelly disciple.

      P.J. Fleck is another one that could get a look. He'd make a lot of sense at Oregon.

    2. And thanks for reading!

      I'm hoping to move this site over to a nice-looking, fleshed out wordpress blog in the near future but I have some work to do to make that happen.

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