Five questions with an Athlon editor

With the Big 12’s football media days being less than a week away, there is no better time than now to heavily focus on the upcoming season. Today, asks Steven Lassan, an editor from Athlon Sports about the publications predictions for the Big 12 in 2014. 

What is the national outlook on the Cyclones and other hot Big 12 topics? Find out here. 

CF: Let’s begin with Iowa State. Athlon is projecting the Cyclones to go 4-8 (2-7) in 2014. I think that most Iowa State fans would consider that a fair projection. What was Athlon’s conversation like when it came to the Cyclones? Did anybody think that a bowl game was possible? Was anybody pushing for three wins or fewer?

SL: I thought the Big 12 was one of the toughest conferences to project this year. Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State and Texas (in some order) were clearly the top four teams in the league, and Kansas was a unanimous pick for the cellar in our preseason meeting. But the 5-9 range in the Big 12 was very difficult to project. We discussed Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU the most for the No. 5 spot, with Iowa State starting to appear into the conversation at No. 7. Most of our discussion for the Cyclones was for No. 7 or No. 8 in the league, as we felt there was a chance this team could get to 3-6 or 4-5 in league play. We eventually settled on Iowa State at No. 8, but there was some support among the editorial staff in the room to rank this team a spot higher.

Considering how tight the conference is from No. 5-9, a bowl game is very much within reach for Iowa State. Our projection has the Cyclones finishing at 4-8 and 2-7 in conference play, but I think picking up a swing game is realistic to get to 3-6. The road date against rival Iowa could be huge for bowl positioning. Most of our debate on Iowa State thought this team would be better, so finishing 3-9 again would be a surprise.

One other factor that works in Iowa State’s favor is key swing games against TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia are all late in the season. By then, the Cyclones should have a better grasp on Mark Mangino’s offense, while the defense can find a few answers up front.  

CF: How much impact did the addition of Mark Mangino as Iowa State’s new offensive coordinator have when it came to Athlon’s season projections for the Cyclones?

SL: This was a huge point in Iowa State’s favor when discussing the Cyclones versus Texas Tech or West Virginia for the 7-9 spots. Mangino should make a big difference for Iowa State’s offense, which clearly has to get better after averaging just 4.7 yards per play in conference games last year. I thought Mangino was one of the offseason’s top coordinator hires and is especially critical with a young quarterback like Grant Rohach finishing 2013 on a high note. Considering Mangino’s track record of producing capable offenses at a program like Kansas (much like Iowa State in terms of not having elite five-star talent), I think this hire is going to be a home run for coach Paul Rhoads. Had the Cyclones not changed offensive coordinators, I think it’s realistic we would have picked Iowa State behind West Virginia this year.

CF: Texas Tech and West Virginia (both at home) appear to be big swing games for Iowa State this season. Dana Holgerson might be coaching for his job and Texas Tech was simply a mess to end 2013. It seems like Iowa State and those two programs are all in fairly similar situations heading into the fall. Can you give Cyclone fans a quick primer as to Athlon’s opinions on Tech and West Virginia and also, where the Cyclones fit in the pecking order of those three programs when it comes to your projections for 2014? 

SL: I definitely think the gap between Texas Tech, Iowa State and West Virginia is relatively small.

The Red Raiders probably have the most upside out of this trio, especially if quarterback Davis Webb takes the next step in his development after a solid freshman year. In addition to Webb, the Red Raiders should have one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines and has potential breakout players at receiver in Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez. Even without tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Texas Tech. However, the defense is relying heavily on junior college transfers to round out its starting rotation up front, and the secondary is breaking in four new starters. For this team to finish any higher than No. 7, the defense (with just three starters back) has to improve. In terms of wins and losses, the Red Raiders should be right around their total from last season. Even though the bowl win over Arizona State was huge, Texas Tech finished the regular season by losing its last five games and three of those losses were by 20 points or more. The Red Raiders have to show improvement against the better teams in the Big 12 to push for a top-five finish in the league this year. 

Outside of Texas, West Virginia might be the hardest team to project in the Big 12 this year. Despite their struggles on the field, the Mountaineers are still recruiting well. West Virginia has talent on offense, including Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell at running back, receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford and guard Quinton Spain (Athlon Sports All-American). However, there’s a glaring question mark at quarterback. Clint Trickett missed spring practice due to a shoulder injury, and junior college recruit Skyler Howard is expected to redshirt after not making a push for the starting job in the spring. In an odd storyline from a Dana Holgorsen coached offense, West Virginia could be more of a running team in 2014.

