By Ryan Mayer 

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.

Today, we look to the Big 12, where the Sooners look to be the class of the conference once again.

Preseason Media Poll

1) Oklahoma

2) TCU

3) Oklahoma State

4) Baylor

5) Texas

6) Texas Tech

7) West Virginia

8) Kansas State

9) Iowa State

10) Kansas

Contenders

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Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Oklahoma Sooners

Bob Stoops’ team returned to the top of the Big 12 last season for the first time since 2010 when they beat Missouri in the Big 12 championship game. Their 11-1 season earned them a spot in the College Football Playoff where they fell in the semifinal to national runner-up Clemson. This year, Stoops brings back a lot of that team from last year and it looks like the Sooners could earn themselves a playoff spot once again.

One of those returning players is quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield had an outstanding season in his first year as a starter for the team last season, throwing for 3,700 yards and a 36-7 touchdown to interception ratio while completing 68 percent of his passes. Now, heading into his senior season and the second in offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s system, Mayfield should put up similar if not better numbers.

Mayfield will have a veteran offensive line with three starters in front of him and a pair of running backs that give defensive coordinators nightmares in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The two backs combined for 2,102 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. Mayfield will not have his number one or three receivers as Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal are both gone, but Dede Westbrook is back after catching 46 passes for 743 yards and four touchdowns. After averaging 44 points per game in year one under Lincoln Riley, I’d expect more of the same.

The defense has some question marks after losing some star players. In particular, the Sooners will need to find replacements for defensive end Charles Tapper, linebackers Eric Striker, Dominique Alexander and DeVante Bond, and corner Zack Sanchez. The linebackers produced 213 tackles, 12 sacks and 21 tackles for loss so replacing the production will be difficult. However, 2nd team All-Big 12 performers, corner Jordan Thomas and safety Ahmad Thomas are back, which should help with some of the inexperience.

The best news for the Sooners schedule wise is that they get three of their toughest contests at home where they are 96-8 (yes, you read that correctly) under Bob Stoops. Their out of conference schedule may be the most difficult in the Big 12 with games against Houston and Ohio State.

Toughest Games: vs. Houston (9/3 NRG Stadium), vs. Ohio State (9/17), @ TCU (10/1), vs. Texas (10/8), vs. Baylor (11/12), vs. Oklahoma State (12/3)

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Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Mike Gundy’s crew enters his 12th year at the helm of the Cowboys with virtually the entire offense back from a team that went 10-3 and was in contention for the Big 12 title late into the season. There’s a reason they were picked so highly in the preseason media poll and the amount of experience they have back is a big reason why.

Mason Rudolph is set as the starter coming off his impressive sophomore season. Rudolph complete 62 percent of his passes for 3,770 yards and a 21-9 TD to INT ratio. He will see even more of the field this year now that JW Walsh, who was used as a running QB/change of pace guy last year, has graduated. Rudolph will have two of his biggest playmakers back in James Washington (20.5 yards per catch) and Marcell Ateman (17.0 yards per catch) so expect continued explosive plays from the passing game. The running game was a sticking point last year where the Cowboys averaged just 127 yards per game on the ground, but those numbers should improve with four of five starters back on the line. Top rusher Chris Carson is back, but the team also added grad transfer Barry Sanders Jr., who returns to his father’s alma mater after three seasons at Stanford.

The defense was the trouble spot, particularly against good teams late in the season last year. Case in point, they were torched for 48 points and 554 yards in the bowl game by Ole Miss. In order to challenge for the conference title, they will need to improve on this side of the ball. There’s some questions here as bookend defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean are gone, taking their 18.5 sacks with them. Finding a replacement for that pass rush will be necessary, particularly in this wide open spread offense heavy conference. Linebackers Jordan Burton and Chad Whitener are back and the secondary has a pair of starting safeties in Tre Flowers and Jordan Sterns back. Shut down corner Kevin Peterson moved on, but Ramon Richards started nine games last year, so there’s three starters on the back end.

