Power 5 preview: 1 area of focus for each team in the Big 12
As the college football season approaches, theScore will be previewing the year for each Power 5 conference. After previously looking at the ACC, the series continues with one area of focus for each Big 12 program.
We've heard that Texas is back for over a decade now, with the Longhorns seemingly disappointing on an annual basis since 2010. On paper, this year's outfit looks to have the best chance to return Texas to national prominence in what will be its final season with the Big 12 before heading to the SEC. If Steve Sarkisian's outfit is going to pull that off, the team will need to finish games significantly better than it did last year.
While Texas' overall record of 8-5 last season wasn't too underwhelming, the team could've done better had it closed out contests in stronger fashion. The Longhorns were eighth in the nation in first-half scoring but dipped to 39th in the second half. The defense ranked 18th in first-half points allowed but 37th in the second half. That led to a 2-5 record in one-score games last year.
With Quinn Ewers and Xavier Worthy back to lead the offense, and the majority of the defensive unit returning, the pieces are there for Texas to leave the Big 12 as champions. But it will ultimately boil down to whether Sarkisian's staff can make the proper in-game adjustments to fix the team's poor second-half performances from last year.
It's also the final season for Oklahoma in the Big 12, and the Sooners are hoping for a more impactful performance in the finale than we saw in Brent Venables' first season with the program. Oklahoma was decimated by injuries - particularly at the quarterback position - and posted a 6-7 mark for its first losing season since 1998.
While it's easy to point to the offense as a source of anguish, a healthy Dillon Gabriel should immediately fix that. Instead it's the defense - Venables' area of expertise - that needs a drastic overhaul. That unit ranked 99th in points allowed nationally and fell to a shocking 122nd in total defense. The former Clemson defensive coordinator sounded like a very confident man when projecting how the Sooners would look this time around.
"I want our guys - the best of the best aren't ever satisfied, but I expect us to be on another planet defensively," Venables told John. E. Hoover of Sports Illustrated in May.
The defense has a long runway to get up to speed, as the opening month of the schedule is very kind to the Sooners. Outside of a Week 2 contest with an SMU team replacing its quarterback, Oklahoma doesn't face a top-50 offense from last season until Week 6 against Texas.
TCU: Keeping realistic expectations
Nice start, Sonny Dykes. Now, what do you do for an encore? The first-year coach absolutely obliterated even the wildest expectations in his debut season with TCU, taking the Horned Frogs on a magical run all the way to the national title game. The 65-7 drubbing at the hands of Georgia was a particularly harsh way to wake up from the dream season, but TCU should be ecstatic at last year's result. Unfortunately, keeping realistic expectations as the program moves forward without a number of key pieces will be difficult.
Max Duggan, Kendre Miller, Quentin Johnston, and a number of linemen have departed. Coordinator Garrett Riley departed for Clemson with Kendall Briles taking his place. The defense returns at least eight key members from last season and should be one of the best in the Big 12 if it can stay healthy.
The start of the schedule is very favorable for TCU and will give the high number of transfers on the offensive side of the ball time to get up to speed. However, the back half of the slate is a beast with road trips to Kansas State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma sandwiching home dates with Baylor and Texas. A return trip to the CFP likely isn't in the cards, but if TCU can keep its expectations at an eight-win campaign, it will likely be another fun season in Fort Worth.
Kansas State: Identifying new playmakers
While TCU got the CFP glory, it was actually Kansas State that nipped them for the Big 12 title last season. The return of prolific quarterback Will Howard makes a repeat possible, but the Wildcats will need to find some playmakers on offense to have that chance.
The offensive side of the ball sees Deuce Vaughn, Malik Knowles and Kade Warner depart along with their combined 3,302 yards rushing and receiving, and 22 total touchdowns. With a very experienced offensive line back, look for the running back duo of Treshaun Ward and DJ Giddens to fill the void on the ground.
The receiver situation is a bit more unsettled, with returnee Philip Brooks likely needing to do the heavy lifting. If Iowa transfer Keagan Johnson can reach his potential, than Howard and the offense could keep the Wildcats near the top of the Big 12. If not, we might see a step back this season in the Little Apple.
Baylor: Dominate at home
Baylor is going to get real comfortable in Texas this season, as the Bears play nine of their 12 games in the Lone Star State. Eight home games in Waco and a road trip to TCU make up the Texas slate, with only three trips outside the state on the calendar. That will certainly help Dave Aranda as he tries to rebound from a disappointing 6-7 season that killed some momentum from the brilliant 12-2 run in 2021.