I thought the Mountaineers’ defense was better than it showed on the stat sheet last season, but injuries took a toll on the depth and this unit allowed 33.3 points per game in 2013. New coordinator Tony Gibson is unproven as a play-caller, but he will have help from former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley. With six starters returning, West Virginia should show improvement on defense. However, with the quarterback concerns and a brutal non-conference schedule (Alabama and Maryland), the Mountaineers might not show much progress in the win column. 

Our projections ended with Texas Tech taking the No. 7 spot, with Iowa State at No. 8 and West Virginia at No. 9. Getting the Red Raiders and Mountaineers at home is huge for the Cyclones’ chances of finishing higher than No. 8 and pushing for a bowl. I also think it’s critical both games are later in the year, allowing Iowa State plenty of time to address some of its personnel concerns.

CF: Texas seems like a difficult program to project during the summer months before camp starts. With Mack Brown out and Charlie Strong now in, I’m curious as to what the Athlon “war room” was like when discussing the Longhorns. Is there a chance that this team could surprise people and compete for the league title with Oklahoma and Baylor or does Strong simply need some time to get his system in place?

SL: The talent is certainly there for Texas to push for the Big 12 title, but I do think this team might be the hardest to project for 2014. The Longhorns have averaged an 8.4 finish nationally in the last five recruiting classes – better than any other Big 12 team. However, Texas is just 18-17 over the last four years in conference play. Charlie Strong’s top priority is to maximize and develop the talent that Mack Brown recruited. I thought Strong was a surprising hire, but I do think his ability to develop talent is what this program needs in 2014. Although Strong didn’t hire a big-name offensive coordinator, he did pull Joe Wickline – arguably the nation’s No. 1 offensive line coach – away from Oklahoma State. Wickline’s presence is huge for a team that has not had a lineman drafted since 2008.

In terms of Texas’ strengths, the running back corps – if Johnathan Gray is healthy – should be the best in the Big 12. The defensive line is also among the league’s best, and senior cornerback Quandre Diggs could push for All-American honors.

However, the biggest problem for Texas is as at quarterback. David Ash missed most of last year due to a concussion and suffered a foot injury at the end of spring practice. Ash’s health is a huge concern, as there’s not much in the way of proven depth behind him. If Ash misses any action, the Longhorns could turn to true freshman Jerrod Heard under center.

The schedule certainly isn’t easy for Strong in his first year, but if Ash stays healthy and the defense improves, the Longhorns can push for nine victories. There’s a lot of question marks and “ifs” when discussing Texas’ potential for 2014. However, it’s also hard to ignore the talent that still remains in the program, along with a coach that knows how to develop players.

I would be very surprised if Texas finished ahead of Baylor or Oklahoma this year but getting back into the top 25 is a realistic goal.

CF: Many pundits expect Oklahoma to be a real contender to win a national title this year. Athlon has the Sooners at 11-1 (8-1). Athlon’s No. 2 in the league, Baylor, is projected to go 10-2 (7-2). Is this simply a matter of Baylor having to go on the road to play Texas and Oklahoma, while the majority of Oklahoma’s premier games are in Norman? Or, is Oklahoma clearly the better team in 2014, according to Athlon?

SL: I think Oklahoma is the better team this year. We have to be careful not to read too much into bowl games, but the Sooners won 11 games in a rebuilding year and return a good portion of the team’s core for 2014. Trevor Knight won’t have many outings similar to the one he had against Alabama, but he should be one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks this year. The biggest question mark facing Oklahoma’s offense is in the receiving corps, as Jalen Saunders departs after leading the team with 61 catches.

Even though the offense should improve in 2014, I think the biggest reason for optimism in Norman is the defense. The Sooners return nine starters and regain the services of a healthy Jordan Phillips at defensive tackle. Replacing Aaron Colvin at cornerback is this team’s biggest concern. 

The schedule is also in Oklahoma’s favor. The Sooners play at TCU and Texas Tech, but Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State have to come to Norman.

I think Baylor is still among the top 10-15 teams in the nation, but this team must replace a handful of key players on defense, along with standout offensive guard Cyril Richardson. With left tackle Spencer Drango recovering from back surgery, the offensive line could be a work in progress early in the year.

With the firepower returning on offense, Baylor is going to push for the national lead in points per game once again. However, the concerns on defense in the back seven, along with a trip to Norman (a huge revenge game for Oklahoma), I think the Bears slip to No. 2 in the Big 12 this year.