Big 12 preview, Part 1: Projections, burning questions, favorite players

by Ricardo Gutierrez - No power conference offers upward (or downward) mobility like the Big 12.

Big 12 college football preview, Part 1: Projections, burning questions, favorite players 10:30 AM ET Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer Close Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com. In the past five years, Baylor has gone 1-8, 4-5, 8-1, 2-7 and 7-2, respectively, in Big 12 play. Texas has gone 7-2, 2-7, 5-3 and 3-6 in the past four. Oklahoma State went 3-6 in 2018 and 8-1 in 2021. TCU went 7-2 in 2017 and has gone under .500 in three of the past four years. No power conference offers upward (or downward) mobility like the Big 12. Sure, there are some stable entities -- Oklahoma hasn't lost more than two conference games since 2014, Texas Tech hasn't won more than three since 2015 and Kansas hasn't won more than one since 2008 -- but for just about everyone else, their stock can rise or fall pretty dramatically from one year to the next. The common denominator? Close games. Baylor and Oklahoma State finished near the sport's pinnacle last season -- BU finished fifth in the AP poll, OSU seventh -- by going a combined 9-3 in one-score games. The year before, they went 5-5. Iowa State 's 2021 campaign felt terribly disappointing, as the Cyclones went from 9-3 in 2020 to 7-6 with an experienced squad; their overall quality didn't fall much, but they went from 4-2 in one-score games to 2-5. Even though we're looking at the bottom half of the Big 12 today, keep in mind that one of these teams is only a few tight wins away from a sudden leap. Let's preview the teams projected Nos. 6-10 in what might be college football's most interesting conference. Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team. 2021 recap Among these five teams -- TCU, Texas Tech, Iowa State, West Virginia and Kansas -- are three that have spent time in the AP top 10 within the past three years. Hell, Iowa State started there just last season. A turnover-plagued loss to Iowa and a gut-wrenching, last-minute loss to Baylor had the Cyclones unranked by the end of September, however, and a few more close defeats kept them in the middle of the standings. Elsewhere, TCU's defense cratered in Gary Patterson's final season as head coach, and WVU's offense never really got going during a 6-7 campaign. Texas Tech enjoyed its first winning season in six years, but fired head coach Matt Wells at 5-3 -- one of the stranger moves of the 2021-22 coaching carousel, but one that might end up paying off -- and after hiring Lance Leipold in May to replace Les Miles, Kansas predictably struggled, going 2-10, but showed a late spark. 2022 projections TEAM SP+ RK OFF. DEF. AVG. W CONF. W BOWL ODDS TCU 45 12 85 6.8 4.7 76% Texas Tech 48 35 69 6.2 4.4 58% Iowa State 56 59 57 6.1 4.0 69% West Virginia 75 71 76 4.4 2.9 34% Kansas 109 88 117 2.9 1.2 1% SP+ projections don't take coaching changes into account, so it doesn't know that TCU is in its first year after the legendary Patterson's departure, or that legendary high school coach (and five-year Baylor assistant) Joey McGuire has taken over at Tech. But both teams return enough of last year's key personnel to play at a top-50 level. Others have something to prove. West Virginia and Iowa State currently come in 127th and 128th in my FBS returning production rankings; the Mountaineers have huge holes to fill in their skill corps, secondary and linebacking corps, while the Cyclones have to replace quarterback Brock Purdy , running back Breece Hall and nine of the 14 defenders with more than 300 snaps. And then there's Kansas: The Jayhawks haven't ranked better than 100th in SP+ since 2013, so it makes sense that they start out low even if they did improve late in 2021. Burning questions Is the Zach Kittley offense genuinely plug-and-play? The timing of Matt Wells' firing last fall was odd, but with interim coach Sonny Cumbie in charge, Tech beat Iowa State with a walk-off 62-yard field goal and blew out Mississippi State in its first bowl win since 2013. The Red Raiders finished a solid 40th in SP+, then brought in McGuire to see if they could reach another gear. McGuire hasn't wasted time building optimism. A charismatic recruiter, he has already secured 20 commitments for his 2023 class, which currently ranks fourth in the nation (but will