The obstacle to the Cowboys becoming Big 12 champs is the schedule. All three of their most difficult games come on the road and they add Pittsburgh to the out of conference schedule, which won’t be easy. Gundy and company should be hanging around in late November/December, but the key games late will decide their fate.

Toughest Games: vs. Pitt (9/17), @ Baylor (9/24), vs. Texas (10/1), @ Kansas State (11/5), @ TCU (11/19), @ Oklahoma (12/3)

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Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson’s team was ravaged by injuries last season after many projected them (myself included) to come out on top in the Big 12. The offense was very experienced and talented while the defense was a little more uncertain. Heading into this season, it looks as if the opposite is true as the defense has a lot of guys back and the offense is looking for replacements for key guys.

One of those key players needing to be replaced is QB Trevone Boykin, who had a wildly successful two-year run here. Losing a guy like Boykin would normally put a team behind the 8-ball the following season but the Horned Frogs may have their answer already in Texas A&M transfer Kenny “Trill” Hill. For those that don’t remember, in 2014 Hill was an early Heisman contender as he and the Aggies roared out of the gate before he struggled in a couple of games and the game of musical quarterbacks that has become a theme at A&M began. Hill had a 23-8 TD to INT ratio with 2,649 yards in his time as a starter for the Aggies and should have some good success here after having the red-shirt year to learn the offense.

He won’t be the only one stepping into some big shoes as Kyle Hicks will look to replace the production of top back Aaron Green. Hicks didn’t get a ton of carries last year so it remains to be seen what he can do. Hill will have some help at the receiver spot despite the loss of top guys Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee. Ty Slanina and the explosive Deante Gray are back from injury and the team adds LSU transfer John Diarse. Combine those three with lightning bug KaVontae Turpin and you’ve got a very solid receiving corps. Finally, the offensive line loses three starters but get maybe the biggest addition on the team as tackle Aviante Collins returns after missing all of last year with an injury. He should help stabilize a young group.

Last year, TCU’s defense was hit hard by injuries as DE James McFarland, LB Sammy Douglas, SS Kenny Iloka and CB Ranthony Texada all missed significant time. All of those guys are back and the backups got plenty of experience in their absences last year. This is now a deep unit that should be able to improve on the 27.5 points and 398 yards per game allowed last season. Patterson is a defensive guy and he’s got the horses to work with this season.

TCU gets a huge boost from the schedule as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both have to come to Fort Worth as does Arkansas in the out of conference slate. November features three big contests that will determine the Big 12 picture.

Toughest Games: vs. Arkansas (9/10), vs. Oklahoma (10/1), @ Baylor (11/5), vs. Oklahoma State (11/19), @ Texas (11/25)

Sleepers

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Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Texas Longhorns

Charlie Strong’s seat is hotter than a Texas highway on a summer day heading into this season. Back-to-back seasons of under .500 football at a school like Texas will do that to you. Granted, Strong’s cleaning up the program and general house cleaning left the cupboard a little bare the past two years and now he’s finally starting to get some of his guys into positions where they can succeed.

The quarterback position has been particularly rough in the first two years under Strong. Last year, Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard alternated between flashes of competence and generally poor play. This year, they’ll battle with true freshman Shane Buechele for the job. There are plenty of weapons to work with as running backs Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman return as do three of the top four receivers. With an offensive line that brings three starters back, the offense should be much improved under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. Gilbert was last seen orchestrating Tulsa’s offense, which averaged 502 yards per game last year.

Last year, the Longhorns gave up 30 points per game in large part because they were unable to stop the run as they allowed opponents to gain 219 yards per game there. There are some big losses along the defensive line in Shiro Davis, Desmond Jackson and Hassan Ridgeway, but virtually the entire back seven is back, which should lead to better numbers. It’s also worth noting that those three players combined for just seven of the defensive line’s 24 sacks last season, so there are plenty of talented guys left in that group.

