Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Questions for each Big 12 football team in spring: How Colorado, Deion Sanders take the next step in Year 2

The revamped Big 12 debuts in 2024 featuring 16 teams for the first time in history. Texas and Oklahoma are gone, but national contenders Utah and Arizona headline another crop of newcomers for the second straight season, this time from the Pac-12. 

After a tumultuous final season before realignment, many of the 16 Big 12 teams are going through a rebuilding phase in 2024. Every returning program in the league lost at least four games last season, including Big 12 finalist Oklahoma State. The lone exception, Arizona, underwent a coaching change after a stellar 10-3 campaign. The four newcomers who transitioned to the power conferences all finished with losing records. 

Ultimately, all the turnover means the Big 12 is wide open in 2024. And even more important, the winner of the ultra competitive league is all but guaranteed a trip to the College Football Playoff, making this a debut season for the ages.

The tone for the Big 12 race will start in spring ball. Here’s one question each Big 12 team has to answer in spring ball to make some noise in 2024. 

Arizona

Is Brent Brennan up to speed? The Wildcats were a potential Big 12 championship favorite heading into the offseason after a breakout 10-win campaign, but losing coach Jedd Fisch threw a bucket of cold water on everything. The Wildcats lost 22 transfers after the coaching change, with nine following Fisch to Washington. 

However, first-year coach Brennan earned a huge win as quarterback Noah Fifita and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan opted to return in 2024. Fifita hit McMillan for 90 catches, 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns as one of the best QB-WR duos in college football. The return gives Arizona something special to build upon. 

Now, Brennan’s primary job is quickly adjusting to his roster and building on the previous two seasons. The Wildcats remain a Big 12  dark horse if Brennan can make a smooth transition. Helping matters, a large number of his assistant coaches previously worked at Arizona. 

Arizona State

Who steps in for Jaden Rashada? The Sun Devils were cursed at quarterback last season, suffering so many injuries that running back Cameron Skattebo and tight end Jalin Conyers took snaps under center. The 2024 season isn’t getting off to an ideal start, either, with Rashada missing spring ball after undergoing hand surgery. 

The Sun Devils were active in the transfer portal and added Michigan State transfer Sam Leavitt, but they still have only three total quarterbacks on the roster. With Rashada sidelined, that number falls to two active quarterbacks in spring ball, without even a walk-on listed. While Leavitt gives the Sun Devils some insurance, Arizona State can’t afford a repeat of 2023. 

Baylor

Who fills the defensive gaps? An inconsistent offense took the bulk of the blame for a disappointing 2023 season, but the horrific defense actually defined the putrid 3-9 campaign. The Bears ranked No. 115 in rush defense and were one of only five power-conference teams to surrender more than 5.0 yards per carry. 

The Bears shuffled their staff overseeing defensive line and linebackers, and brought in 310-pound JUCO transfer Tonga Lolohea and linebacker Keaton Thomas to provide immediate help stopping the run. Still, the bulk of the Bears’ run defense in 2024 relies on internal improvement. Baylor suffered a setback to its depth after two potential defensive tackle contributors medically retired. Can Dave Aranda afford growing pains as he enters the year on the hot seat? 

BYU

What’s the plan at QB? With Kedon Slovis out of eligibility, the Cougars were aggressive fielding options in the quarterback room. Former No. 1 JUCO QB recruit Jake Retzlaff played well in relief last season, nearly leading upsets of both Oklahoma schools and showing some serious mobility. In addition, the Cougars added transfer Gerry Bohanon, who led Baylor to a Big 12 championship in 2021, and young Western Michigan transfer Treyson Bourguet. Bohanon gives BYU the highest floor but has limitations as a passer. Retzlaff has some dynamic upside but completed just half of his passes. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has key decisions to make this spring. 

Cincinnati

Will the defense improve in Year 2? The Bearcats were a proud defensive program during their run in the AAC, but the unit underachieved dramatically during their first Big 12 season. Despite being projected as a potential top-end unit in the conference, Cincinnati instead posted its worst per-play defense. It gave up a putrid 5.4 yards per carry despite returning star defensive tackle Dontay Corleone. 

