Big 12: Iowa State Cyclones

Fully capitalizing on red-zone chances is a trait of championship teams.

Settling for field goals can cost a team a game. Worst yet, turning the ball over in the opponent's red zone can completely change momentum.

Here's a look at the Big 12's rankings in red-zone efficiency in conference games only during the past three years since TCU and West Virginia joined in 2012.

Red-zone points per drive

1. Kansas State, 5.14: The Wildcats' 64.3 red-zone touchdown percentage is the best in the Big 12. Five Wildcats (John Hubert, Collin Klein, Charles Jones, Jake Waters, Daniel Sams) rushed for at least seven red-zone touchdowns.

2. Oklahoma, 5.02: The Sooners average 3.1 yards per carry in the red zone, ranking second in the Big 12. Samaje Perine rushed for 240 yards and 14 touchdowns on 56 red-zone carries in 2014 as he erased any need for a special short yardage package for the Sooners.

3. Baylor, 4.94: The Bears have the unique ability to run defenses ragged with their speed and explosiveness yet buckle down with physical offense when needed. Baylor's 75 red-zone rushing touchdowns are the Big 12's best during this span.

4 (tied). Texas, 4.92: The Longhorns convert 50.7 percent of third-down conversions in the red zone, second in the conference but Texas' 282 total plays and 106 total drives rank eighth in the Big 12 -- a sign UT doesn't sustain long scoring drives on a consistent basis.

4 (tied). Oklahoma State, 4.92: The Cowboys scored on 85.3 percent of their red-zone drives, but a 34.8 third-down conversion rate ranked last in the Big 12. Some of OSU's offensive struggles in recent years followed them into the red zone at times.

6. Iowa State, 4.90: The Cyclones' 3.79 yards per play in the red zone sits atop the Big 12 but their 236 total red-zone plays is ninth in the conference. Paul Rhoads' team was decent when it got inside the 20-yard line but a combination of turnovers and inefficiency slowed ISU down.

7. Texas Tech, 4.79: The Red Raiders' eight red-zone turnovers helped push them down the rankings despite Tech recording a conference-best 61.9 completion percentage inside the red zone.

8. West Virginia, 4.76: The Mountaineers had a 29 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the red zone with one interception in 115 red zone attempts but their 34.9 third-down conversion percentage resulted a poor red-zone touchdown percentage (58.9 percent, eighth in Big 12).

9. TCU, 4.59: The Horned Frogs nine red-zone turnovers were the worst in the Big 12, offsetting TCU's 55.9 completion percentage and 4.88 yards per pass attempt in the red zone, which ranked second in the Big 12 in both categories.

10. Kansas, 3.72: The Jayhawks rank last in pretty much every category including yards per play (2.6), total plays (202) and yards per carry (2.14). Kansas' bad offense followed them any time they ventured within the red zone.

Red-zone points per drive allowed

1. TCU, 4.25: Gary Patterson's program sits atop the Big 12 in total plays (229), yards per play (2.85) and yards per carry (2.39) in the red zone.

2. Oklahoma State, 4.43: The Cowboys allowed 1.98 yards per carry in the red zone and nine red-zone sacks, ranking first in the Big 12, and tied TCU for first at 2.85 yards per play.

3 (tied). Kansas State, 4.64: The Wildcats were terrific on third down, allowing 35.8 percent of conversion attempts to be converted.

3 (tied). Kansas, 4.64: Kansas saw the most total plays (369) yet ranked third behind OSU and TCU in yards per play (3.08). The Jayhawks' defense also added nine red-zone turnovers forced, which is second in the conference.

5. Texas, 4.66: The Longhorns' 8.1 sack percentage in the red zone led the conference, but 33.2 percent of opponents' plays resulted in five yards or more, the worst percentage in the Big 12. It gave the defense a boom-or-bust type of feel.

6. West Virginia, 4.75: The Mountaineers faced the second-highest number of red-zone plays (364) and ranked fourth in yards per play allowed (3.17) yet allowed opponents to convert 50.6 of third-down attempts.

7. Iowa State, 4.82: The Cyclones have forced the most red-zone turnovers in the Big 12 (11) yet have allowed 80 red-zone touchdowns, tied with Kansas for eighth.

8. Oklahoma, 5.06: The Sooners' inability to force turnovers in the red zone is part of the problem as OU forced one red-zone mistake in three seasons.

9. Baylor, 5.39: Baylor's 3.58 yards per play ranked ninth in the conference and didn't record a red-zone sack in three seasons.

10. Texas Tech, 5.42: The Red Raiders allowed a 57.1 third-down conversion rate, worst in the Big 12. By comparison, TCU's 20 third-down conversion rate was the Big 12's best.
Iowa State lost its top two running backs from last season. How will the Cyclones rebound?

Departed: Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy comprised 54 percent of Iowa State's carries last season (QB Sam B. Richardson totaled another 31 percent). Wimberly has graduated, while Nealy left the team after the season, leaving Iowa State with the most inexperienced backfield in the league.

Spring contenders: Sophomore Tyler Brown, sophomore Martinez Syria, sophomore Justin Webster and redshirt freshman Michael Warren

Summer contenders: True freshmen Joshua Thomas and Sheldon Croney

The skinny: The Cyclones were counting on Nealy to be their featured back as a senior in 2015 after he served two seasons backing up Wimberly. But earlier this month, coach Paul Rhoads revealed that Nealy had "voluntarily" left the team after failing to meet the "standards and expectations" of the program. That means the Cyclones will have to rely on running backs with little to no experience next season.

Still, that doesn't mean Iowa State doesn't have intriguing possibilities, beginning with Warren. A three-star pickup from Oklahoma, Warren went under the radar in recruiting despite rushing for 2,512 yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging 9.3 yards per carry for Lawton High School. He could be Iowa State's top all-around back.

Syria is also an interesting option with a distinctive skill set. He filled the role of power back for the Cyclones as a true freshman before getting injured, and has the potential to be a nice complement to Warren's style.

Both Thomas and Croney could easily crack the rotation once they arrive in Ames. Thomas had an impressive offer list, which included the likes of Wisconsin, Georgia Tech and Tennessee; Croney rushed for 2,271 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior in Bakersfield, California.

Prediction: Warren emerges as the primary ball-carrier and gives the Cyclones the running back of the future they're looking for. Syria fills the short-yardage role, and Brown brings depth. Thomas or Croney avoids redshirting and gives the Cyclones another element off the sidelines.
Success on third downs can decide games.