Home games against Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU puts Texas squarely in the driver’s seat when it comes to their fate in the Big 12. If they can win two or even all three of those games, they’ll be well on their way to contention.

Toughest Games: vs. Notre Dame (9/4), @ Oklahoma State (10/1), vs. Oklahoma (10/8), vs. Baylor (10/29), vs. TCU (11/25)

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Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Baylor Bears

To say that the Baylor program and the university itself has had a tumultuous spring and summer would be a massive understatement. The end result is a school that fired its athletic director and coach and a program that lost many of its recruits for this year and coming years. New head coach Jim Grobe will have an uphill battle to contention in the Big 12 this year.

The good news is the Bears get Seth Russell back from injury after he missed the final six games of the season following a neck injury. His backup, Jarrett Stidham, has decided to transfer, so Russell will need to stay healthy. He will have plenty of help from a running back corps that brings back the top four guys from last season, including a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson. The Bears do lose Biletnikoff winner Corey Coleman, who left for the NFL, but bring back 2nd receiver KD Cannon, who has plenty of speed and should put up some good numbers. The questions come on the offensive line where four starters are gone from last year’s group.

As the offensive line takes a hit, so does the defensive line where Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings, and Jamal Palmer are all gone, which leaves some big questions as to who will step up on this unit as well. The Bears’ back seven looks good as linebackers Taylor Young and Raaquan Davis are back as are three of the four starters in the secondary minus corner Xavien Howard, who departed for the NFL.

The Bears will need to find answers in the trenches in order to contend for the Big 12 title. The schedule does give them Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU at home. After so much turnover and off season turmoil, this looks like a step back year for the program.

Toughest Games: vs. Oklahoma State (9/24), @ Texas (10/29), vs. TCU (11/5), @ Oklahoma (11/12)

The Rest

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Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder enters his 8th year of his second go-round with the team and his 25th year overall at the school. He worked some kind of magic last season as the ‘Cats were bowl eligible despite being outscored on the season. This season will be a little more challenging with some heavy losses along the offensive line and in the secondary as well as a tough schedule.

That aforementioned offensive line loses four starters from last year including 1st team All Big 12 guard Cody Whitehair. That’s a tough loss for a unit that last year had its top two running backs in Charles Jones and Justin Silmon combine for just 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns. The offense will get a likely boost from the return of quarterback Jesse Ertz from injury. Ertz won the starting job heading into the season last year but was lost for the year just two plays into the first game. Ertz is the projected starter but he will still battle Joe Huebner (47.6% 1,837 yards 9 TDs 10 INTs last season) for the job. Either one will have three of last year’s top five receivers to throw to in Deante Burton, Dominique Heath and Winston Dimel. Co-offensive coordinators Dana Dimel and Del Miller’s primary concern will be that offensive line.

On defense, the Wildcats have a very solid front seven that features Will Geary and Jordan Willis on the defensive line. The two combined for 13 sacks last season with Willis picking up 9.5 of those. Behind them, the entire linebacking corps is back with Elijah Lee and Will Davis looking to lead the way once again. The concerns come in the secondary where three starters from last year are gone in corner Morgan Burns and safeties Nate Jackson and Kaleb Prewett. They do get back Dante Barrett from injury and corner Duke Shelley returns so they’ll be breaking in two new starters rather than three.

The schedule as I mentioned before is rough with away games against Stanford, Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. The Wildcats should be in bowl contention again, but it’s hard to see more than that for this team.

Toughest Games: @ Stanford (9/2), @ Oklahoma (10/15), vs. Texas (10/22), vs. Oklahoma State (11/5), @ Baylor (11/19), @ TCU (12/3)

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West Virginia Mountaineers

Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineers have struggled a bit since entering the Big 12 back in 2012. Last year’s 8-5 finish is the best season they’ve had since then and they have had back-to-back winning seasons. There are reasons to be optimistic about the Mountaineers this season, most notably the schedule, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, though, let’s get to the offense.

