Back in 2019, I wrote a piece comparing some of soccer’s biggest leagues to American sports equivalents. The German Bundlesiga, with its wide-open offenses and high possession numbers, had an easy comp: college football’s Big 12 Conference.
Granted, defensive play rose considerably in 2020 in the Big 12, but I’ll add one more similarity between the two leagues: While we know who’s going to win the title every year (Bayern Munich in Germany, Oklahoma in the Great Plains), just about anybody can finish second. In the four seasons since the conference brought its title game back, OU has vanquished four different opponents.
Teams can rise and fall quickly, too. Baylor reached the 2019 Big 12 Championship just two years after going 1-11, and the Bears plummeted to 2-7 the year after. Texas was the 2018 runner-up two years after going 5-7. TCU advanced to the title game in 2017, a year after going 6-7, and has gone 18-17 since.
The teams in the bottom half of the league, then, have reason to remain ambitious. If they strike gold on a quarterback and get a few breaks, then there are enough close games in this league to allow them to rise quickly. Today we’ll preview the teams projected sixth through 10th in the Big 12 in 2021. Who has the most reason for hope?
Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, the top and bottom half of the AAC, the seven Independents, the ACC Atlantic and Coastal and the Pac-12 North and South.
Oklahoma has won 21 games in the last two years. Kansas has won 21 in the last 12. The Jayhawks just made their first genuinely sensible hire since 2002, though. That’s a start.
Projected SP+ rank: 113th
Average projected wins: 2.0 (0.8 in the Big 12)
Likely wins*: South Dakota (78% win probability)
Relative toss-ups: none
Likely losses: at Duke (34%), Texas Tech (23%), Kansas State (21%), Baylor (16%), WVU (9%), at Coastal Carolina (6%), at TCU (5%), at Oklahoma State (4%), at Texas (3%), Oklahoma (1%), at Iowa State (1%)
* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.
Lance Leipold might have left behind a more talented roster in Buffalo than what he inherits, but on the bright side, the Jayhawks have lost 17 of their past 18, so the first-year bar is low!
What we learned about Kansas in 2020
Les Miles made no improvements. He was fired for reasons beyond simple performance, but Miles generated no momentum whatsoever in two seasons. Kansas averaged a No. 112 SP+ ranking with a 0.150 win percentage the five years before his arrival, then averaged 112.5 and 0.142, respectively, under Miles. He gave 50 players 50+ snaps last year — 26 on offense, 24 on defense — and went 0-9. The Jayhawks generated no yards at a very high tempo and kept only one game within 14 points. It was a lost year after more than a decade of them.
The pass defense might be decent? It didn’t matter because opponents never had to pass, but KU ranked 66th in passing success rate allowed, and while promising young cornerback Karon Prunty transferred, safeties Ricky Thomas and Kenny Logan Jr. are solid, and sophomore corner Duece Mayberry has potential. Linebackers Kyron Johnson and Steven Parker are decent attackers, too. That might not be enough to build a successful foundation, but it’s something.
What we didn’t learn about Kansas in 2020
How long it might take Leipold to build something. Despite the odd timing of his April hire, Leipold was an inspired choice. The 57 year old won six Division III national titles with Wisconsin-Whitewater, then tore the house down to the studs at Buffalo and built something exciting. His last three teams went 24-10, and despite middling recruiting rankings even by MAC standards, he crafted a team that passed the eye test and boasted tons of depth, speed and physicality. His résumé suggests he might have the best possible odds of doing something exciting with this job.
Kansas’ history in one chart
Before he became a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Bears, Gale Sayers gained 3,073 yards from scrimmage with 19 touchdowns on some rock solid mid-1960s Kansas teams.
The 1987-88 Kansas teams might still hold the honors as the program’s worst in history. They went 2-19-1 with an average SP+ percentile rating of 2.3%.
The woefully underrated Glen Mason steered KU out of the Bermuda Triangle and guided them to two bowls and a top-10 finish in 1995.
Then it was Mark Mangino’s turn to pull a Mason. He inherited a program that was trending downward and took it to four bowls and a glorious 12-1 finish in 2007.
The fall had already begun before Mangino left, but neither Turner Gill, Charlie Weis, David Beaty or Miles could arrest a vicious slide. Can Leipold?