fall as the typical powers score more commits). He also brought in one of the most celebrated young coordinators in the sport. Kittley's Air Raid 2.0 took the world by storm at Western Kentucky in 2021. He came over from Houston Baptist , taking quarterback Bailey Zappe and three HBU receivers with him, and immediately flipped the Hilltoppers from 117th to fifth in offensive SP+. Now, he returns to his alma mater, and while he brings only left tackle Cole Spencer with him this time, expectations remain high. We'll see if he has a Zappe approximation behind center. Tyler Shough looked good early in 2021 before breaking his collarbone, and Donovan Smith was excellent in four of five late games. Neither they nor blue-chip redshirt freshman Behren Morton separated themselves from each other this spring. Whoever wins the job will line up next to an experienced group of running backs, but slot Myles Price is the only of last year's top five targets returning. The import of five transfer linemen is a sign of what the Red Raiders might be dealing with up front, too. On defense, McGuire brought in Tim DeRuyter, most recently the coordinator at Cal (2017-20) and Oregon (2021), as DC. DeRuyter should have some fun with big outside linebacker Tyree Wilson , but Tech hasn't ranked above 69th in defensive SP+ since 2013, and despite proven personnel, DeRuyter's past two defenses ranked 78th and 60th. Even if the Tech offense ignites, the bar remains pretty low on D. Can transfers fix a suddenly awful TCU defense? It was shocking that in a conference with rapidly improving overall defense, a team run by Patterson, one of the best defensive innovators of the 21st century, suddenly couldn't make stops. In 11 games against FBS competition, TCU never allowed fewer than 28 points and gave up at least 42 four times. Average defensive SP+ ranking in its first nine years in the Big 12: 21.7. Last year: 109th. And that was with ace pass-rushers Ochaun Mathis (now at Nebraska ) and Khari Coleman (Ole Miss ). Patterson is now serving as Steve Sarkisian's special assistant in Austin, and TCU replaced him with a guy who already lived in the metroplex. SMU 's Sonny Dykes, 25-10 with the Mustangs over the past three years, moved from Dallas to Fort Worth. One of the first coaches to openly embrace portal life, Dykes imported 15 transfers, from running backs Trelon Smith (Arkansas ) and Emani Bailey (Louisiana ) to defensive backs Mark Perry (Colorado ) and Josh Newton (ULM ) and every position in between. The offense could be outstanding. Quarterback Max Duggan and the big-play receiver trio of Quentin Johnston , Derius Davis and Taye Barber (combined: 99 receptions, 16.5 yards per catch) return, and the RB corps is loaded. But defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie, whose past three Tulsa defenses all ranked 51st or better, will have to make the most of some mismatched toys. The transfers will help -- especially Perry and Newton -- but we'll see how much improvement he can engineer on short notice. If you told me that one of these bottom-five teams would make a conference title game run in 2022, I'd guess TCU. But there are still quite a few warning signs, especially on D. Can both West Virginia and Iowa State get back on track this season? Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports How long will it take Matt Campbell and Iowa State to restock? Five years ago, it would have been difficult to understand that (A) Iowa State would go 7-6 in 2021 and (B) it would be terribly disappointing. At that point, Matt Campbell was 3-9 one year into his ISU tenure, and the Cyclones had won a total of 11 games in the past four years. They hadn't spent even a week ranked since 2005. They had enjoyed one winning record in 11 years and had won more than seven games just once since 1978. Campbell has shifted expectations massively in Ames. He hired Jon Heacock, who has produced four straight top-30 defenses, per SP+. Offensive coordinator Tom Manning recruited Purdy and Hall; the former threw for 12,170 yards and 81 touchdowns in four years, while the latter gained 4,675 yards from scrimmage, with 56 TDs, in three. The Cyclones went 8-5, 8-5 and 7-6 from 2017 to 2019, then broke through with a 9-3 season, a Big 12 championship appearance, a Fiesta Bowl win and the program's first top-10 finish in 2020. They began 2021 in the top 10 for the first time, too, before