Skyler Howard is back for his senior season at the QB spot following a junior year where he threw for 3,145 yards 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but completed just 54.8 percent of his passes. He did have a big performance in their bowl game against Arizona State with 532 yards and five touchdowns. The offense does lose its bell cow running back in Wendell Smallwood who left early for the NFL, but Russel Shell, the number two guy, had 708 yards and eight touchdowns on 161 carries last season. He should do well back in the lead back role. Howard has four of his top five targets back including top man Shelton Gibson who averaged 24 yards per catch last year. Combine all of that with an offensive line bringing back four guys from last season and you have a recipe for a prolific offense once again.

The defense has some big holes to fill, particularly on the back end. Defensive ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown return (10.5 sacks last year), but the linebacking corps is hit hard by the departures of Nick Kwiatkoski, Jared Barber, KJ Dillon and Shaq Petteway. Those four guys produced 269 tackles and 31 for loss with nine sacks last season. That’s a lot of production to replace in addition to both starting corners and star safety Karl Joseph who’s now with the Oakland Raiders. The good news is that Joseph’s injury last year allowed Jarrod Harper to get some starting experience so he will pair with Dravon Askew-Henry for a pretty good starting safety duo. That said, I’d expect the defense to take a step back this year from the 25 points per game they allowed last season.

The schedule looks pretty favorable with three of the five Big 12 tough opponents having to come to the Mountaineers. That said, the defense has too many holes for me to consider the Mountaineers a sleeper pick for contention, but they could make it three years in a row for a bowl game.

Toughest Games: vs. BYU (9/24), vs. TCU (10/22), @ Oklahoma State (10/29), @ Texas (11/12), vs. Oklahoma (11/19), vs. Baylor (12/3)

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Texas Tech Red Raiders

Kliff Kingsbury is one of the more entertaining coaches in college football. He’s had an up and down three years, going 8-5, 4-8 and 7-6 so far. This year’s team should be a bowl team once again as long as they can build a new and effective offensive line and get better on defense.

The offensive line loses three All Big 12 performers in Le’Raven Clark (1st team), Jared Kaster (3rd team), and Alfredo Morales (2nd team). That’s a big loss in front of Patrick Mahomes, who enters his junior season primed for another big year after putting up 4,653 yards, 36 TDs and 15 INTs in Kingsbury’s “Air Raid” offense last season. Mahomes will need receivers Devin Lauderdale, Ian Sadler and Reginald Davis to step up in order to replace the production of Jakeem Grant (90 receptions 1,268 yards 10 TD last season). With leading rusher DeAndre Washington leaving, there are questions at the running back spot as well now that the top returning back, Justin Stockton, had just 61 carries for 367 yards last season.

On defense, the Red Raiders were horrid last season giving up 44 points and 548 yards per game, including allowing opponents to rush for 280(!) yards per game. The defensive line adds in a couple of transfers in nose guard Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Kolin Hill who should help to solidify that unit after the loss of their top two defensive ends in Pete Robertson and Branden Jackson. The secondary should be fine as it loses just corner JJ Gaines, but the real question comes at linebacker. Micah Awe and Dakota Allen and their 213 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss are gone. Finding their replacements is key to trying to improve on those rough defensive numbers from last year.

Toughest Games: @ Arizona State (9/10), vs. Oklahoma (10/22), @ TCU (10/29), vs. Texas (11/5), @ Oklahoma State (11/12), vs. Baylor (11/25)

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Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones sent Paul Rhoads packing following a 3-9 (2-7 Big 12) year last season and brought in Toledo head coach Matt Campbell. At age 35 he’s one of the youngest coaches in FBS. He takes over a team that was pretty average offensively last year (25 points and 408 yards per game), but considering his past as an offensive coordinator and generally offensive minded guy, we should start to see some progress on that side of the ball.

