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Keeping Up with the Conference: Preview and predictions for the 2019 Season

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Texas and Oklahoma find themselves on a crash course for a Big 12 Championship rematch — but how does the rest of the conference shake out?

We’ve finally made it, y’all. College football is officially back.

We appreciated the NCAA’s “attempt” to have a football game last week, as Week 0’s flag-fest of Miami vs. Florida gave all football fans a meaningful game to watch. But this weekend is the true start of the 2019 season, and Texas Longhorns fans (and most football fans everywhere) can finally look forward to seeing their favorite team in action.

That excitement is especially true in the Big 12, where an offseason chock full of headlines and hype have generated a nation-wide buzz for the conference that it’s been lacking in recent years. A flurry of head coaching changes (Texas Tech, West Virginia, Kansas State, and Kansas), transfer portal gains and losses (Jalen Hurts to Oklahoma), and the presumptive rise of Texas back to college football’s elite all drove storylines and gave Longhorn and Big 12 football fans something to discuss.

But now that we’re finally here, at the doorstep of the college football season, how should you expect the season to play out for the Big 12? What players should you be looking out for each weekend? What games are you circling on your calendar? And most importantly, can Texas get back to the Big 12 Championship?

Burnt Orange Nation’s got all those answers and more — here’s your guide to the 2019 Big 12 season.

Projected final standings — Big 12 (with Vegas odds to win conference)

Jalen Hurts
CBS Sports

1. Oklahoma Sooners (-140)

It’s a sad truth for Longhorn fans and for those of us who are decent human beings — the Big 12 is Oklahoma’s conference until someone can unseat them. Off the heels of back-to-back Heisman seasons and College Football Playoff appearances, Lincoln Riley turns to Jalen Hurts to run his offense. After being relegated to Tua Tagovailoa’s backup last season, Hurts transferred to OU, but he shouldn’t be expected to bring the same energy that Baker Mayfield or perennial limbo champion Kyler Murray brought. Instead, Hurts has shown to be an efficient game manager who limits mistakes, as he did in last season as the starter in Alabama (60.4% completion, 2081 yards, 17 TD, 1 INT, 855 yardds rushing).

2. Texas Longhorns (+325)

You may not have heard, but Sam Ehlinger is really good at football. In fact, he’s so good that he’s gotten the attention of numerous experts and pundits, and he’s been singled out as the reason why Texas is ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 2010. But he’s not the only reason why many love Texas as a Big 12 (and College Football Playoff) contender. A strong offense headlined by wide receiver Collin Johnson with plenty of returning starters from last season’s Sugar Bowl champions provides a vaunted attack for Tom Herman and company to play with. The defense has its question marks at line backer and d-line depth, but an impressive young core in the secondary (safeties Caden Sterns and BJ Foster) hope to improve over the year under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando as Texas vies for its first conference championship in 10 years.

3. Iowa State (+700)

Two years ago, Iowa State surprised everyone in the Big 12 with a remarkable 8-5 season following seven straight losing seasons. Last year didn’t provide any big surprises, and the Cyclones were steady en route to another 8-5 season. Head coach Matt Campbell needs to take the next step if he wants to be considered an elite coach, and he’ll have a fair shot at doing so this year. Quarterback Brock Purdy returns to the helm after an impressive freshman season, and Iowa State boasts arguably the best defense in the Big 12. A 10-win season isn’t totally out of the question, especially with home games against in-state rival Iowa, TCU, and Texas. Don’t be surprised if this team is in contention for the Big 12 Championship game come season’s end.

4. Baylor (+1600)

Third-year head coach Matt Rhule turned in an excellent season with the Bears in 2018, getting them back into bowl season and winning a bowl game to finish the year at 7-6, a massive improvement over his first year at the helm in Waco. Baylor’s offense features quarterback Charlie Brewer, who was red hot to end last season, finishing the year to the tune of 3019 yards, 19 TDs, and 9 INTs. Baylor should again have an explosive offense, and a favorable schedule (home against Texas Tech, Texas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma) should give them an edge in what are going to be plenty of closely contested games. Their season comes down to their defense — it’ll need to step up in order to improve over last year’s record and get to eight wins.