all those close losses struck. What made last year's season so frustrating was the impending transition. Purdy and Hall are gone, as are star tight end Charlie Kolar , two former all-conference offensive linemen and most of last year's defense. Some stars still remain -- receiver Xavier Hutchinson , left guard Trevor Downing , cornerback Anthony Johnson Jr . and all-world defensive end Will McDonald IV -- but it's hard to imagine ISU putting its fourth straight SP+ top-25 product on the field. The goal of 2022, then, might simply be to avoid collapse. Break in sophomore quarterback Hunter Dekkers , establish a new skill corps rotation, hope the defense doesn't fall quite as much as projected (and is ready to surge again in 2023), win a close game or two, and reach a bowl. Campbell & Co. have done a remarkable job of shifting expectations -- "Just reach a bowl" would have felt overly ambitious five years ago, and now it feels like the bare minimum. He has earned a couple of mulligans at this point; we'll see if he has to use one this fall. Can JT Daniels bring points back to Morgantown? Neal Brown's head-coaching career has been rather confusing. He played as a receiver in Hal Mumme's nascent Air Raid at Kentucky and he worked for former Mumme assistant Tony Franklin at Troy . He moved up the coaching ladder due to offensive prowess. When he took over as Troy's head coach, Brown thrived ... with defense. His Trojans won 31 combined games from 2016 to 2018, and in all three years they fielded top-50 defenses, per SP+, with offenses that ranked between 70th and 90th. He has struggled to generate traction at West Virginia, going 17-18 in three seasons, but his success has once again come on D, where his Mountaineers peaked at 17th in 2020. In seven combined seasons as a head coach, he has yet to field a top-70 offense. Now would be a great time for that to change. Of the nine defenders who recorded at least 500 snaps in 2021, seven are gone, including four defensive backs. Brown and coordinator Jordan Lesley still have proven disruptors like tackle Dante Stills , end Taijh Alston and linebacker Jared Bartlett , but the fact that Brown brought in seven transfers and three jucos on defense speaks loud. Editor's Picks What good college football programs are doing to elevate to elite status 8d Adam Rittenberg 2 Related The offense should be experienced, and the offensive line returns four players who were at least honorable mention All-Big 12 last year. But 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown and high-efficiency slot man Winston Wright Jr . are gone, as is quarterback Jarret Doege . Brown won the battle for Daniels, which could be huge. Daniels showed off a world-class arm at USC in 2018 and at UGA late in 2020, and considering WVU's problems last year centered around a terrible lack of big plays, he could potentially make a huge difference. But he also hasn't had a fully healthy season since 2018. If Daniels can stay on the field, he could help receivers Bryce Ford-Wheaton , Sam James and Kaden Prather fully realize their big-play potential. A ground game centered around Tony Mathis Jr . and Clemson transfer Lyn-J Dixon could be efficient, too. But the Mountaineers face a massive burden of proof, and Daniels' injury history hovers like a rain cloud. Without a breakthrough on this side of the ball, this could be a shaky season in Morgantown. Did Kansas' last three games tell us something? Lance Leipold is fearless. When one of the biggest tests in college football arose, the 58-year-old jumped at it. Kansas had won a combined nine games in six seasons before Leipold's 2021 arrival and hasn't won more than three games in a year since 2008. Leipold wasn't hired until May, either -- he wouldn't even get a true look at his team until fall camp. Leipold is one of the most accomplished coaches in football -- he won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater and two MAC East titles at Buffalo -- but his first KU team was predictably awful. The Jayhawks lost to a dismal Duke team by 19, and even with an inspired performance against Oklahoma -- they led 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter before falling 35-23 -- the average score in their first six Big 12 games was Opponent 45, KU 11. Something interesting happened down the stretch, though. Sophomore quarterback Jalon Daniels established himself