The Bearcats smartly looked to one of the top defensive schematic programs in the country, bringing Iowa State associate coach Tyson Veidt to run the unit. The Cyclones revolutionized the 3-3-5 under well-regarded defensive coordinator Jon Heacock and have consistently been the league’s best defense since Matt Campbell arrived in 2016. Veidt was around for the full journey. 

Only four of the top 10 snap leaders on defense are back in 2024, but Corleone gives the Bearcats a building block. Cincinnati also aggressively targeted the defensive back group in the portal, bringing in six transfers. The combination of schematic upgrade and new additions will make the defense a top priority in camp. 

Colorado

Can the offensive line improve at all? The Buffaloes ranked as one of the FBS’ worst blocking teams last season, giving up 56 sacks and paving the way for a rushing average of 2.3 yards per carry. Both marks ranked as the worst in the Power Five and doomed Colorado during a 4-8 debut under Deion Sanders. 

Making matters worse, Colorado lost two starters to the transfer portal. Offensive line is a chemistry position and completely starting from scratch puts them right back where they were last year.

The Buffaloes made the offensive line a priority over the offseason, adding five transfers and No. 1 offensive tackle recruit Jordan Seaton. Colorado also hired former NFL lineman Phil Loadholt as offensive line coach. That said, the Buffaloes added seven transfer offensive linemen before the 2023 season but still struggled. “Coach Prime” has his work cut out for him. 

Houston

How quickly can Willie Fritz develop the roster? Recruiting was not a priority under former coach Dana Holgorsen, which ultimately cost him his job. The Cougars coasted through the Big 12 with a shallow roster in 2023 and had only 14 high school players committed when Fritz took over the program. 

Fritz moved quickly to try to rectify the situation, adding 18 transfers and two JUCO recruits for depth. Eight players came in the trenches. Still, building roster strength is a multi-year process, and there are no guarantees of success after a 4-8 Big 12 debut. While Tulane will ultimately be looked at as the bigger rebuild for Fritz – especially in a pre-transfer portal era – it took Fritz three seasons to make a bowl with the Green Wave. 

Iowa State

Can the offense grow under Taylor Mouser? Last season, the Cyclones were one of the most improved offenses in the Big 12 from Week 1 to Week 14. After averaging just 21 points per game through the first half of the season, Iowa State jumped to 30 points per game over the last seven games. Freshman quarterback Rocco Becht was especially strong, throwing 10 touchdowns to only one interception in his final four games. 

Many of the top playmakers are back for another year, but the program suffered a setback when star offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase opted to leave for the Los Angeles Rams. Matt Campbell opted to stay internal and promote tight ends coach Taylor Mouser, who has been with Campbell since he was a grad assistant at Toledo in 2015. Mouser has coached tight ends since 2021, which has been one of the Cyclones’ top position groups under Campbell, but Scheelhaase left big shoes. 

Kansas

How’s the backup QB situation? Jalon Daniels, last year’s Preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, ultimately played just three games because of nagging back injuries. Daniels spurned transfer rumors to return to Kansas in 2024, making the Jayhawks a dark-horse Big 12 contender. However, Kansas did lose talented backup Jason Bean to graduation. Bean excelled as Daniels’ backup, scoring 39 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Now, former walk-on Cole Ballard is the projected backup. Unlike last season, the Jayhawks can’t afford for Daniels to miss games. 

Kansas State

How quickly will the OL group come along? The Wildcats boasted one of the best offensive line groups in the Big 12 last season behind All-American Cooper Beebe, but the group is starting from scratch. The Wildcats are replacing four starters in the unit right as the program breaks in new starting quarterback Avery Johnson. Offensive line coach Connor Riley aggressively added North Dakota transfer Easton Kilty to man the left tackle position, but several others will remain open competitions. The Wildcats have a number of young players with upside, but finding a group of five remains top priority. 

