JAY JORDAN: Big 12 preseason tiers for 2020

Oct 26, 2019; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) throws as TCU Horned Frogs linebacker Garret Wallow (30) defends during the second quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The analysis and opinions below are based on a hypothetical bubble without considering any effects from Covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement. Both can drastically change a team’s prospects and either could result in disruption of the season. I have no idea how those will impact each team or the season as a whole, but failure to make significant changes or resistance to change, much needed and overdue change, at the university and team level could and should disrupt a team. I am fully supportive of this disruption as it may lead to a greater voice and impact of a movement that I believe is necessary. I would view that as positive and worth more than wins and games played. A disproportionate and untimely outbreak of the disease could have a negative effect on where depth is tested or devastated. I would view that as negative in a football and legal context and hope with the rest of you that it does not manifest.

Putting that aside, below, I seek to rank the Big 12 teams in the expected order of finish and provide a few reasons why. This analysis sets one up to look dumb, but that is a significant part of the fun of offseason analysis.

Tier 1

The top tier is the teams I believe will jockey for the two slots in the championship game and possibly a playoff appearance. Each of the teams here are set up well by history and skill level and I do not see a significant separation between the teams.

1. Texas

Yep, here they are again at the top of my rankings. One year I will be right. But, I think this is the best bet for that to be true. Why? I mean, they were set up last year to do the same and ended the season in the pronounced mediocre stratosphere and cleaned the coaching house?

Yes, yes, that is the rub. My reason for being very high on Texas in 2020 is founded on Ehlinger, Ash, and Yurcich.

Ehlinger – The signal-caller failed to carry the team he carried to 10 wins the season before. He regressed with some decision-making leading to critical turnovers and did not elevate the team as he indicated he would from the past year’s performance. I do not know the reason, but given the coaching changes, I suspect some of that rested on a restraint of Ehlinger’s game versus putting him forward to be a playmaker. Regardless, I believe his extensive experience gives him a leg up on all of the other quarterbacks in the league. A solidified running game will assist the league’s top quarterback in turning Texas into the league’s top team.

Ash – Chris Ash is the new defensive coordinator and brings his version of the 4-3 to Austin. I like this move. Ash utilizes a stand-up end (Joe Ossai) as his fourth man down and attempts to get pressure with four. This can achieve a successful balance between pressure and coverage similar to TCU’s underlying schematic theory. I also believe the move will maximize the talent level available at Texas. When your talent is higher than your opponents, then conservative placement of the chess pieces results in tighter defense because more ground is patrolled by those talented players. A more fundamental and conservative approach will allow the talent on the Texas defense to reach its potential.

Yurcich- The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator (2013-2018) arrives in Austin with a ton of weapons to work with. He is a top offensive mind and typically turns out virtually indefensible offenses. At Oklahoma State, he utilized RPO’s, varied “wheel” based route patterns, and his RB’s and TE’s underneath to put defenses on their heels. At Texas, he will have the best receiving back (Keontay Ingram) in the Big 12 and excellent speed and size on the outside with an experienced and accurate quarterback. Mike Yurcich with the top talent in the Big 12 is a scary prospect for the league.

The LSU game is important and winnable for Texas. The Red River Shootout and a late-season date in Stillwater are the test games for Texas. I do not expect a strong challenge from any of their other opponents if things are clicking and Tom Herman is captaining the ship competently.

2. Oklahoma

The perennial champ is hard to pick against. However, I have them second and not third only because of past history.

OU has the best offensive line in the conference. This provides the flexibility to rely heavily on the running game if there are any struggles from the untested, but talented, passers. OU relied extensively on the running game last season running the ball almost 60% of the time for more than 3,300 yards. Even if there is a drop off at quarterback, the offense will be effective.

OU made strides on defense, but lose playmakers at every level of the defense. There is top tier talent ready to replace them and Alex Grinch is now in his second year. I have a high degree of respect for Coach Grinch and believe that the defense will improve. So, what’s the problem?

Rattler and/or Mordecai may be the best of the OU passers we have seen. I don’t know. Therein lies the issue. Mayfield, Murray, and Hurts had a track record coming in. The two new candidates may be even better, but it is reasonable to surmise that they may not be as consistent as the other three. If that inconsistency manifests in the Red River or Bedlam games, or both, then OU could find itself on the outside looking in.

The early season game against Tennessee will be a good barometer. Tennessee does not appear to be on OU’s level, but they play physically on both sides of the ball and the defense can be excellent at times. OU can overcome an early-season upset, but if an upset occurs, how it occurs will set expectations for the Big 12 schedule.

3. Oklahoma State

Chuba and Tylan. Perhaps the two most unstoppable forces at their skill positions in the country. Add in a strong offensive line and a quarterback who will improve and you have a typical 10 win formula for Oklahoma State. Whether they can reach 11 or 12 wins will rest on the defense – per usual.

OSU’s defense improved as the year went on, but was still vulnerable to stretches where they would get lost. They are fast and aggressive. When playing confidently they generate TFL’s, sacks, and turnovers. In 2019 they were a cylinder off and occasionally 2 or 3. Their prospects will be tied to whether or not they can be consistently disruptive.

