Before the 2016 season starts, the Big 12 Conference can be broken down into five tiers, with each tier being a level of strength and realistic expectations for the teams based on what we know right now. And within those tiers, it's reasonable to accept that any of those teams could move up or down a tier by the time the season is over, including the Texas Longhorns.
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Tier 1: Oklahoma (AP No. 5)
Baker Mayfield returns and so does the dynamic running back duo of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Offensively, finding a go-to receiver will be a high priority for Mayfield and Oklahoma. But the unit should still be one of the better in the conference.
Defensively, there are some big shoes to be filled at some key positions. But it's not uncommon for a team with a strong offense and an average to above-average defense to win this conference. This Sooner team could be very good but if this defense doesn't come together or if Mayfield doesn't get the help he needs, it could slide down and open the door for another team to take the conference.
Tier 2: Oklahoma State (AP No. 20), TCU (AP No. 7)
TCU: Some of you may disagree with me here and want TCU lower. And to be honest, I was actually tempted to put TCU in the top tier. At first glance, it seems like TCU's offense will take a hit after losing guys like Trevone Boykin, Josh Doctson and Aaron Green.
But credit coach Patterson for being prepared with legitimate options to turn to at each of those positions with players like quarterback Kenny Hill, wide receivers Deante' Gray (back from missing all of 2015 with an injury) and KeVontae Turpin, and running back Kyle Hicks along with a few other options. And even if the offense takes a dip, the defense could end up as the best in the conference. Don't sleep on this TCU team.
OSU: The Pokes have an offense capable of leading the conference in scoring if the offensive line takes a step forward with all five starters returning. Starting quarterback Mason Rudolph is back and so is his go-to receiver James Washington, who may be the best in the conference at his position in 2016. Question marks float around the defense, but it could be a unit that comes together well enough for a run at the Big 12 Title.
Tier 3: Baylor (AP No. 13), Texas, Texas Tech, West Virginia (in no order)
Baylor, WVU and Tech are all teams with capable offenses and questions on defense. And Texas' questions balance between offense and defense but are not big enough to drop them another tier. All of these teams also have too many or too big of question marks surrounding their team preventing them from being placed in a higher tier, though any one of these teams could find themselves up a tier if things come together.
Baylor: This Bears team could legitimately find itself at 8-0 thanks to its schedule before hitting the meat of the conference in the last four games of the season. If an 8-0 run does happen, don't be fooled by the record. This team has to replace a lot on both side of the ball (and Art Briles is gone, of course).
Texas: This team may be the most interesting and perplexing of the bunch. Sterlin Gilbert is the new offensive coordinator for the Longhorns, and with him he's brought a new offensive scheme that will probably be run by a new, freshman quarterback as well. And though there are quality players returning around the depth chart, many are still just sophomores or juniors that haven't ended a season with a winning record during their time at Texas. This team could very well find itself in the next tier up as the season progresses. Or it could have another frustrating season and sit in the middle of the conference like it has the past two seasons.
Texas Tech: Head coach Kilff Kingsbury has the best quarterback in the conference in Patrick Mahomes. And its offense should score plenty. But Mahomes can't play defense, and that's what Tech needs most this season. The red Raiders could find themselves finishing in the upper half of the conference or square in the middle. Next season is likely when people should pay more attention to Tech if Mahomes and company return.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers will probably have a roller coaster of a season thanks to its schedule. It does get senior quarterback Skyler Howard back, but he needs to elevate his game to the next level for the Mountaineers to even finish in the top-3 or 4 of the conference. And replacing Wendell Smallwood is no easy task either.
Tier 4: Iowa State, Kansas State
Both Iowa State and Kansas State are teams capable of an upset or two throughout conference play. But neither is likely strong enough to actually contend for the Big 12 title this season. Finishing in the top half of the conference and making it to a bowl game are realistic goals for both of these teams, but that would take a big slide from one of the teams in the third tier.
Tier 5: Kansas
Kansas finished with a win-less 0-12 record last season. This season, just trying to get a single win is one of the goals for the Jayhawks.
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The "Spread Offense Conference" as I like to call it has a lot of opportunity for drama this season -- there isn't one team that is without key question marks surrounding its depth chart to start the season. And without a doubt, it will be interesting to see who's still standing and who's fallen when the season comes to an end.