Coaches focus on it, quarterbacks can become stars and defenders can become feared by stepping up to another level on those key moments. Here's a look at the Big 12's third-down conversion rate rankings, offensively and defensively, in Big 12 games during the three seasons since TCU and West Virginia joined the conference in 2012.

Third-down conversion rate
  1. Kansas State, 47.1 percent
  2. Baylor, 45.5 percent
  3. Oklahoma, 44.4 percent
  4. Texas, 42 percent
  5. Texas Tech, 41.7 percent
  6. West Virginia, 39.6 percent
  7. Iowa State, 36.9 percent
  8. TCU, 35.5 percent
  9. Oklahoma State, 35.3 percent
  10. Kansas, 30.8 percent
Third-down conversion rate allowed
  1. TCU, 31.2 percent
  2. Texas, 36.6 percent
  3. Oklahoma State, 38.5 percent
  4. West Virginia, 39.6 percent
  5. Oklahoma, 40 percent
  6. Kansas State, 41.2 percent
  7. Texas Tech, 42.5 percent
  8. Iowa State, 42.5 percent
  9. Kansas, 42.7 percent
  10. Baylor, 42.9 percent

Here are some team-by-team thoughts:

Baylor: Clearly the Bears offense overcomes the Bears defensive struggles on third down. The Bears offense had 68 drives without a first down out of 291 drives in the past three seasons. Good quarterback play from Bryce Petty and Nick Florence have played a key role as well as a solid running game that has picked up 90 first downs on the ground, best in the Big 12.

Iowa State: Ranking in the bottom half in both categories is not a good look for Paul Rhoads program. Limited production at the quarterback position and 14 third-down sacks from the defense have played a major role as well as injuries to key players like Quenton Bundrage in 2014 and Tom Farniok in 2013 have made life a lot harder on the Cyclones.

Kansas: The only team to rank in the bottom two in both categories, it's easy to see why David Beaty is taking charge in Lawrence, Kansas. It's somewhat surprising to see the Jayhawk defense so far down the list but KU had 13 third-down sacks during this span. And the quarterback position has been a major problem at KU since Todd Reesing left in 2009.

Kansas State: Yet again the Wildcats efficient offense leads the Big 12 in a key category. Strong quarterback play from Collin Klein and Jake Waters along with receiver Tyler Lockett made KSU very difficult to stop. To see Bill Snyder's team in the bottom half of the conference in conversion allowed rate is a surprise but the Wildcats have a hard time getting three-and-outs. KSU's 17.8 three-and-out percentage on defense is only better than KU's 17.7.

Oklahoma: The Sooners offense has been good on third down despite some of its recent struggles while the defense has been very average. Offensively, OU has done a good job of getting its playmakers, namely Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard, involved on third-down plays. Defensively, the Sooners have talented players, like Eric Striker, yet sit middle of the road in third down defense.

Oklahoma State: Seeing the Cowboys near the bottom on the list in offensive conversion rate will make Cowboy fans long for the days of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. OSU's defense has been consistently good on third down and its third-down production was one of the reasons for the Cowboys recent Big 12 title contention. OSU's offense will need to be a lot better if the Pokes hope to surprise in 2015.

Texas: UT's 37 sacks is one key reason the Longhorns are among the Big 12's top third-down defenses. The surprise is the Longhorns offense sitting in the top half of the conference, ahead of Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, who have generally put together more productive offenses. It's a sign UT's offense has had its moments of offensive precision even if the bad moments are the most memorable.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders haven't been great on third down but they haven't been horrible either. Improving the turnover margin is priority No. 1 for Kliff Kingsbury as the offense turns the ball over and the defense doesn't take the ball away. Once that is handled, then Tech can work on improving third down conversion rates.

TCU: The Horned Frogs defense is stellar in nearly every category, ranking first in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (4.62) and yards per carry allowed (2.13) on third down. Its offense was terrible on third down before the 2014 season, when it converted 42.9 percent on its third down attempts. TCU could end up in the top third of the conference in both categories in 2015 unless Gary Patterson's program takes a step backward this fall.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers haven't been particularly good on either side of the ball. WVU's struggles to stop the pass on defense -- 13.63 yards per completion on third down -- have hampered WVU's ability to get off the field. On offense, uneven quarterback play after Geno Smith's departure doomed the Mountaineers to finish in the middle of the pack.
It is an important spring for several players in the Big 12.

Some are fighting to keep their jobs, others are trying not to be forgotten and others have to fight off lauded Class of 2015 recruits. Here's a look at several Big 12 players who have plenty to gain during spring football.

Chris Johnson, QB, Baylor: With Seth Russell as the clear favorite to replace Bryce Petty as the starting quarterback, Johnson needs a strong spring to ensure the competition continues into the fall. He’ll also need to hold off highly regarded true freshman Jarrett Stidham.

Vernell Trent, DT, Iowa State: Trent had a decent redshirt freshman season, starting three games and finishing with 10 tackles in 2014. But ISU signed a pair of defensive tackles in the Class of 2015 with an eye on Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath becoming immediate impact performers. A good spring would help Trent secure a spot in the Cyclones’ defense.

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMontell Cozart must impress the new Kansas coaching staff this spring.
Montell Cozart, QB, Kansas: The junior went from unquestioned starting quarterback to afterthought in a span of a few months. Former coach Charlie Weis anointed Cozart to be the Jayhawks quarterback of the future, but he faltered and eventually was replaced by Michael Cummings in 2014. If Cozart has any hope making a major impact during his Jayhawks career, he needs to impress the new coaching staff this spring.

Judah Jones, WR, Kansas State: The Wildcats are hoping to replace the playmaking skills of Tyler Lockett. One player isn’t going to do it, but Jones has the upside to become a key player in KSU’s offense while also making an impact on special teams. KSU has several other options at receiver, so Jones needs to rise above the competition if he hopes to separate himself this spring.

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: The junior has started 15 games during the past two seasons but faces stern competition to keep his starting spot with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield becoming eligible in the fall. As Lincoln Riley brings his version of the Air Raid to OU, many assume Mayfield is the best bet to trigger the attack. Knight can use the spring to remind everyone of his unique physical gifts.

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State: It’s time for Ateman to step up and separate himself at the receiver spot. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he brings size, speed and ball skills that are tough to duplicate, but he doesn’t dominate the way he should. With plenty of competition at the position, he needs to show he is ready to match his All-Big 12 talent with All-Big 12 production.