OSU is benefited by a schedule that has Iowa State and Texas coming to Stillwater. But, it all rests on a mid-season visit to Norman for Bedlam. OSU has been close but has a five-game losing streak in the series. I believe they are positioned to break through in that game, but it will likely determine their fate in the standings. However, Oklahoma State is best positioned to crash the championship game out of the non-blue blood programs in the conference.

Tier 2

4. Iowa State

Iowa State is hard to place. No one dominates them except Kansas State and Iowa. They are always a threat for an upset because of that. They are always a threat to be upset because of that. ISU is resilient and more talented than they have ever been, though depth remains an issue.

The upside is that there is an established star at quarterback and an experienced defense. Breece Hall is a budding star, Charlie Kolar is still underrated, and the unproven receiving corps has more playmakers among the candidates for catches than it has had in the past.

The downside is that the offensive line could be — well– offensive, yet again. The athletic potential is available and the candidates for the line position have time in the program which should result in an improved unit. If so, then Iowa State has a chance to crash the party in the top tier. However, that is such a large question that it is hard to go all-in on the prospects of reaching 9 or 10 wins.

The difference could be a defense that reverses last season’s slight regression and instead is a top one or two defense in the league. In order to maintain and improve the current level, they will need to introduce some schematic wrinkles to not only confound opponents but to utilize the talent available in their highest and best use.

The schedule has seven home games but features Iowa, Oklahoma State, TCU, and Texas on the road. That is a potential 0-4 gauntlet. If ISU can get Iowa and TCU and avoid a let down at home, then that appears to be the ceiling. Otherwise, there is another 6-6 or 7-5 campaign ahead for the Cyclones and I will have overestimated ISU’s position.

5. TCU

Though still in tier 2, this entry begins the “who knows–if things go right” section of the league. I am riding with TCU at the top and will go so far as to say that TCU has a shot to gate crash the top tier if they can get after Iowa State and Oklahoma State.

I also think this is a critical year for Coach Gary Patterson. The QB chaos of the last two years should be put to rest with the continued emergence of Max Duggan. When TCU has had average to good quarterback play, they have won big in the Big 12. Each year they are first or second in pass defense and total defense in the league and they always produce a solid running game. But, inconsistency at QB has seemed to befuddle the elder statesman and produced subpar results of late.

Duggan is the primary reason I believe TCU to be a very dangerous and underrated team in the league. There were signs throughout the season that the game was slowing down for him as a runner and passer. He would sprinkle in some inexplicable gunslinging throws that got him in trouble, but if he is able to develop a bit better grip on what he is seeing downfield, then he becomes a top tier quarterback in this league.

The offensive line will need to be re-tooled, but TCU generally has very little difficulty in doing that. They have a stable of exciting backs including problem child Zach Evans who brings his five-star talent to Fort Worth. Taye Barber and Tevaillance Hunt can hold down the receiver position and provide solid targets for Duggan. More consistency is the expectation on offense and coupled with a TCU-like defense generally results in a lot of wins.

The defense struggled to get pressure with four last season, even with the presence of Ross Blacklock. Therefore, his loss is mitigated a bit. However, for my optimistic view to be validated, TCU will need to find a higher output from players like Ochaun Mathis. If TCU can get their sack numbers back into the mid to high 30’s then this team can be a spoiler.

By placing them fifth, I am expecting another season of close misses, but a return to bowl eligibility. However, I am previewing who I think will be positioned to occupy the OSU place in the top tier in 2021. TCU recruits at a level just below Texas and OU. The talent is available to return to prominence. If Patterson cannot produce a product that shows that promise, then there could be rumblings in Fort Worth over the next few seasons (but probably not).

Tier 3

6. Kansas State

This position at the top of the final tier is a toss-up between Kansas State and Baylor. I am giving Kansas State the nod because Coach Klieman is off to a good start and Dave Aranda is unknown as a head coach.

Kansas State has Skyler Thompson, a couple of good receivers, and an offensive line that needs re-tooling. However, like TCU, Kansas State has a proven track record of producing a consistent, if not great, offensive line regardless of how much talent they lose.

Defensively, the back seven are solid. The front needs a rebuild. Kansas State was not strong against the run in 2019, so a rebuilding defensive line could be an omen for further regression, or could provide for the introduction of players who are better against the run than the past crew. I am leaning towards a static performance to slightly better performance.

I do not believe there is a big-time upset in store akin to the Oklahoma win in 2019. Instead, Iowa State is the most likely target above them for an upset win. However, there is enough talent and new magic from Chris Klieman to expect wins against the teams listed below.

Bowl eligibility and nervous opponent fan bases are in order here. The team will be competitive with the same formula that is always seen in Manhattan. If there were experienced lineman coming back, then Kansas State likely moves up the board. It will take some time in the early season for them to gel which is why I am content placing them in the six slot.