5. TCU (+1500)

Injuries and inconsistent offense ruined the Horned Frogs’ season last year, with TCU relying on three different QBs and averaging just 20.9 points per game — the worst mark in the Big 12. Kansas State transfer Alex Delton (a very spooky-close name to Andy Dalton) will be turned to provide consistency at the position, where he won’t have to do much to win games thanks to the TCU defense. Head coach Gary Patterson should have another rock-solid defense that will keep the Frogs in games and make TCU a tough opponent all season long.

6. Texas Tech (+3000)

Texas Tech QB Alan Bowman
NY Post

Like many teams below them, Texas Tech will have a new man with the headset at games this season. After an uninspiring season from Kliff Kingsbury somehow landed him a job in the NFL, former Utah State coach Luke Wells begins his tenure in Lubbock. The Red Raiders have talent returning, specifically under center with quarterback Alan Bowman recovered from a collapsed lung. Paired with an SEC-level of difficulty non-conference schedule (Montana St., UTEP, at Arizona) it’s possible Tech opens the season at 3-0 to build some momentum before inevitably finishing the season at 7-5.

7. Oklahoma State (+2500)

The Cowboys have a terrific set of playmakers to surround whichever quarterback between Spencer Sanders and Dru Brown wins the position battle. Receivers Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner are joined by Chuba Hubbard and five upperclassmen along the offensive line. They simply need a functional quarterback performance to produce big plays. The defense has more uncertainty, though. Last season, OSU boasted the highest number of sacks per game in the Big 12 (3.0). Aside from that, the Cowboys ranked in the bottom half of every other team defensive metric, including dead last in rushing yards allowed per game (185.4 yards), second to last in scoring defense (32.5 points), and third to last in passing defense (267.1 yards).

8. West Virginia (+5000)

The Mountaineers take country roads into a new era, with Dana Holgerson leaving the gold and blue for the University of Houston. They also lose their two offensive superstars from last season — quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills. WVU got Oklahoma grad-transfer quarterback Austin Kendall after a bit of a controversial delay in the transfer portal this offseason, where he finally gets a chance to start after backing up two Heisman-winning quarterbacks. And incoming coach Neal Brown is a fantastic hire on paper, and he should have the Mountaineer program up and running very soon. That just won’t be this year, as West Virginia’s defense will again struggle to keep teams off the board.

9. Kansas State (+3000)

The purple wizard is gone (again), as Bill Snyder retired (again). After dominating the FCS level with North Dakota State, Chris Klieman was hired and given the chance to lead an FBS program to the same glory and success he achieved with the Bison. 2018’s Big 12 leading rusher, running back Alex Barnes, is gone, but quarterback Skylar Thompson returns, where it remains to be seen if he can pose a threat with his arm (1,391 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs) like he can at times with his legs (373 yards, 5 TDs).

10. Kansas (+7000)

The hiring of Les Miles garnered a lot of headlines, but he unfortunately inherits what should easily be the worst team in the Big 12. Don’t expect too much from this Jayhawks squad this year — although running back Pooka Williams should be electrifying coming off Big 12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Players to Watch

Sam Ehlinger, QB Texas

Ehlinger took a major jump in development in his sophomore season, raising his completion percentage to nearly 65 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25-5. Expect the junior to continue to improve in the passing game as he enters year two as the full-time starter under Tom Herman’s offense. Ehlinger became just the sixth Power Five conference player in the last 20 years to throw at least 25 touchdowns and rush for 15 scores in one season. His ability to make plays with his arm and his legs makes him a premier star to watch in 2019.

CeeDee Lamb, WR Oklahoma

All talk will be about Jalen Hurts — and rightfully so. He was the biggest name in the transfer portal this offseason. But even if Hurts is more of a threat on the ground than through the air, as he has been in the past, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb remains a game changer in the Sooner passing attack that can’t be ignored. Lamb is an elite route runner, has some of the best hands in college football, and his next-level body control allows him to adjust to throws in mid-air. He’s quite possibly the most exciting player in the Big 12 on a per-play basis.

Jalen Reagor
TCU Athletics

Jalen Reagor, WR TCU

The 5’11, 195-pounder is a speed demon who effortlessly creates space for his quarterback to work with. Even as the Horned Frogs fumbled with a three quarterback rotation last year, Reagor was a consistent problem for defenses. With the quarterback situation more settled, look out for Reagor to wreak havoc in the pass-happy Big 12 this season. Reagor is the best offensive player on TCU — and maybe even the Big 12.