behind center -- he ranked 21st in Total QBR after Nov. 1, ahead of Oklahoma's Caleb Williams and Ole Miss' Matt Corral , among others. The offense as a whole began to show promise, and the Jayhawks pulled a stunning 57-56 upset of Texas in one of the best games of 2021. They proceeded to nearly beat TCU and West Virginia as well, losing by 31-28 and 34-28 margins. It was too late to help KU's full-season numbers (the Jayhawks finished 123rd in SP+), but that three-game spark seemed to come from a pretty organic place. Leipold is one of the best culture builders in college football, and that culture was starting to take root in November. Daniels and sophomore running back Devin Neal return, the offensive line has a couple of all-conference contenders (tackle Earl Bostick Jr ., center Mike Novitsky ), and an experienced defense got a talent boost from the transfer portal, from which Leipold added all-MAC pass-rusher Lonnie Phelps from Miami (Ohio) and a handful of power-conference players. And for added bonus points, Leipold and his staff were actually around for spring ball this year! Leipold was the first sensible hire KU has made since bringing in Mark Mangino in 2002, and it appears there's hope in Lawrence for the first time since Mangino left -- maybe not "bowling in 2022" level hope, but hope all the same. My 10 favorite players Jalon Daniels is giving KU some hope for 2022. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports QB Jalon Daniels, Kansas. Daniels' last three games of 2021: 71% completion rate, six touchdowns, 13 rushes of 5+ yards. KU has been hopeless at QB for years, but there's legitimate promise here. RB Emani Bailey, TCU. In a crowded Louisiana backfield, the freshman stood out, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and creating pass-catching danger as well. He and Trelon Smith could be game-changers in the TCU backfield. SLOT Myles Price, Texas Tech. His 72% catch rate (from three different QBs!) proved his efficiency potential, and his eight catches of 25-plus yards hinted at serious explosiveness. Kittley inherits one proven pass-catching weapon, at least. LG Trevor Downing, Iowa State. According to Sports Info Solutions, Downing attempted 818 blocks in 2021. He blew six of them. No wonder he earned first-team all-conference honors. LT Earl Bostick Jr., Kansas. Over an 11-game span from 2020 through the first two weeks of 2021, the senior from Barnwell, South Carolina, allowed 11 sacks. Over the final 10 games of 2021, he allowed none. KU's O-line could be a legitimate strength this fall. DE Will McDonald IV, Iowa State. Generally speaking, if a defensive end is producing a pressure rate over 10%, it's good. Over 15% is elite. Over three seasons, McDonald's pressure rate is 17.1%. He has recorded 28 sacks. He's one of the best players in FBS. DT Dante Stills, WVU. A lot of defensive talent has left Morgantown recently, but Stills remains. The 285-pounder recorded seven sacks and 14 run stuffs and should team with Jordan Jefferson to form one of the better DT tandems in FBS. OLB Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech. One of the more unique players in the conference, the 275-pounder is listed as an outside linebacker, and he flew around the field like a 235-pounder in 2021, logging seven sacks and taking part in 15 tackles for loss. LB Jared Bartlett, WVU. One of only seven power-conference linebackers to record a havoc play -- a TFL, forced fumble or pass defensed -- on at least 3.5% of snaps (minimum 350 snaps), Bartlett might have to take on an even heavier load in the playmaking department this year. CB Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson , TCU. TCU's defensive troubles weren't Hodges-Tomlinson's fault -- the 5-foot-9 senior intercepted two passes, broke up seven more and allowed a paltry 23.1 QBR as the primary coverage guy. Honorable mention: QB Donovan Smith (Texas Tech), RB Devin Neal (Kansas), RB Tahj Brooks (Texas Tech), WR Xavier Hutchinson (Iowa State), WR Quentin Johnston (TCU), LG James Gmiter (WVU), DE Lonnie Phelps (Kansas), DE Dylan Horton (TCU), DT Tony Bradford Jr . (Texas Tech), S Dadrion Taylor-Demerson (Texas Tech). Anniversaries In 1977, 45 years ago, Earle Bruce's Iowa State beat Nebraska for a second straight year. Campbell might end up the best hire in Iowa State history, but Bruce set the bar high. Before succeeding Woody Hayes at Ohio