Tech hasn’t finished over .500 since 2015, and after two years, Matt Wells is still looking for traction. Can a new offensive coordinator and a truckload of transfers provide it?
Projected SP+ rank: 70th
Average projected wins: 5.1 (2.8 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Stephen F. Austin (99% win probability), FIU (85%), at Kansas (77%)
Relative toss-ups: Kansas State (53%), vs. Houston (50%)
Likely losses: at Baylor (34%), TCU (32%), Oklahoma State (27%), at WVU (22%), at Texas (14%), Iowa State (13%), at Oklahoma (5%)
It’s not the worst time in the world for a light nonconference slate. Tech plays five total teams projected 63rd or worse, so bowl hopes aren’t entirely unrealistic.
What we learned about Texas Tech in 2020
The Red Raiders must … pass better? Tech had arguably its worst passing game of the 21st century last year. Neither Alan Bowman nor Henry Colombi provided much consistency at QB, and only one receiver (Erik Ezukanma) stretched the field. Tech ranked 76th in both passing success rate and Total QBR, and Wells fired one veteran coordinator (David Yost) for another (former Tech QB Sonny Cumbie).
With Ezukanma and RB SaRodorick Thompson back, Cumbie inherits a couple of excellent pieces, and while Ezukanma is the only one of last year’s top four targets returning, Myles Price is promising, and Troy’s bouncy Kaylon Geiger arrives via the portal. More importantly, Tyler Shough likely takes over at QB. (Bowman transferred to Michigan.) Shough had a mixed season as Oregon’s starter — he started brilliantly, then faded — but he has a good arm and mobility.
What we didn’t learn about Texas Tech in 2020
When will the Big 12’s defensive resurgence reach Lubbock? Despite its reputation, the Big 12 had five of the top 18 teams in defensive SP+ in 2020. It is producing both ultra-aggressive (Oklahoma, OSU, TCU) and innovative (Iowa State) approaches. Tech, however, hasn’t ranked in the top 40 of defensive SP+ since 2009. Its 2020 defense didn’t have extreme weaknesses beyond a poor pass rush, but it didn’t have any real strengths either.
Wells used the portal to give coordinator Keith Patterson some fun pieces in the back. Aggressive safeties Marquis Waters (Duke) and Reggie Pearson (Wisconsin), and corners Malik Dunlap (NC State) and Rayshad Williams (UCLA) come to town. Combined with linebackers like Jacob Morgenstern, Patterson might be able to create more disruption this year.
Texas Tech’s history in one chart
In its final days in the Border Conference, DeWitt Weaver’s Tech ripped off an 11-1 season and No. 12 finish in 1953. Tech would move to the SWC in 1960.
Almost every SWC had a run of awesomeness in the 1970s, and Tech was no different — it went 11-1 in 1973 under Jim Carlen and 10-2 in 1976 under Steve Sloan.
In Spike Dykes’ heyday, Tech could run the damn ball: Bam Morris rushed for 3,031 yards in 1992-93, then Byron Hanspard went for 3,374 in 1995-96.
The 10-year Mike Leach era was Tech’s most consistently successful decade: 85 wins, 10 bowls, five ranked finishes (peak: No. 12 in 2008) and 49,642 passing yards.
Tech since Leach left: zero ranked finishes, no bowls since 2017. Wells made patience pay off at Utah State; can he arrest this slow-motion slide?
After improving by three wins and 32 spots in SP+ in Chris Klieman’s first season, K-State suffered QB issues and sank by four wins and 24 spots last year. What now?
Projected SP+ rank: 63rd
Average projected wins: 5.1 (3.0 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Southern Illinois (91% win probability), at Kansas (79%)
Relative toss-ups: Nevada (64%), vs. Stanford (52%), Baylor (48%), at Texas Tech (47%), WVU (35%)
Likely losses: TCU (34%), at Oklahoma State (21%), at Texas (16%), Iowa State (15%), Oklahoma (9%)
Half of KSU’s schedule features win probability between 34-64%. This season could end up going in a few different directions.