Part of the problem for the Cyclones last season was inconsistent QB play. Sam B. Richardson started the year as the guy but after throwing for 1,443 yards and sporting an 8-8 touchdown to interception ratio in the first 6.5 games, Joel Lanning took over. Lanning was slightly better with a 10-4 TD to INT ratio and 1,247 yards but the Cyclones only win down the stretch came in a shutout of Texas. Now, Lanning is back but he will have some competition from former Georgia QB Jacob Park, former Oregon State QB Kyle Kempt and freshman Zeb Noland. It will be interesting to see that battle play out. For as inconsistent as the QBs were last year, the running back spot, manned by Mike Warren, was rock solid. Warren carried for 1,339 yards and six touchdowns last season as a true freshman and should only get better this year. Iowa State also benefits from bringing back its top receiver in Allen Lazard who despite the inconsistent QB play had 56 receptions for 808 yards and six touchdowns.

The offensive line is a bit of a question mark considering that it loses its center, left guard, and right tackle from last season. Campbell and coordinator Tom Manning (former OL coach at Toledo) will need to find answers.

On defense, the line loses its star defensive end Dale Pierson, who was 2nd-team All Big 12 last season. The Cyclones return JD Waggoner and nose guard Desmond Tucker while also getting Gabe Luna back from injury. Willie Harris returns to the linebacker group after being the teams 4th-leading tackler last season (59). The secondary loses a key starter in safety Qujuan Floyd but gets back safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, who was lost for the year after six games last year. He returns to a group that brings back its starting corner pairing in Brian Peavy and Jomal Wiltz, so the pass defense should improve (267 yards per game 61.1 percent completions last year).

The schedule is tough for the Cyclones as four of their six toughest games come on the road at Iowa, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas. Campbell’s first year should see an improvement on the win total, but not by much.

Toughest Games: @ Iowa (9/10), @ TCU (9/17), vs. Baylor (10/1), @ Oklahoma State (10/8), @ Texas (10/15), vs. Oklahoma (11/3)

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Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas was dismal last season, going winless both overall and in conference play. What’s worse is they were outscored by an average of 46-15, so it’s not as if many of their games were particularly close. David Beaty has a lot more experience to work with this season and the Jayhawks should be able to get in the win column, but it still looks like a tough year awaits Kansas fans.

True freshman QB Ryan Willis saw a majority of the snaps last season following injuries to the two guys in front of him on the depth chart. He went on to throw for 1,719 yards 9 TDs and 10 INTs completing just 52 percent of his passes in the process. Willis is back with both Montell Cozart (junior) and DeOndre Ford (senior) who will all compete for the starting spot once again. The Jayhawks were pretty ineffective in the running game last year averaging just 113 yards per game and they lose two of the top three rushers this year. That said, top guy Ke’Aun Kinner is back and should improve on his 566 yards and five touchdowns. Whoever wins the QB job will have four of the top five receivers from last year back to throw to and the passing game numbers should improve in Beaty’s version of the “Air Raid” offense. The offensive line is solid with three guys back and that should help to improve the overall offensive numbers, especially the abysmal 15 points per game from last season.

On defense the Jayhawks were just as bad last season, particularly on the ground, getting gashed for 267 yards rushing per game, which was the 4th worst mark in the country. The defensive line loses three starters, but the entire linebacker group and three of the four starters in the secondary are back, so the defensive numbers should improve.

Toughest Games: @ Memphis (9/17), vs. TCU (10/8), @ Baylor (10/15), vs. Oklahoma State (10/22), @ Oklahoma (10/29), vs. Texas (11/19)

Conference Winner- Oklahoma

The Sooners have the potential to be one of the best offenses in the country and they get most of their biggest conference opponents at home where they have been historically dominant. TCU will be much better defensively, but the offense is still a question even though I do like some of the guys that have been brought in and will be getting expanded roles. Oklahoma State, unlike Oklahoma, has to travel for most of their biggest games, which leads me to think that Mike Gundy’s crew may just miss getting to the top of the conference despite having one of the most experienced teams. Bob Stoops and the Sooners should win the conference and make the College Football Playoff once again.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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