Big 12 Burnt Ends: A second chance at first impressions, power rankings, players to watch

A lot of eyeballs will be fixated on the SEC this week as it makes its 2020 season debut. This is completely understandable and warranted. Each of the seven games features at least one ranked team. No. 23 Kentucky at No. 8 Auburn might be the best game of the weekend. But without a doubt, Mike Leach’s Mississippi State taking on defending national champions LSU is the most interesting storyline. 

That doesn’t leave a lot of oxygen elsewhere and it’s not like the Big 12 drummed up a lot of interest after two underwhelming weeks. Put simply, the Big 12 needs to give people — or voters, or playoff committee members — reasons to care. 

But conference play is starting, and the adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression couldn’t be further from the truth. This is pandemic college football, after all. Preparation time has been screwy, rosters aren’t at full strength due to COVID-19 or contact tracing, and there’s a constant, palpable anxiety as to whether games will even kick off at all. Only once foot hits pigskin can anyone relax. 

With nonconference games in the rearview mirror, though, the perception of the Big 12 is that it’s not very deep — that it’s a two-team race with Oklahoma and Texas. That might be true, and the lack of nonconference games haven’t helped, but it’s still early enough to overcome. No team has played more than a game. Two teams haven’t played at all. 

Competitiveness and cleaner football are two ways to counter this narrative. The thing is, can the Big 12 afford any more upsets? Those would do even more damage. Keep in mind that conference opener surprises are far from uncommon in this league. Just in the past three years, three ranked favorites have lost their Big 12 opener:

  • No. 15 Oklahoma State in 2018: lost 41-17 to Texas Tech
  • No. 17 TCU in 2018: lost 31-16 to Texas
  • No. 6 Oklahoma State in 2017: lost 44-31 to No. 16 TCU 

Similarly, there are three ranked Big 12 teams heading into conference openers: No. 3 Oklahoma (vs. Kansas State); No. 8 Texas (at Texas Tech); and No. 15 Oklahoma State (vs. West Virginia). 

The Sooners and Longhorns shouldn’t have any problems on Saturday. They’re at least three-score favorites with Oklahoma being favored by more than four touchdowns against K-State. If they were to lose, it would say a lot more about just how mediocre the Big 12 has been. 

Oklahoma State and West Virginia is a little different. The Mountaineers are still in full rebuild mode, but an impressive showing or win against the Cowboys could go a long way in measuring their progress. On the other hand, Oklahoma State has been a trendy offseason pick for the Big 12 Championship Game and College Football Playoff. A loss could be devastating. 

The Big 12 backed itself into a corner by stumbling early. With conference play getting underway, this league can start the process of re-establishing its pecking order. Right now, spots 3-9 are up for grabs. Speaking of which … 

Power Rankings: Week 4

1 Oklahoma (1-0): The Sooners took care of Missouri State without a problem and I don’t suspect Kansas State will be a hurdle, either. Once again, the focus will be on quarterback Spencer Rattler. But keep an eye on the Sooners’ defense, too. Last year’s improved unit suffered its first flesh wound against the Wildcats in a 48-41 loss. 

2. Texas (1-0): Texas Tech will be inducting former receiver Michael Crabtree into the school’s Ring of Honor during Saturday’s game against Texas. The reasons why are obvious, but if Texas is as good as advertised it’ll make sure that’s the only thing Tech celebrates.

3. Oklahoma State (1-0): The Cowboys didn’t look all that impressive in their 16-7 win over Tulsa and they predictably took a hit in the national rankings. Can the offensive line shore up after surrending six sacks? West Virginia’s D-line is legit. And what of quarterback Spencer Sanders and his ankle? The line is -8.5 so this could be another rock fight in Stillwater. 

4. TCU (0-0): How do you rise a spot without having played a game? Get two quarterback back during game week. Matthew Downing will start against Iowa State while Max Duggan — last year’s starter — is available. This could flip the script for the Horned Frogs. 

5. Baylor (0-0): Will Baylor ever play a game? The Bears host Kansas, but their Week 3 matchup against Houston was called off less than 24 hours before kickoff. That game was scheduled in response to the one against Louisiana Tech being postponed. 

6. Iowa State (0-1): I’m interested to see how the Cyclones respond to their season opening loss to Louisiana. They’ve had a couple of weeks to get right and they’re actually a slight favorite at TCU (-2.5, per William Hill Sportsbook). If Iowa State is indeed a dark horse Big 12 title game candidate, it needs to rebound. 

7. Kansas State (0-1): As if playing Oklahoma wasn’t daunting enough, there’s real concern that the Wildcats won’t have enough players to even take the field. Contact tracing is proving to a real logistical problem. 

8. West Virginia (1-0): The road trip to Oklahoma State doesn’t look as tough as it did previously, but be careful about over-inflating first impressions. Can West Virginia’s offense move the ball against a better opponent, especially in the run game? 

9. Texas Tech (1-0): The Red Raiders could have a bad matchup with Texas’ passing game coming to town. Starting running back SaRodorick Thompson was booked on Monday in relation to a racing incident over the summer, but he is expected to play

10. Kansas (0-1): What’s more likely to beat Baylor in Week 4: the Jayhawks or COVID-19?

Players to watch

Oklahoma RB T.J. Pledger: He was unavailable for the Missouri State game due to quarantine, but he seems ready to go for Kansas State. The Sooners’ running game is by committee for now, but it is loaded so it’ll be interesting to see how Pledger fits in. He could be RB1. 

Oklahoma State’s offensive line: Yes, the whole thing. Whether it’s Sanders or freshman Shane Illingworth lining up in the backfield, they’ll need protection. The Cowboys need to block better after performing so poorly against Tulsa. Chuba Hubbard needs running room, too. With the Stills brothers back, West Virginia’s defensive front is legit. Oklahoma State may have its work cut out for it in the treches. 

TCU QB Matthew Downing: He’ll be getting his first start against Iowa State, but Max Duggan is available and was one more exciting Big 12 quarterbacks last year. How this offense looks could be the difference in whether the Frogs are a middle-of-the-road Big 12 team or one with its sights on a championship game appearance. 

Baylor DE William Bradley-King: One more time with feeling since the Bears didn’t play last week. Bradley-King is not listed as a starter for the Kansas game, but the Arkansas State transfer had a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss last year. He figures to be more of an edge rushing outside linebacker in Aranda’s defense, but he could provide a spark in getting to the backfield.  

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