Daje Johnson, WR, Texas: When he touches the ball, Johnson looks like the dynamic playmaker the Longhorns have longed for during the past few seasons, but he constantly takes himself out of the equation by making bad decisions off the field. This spring is the opportunity for him to show he has the focus needed to make his final season on the 40 acres a breakout year.

Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, QBs, TCU: The battle to backup Trevone Boykin should be interesting, so the spring gives Sawyer and Muehlstein the chance to lay claim to the No. 2 spot. Both quarterbacks should get plenty of chances to impress and the winner of the backup quarterback derby could set themselves up to take over in 2016.

Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech: A strong finish to the 2014 season by Patrick Mahomes has resulted in Webb being overlooked in many ways, but a healthy Webb was productive during his first two seasons in Kliff Kingsbury’s program. The job is open heading into spring and Webb can make sure the quarterback battle in Lubbock is one of the most interesting aspects of Big 12 football in the spring.

Daikiel Shorts, WR, West Virginia: The Mountaineers need to fill the void left by Kevin White and Mario Alford. Shorts has been a contributor to the WVU offense since his true freshman season but hasn’t really developed into a game-changing target. This spring will give him the chance to show he can be a primary target for Dana Holgorsen’s team.

Ranking the Big 12 coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
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This week, ESPN.com ranked the best Power 5 coaching jobs in college football, No. 1 through 65. Below is how we rank the jobs in the Big 12:

1. Texas
The Longhorns have unlimited financial resources with a massive donor base. They are located in the middle of one of the country's pre-eminent recruiting hotbeds, too.

2. Oklahoma
The Sooners have one of the great traditions in college football, a recruiting pipeline into Texas and a supportive administration.

3. Oklahoma State
Thanks to Boone Pickens, Oklahoma State boasts facilities that take a backseat to no one. Over the past 10 years, few teams have won more than the Cowboys, either.

4. Baylor
This job would have ranked near the bottom not long ago. But Art Briles has whipped Baylor into a powerhouse. The Bears have a new stadium, a budding fan base and a brand that seems to be resonating with young recruits.

5. TCU
Facilities and conference used to be impediments for the Horned Frogs. Not anymore. TCU has a newly renovated stadium and state-of-the-art facilities, including an air-conditioned practice facility. TCU's proximity to the Metroplex makes it an attractive recruiting destination, too.

6. Texas Tech
Unlike West Virginia, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas, the Red Raiders are located in the Lone Star State, which gives them a proximity advantage in recruiting. Texas Tech also has rabid fans and a strong donor base in the Midland/Odessa area, which is pumping money into the stadium renovation.

7. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have severe recruiting challenges, with the lack of in-state talent. Still, this is the equivalent of a pro team in the state, and it has the backing necessary to win.

8. Kansas State
Nobody does more with less than Bill Snyder. Manhattan has never been a recruiting destination. But the Wildcats have passionate fans (as the court rushing in basketball the other night demonstrated) who make Bill Snyder Family Stadium a tough place to play. The Wildcats also have been making impressive facility upgrades, most recently to the Vanier Football Complex.

9. Iowa State
The Cyclones have obstacles with a small in-state recruiting pool they also have to share with Iowa. The elimination of the Big 12 North hurt Iowa State as well. But the Cyclones have something Kansas does not -- and that's a fan base committed to football.

10. Kansas
Only eight years ago, Mark Mangino took Kansas to the Orange Bowl. It seems even more amazing now. The Jayhawks are behind the rest of the league in every area, from attendance to facilities.

Big 12 recruiting scorecard

February, 23, 2015
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Junior day season is still underway, and that means a lot more offers and new names on the radar. Here's the latest on the 2016 recruiting trail in the Big 12:

BAYLOR
Total commits: 5
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: Baylor running back commit Kameron Martin received an offer from Texas last week, but so far that move hasn't been enough to flip him. The ESPN Junior 300 back is a cousin of former Texas great Jamaal Charles and has called UT his "dream school," but Baylor was the first to offer and he's been a loyal pledge to the Bears since July 2014.

IOWA STATE
Total commits: 0
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Cyclones were the first to offer 6-foot-5 tight end T.J. Hockenson of Chariton, Iowa. He landed his offer during a junior day visit and put up serious numbers as a junior: 73 catches, 1,116 yards and 18 touchdowns. Hockenson is expected to take a junior day trip to Kansas State as well.

KANSAS
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Jayhawks locked up their second commitment of 2016 from Antoine Frazier, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound offensive tackle from Huffman, Texas, who pledged one day after receiving an offer. Frazier was a high school teammate of KU early enrollee receiver Chase Harrell at Huffman.

KANSAS STATE
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: One of the many recruits hoping for an offer at Kansas State's junior day Feb. 28 will be Ian Rudzik, a linebacker/running back from Ulysses, Kansas, who visited KU earlier this month. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior is drawing interest from Arizona State and Minnesota, but a KSU offer might end his recruitment quickly.

OKLAHOMA
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 1
The latest: Though Oklahoma only picked up one commitment from its junior day last weekend, the Sooners did make progress with a number of key targets in the state of Texas. ESPN Junior 300 defensive end Marvin Terry, defensive tackle Chris Daniels and lineman Kellen Diesch all emerged with positive reviews and will be intriguing targets moving forward.

OKLAHOMA STATE
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: Oklahoma State went to the juco ranks for its second pledge of 2016. Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College cornerback Malik Kearse picked the Cowboys on Thursday. He originally hails from Miami, but an elbow injury in his senior year of high school meant no offers. Kearse logged two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in his first year at Fort Scott.

TCU
Total commits: 8
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: TCU hosted another big junior day on Saturday and received a commitment from offensive lineman Austin Myers of Manvel, Texas. The Horned Frogs also made offers to ATH Tyrell Alexander, TE Donte Coleman and 2017 ATH Roshauud Paul and were able to get ESPN Junior 300 running back Trayveon Williams and corner Jared Mayden on campus.

TEXAS
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 2
The latest: Texas made a ton of offers this week, and most of them went to quarterbacks. LSU commit Feleipe' Franks, Oregon commit Seth Green, Texas Tech commit Tristen Wallace and Baylor commit Zach Smith all picked up Texas offers, as did uncommitted passers Xavier Gaines, Woody Barrett and Bowman Sells. Considering the Horns' depth issues at QB, taking two in this class might make sense.

TEXAS TECH
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Red Raiders landed their third commitment of the 2016 class from running back Da'Leon Ward of powerhouse Dallas Skyline. The all-purpose back picked Tech over TCU and rushed for 1,779 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior, but he is still expected to take more visits despite his pledge.