State in 1979, Bruce led the Cyclones to three straight eight-win seasons -- as many as they had enjoyed in the 75 years before his arrival -- and their first-ever ranked finish. In the 36 years that Nebraska employed either Bob Devaney or Tom Osborne as head coach, ISU beat the Huskers only three times, but two were under Bruce's guidance. In 1976, Cyclone fans tore down the goalposts after a late 17-8 run gave them a 37-28 win and moved them into the AP top 15 for just the second time ever. The next year, ISU went 13-for-23 on third downs, took the lead in the second quarter and never relinquished it, beating the ninth-ranked Huskers 24-21 in Lincoln. In 2002, 20 years ago, Kliff Kingsbury threw for 5,000 yards. In the nine years before Mike Leach's arrival, Texas Tech had won either six or seven games seven times under Spike Dykes (Sonny's father). Despite an offensive overhaul, Leach was able to maintain that level in his first two seasons, going 7-6 and 7-5 in 2000-01. But the Red Raiders ignited in Leach's third season. Third-year starter Kliff Kingsbury -- the future Texas Tech and Arizona Cardinals head coach -- threw 51 passes per game and ended up with 5,017 yards and 45 touchdowns as the Red Raiders scored 40-plus points nine times, upset No. 4 Texas and destroyed Clemson, 55-15, to finish with nine wins. They would win at least eight games in each of Leach's next seven seasons, too. In 2007, 15 years ago, Kansas played for the No. 1 ranking. In retrospect, it remains the most jarring of all the jarring tidbits from the amazing 2007 season. Mangino had already moved mountains to make Kansas an annual bowl contender -- the Jayhawks had bowled just twice in the 21 years before his arrival, but won six or more games three times in four years from 2003 to 2006. In 2007, with a depth chart stocked with veterans like quarterback Todd Reesing, running back Brandon McAnderson, receiver Kerry Meier, linebacker Joe Mortensen and cornerback Aqib Talib, KU took an unprecedented leap. The Jayhawks won their first 11 games of the season, moving to second in the polls and facing 10-1 Missouri at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium for the right to move to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. The Tigers got the best of them, leaping to a 28-7 lead and holding on 36-28, but the Jayhawks rebounded with an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech and a No. 7 finish in the AP poll, their best ever. They won 12 games that year. They've won 11 in the past six seasons. In 2012, 10 years ago, West Virginia beat Baylor, 70-63. It was probably the peak of the Big 12's video-game offense era. Art Briles' Bears gained 700 yards from scrimmage, Nick Florence threw for 581 yards with just 29 completions, and Baylor scored touchdowns on nine of 14 drives. That somehow wasn't enough because Dana Holgorsen's Mountaineers scored 10 times. Geno Smith completed 45 of 51 passes (!) for 656 yards (!!) and eight touchdowns (!!!), and Stedman Bailey caught 13 passes for 303 yards and five scores. The Mountaineers built a 56-35 lead with 20 minutes left, then saw the game out with 87- and 39-yard Smith-to-Bailey strikes. I'm a fan of points, and I love the impact the spread offense has had on football as a whole ... and this game was almost too much for me. In 2017, five years ago, TCU enjoyed Gary Patterson's last great season. Patterson was long regarded as one of college football's best coaches, and there's a statue of him near TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium. He is as well-regarded as they come, but you could STILL make the case that he is underrated. Between 1959 and 2001, when Patterson took over, TCU had enjoyed one ranked finish (when Patterson was the defensive coordinator) and two bowl wins. But from 2002 to 2018, TCU scored 12 ranked finishes, six top-10s, 11 bowl wins and an invitation to the Big 12. It was an incredible run. Runs end, however, and TCU's 2017 campaign represented the last peak of the Patterson era. It was an awfully fun season, though: TCU beat No. 6 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, moved to fourth in the polls before a tight loss to Iowa State and lost only to a loaded OU (twice) down the stretch. The Horned Frogs scored win No. 11 by erasing a fourth-quarter deficit in the Alamo Bowl and beating Stanford 39-37 to finish ninth in the year-end poll.