7. Baylor

Last year’s championship game participant falls from grace in 2020. A new coach is not the reason. The primary reason for the rise of Baylor was a rash of football luck and a stifling defense that could get pressure with three thanks to James Lynch. Luck can change and nine of the starters from that defense are gone. That is why I believe there is a fall ahead for Baylor.

Matt Rhule recruited well and Dave Aranda is touted as a defensive genius. So, the potential to fall defensively may be overblown. But, it is hard to make a contrary prediction given the large loss of production. In addition, it is hard to make up for that loss of production while adapting to a new coach with a new scheme with new players.

Offensively, Baylor will be scrappy. Just like their quarterback Charlie Brewer. Brewer’s game provides an opportunity for Baylor to pull a number of upsets. But, the schedule presents a barrier to that possibility. Last season, Baylor hosted Oklahoma, Texas, and Iowa State. This season, those games are all on the road.

Baylor has too many barriers in the form of a new coach, defensive retooling, and stiff road tests to make a run to the top half of the conference. While a full regression is not in the cards, a battle to bowl eligibility is my expectation for the Bears.

8. West Virginia

Jarret Doege solidified the quarterback position. The running game was non-existent. The defense struggled at times and was very difficult to play against at times. Neal Brown overachieved — and will continue to do so.

West Virginia needs playmakers on the outside and a back that can get more than what is blocked. They need offensive speed and have some with some young players. The offensive line must be better and capable of blocking more yards for the backs. There is still work to do in rebuilding the roster which is why I have West Virginia slotted in this lowly slot. However, if the offense can find a couple of weapons for Doege, then the defense allows them to rise and threaten the second tier.

The defensive line and its pressure came into its own late last year and should be a strength this season. The linebackers are fast and factors in the TFL game as well as coverage. The secondary has some youth but is not unfortunate. This means that if West Virginia can step up its offensive production, then there is a chance to improve the win total based on a defense that is disruptive.

The schedule is made more difficult with an early season game against Florida State, but that game should not be put in the loss column. A win there would be a solid injection of confidence for a team that needs it. I do not think WVU is a threat in the league, but they will be better and 2021 should see them move up this chart.

9. Texas Tech

The transition to Matt Wells was typical for a new head coach. Wells is tasked with building a roster that fits his preferred system and transitioning to that system in a place where they are used to doing things the same way.

Jett Duffey was a solid QB option in the absence of oft-injured Alan Bowman. However, Duffey is gone through the portal. Bowman is back and it is a dicey proposition having to rely on him to be a 12-game starter. SaRoderick Thompson is an excellent back. Underrated. But, the offensive line has some work to do in order to provide a strong running option for the offense.

The defense was a bit of a mess last season, especially in the secondary. Tech just needs some players to emerge and some seasoning in the system before they will turn that trend around. I do not expect it to occur in 2020.

If Bowman is healthy, then the WR group and Thompson give them an opportunity to score with teams and pick up an additional win or two. Playing in Lubbock is always dicey and defending the home field will be very important in building some momentum in the program.

Ultimately, I think Tech struggles again, but I would place them higher if I believed Bowman stays healthy. The lack of depth will play a factor and though dangerous if given a chance via turnovers, I don’t believe Tech is where they need to be to consistently challenge the teams above them.

10. Kansas

I just do not see anything in the Kansas program that is different than what has been seen for the last five years plus. There are some talented pieces, even some pro talent, but the gap between those players and the balance of the roster is so wide that stilted performance is the inevitable result.

Pooka Williams is a fantastic player. A difference-maker. But, not enough to carry a team. Thomas McVittie should emerge as the quarterback and is the best bet to utilize a talented group of receivers. But, there are depth problems and talent issues on the offensive and defensive lines and questions about the defense overall.

It is possible that KU can put together a full game and win a Big 12 game, but I think the more likely scenario is a frustrating season that truly begins the test of Les Miles’ ability to re-build a program from the ground up.

I don’t know what the solution is in Lawrence, but I tend to believe that they need to strip the program down and focus on high school talent versus a continued dip into transfers and JUCO. They have to build a development plan that emphasizes their line positions and bring in skill-position talent that is more reliable. Time will tell, but 2020 is not the year.

The Big 12 is more of an enigma this season than in the past. Can Texas capture its talent base and propel forward to a level that meets their pride? Is OU in for a slight dip due to reliance on homegrown QB play? Can OSU improve enough defensively to fully realize the impact of their fantastic offense? Iowa State’s penchant for overcoming adversity is daunting for all foes, but can they play disciplined enough to avoid the snakes in the pit? Does Patterson still have the cheese touch? And, does the rest of the league fall off the cliff they are teetering on or strongly charge on to solid ground?

Now, the Covid-19 effect and shortened preparation window call in overall depth, experience, coaching talent, and the raw talent of the rosters. Where preparation and planning are mitigated then raw talent is amplified. That is a solid proposition for the top-five teams above.

Iowa State is well positioned on the coaching front and in the talent pool. Depth at certain positions is lacking and experience is a bit below their top tier competitors. But, a season in line with the past three is a solid expectation level and Purdy is good enough to stretch above that level in his third year. Raise a glass in hope for societal improvement and protection from illness — and a fall of football.

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