WEST VIRGINIA
Total commits: 4
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: West Virginia is reportedly expected to get an unofficial visit from defensive end Shavar Manuel this spring. The nation's No. 2 overall 2016 recruit has Florida State in the lead following his FSU junior day trip, but WVU is on Manuel's list of upcoming trips along with Clemson, Florida, LSU and Virginia Tech.

Toughest coaching job in the Big 12

February, 23, 2015
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Today, ESPN.com unveiled its toughest FBS jobs in the country Insider. Iowa State is ranked not only as the toughest job in the Big 12 but also as the 64th-toughest job of 65 Power 5 programs in college football.

An argument can be made for Kansas as the toughest job in the Big 12. The Jayhawks are ranked just one spot ahead of the Cyclones and haven't won more than three games in a season in five years. Iowa State, meanwhile, has been to a pair of bowl games during that span. Kansas' recent attendance figures have been embarrassing. Iowa State, meanwhile, is renovating Jack Trice Stadium due in part to ticket demand.

Then again, Iowa State's challenges in recruiting make it a difficult place to win. Kansas has better proximity to the talent hotbed in Texas, which the Jayhawks took full advantage of in their 2015 signing class. Kansas inked 17 Texans this month; Iowa State added only four.

The in-state talent in the Hawkeye State isn't prolific, either. Yet the Cyclones have to share that talent with Iowa. In the likes of wideout Allen Lazard, Iowa State has been able to nab some of the top in-state players in recent years. But the depth isn't there, which has forced the Cyclones to get creative in recruiting. Iowa State signed players from 10 different states this year; the year before, it was 11 states.

Ames itself (though beautiful) is not an easy place to recruit to, either. It's cold. And it's remote, relative to some of the other Big 12 campuses.

The tradition isn't there, either. Iowa State is the only school in the Big 12 never to have a 10-win season.

At one time, the Cyclones at least had the Big 12 North to fall back on. They could avoid Texas and Oklahoma in certain seasons. But that's no longer the case. Now, they have to face budding powers TCU and Baylor every year, too.

At the beginning of his tenure, coach Paul Rhoads proved that it's not impossible to play for bowls at Iowa State. But it's tough. Perhaps as tough as anywhere in the nation.

Biggest Big 12 spring questions

February, 23, 2015
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Spring ball kicks off in Big 12 country today with Baylor slated to hold its first practice. Later this week, TCU and Texas Tech will get started, too.

Plenty of questions surround the league. Many won’t be answered until the the fall. But a few could gain clarity over the next two months.

Here are some of the biggest Big 12 questions to follow this spring:

Can freshmen factor into Baylor, Kansas State quarterback derbies?

[+] EnlargeRussell
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsAfter being the backup at Baylor, Seth Russell is now the favorite to lead the Bears.
With all-conference performers Bryce Petty and Jake Waters gone, the Bears and Wildcats will have new quarterbacks behind center. After backing up Petty the last two years, Seth Russell is the favorite to take over as the starter. In Manhattan, former walk-on Joe Hubener will be entering his fourth year on campus and holds the edge to succeed Waters. Both, however, will have to hold off a pair of talented freshmen in Jarrett Stidham and Alex Delton, who have enrolled early with sights on winning starting jobs. Stidham was the No. 3 quarterback signee in the country; Delton’s skill set fits the mold of quarterbacks who have thrived for Bill Snyder in the past. The learning curve for first-year quarterbacks is always steep. But both Snyder and Art Briles have indicated Delton and Stidham will have the chance to prove they deserve to start.

What will the new Oklahoma offense look like?

After a recent trend in the wrong direction, Bob Stoops brought in play-calling prodigy Lincoln Riley to inject life in the Sooner program. Riley is a product of the Mike Leach air raid. So how will he balance that background while also utilizing Oklahoma’s dynamic backfield trio of Samaje Perine, Alex Ross and Joe Mixon? And who will Riley turn to at quarterback among Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield and Cody Thomas to lead the offense? Those reasons alone makes this the most fascinating spring of the Stoops era.

Who will play linebacker for TCU?

The Horned Frogs return 10 offensive starters, experience along the defensive line and a couple of key cogs in the secondary. But with All-American Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson gone, the slate has been wiped clean at linebacker. Sammy Douglas and Paul Whitmill will get the first cracks to show they can fill the void. But early enrollees Alec Dunham and Mike Freeze could push them.

Can Mason Rudolph, Patrick Mahomes take next step?

Rudolph and Mahomes were fabulous after taking over starting quarterback jobs as true freshmen late last season. Rudolph ignited Oklahoma State to wins over Oklahoma and Washington, elevating expectations in Stillwater for 2015. Mahomes threw 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions in Texas Tech’s final three games, and passed for 598 yards in the season finale against Baylor. The fortunes of both the Cowboys and Red Raiders will hinge on whether their young quarterbacks can build on such promising performances.

Is Jerrod Heard ready?

Though he had moments, the prospects of Tyrone Swoopes becoming Texas' long-lost, long-term answer at quarterback diminished toward the end of last season as the Longhorns flat-lined offensively. That has opened the door for Heard to make a run at the job this spring. Heard has the pedigree. He won two state championships in high school and was an ESPN 300 recruit. But by all accounts, he wasn't ready to step in last season. Will that change this spring?

Who will catch passes at Kansas State and West Virginia?

The Wildcats and the Mountaineers between them graduated 359 receptions and 4,966 receiving yards after Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, Kevin White and Mario Alford left. That is an unenviable -- and unbelievable -- amount of production to replace. This spring, both schools will begin to sift through who they can lean on at receiver in 2015.

Can Skyler Howard hold off William Crest?

After taking over for injured quarterback Clint Trickett late last season, Howard brought another dimension to the West Virginia offense with his wheels. At the same time, he struggled with his accuracy. As a result, Howard didn’t quite lock up the job for 2015. Now, he’ll have to fend off Crest, who actually beat Howard out for the No. 2 job coming out of August before a shoulder injury forced a redshirt. Crest, a four-star signee last year, is a talented prospect. Howard will have to be more precise with his arm to remain behind center.

Can David Gibbs turn around the Tech defense?

Last season the Red Raiders fielded one of the most futile defenses in Big 12 history. Tech will now hope its new coordinator can cure those ills on that side of the ball. Getting the Red Raiders to play more opportunistic will be one key. Under Gibbs, Houston forced 73 turnovers the last two seasons. Over the same span, the Red Raiders forced just 34.