Oklahoma State

Will the defense take a step? The Cowboys hired ex-Division II coordinator Bryan Nardo to bring a 3-3-5 defense to Stillwater last season, but the results were decidedly inconsistent. Oklahoma State ranked bottom 10 nationally in total defense and gave up an astonishing 8.7 yards per pass attempt. 

Nardo’s defense showed flashes and tended to improve in the second half of games. The Cowboys also benefit from a handful of key returners, including linebacker Collin Oliver and cornerback Korie Black. With almost the entire offense back, the difference between Big 12 contention comes down to continued growth from this unit. 

TCU

Can Andy Avalos fix the defense? Just one year after going to the national championship game, the Horned Frogs have flipped both coordinators. Despite returning a highly rated secondary group, TCU fielded one of the worst passing defenses in the Big 12 and posted the worst turnover margin in the conference. 

To stem the tide, Sonny Dykes brought in former Boise State coach Avalos to run the defense. The Frogs previously ran a base 3-3-5 system, but Avalos ran more 4-2-5 at Boise State, which represents a return to the system that Gary Patterson used for 20 years. While Avalos struggled with as the Broncos coach, his track record as a defensive coordinator is strong. 

Texas Tech

Who steps up on the offensive line? The Red Raiders are starting from scratch on the offensive line after four starters departed from Joey McGuire’s Independence Bowl squad. Texas Tech received a gift when 42-game starter Caleb Rogers opted to return for his super senior season, but only one other lineman on the roster (Ty Buchanan) played more than seven snaps last year. 

Rogers is expected to slide inside to fortify an inexperienced unit. The Red Raiders also added three offensive line transfers – Toledo’s Vinny Sciury, Memphis’ Davion Carter and Middle Tennessee’s Sterling Porcher. Maurice Rodriques also held a number of big offers out of JUCO. A handful of returners could also factor into the picture, like Buchanan and junior Caleb Rodkey. After a slight step back in 2023, the Red Raiders need this unit to hit. 

UCF

Can the Knights get more physical? UCF made the smoothest transition of the newcomers to the Big 12, but results were still highly inconsistent. Outside of a bizarre 45-3 win over Oklahoma State, the Knights’ only Big 12 wins were over fellow newcomers Cincinnati and Houston. Against the best of the conference, the Knights got pushed around defensively, finishing last in the conference against the run.

UCF added a few key transfers at linebacker but otherwise opted to bet on internal improvement along the defensive line. Defensive tackle Ricky Barber opted to return for another season, while former Oklahoma transfer Derrick LeBlanc could factor into the rotation. Class of 2023 DT recruit John Walker rated as the best recruit in program history. 

More than half of the 21 defensive linemen on the 2023 roster were listed as freshmen or sophomores, so there’s plenty of upside remaining as Gus Malzahn tries to build a Big 12-caliber rushing defense. 

Utah

Is the passing game ready to go? The Utes’ disappointing 2023 campaign was defined by major injuries, but the losses could spell a strong 2024. Quarterback Cameron Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe are back, giving Utah one of the strongest combinations in the Big 12. Utah was also aggressive in the transfer portal, adding USC receiver transfer Dorian Singer and Washington’s Taeshaun Lyons to solidify their group. If Rising is fully recovered from his ACL tear and the new additions pair with returner Money Parks well, the Utes should be preseason favorites to win the Big 12. 

West Virginia

Can Garrett Greene grow as a passer? Greene was one of the most dynamic players in the Big 12 during his first season as a starter. During the Mountaineers’ surprise nine-win campaign, Greene posted a 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and rushed for nearly 800 yards to lead a thrilling offense. 

Still, Greene was a wildly boom-or-bust passer. He posted five games under 200 yards passing and hit 60% completion only three times. His average depth of target played a role – 13.5 yards downfield ranked third in the nation among qualified passers – but his 43% completion rate on intermediate passes ranked bottom-five in the nation. 

Between Greene and running backs C.J. Donaldson and Jahiem White, the Mountaineers will field one of the nation’s top rush offenses. Adding a more consistent passing attack could elevate WVU towards contender status. 

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