One reason for that was the defensive line's struggles to rush the passer. The Bears plummeted from 15th nationally in sacks per game to 88th. The inability to pressure the quarterback put the onus on the secondary too often - a scenario that resulted in the defense allowing a touchdown more per contest than in 2022.
Baylor will look to take advantage of the home crowd to disrupt the opposition's offense, help the defense get to the quarterback, and get the Bears back in the thick of the Big 12 race.
Texas Tech: Keep Tyler Shough healthy
Four straight wins to end the season and the return of a prolific quarterback has Texas Tech as a trendy pick to compete for the conference crown this season. The Red Raiders were a different team once Tyler Shough took over at quarterback, and the team's top priority in 2023 has to be keeping the talented passer healthy.
Shough has been at Texas Tech for two full seasons now but has played in just 11 contests due to injury. The four games he started last season resulted in four wins for the Red Raiders, and that ran Texas Tech's record to a perfect 7-0 over the past two seasons when Shough completes at least 10 passes.
With Shough out, however, the rest of the Texas Tech quarterback room threw 14 interceptions last season. In the two years since he arrived in Lubbock, the Red Raiders are just 7-11 in games he hasn't started. If the 6-foot-5 senior can stay upright, Texas Tech has the talent throughout the lineup to contend for its first Big 12 title.
Kansas: Getting the defense off the field
If football with plenty of points is what you are looking for, Kansas might just be your new favorite team for the 2023 season. The Jayhawks gave scoreboards a workout on a weekly basis - both good and bad - with only one game last season not featuring at least one team scoring 35 points or more. The final number following the year was staggering, with an average of 71 total points scored per game featuring Kansas.
The offense should once again be a juggernaut with star passer Jalon Daniels back to call the shots. However, the defense needs a drastic change in production if the team is going to take the next step. The Jayhawks allowed over seven third-down conversions per game last year, a number that ranked dead last at the FBS level.
Oklahoma State: Quarterback
For the first time since 2018, Oklahoma State is entering a season without Spencer Sanders on the roster. The prolific quarterback opted to use his final year of eligibility at Ole Miss, leaving the Cowboys to replace a player who compiled an outrageous 11,509 total yards and 85 total touchdowns in his time in Stillwater.
The Cowboys' faithful got a glimpse of what life without Sanders could look like last season, as the veteran missed multiple games due to a shoulder injury. That left Garret Rangel and Gunnar Gundy to occupy the position, and the results were not very positive. The pair combined to throw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing just 50% of their passes.
Coach Mike Gundy went portal shopping to beef up the quarterback room and nabbed former Texas Tech and Michigan passer Alan Bowman, who will presumably start for Oklahoma State. In three years with the Red Raiders, Bowman threw for 5,260 yards and 33 touchdowns. However, in the last two years at Michigan, Bowman threw a total of 11 passes as the third-string quarterback. If the Cowboys are going to do anything this season, Bowman will need to dip into the past and rekindle that Texas Tech form.
Iowa State: Sorting out the offense
For most of last season, it appeared as though the state of Iowa had banned offense from being played on football fields in its jurisdiction, as both Iowa and Iowa State ranked outside the top 115 in the nation in scoring. But it's the Cyclones who might face the tougher task in gaining momentum.
The first move that coach Matt Campbell pulled off was firing coordinator Tom Manning and replacing him with 32-year-old Nathan Scheelhaase. Unfortunately for Scheelhaase and the Cyclones, it's unclear at this point who exactly will be on the field come season opener. Quarterback Hunter Dekkers and running back Jirehl Brock are among those under investigation for sports betting violations. Add in the graduation of top receiver Xavier Hutchinson, and it could be a wholesale change for the Iowa State offense this year.
That leaves last year's backup Rocco Becht, top-10 quarterback recruit JJ Kohl, and junior college transfer Tanner Hughes in a battle for the quarterback slot. Scheelhaase will need to get one of them ready to perform at a high level if the Cyclones are going to avoid a repeat of last year's dismal 4-8 showing.
West Virginia: Balance between offense and defense
Neal Brown might have the hottest seat in the country for 2023, as the West Virginia coach needs some positive results - and fast - if he hopes to keep the job in Morgantown. A 22-25 record since coming over from Troy simply isn't good enough for the Mountaineers, and his biggest issue has been getting the proper balance between defense and offense.