Can a new staff give Kansas hope?

In five years under Turner Gill and Charlie Weis, the Jayhawks failed to total more than three victories in a season. Kansas brought in David Beaty to set the Jayhawks back on a course to respectability. How will he begin to set that plan into motion? This spring will give us a glimpse.

How will Iowa State replace its dismissed players?

Since the end of the season, Iowa State lost running back DeVondrick Nealy, safety T.J. Mutcherson and wide receivers P.J. Harris and Tad Ecby. All four were supposed to play big roles for the Cyclones in 2015. With Quenton Bundrage's from a knee injury, Iowa State should be fine at receiver. But finding a starting running back to replace Nealy and safety to step in for Mutcherson will be paramount this spring.
Playing good defense wasn’t just a 2014 trademark of the TCU Horned Frogs.

Gary Patterson’s program has played strong defense since it joined the Big 12, sitting atop the conference in points per drive allowed by a comfortable margin after three seasons as a member. TCU is joined by Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in the top three, making it no surprise those two teams have been in the middle of the Big 12 title battle more often than not in recent years.

Here’s a look at the Big 12’s points per drive allowed rankings since TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012 (conference games only).

1. TCU, 1.58
Conference record: 14-13
Summary: Patterson’s team prides itself on good defense, and a change in conference didn’t change the production of the Horned Frogs' defensive unit. TCU creates turnovers, limits big plays and makes offenses uncomfortable to cement its spot as the toughest defense to score against during the past three seasons.
Key stat: TCU sets the standard, leading the Big 12 in several other key stats including yards per play (5.24), forced turnovers (66) and third-down conversion percentage (31.2 percent).

2. Oklahoma State, 1.77
Conference record: 16-11
Summary: Ever since Mike Gundy’s team started lighting up scoreboards there’s been a myth the Cowboys never play good defense. Yet TCU is the only defense that is harder to score on than OSU's. The Pokes rarely rank among the best in the league in total yards allowed but is third in yards per play allowed (5.41).
Key stat: OSU’s defense steps up in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on 54.1 percent of opponents' red zone drives, ranking second in the conference behind TCU (42.2 percent).

3 (tied). Oklahoma, 1.83
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Sooners' defense has had plenty of ugly moments but has been solid overall, particularly when it comes to allowing opponents to score. OU ranks among the Big 12’s best in punt percentage (43.3) and percentage of possible yardage allowed (40.7). Mike Stoops has work to do, but the Sooners' defense has not been horrible during the past three seasons.
Key stat: Limiting the big play has been one of the Sooners' specialties as they rank second in the Big 12 in percent of plays allowed gaining 10 yards or more (18.7).

3 (tied). Kansas State, 1.83
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Wildcats consistently have underrated athletes on defense who force offenses to methodically drive down the field if they hope to score. They get pressure on the quarterback (64 sacks, second in the Big 12) while limiting big plays in the passing game (6.7 passing yards per attempt).
Key stat: KSU’s plus-33 turnover margin is mind-boggling but not surprising. Bill Snyder’s teams win with relentless efficiency and playmaking in key moments.

5. Texas, 1.84
Conference record: 17-10
Summary: UT’s defense has been full of athletes but inconsistent at times. The Longhorns are good on third down, allowing a 36.2 percent conversion rate, yet sit in the middle of the conference as neither exceptional or bad in most key categories.
Key stat: The Longhorns' 79 sacks by far are the most in the Big 12 during the past three seasons, with K-State’s 64 ranking second.

6. Baylor, 2.13
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Bears' defense is getting better but still has a ways to go before it locks down a spot among the conference’s top units. BU’s run defense is strong (3.93 yards per rush, second in Big 12) but its struggles to stop teams once they get in the red zone are at the heart of its medicore ranking. BU is in the bottom third of the Big 12 in red zone touchdown percentage (71.6 percent) and goal-to-go touchdown percentage (82 percent).
Key stat: BU’s run defense is second in the Big 12 at 3.93 yards per carry.

7. West Virginia, 2.33
Conference record: 11-16
Summary: It’s taken a while for the Mountaineers to get settled in the Big 12 as they were forced to play young, inexperienced talent on defense early in their transition to the conference. The Mountaineers' defense has been improving, however, as their young talent has begun to mature.
Key stat: A lack of a pass rush has also been an issue for WVU with 34 sacks in 27 conference games, tied for eighth worst in the Big 12.

8. Iowa State, 2.44
Conference record: 5-22
Summary: The Cyclones feature the least disruptive defense in the conference with a Big 12-worst 29 percent of opponents' plays resulting in zero or negative yardage. ISU tends to have quality linebacker play but its defensive line and secondary play needs improving.
Key stat: The Cyclones allowed 5.33 yards per carry during this span, worst in the Big 12.

9. Kansas, 2.59
Conference record: 2-25
Summary: The Jayhawks are second in the conference in forced fumbles (28) but that didn’t do much to change the production of their defense. KU’s inability to consistently force punts and struggles to stop the run (5.11 yards per carry allowed) or pass (8.24 yards per pass attempt allowed) are at the root of the problem.
Key stat: KU’s 6.55 yards per play allowed was the Big 12’s worst.

10. Texas Tech, 2.63
Conference record: 10-17
Summary: New Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs is tasked with creating more turnovers for the Red Raiders, who have forced 34 turnovers in 27 games during the past three seasons. The inability to slow offenses or take the ball away has made Tech the Big 12’s easiest defense to score on.
Key stat: Tech’s minus-159 points off turnover margin speaks volumes. Having to make up an average of 5.8 points per game is a good way to end up 10-17 during this three-year span.
The last two weeks we analyzed and ranked the individual position units in the Big 12 heading into the spring, measuring them based on past performance, future potential and quality depth.