Alan Bowman QB, Texas Tech

In the short time he played last year due to injury, Alan Bowman showed flashes of potential to be considered one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. During that eight-game true freshman year, Bowman completed 227-of-327 passes for 2,638 yards and 17 touchdowns. Bowman’s not in the Kliff Kingsbury air raid offense anymore, but look for the sophomore to build upon an impressive first season.

Notable Games

The Red River Rivalry is the premier Big 12 game of 2019, as always
ESPN

Texas vs Oklahoma (Oct. 12)

The de-facto game of the year every year. This game may not carry Big 12 Championship game implications, but if Texas and Oklahoma go into Dallas with perfect or one-loss records, this game would carry playoff implications and matter the most on a national scale.

Iowa State at Oklahoma (Nov. 9)

Matt Campbell came into Norman two years ago, handed Lincoln Riley his first career defeat and ended a 30-year losing streak to the Sooners. If Iowa State wants to be a dark-horse contender for the Big 12, stealing a game on the road would be a big push in that direction.

Baylor at TCU (Nov. 9)

While not quite at Iowa State’s level, Baylor and TCU carry extremely similar hopes and projections. They finally meet in Fort Worth in November, with a potential fourth spot in the Big 12 on the line.

Championship Game Prediction

Oklahoma vs. Texas

As I mentioned above, even if Jalen Hurts is a disappointment in the passing game, his running ability should still propel the Sooners to the Big 12 Championship game. A tough end-of-year stretch against Iowa State, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State looms on their schedule, and any of those games are certainly losable. If the Sooners were to drop a game or two, though, that would definitely kill their title hopes. But the lack of competition outside of the Longhorns means there’s a margin for error in the conference race. I think Oklahoma sets the pace for the conference yet again, and finishes the season at 11-1.

For Texas, the important question for them is — can they replace the talent they lost from last year? A lot of that was on the defensive side of the ball and luckily for Texas, Todd Orlando has a bevy of young talent to work with, and returners in key positions to help lead the defense. Texas has a tougher schedule in-conference than they did last year, with games against Iowa State, TCU, Baylor, and the very distant road game at West Virginia away from their friendly under-construction confines at DKR. Of those four games, as well as the Red River Rivalry game, Texas can only afford to lose up to two of those matchups in order to return to the Big 12 title game. I think they finish the season with two losses in that group of five games, but they win out the rest of the schedule to get to 10-2.

Conference Winner

Texas QB Sam Ehlinger
Horns Illustrated

Like last year, Oklahoma will meet Texas in the Big 12 Championship game. And, like last year, Oklahoma will be higher ranked, the favorite in Vegas, and expected to win.

But unlike last year, the Horns come out on top.

Many forget, this was a close game last year until a costly safety in the fourth quarter gave the ball back to Oklahoma where Kyler Murray and company ran down the clock, scored and won the game, 39-27. Texas belonged in that game (they proved as much by whooping up on Georgia a month later), but fell just short to a team boasting a historically great offense. Sure, OU’s defense will improve, because how could it not? And sure, they’re going to be great on offense, like they are every year. But this year’s Texas squad, when healthy, has enough talent to compete with, and defeat, the Sooners on the biggest of stages.

Ultimately, the X-factor this season for the Longhorns is going to be on the defensive side of the ball. Safeties Caden Sterns and BJ Foster become another year older, and hopefully better. Questions loom at cornerback, but utilizing a two-high safety look will limit the chances OU has to go over the top and break off big plays — an area Ceedee Lamb and Lincoln Riley have exposed in Texas for years.

The rest of the defense is a total wildcard, though. We probably won’t get a good sense of what we’re headed for this season until week two’s match-up against LSU. Replacing eight starters from last season’s defense is a tough task, and it’s the main reason why many project Texas as the Big 12 runner up. It’s a more than fair assessment.

But Texas will have the best player at the most important position in that game — Ehlinger is poised to make the leap from “very good” to “Heisman hopeful”. If that’s the case, and if we’re talking about Ehlinger going to New York City the very next weekend to potentially hoist the Heisman trophy, then the question that looms over the Big 12 won’t be “When will someone beat Oklahoma for the Big 12 Championship?” Instead, it’ll be:

“Who can stop Texas?”