Jake TrotterESPN Staff Writer
Once again, Oklahoma is the team to beat in the Big 12. Here is ESPN.com’s preseason Big 12 Power Rankings:
Just because Baker Mayfield is gone doesn’t mean Lincoln Riley’s offense is about to slow down. Having waited behind Mayfield the past two seasons, former five-star recruit Kyler Murray will finally get his chance to quarterback the Sooners before moving on with baseball and the Oakland Athletics. The offense around Murray is primed for another playoff push, headlined by running back Rodney Anderson, wideout Marquise Brown and a battle-tested offensive line. Should Murray keeping the attack humming, Oklahoma stands to become the first team to capture four consecutive Big 12 titles.
2. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have officially launched Will Grier’s Heisman campaign, with good reason. Before breaking a finger in Week 12 of 2017, Grier was second nationally in passing touchdowns and third in passing yards. Grier, healthy again, will have one of the country’s top receiving corps at his disposal, with returning Biletnikoff Award finalist David Sills V and Gary Jennings, who topped the Big 12 in receptions last season, leading the way. West Virginia has yet to defeat Oklahoma since joining the Big 12. But the Mountaineers get the Sooners in Morgantown for the final game of the regular season.
The Horned Frogs figure to have the best front seven in the league, led by the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Ben Banogu. Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock is a rising star, and the Horned Frogs bolstered their linebacking corps by snagging graduate transfer Jawuan Johnson, who was All-MAC last season. Offensively, TCU is stacked at running back and wide receiver. But the offensive line is undergoing a complete overhaul, and sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson is untested.
Following Riley’s successful debut season at Oklahoma and Jimbo Fisher’s $75 million arrival at Texas A&M, the pressure is on Texas coach Tom Herman in Year 2. Texas, which quietly had one of the best defenses in the country last season, should be nasty on that side of the ball once again. But the Longhorns won’t contend in the Big 12 again unless either Sam Ehlinger or Shane Buechele emerges into a standout behind center.
5. Oklahoma State
All eyes will be fixated on Oklahoma State’s first true quarterback derby in five years. Former walk-on Taylor Cornelius will enter the preseason as the favorite after taking first-team reps during the spring. But he’ll have to hold off incoming Hawaii graduate transfer Dru Brown as well as true freshman Spencer Sanders, who was the top quarterback recruit in the state of Texas. The Cowboys are loaded at the other skill positions, but whether Oklahoma State challenges in the Big 12 will hinge on what happens at quarterback.
6. Kansas State
The Wildcats have an intriguing duo at quarterback in Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton. Coach Bill Snyder has been coy on who will start, but because of their contrasting skill sets — Delton is the better runner, Thompson the better passer — both could play. Either way, K-State’s quarterback will be operating behind a seasoned offensive line, anchored by four-year starter Dalton Risner. The receiving corps remains a question mark. But veteran running back Alex Barnes is a load.
7. Iowa State
The Cyclones are coming off a magical season in which they knocked off both Big 12 title-game participants, Oklahoma and TCU. Can Iowa State keep the momentum going? Quarterback Kyle Kempt getting an extra season of eligibility from the NCAA was a huge offseason victory. Kempt and running back David Montgomery, who led the country in broken tackles last season, form a dynamic backfield. September will be a defining month for Matt Campbell’s club, with Iowa (Sept. 8) and Oklahoma (Sept. 15) both on the early slate.
8. Texas Tech
In quite the reversal, Texas Tech will go into the season with defense looking like its stronger unit. Just two years ago, the Red Raiders had the nation’s worst statistical defense. Going into this season, they boast a league-high three defenders (linebacker Dakota Allen and defensive backs Jah’Shawn Johnson and Justus Parker) on the preseason All-Big 12 team. Solid defense will be key if Texas Tech is to finish in the top half of the conference standings.
Despite winning only one game last season, the Bears are optimistic about their odds of getting back to bowl eligibility. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Brewer, coming off a strong series of performances down the stretch last season, is a big reason why. His receiving corps could be among the best in the Big 12, too, with preseason All-Big 12 wideout Denzel Mims flanking Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd, a contender to become the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
This offseason, Kansas fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, which has amped up the pressure on coach David Beaty to demonstrate progress after a 3-33 record in his first three seasons. The Jayhawks do have some talent in linebacker Joe Dineen Jr., who led the Big 12 in tackles last season, and defensive tackle Daniel Wise, who, like Dineen, was a preseason All-Big 12 selection. But to break out of the cellar, Kansas will have to make dramatic strides offensively after finishing third-to-last among Power 5 teams in scoring in 2017.