Below is a snapshot recap of how each position group of every Big 12 team was ranked:

BAYLOR: The Bears are stout in the trenches and lethal at the offensive skill positions.
  • QBs: 4th; RBs: 2nd; WRs: 1st; OL: 1st; DL: 1st; LBs: 5th; DBs: 5th; STs: 4th
  • Average rank: 2.875
TCU: The Horned Frogs have pieces to replace defensively; but the offense should be awesome.
  • QBs: 1st; RBs: 3rd; WRs: 2nd; OL: 2nd; DL: 2nd; LBs: 9th; DBs: 4th; STs: 1st
  • Average rank: 3.000
OKLAHOMA STATE: Lots of buzz around quarterback Mason Rudolph, but an experienced defense could be what elevates Oklahoma State into a contender.
  • QBs: 2nd; RBs: 8th; WRs: 3rd; OL: 4th; DL: 4th; LBs: 2nd; DBs: 2nd; STs: 7th
  • Average rank: 4.000
OKLAHOMA: It will be interesting to see how new coordinator Lincoln Riley utilizes one of the most talented and deepest position groups in the league, OU's running backs.
  • QBs: 5th; RBs: 1st; WRs: 4th; OL: 5th; DL: 5th; LBs: 1st; DBs: 7th; STs: 5th
  • Average rank: 4.125
WEST VIRGINIA: The offense needs some retooling, but the secondary should be formidable.
  • QBs: 6th; RBs: 4th; WRs: 7th; OL: 9th; DL: 7th; LBs: 4th; DBs: 1st; STs: 3rd
  • Average rank: 5.125
TEXAS: Finally unlocking an answer at quarterback would boost the rest of the offensive units.
  • QBs: 7th; RBs: 6th; WRs: 8th; OL: 7th; DL: 3rd; LBs: 3rd; DBs: 6th; STs: 8th
  • Average rank: 6.000
TEXAS TECH: The Red Raiders have enough firepower offensively; but can the defense come around under David Gibbs?
  • QBs: 3rd; RBs: 5th; WRs: 5th; OL: 3rd; DL: 8th; LBs: 7th; DBs: 8th; STs: 9th
  • Average rank: 6.000
KANSAS STATE: The offense is a blank slate, but no one should discount Bill Snyder's capacity to rebuild with unknown parts.
  • QBs: 10th; RBs: 9th; WRs: 9th; OL: 6th; DL: 6th; LBs: 6th; DBs: 3rd; STs: 2nd
  • Average rank: 6.375
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones had the worst statistical defense in college football last year for a reason.
  • QBs: 8th; RBs: 10th; WRs: 6th; OL: 8th; DL: 10th; LBs: 10th; DBs: 9th; STs: 6th
  • Average rank: 8.375
KANSAS: David Beaty and his staff have their work cut out.
  • QBs: 9th; RBs: 7th; WRs: 10th; OL: 10th; DL: 9th; LBs: 8th; DBs: 10th; STs: 10th
  • Average rank: 9.125
It only took one season for Samaje Perine to force his way into the Ultimate ESPN 300.

At this time last year, he was still in high school. Now, he’s the star of Oklahoma’s offense and the No. 279 player on the list. Not to be outdone, a pair of teammates, No. 101 Sterling Shepard and No. 236 Jordan Phillips, took a little longer to make an appearance on the list.

The Big 12 features several players who could end up on the Ultimate ESPN 300 list once their career comes to a close. Some, such as Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson, are unproven true freshmen with plenty of potential. Others, such as Baylor’s Andrew Billings, are young players who have already started making a mark. Here are five current Big 12 players who could find themselves on future Ultimate 300 lists.

Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings
Recruiting rank: No. 252 in the ESPN 300, Class of 2013
2014 accolades: First-team All-Big 12
2014 stats: 37 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks
Future impact: The anchor of the Big 12’s best defensive line, Billings is a monster in the middle. Teams that try to block him with one man often end up regretting it after Billings uses his strength and quickness to create problems. Expect him to cement his spot among the Big 12’s best players, and he could force his way into the All-American conversation with another jump in production for the Bears. The Bears have several other candidates for this list, namely Corey Coleman and KD Cannon, but Billings is the best of the bunch.

[+] EnlargeAaron Green
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAaron Green had a breakout season with 922 rushing yards and nine touchdowns for TCU.
TCU running back Aaron Green
Recruiting rank: No. 11 in the ESPN 300, Class of 2011
2014 accolades: Second-team All-Big 12
2014 stats: 129 carries for 922 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 19 receptions for 166 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns
Future impact: Green was huge during the home stretch of the 2014 season and could be even better in 2015. He’s a terrific complement for Trevone Boykin thanks to Green's open-field excellence and overall versatility, giving the Horned Frogs the best quarterback-running back duo in the Big 12. If he finishes his college career with an All-Big 12 season, he could find himself on next year’s list.

Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard
Recruiting rank: No. 148 in the ESPN 300, Class of 2014
2014 accolades: Honorable mention All-Big 12 Offensive Freshman of Year
2014 stats: 45 receptions for 593 yards, 3 touchdowns
Future impact: The Cyclones' top recruit in last year’s class lived up to the hype despite being called upon earlier than expected after Quenton Bundrage’s knee injury. If he makes a significant jump as a sophomore, Lazard could become one of the Big 12’s top receivers. The Cyclones likely will have to win more often to help Lazard earn a spot on the list, but the former ESPN 300 receiver looks well on his way to a stellar college career.

Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah
Recruiting rank: No. 121 defensive end, No. 196 in Midlands Region, No. 150 in Texas, Class of 2012
2014 accolades: Big 12 defensive lineman of the Year, first-team All-Big 12
2014 stats: 49 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 11 sacks
Future impact: The lowest-rated recruit on this list, Ogbah has accomplished the most so far in his career. His breakout sophomore season has set him up to chase All-American honors as a junior, but he will have to overcome being the focus of opposing offenses and will need other Cowboys defensive linemen to emerge to allow him a few one-on-one opportunities.

Oklahoma receiver Michiah Quick
Recruiting rank: No. 74 in the ESPN 300, Class of 2014
2014 stats: 25 receptions for 237 yards, one touchdown
Future impact: Quick has the potential to explode in Lincoln Riley’s version of the Air Raid offense. The new attack is sure to create space for the ultra-quick sophomore, who will be a nightmare between the hashmarks for opposing linebackers, nickelbacks and safeties. And as one of the few Sooners receivers who tried to step up after Sterling Shepard was injured, Quick has already shown he’s a guy who should get opportunities with the ball in his hands.
The last two weeks we've been analyzing and ranking individual position units in the Big 12. In our weekly Big 12 roundtable, we discuss the league's strongest overall position group, the strongest individual position group and the position group to watch this spring:

What is the strongest overall position group in the league heading into spring ball?

Olson: I'm leaning toward running backs right now, though I do think this is shaping up to be a deep year in the secondary. The Big 12 has, in my opinion, at least six premier backs returning in 2015: Samaje Perine, Aaron Green, Shock Linwood, DeAndre Washington, Johnathan Gray and Rushel Shell. A few others could rise to their level this season, and the freshman class of backs in this league is awfully exciting.