What we learned about KSU in 2020
Tackling’s an issue. The KSU defense has a solid potential identity: create havoc with four linemen, form a safe cloud with the rest. The top five Wildcats linemen combined for 33 TFLs and 18 sacks — a strong rush with minimal blitzing.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats ranked 120th in tackle success rate and 81st in explosive play rate allowed. With ends Khalid Duke and Bronson Massie at the front and safety Jahron McPherson at the back, there are solid pieces here. But DB transfers Russ Yeast (Louisville) and Julius Brents (Iowa) had poor tackle rates, too, and until the fundamentals improve, the defense will struggle to do the same.
Klieman needs a few more Deuces. This will always be an evaluation-and-development job, but both Bill Snyder at KSU and Klieman at NDSU proved you can win plenty of games by landing the right mid-tier recruits.
One of those immediately became KSU’s best player. Deuce Vaughn would have had more offers had he been bigger (he’s 5-foot-5, 171 pounds), but he was one of the nation’s most versatile players as a freshman, producing 1,076 combined rushing and receiving yards. He leads a skill corps low on recruiting hype but high in explosiveness — wideouts Chabastin Taylor and Malik Knowles both averaged more than 15 yards per catch. They dramatically lacked in the efficiency category, however. They’ll need a QB to fix that.
What we didn’t learn about KSU in 2020
The future at QB. Klieman is 10-6 with Skylar Thompson at QB and 2-5 without. The senior was lost for the season with an arm injury, and freshman Will Howard took over with steadily diminished returns. Thompson’s back for a sixth year, and if he’s healthy, the offense should play at a top-50 level. But if he’s not, what happens? And what happens in 2022?
KSU’s history in one chart
In 1969, K-State’s best team to date started 5-1 with Lynn Dickey at QB, rose to a school-best 12th in the polls … and lost four in a row to finish 5-5.
The lows have been really low in Manhattan, but “4-60-1 from 1985 to 1989 with wins against only equally bad Mizzou and Kansas and FCS teams” is probably the lowest.
KSU hired Bill Snyder in 1989. It truly might be the best hire in the history of college football.
From 1995 to 2000, KSU won 63 games and finished in the AP top 10 five times. It has done so only one other time in its history.
Snyder’s first retirement didn’t take. He returned, won a second conference title and enjoyed four more seasons of 9-plus wins. A brutally tough act to follow.
The breaks went the wrong way for Baylor and first-year coach Dave Aranda in 2020, as the Bears fell from 11-3 to 2-7. Time for a mulligan.
Projected SP+ rank: 51st
Average projected wins: 6.0 (3.6 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Texas Southern (99.9% win probability), at Kansas (84%), at Texas State (83%), Texas Tech (66%)
Relative toss-ups: BYU (56%), at Kansas State (52%), WVU (42%)
Likely losses: at TCU (31%), Texas (30%), at Oklahoma State (27%), Iowa State (20%), Oklahoma (13%)
After stumbling from 18th to 63rd in SP+, BU should rebound, but having six projected top-40 opponents means a good amount of improvement is required for a strong season.
What we learned about Baylor in 2020
Year Zeroes happen. Someone’s first year as a head coach is always tricky. You don’t always nail your first coordinator hires, you’re dealing with an extra few layers of responsibility, etc. Dave Aranda certainly found some of the usual potholes — he’s already on his second offensive coordinator (former BYU playcaller Jeff Grimes), after all — but Baylor’s depth chart was a train wreck all season. The offensive line and most of the defense, already hit hard by attrition, were shuffled, jumbled messes, and the skill corps was shaky, too. That, plus a 1-3 record in one-score finishes, doomed Aranda’s rookie year.
The defense will be awesome again soon. Great defense nearly drove a CFP run for Matt Rhule’s Bears in 2019, but they slipped to 42nd in defensive SP+ last season thanks in part to the issues above. Now, 10 starters and nearly every backup return, including safety Jalen Pitre — maybe the best nickelback in the country — and havoc-heavy linebacker Terrel Bernard. The line needs more push, but passing on the Bears should be awfully difficult.