Brown entered the 2022 campaign with a defense that ranked first and fifth in the Big 12 the two previous seasons. Unfortunately, the offense came in near the bottom of the conference both those years to keep West Virginia from making any significant progress. Last year's offense saw a scoring jump of five points from the previous year, but the defense struggled to stay among the conference's best and fell to ninth in the Big 12.
The upcoming season might be the year the dam finally breaks on both sides of the football, with the offense and defense undergoing significant roster turnover. Quarterback JT Daniels is gone and the top four receivers have also moved on. Over half the defense will also change from last year, with Brown bringing in four new linemen and defensive backs from the transfer portal.
Brown's fate might be sealed early, as the Mountaineers have a tough schedule before their bye week in early October. West Virginia opens with a road trip to Penn State before hosting Duquesne, Pitt, and Texas Tech, and traveling to TCU.
UCF: Blending transfers with returning stars
Most programs dip into the transfer portal to fill positional need, but most of Gus Malzahn's forays in the past few months have been for depth as UCF joins the Big 12. The Knights bring back standout quarterback John Rhys Plumlee but also add Timmy McClain from South Florida and Xavier Williams from Charlotte as injury insurance. It's the same at running back with both RJ Harvey and Jonny Richardson back in the fold and transfer Demarkcus Bowman now eligible after moving over from Florida.
The other two units on the field that will see significant contribution from transfers are the offensive line and secondary. The offensive line will be relying on transfers for at least three of the spots, led by Marcellus Marshall from Kent State. The secondary returns three starters but added a playmaker in Decorian Patterson from Middle Tennessee after he tied for the nation's lead with seven interceptions last season.
The talent gap is the major issue for most teams jumping from Group of 5 to Power 5 conference play, but UCF is in no such position thanks to Malzahn's dogged recruiting. The Knights will arguably be the more talented team in almost every Big 12 game they play this season. That could make for a very successful debut at the Power 5 level for the program.
Cincinnati: Keeping program momentum
There may not be a program that has undergone a bigger change since the end of last season than Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren't just leaving the AAC for the Big 12, but they are doing so with Luke Fickell at the helm after he departed to Wisconsin. Fickell brought virtually unprecedented success to the Cincinnati program, posting an outrageous 53-11 record over the past five seasons. Now it's up to Scott Satterfield to usher in the new era of Bearcats football and keep the momentum going as the challenge gets tougher.
It's probably a safe bet that the outstanding Cincinnati defense is fine with the transition to the Big 12, especially with most of the dominant front seven back for another season. The offense is another story with a significant amount of turnover making things tricky for Satterfield in Year 1. Leading passer Ben Bryant is gone, as are the top six receivers from last year. Add in the departure of four of five offensive line starters and it's basically a starting-from-scratch situation.
Satterfield has shown a strong ability to create offense through scheme in the past, and this year might be his biggest challenge yet with Arizona State transfer Emory Jones at quarterback. Expect some growing pains in the program's first season in the Big 12 as Satterfield makes over the roster to fit his coaching style.
BYU: Defensive identity
It's going to be a very difficult first season in the Big 12 if BYU struggles on the defensive side of the football like it did in the final two years as an independent. The nation's 84th-ranked defense in 2021 fell even further to 93rd in yards per play last season - certainly a concerning trend as it gets set to take on much stiffer competition in conference play.
Kalani Sitake attacked the issue by changing virtually his entire defensive staff and bringing in Weber State head coach Jay Hill as his new coordinator. Hill faces a tall task in Year 1, as the Cougars have four top-30 offensive units on the schedule this year after squaring off with only two last year. Add in Arkansas and Texas Tech, and BYU will have six opponents who ranked inside the top 35 in scoring last season.
The offense will likely be okay with Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis at the controls, but unless the defense can improve significantly, expect BYU to have a slow start as it joins a Power 5 conference.
Houston: Pass defense
It's pretty clear that Houston really needs to focus on the part of the team that allowed an astonishing 77 points in a loss to SMU last season. The drop-off of the defensive unit was the main reason the Cougars fell back from a 12-2 season in 2021 to 8-5 last year. Houston finished the season ranked third-last in the AAC in scoring defense and allowed the opposing quarterback to average a bloated 146 passer rating.
The Cougars may lose their top five tacklers from last season, but given the performance of the defense, that may not be a bad thing for the program. David Ugwoegbu arrives from Oklahoma via the portal to help boost the pass rush and take some pressure off the secondary. The back end added three players from the portal - most notably New Mexico star Adari Haulcy.
Those additions will be called on early and often to help smooth the transition to the Big 12 and get the defense back to the level we've grown accustomed to under Dana Holgorsen.