Trotter: I'm going with wide receivers. I'd like to see a better one-two punch heading into next season than Baylor's Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. The Horned Frogs might not have a superstar receiver, but they have three darn good ones who know how to play. Oklahoma State's group of receivers is going to excellent and also deep. And when healthy, Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard is All-American caliber.

[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSamaje Perine heads a deep group of running backs at Oklahoma.
Chatmon: I’d have to agree with Max. The running back position is loaded with stars from OU’s Perine to Texas Tech’s Washington. The interesting aspect of the Big 12’s plethora of ball carriers is the star power is supported by quality depth at most Big 12 schools. The conference is full of running backs in a backup role who would start at the majority of FBS schools, including Oklahoma's Keith Ford, West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood and others.

What about strongest individual position unit?

Olson: If Ohio State's quarterbacks could team up with Oklahoma's running backs and Baylor's receivers, there would be no need for a College Football Playoff. I'll go with the Bears' wideouts as the strongest group because Coleman and Cannon are going to be prolific no matter who's playing quarterback. I'm excited to see what guys such as Davion Hall, Jay Lee and Ishmael Zamora can do with more reps. Oklahoma will face some challenges in divvying up its carries, whereas in Baylor's offense, it really doesn't matter who gets the ball.

Trotter: Assuming we're not counting quarterbacks (in which case the answer would be TCU), I'm going with the Oklahoma running backs, slightly over the Baylor wide receivers and Baylor defensive line. Perine has the capability and durability to rush for 2,000 yards. Alex Ross was an All-Big 12 kick returner and could start for almost half the teams in the league. Joe Mixon is the "X" factor. He was more ballyhooed coming out of high school than Perine. If he lives up anywhere close to the hype, this could become the best running back group in the country.

Chatmon: It has to be Baylor’s defensive line. I love what defensive tackle Andrew Billings brings to the table and defensive end Shawn Oakman is extremely productive and can get even better. Add defensive tackle Beau Blackshear and defensive end K.J. Smith into the mix and Baylor has four quality defensive linemen along with good depth. The healthy return of defensive end Jamal Palmer would take this unit to an even higher level.

What is the position unit to watch this spring?

Olson: Texas' concerning quarterback situation might not get resolved until fall camp, but the Longhorns need to find some answers along the offensive line this spring. Joe Wickline needs a lot more competition and depth, and I wouldn't be surprised if junior college transfers Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson work with the No. 1 line right away. That group is in for a shakeup, and certainly a necessary one for the growth of Texas' offense.

Trotter: Again, taking out quarterbacks -- Texas, Oklahoma, K-State and West Virginia each have intriguing QB derbies -- some of the units I'll be watching this spring include the Oklahoma and Texas receivers, the K-State running backs, the Oklahoma State offensive line and the Texas Tech linebackers. Outside of Shepard, no returning receiver in Norman or Austin has yet to stand out. With its entire passing attack graduated, K-State desperately needs a featured running back to emerge (Dalvin Warmack?). Improved offensive line play could be the biggest key to Oklahoma State challenging TCU and Baylor. And I'm curious to see how Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell makes an impact with the Red Raiders, who need another defensive difference-maker to pair with Pete Robertson.

Chatmon: I’m looking forward to seeing how the battle to become Mason Rudolph’s top target at Oklahoma State turns out. My favorite to win the battle is sophomore James Washington, but the Pokes have a meeting room full of potential playmakers. Brandon Sheperd really came on at the end of the year, Jhajuan Seales has made plenty of plays during his career and Marcell Ateman could be the most talented receiver on the roster. I can’t wait to see who steps up.

Big 12 morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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This is a pretty remarkable story of Andrew Hawkins' journey to the NFL.
  • West Virginia was hit with two years of probation for impermissible phone calls on Wednesday, reports Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail. The Mountaineers football program was partially to blame for the infractions, which were self reported to the NCAA by the university. It doesn't seem like a major deal for WVU, although the football program did limit its scholarships by one during the 2013-14 year.
  • New Iowa State strength and conditioning coach Clayton Oyster plans to keep things the same for the Cyclones after being promoted from assistant strength coach. He told Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune about his philosophy, which is "very similar" to former strength coach Yancy McKnight, who left ISU in January. The Cyclones have done a good job of developing talent once it gets on campus so it makes sense for Paul Rhoads to value the continuity Oyster brings to the table.
  • Oklahoma State mega booster T. Boone Pickens gave former Cowboys defensive tackle James Castleman the "T. Boone Pickens Quote of the Year Award" writes Kyle Fredrickson of The Oklahoman. Castleman is a big man with a big personality who caused plenty of laughs after saying "The check engine light came on" following his long catch and run in the Cactus Bowl. Castleman isn't headed to the NFL combine but his athleticism makes him worth taking a chance on for NFL teams.
  • Baylor's Seth Russell and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph are among 10 quarterbacks on the rise for 2015 from Athlon's Steven Vasser. Rudolph is a no-brainer, as is Russell if he wins the job. Regardless, the Bears have the proven ability to get production from the quarterback position and there is plenty of talent in BU's quarterback room. I found it interesting there was no mention of Texas Tech's quarterbacks even though Kliff Kingsbury has made it clear the job is up for grabs this spring. I wouldn't be shocked if Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb have a breakout season in the fall.
  • Kansas punter Trevor Pardula is could be the Big 12's most overlooked NFL combine participant. Pardula is happy with his decision to play at KU despite a 6-18 record during his two seasons, writes Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. Pardula is one of three Jayhawks who are participating, giving KU more participants than in-state rival Kansas State. Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd and linebacker Ben Heeney will join Pardula at the event. It's not the end all be all but it's a small example of which program is closer to getting the most out of its players.