What we didn’t learn about Baylor in 2020
How long will the offensive rebuild take? Baylor plummeted from 28th to 91st in offensive SP+ last year. The receiving corps has promise with veterans R.J. Sneed and Tyquan Thornton, but Grimes will have to pick out a new QB — likely either Jacob Zeno or Gerry Bohanon — and rebuild a dreadful run game. His offense is big into outside-zone running, but he’ll be implementing it with a pretty unproven RB corps and a renovated line that loses three starters and adds transfers from Buffalo (Jacob Gall) and Vanderbilt (Grant Miller). There’s little reason to expect massive improvement, even if Grimes’ scheme is exciting.
Baylor’s history in one chart
BU was at a low point when Angelo State’s Grant Teaff took over in 1972. He would engineer two SWC titles and four top-15 finishes over 21 seasons.
How gaudy was Mike Singletary’s career tackles total? He averaged 188 tackles over his last three seasons (!!!) and has 240 more stops than anyone else in BU history.
Teaff’s success helped earn BU a Big 12 bid, but the program cratered, suffering 14 straight losing seasons from 1996 to 2009.
In barely more than three seasons, Robert Griffin III threw for 10,366 yards and rushed for 2,254, won Baylor’s first Heisman and quarterbacked the school’s first bowl in 16 years.
Art Briles, who won 50 games in the last five years, was fired in 2016 after he failed to alert police of an alleged sexual assault and kept players’ cases under wraps.
Since reaching the Big 12 Championship in 2017, TCU has muddled along around .500, propped up by defense but dragged down by offense. Does that change in 2021?
Projected SP+ rank: 33rd
Average projected wins: 7.2 (4.7 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Duquesne (99.8% win probability), Kansas (95%), SMU (76%), Cal (71%), Baylor (69%), at Texas Tech (69%), at Kansas State (66%)
Relative toss-ups: WVU (56%), Texas (43%), at Oklahoma State (40%)
Likely losses: at Iowa State (22%), at Oklahoma (14%)
Road trips to OU, ISU and OSU might preclude a conference title run, but if the offense rebounds as planned, a friendly home slate could create a friendly win total.
What we learned about TCU in 2020
The defense still has it. Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs have finished in the defensive SP+ top 20 for 10 of the past 15 years. His innovative 4-2-5 structure was as aggressive and effective as ever last year, allowing a 33% success rate (second in FBS) and forcing three-and-outs on 42% of possessions (third). They’ll allow a few big plays in the name of efficiency, and once a new-ish secondary gelled, they allowed 20 PPG and won five of their last six games.
The bar remains high. TCU boasts both one of the country’s best pairs of defensive ends (Khari Coleman and Ochaun Mathis) and cornerbacks (Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and, if healthy, Noah Daniels). The Horned Frogs have to replace excellent safeties in Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington, but a Patterson defense still gets the benefit of the doubt.
What we didn’t know about TCU in 2020
Are young stars ready to drive offensive improvement? When a pair of blue-chip freshmen showed out, so did the offense. In TCU’s six wins, RB Zach Evans (the No. 16 prospect in the 2020 class) and WR Quentin Johnston (No. 63) combined for 786 yards from scrimmage. In four losses, the Horned Frogs gained just 192. Both eased into 2020 but improved enough to provide massive optimism for 2021.
Another reason for optimism: depth. Quarterback Max Duggan, six lineman and other skill corps weapons like RB Kendre Miller and receivers Taye Barber and Derius Davis all return. Duggan is mobile and improved to 40th in Total QBR last season. After ranking 67th or worse in offensive SP+ for three straight years, it would be disappointing if TCU didn’t at least threaten the top 50.
TCU’s history in one chart
In 1952, Dutch Meyer, mentor for Davey O’Brien and Sammy Baugh and 1938 national champion, retired after two decades of offensive innovation.
After a 30-year slide, TCU perked up in 1984, starting 8-1 and jumping to 12th in the polls. But it lost their last three … and then got hammered by NCAA sanctions.
After enjoying only two winning seasons between 1972 and 1993, TCU missed out on inclusion in the new Big 12. Then the Frogs went 5-17 in their first two years in the WAC.
It’s amazing what two great hires can do for a program. TCU first signed Dennis Franchione, then Patterson, and embarked on an incredible rise beginning in 1998.
TCU finally scored its Big 12 invitation in 2012, and after the briefest of blips, the Frogs ripped off three top-10 finishes and seasons with 11-plus wins, between 2014 and 2017.