Big 12 morning links

February, 18, 2015
Feb 18
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The answer is yes. This should be a no-brainer.
  • The Texas Tech quarterback battle is even heading into spring football and Kliff Kingsbury has moved the schedule around to accomodate Patrick Mahomes, who also plays baseball at Tech. In addition, Kingsbury expects Davis Webb to participate in some capacity in the Red Raiders' spring drills, reports Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The Red Raiders went 4-8 in 2014 so competition to be the starting quarterback is the plan. I love what Mahomes brought to the table but I think people forget just how good Webb can be at times, particularly when he is taking care of the football. The Red Raiders have two very good options behind center so I don't think the quarterback position will be a problem for Tech in 2015.
  • TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin needs to try to follow the path of Marcus Mariota, writes Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Telegram. Mariota handled the pressure of entering the 2014 season as a Heisman favorite extremely well en route to winning the prestigious award. “Don’t allow all the preseason hype to get to your head, and just play your game and look forward to another good season” is Mariota's advice for Boykin. That's one thing I'll be keeping an eye on during the offseason as Boykin pushing himself is critical for Gary Patterson's program.
    Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/mac-engel/article10502417.html#storylink=cpy
  • Signing day is still visible in the rearview mirror but the work on the recruiting trail never stops. West Virginia has a tendency to send out several offers from mid-to-late February and this February is no exception. WVU has sent out 19 offers since February 17 according to Chris Anderson, who wrote the story for the Charleston Gazette. Time will tell if becoming one of the first offers for multiple recruits pay off for the Mountaineers but WVU has done a solid job on the recruiting trail during the past few cycles and there's no reason to think that will change anytime soon.
  • Former Oklahoma State safety Markelle Martin appears to have joined the Cowboys coaching staff, reports Kyle Fredrickson of The Oklahoman. Martin was a critical part of the Cowboys 2011 Big 12 title team as a leader and tone-setter in the secondary. He could have a pretty good future in coaching if he continues down this road. I could definitely see him develop into a terrific recruiter and coach thanks to his intelligence, focus and easy going nature.
  • Iowa State has elevated Clayton Oyster to head strength and conditioning coach for the football program. Oyster has been at ISU since 2009 and was the Cyclones' assistant strength coach under Yancy McKnight, who left for Houston in January. Strength coaches are college football's unsung heroes in many ways as they can hold the key to developing players and maximizing potential while also providing a link to the coaching staff during times when NCAA bylaws limit the coaching staff's time around their players. It will be interesting to see if Oyster makes changes or tries to alter things in an effort to limit the Cyclones' injury woes.
  • Signing day is still in the rearview mirror but West Virginia has been hitting the Class of 2016 hard in February. WVU has sent out 19 offers since Feb. 10 according to Chris Anderson, who wrote this piece for the Charleston Gazette. It's been a busy time for the WVU coaching staff so time will tell if the commitment to becoming one of the first programs to offer some of these recruits will pay off.

Big 12 Tuesday mailbag

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
4:30
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In Tuesday's mailbag, nonconference scheduling, Kansas' recruiting philosophy and Oklahoma's quarterback situation are among the topics. As always, thanks for your questions. To submit questions for next week's mailbag, click here.

 




Jonathan Chambers in Bonneau: Will the Big 12 consider adding two more teams, such as BYU and Boise State, in order to have that coveted conference championship game, or will it petition the NCAA for a 10 team conference championship?

Brandon Chatmon: Doesn't look like that sits atop the priority list for the Big 12. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby addressed a championship game and expansion in this Q&A with Jake Trotter. The first step is to address the tiebreaker rules, which became an issue in 2014 as the TCU-Baylor debate hit its peak. Getting rid of the possibility for co-champions and uncertainty over who should be considered the Big 12’s top team would be a good first step.

 




Nathan in Boundurant, Iowa: What are the odds Iowa State jucos Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath anchor the defensive line this season and make it back to a bowl game this season?

BC: I’m looking for a big impact from Tucker and Leath and the Cyclones desperately need some impact newcomers along the defensive line. The Cyclones were last in the Big 12 with 15 sacks and 3.2 sack percentage. Paul Rhoads' team needs a disruptive force along the defensive line. But it will be tough for the Cyclones to get to a bowl game unless both sides of the ball take massive steps forward. I like some of the talent in Ames, but I can't say I expect ISU to return to a bowl game quite yet.

 




Stanley Metz Jr. in Princeton, West Virginia, writes: Way too early question, but ... how can any Big 12 team expect to make the playoffs with their nonconference scheduling being so bad? Texas is the only team I see having a chance considering their nonconference schedule, and that's only if the Irish have a good season.

BC: Man, what’s with all the doom and gloom, Stanley? All this debate and conversation about nonconference scheduling is overblown at this point. It’s pretty simple, if any Big 12 team wins every game in 2015 (or beyond) and is left on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoff, I’ll be shocked. I’d agree that most Big 12 teams should amp up their nonconference schedules in the future but their destiny is still in their own hands, on the field, either way.

 




Terry in Texas writes: Texas Tech’s Mike Mitchell has been flying under the radar. What are some realistic expectations out of this kid this season?

BC: Global domination. OK, maybe that's too much to ask, but I expect him to become one of the core members of the Red Raider defense. Mitchell, a linebacker who transferred from Ohio State, is talented and he fits a need so I could see him force his way into the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year competition. The Red Raiders' defense needs playmakers and Mitchell could be the guy.

 




Andrew in Albuquerque writes: How much do you feel Oklahoma's success this season will depend on the QB situation?

BC: For me, success would mean Big 12 championship contention at the very least. So, yes, OU’s success is very much tied into the play of the quarterbacks. Trevor Knight has shown he can play at a high level but he also has shown he can make game-changing mistakes. I think the Sooners learned the past two years that you can’t win Big 12 titles without offensive balance. I think Lincoln Riley will bring that balance and I think he will find an answer at quarterback, whether it’s Knight, Baker Mayfield or one of OU’s other signal-callers. But TCU and Baylor are still the clear favorites in the conference in my eyes, which means OU needs exceptional, not just good, quarterback play to force itself into the mix.

 




Scott in Overland Park writes: I'm calling shenanigans on KU's Beaty making Kansas a priority in recruiting. It has been pretty much nothing but Texas recruiting since he got here. Didn't he get only one Kansas recruit in his whole class?

BC: First off, I'm pretty happy to be able to sneak the word shenanigans into a mailbag, so thanks for that Scott. But, to answer your question, what did you expect him to do? Just take a bunch of players from Kansas after arriving in Lawrence in December? That sounds like a good way to make a bunch of mistakes on the recruiting trail. Beaty is focused on planting seeds that could blossom two or three years from now, not after two months on the job. It makes sense for him to lean on what he knows, which is Texas, for right now during his short stint in charge. But I’d expect to see signs of Beaty’s in-state philosophy during his first full recruiting cycle in the Class of 2016, when he has had the chance to properly evaluate the top talent in Kansas and decide which players are a good fit for how he's looking to build his program.

 




Ethan Brown in Waco, Texas, writes: Who do you think will win the Baylor starting QB job this year?

BC: I think Seth Russell will be the guy. He has plenty of experience in the offense and he performed well during his limited opportunities behind Bryce Petty. Chris Johnson and Jarrett Stidham are both talented enough to win the job, but it’s Russell’s job to lose.

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