2018 Big 12 Power Rankings: Who is Oklahoma's biggest challenger?

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong. Let’s get into the Big 12.

Previously: Group of Five conferences, ACC, Pac-12

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10. Kansas (2017 record: 1-11)

There are reasons to have optimism about Kansas football. Yes, that sentence was typed with a straight face.

David Beaty inherited a scholarship disaster when he became the team’s coach. Out of 85 scholarship spots he only had about 40 scholarship players thanks to attrition. That’s insane. Beaty’s recruited relatively well in his time at Kansas but hasn’t had results. His team should show progress in 2018, but we’re not sure it is enough for him to keep his job.

Kansas has games against Nicholls, Central Michigan and Rutgers to open the season. The Jayhawks could legitimately be 3-0. After that, finding one win in the nine-game Big 12 schedule — let alone three to get to a bowl game — is tough. But hey, 3-9 would be Kansas’ best season since 2014.

With new athletic director Jeff Long in town, Beaty is coaching under a guy who didn’t hire him. If Kansas surprises with four or five wins he’ll probably keep his job. If the Jayhawks don’t, Long could be looking for a new coach in 2019.

9. Baylor (1-11)

There are nine legitimate bowl contenders in the Big 12, especially if the middle of the conference is a muddied mess of 5-4 and 4-5 teams. Baylor could be in the mix if things break right. Charlie Brewer is now a sophomore and his connection with former Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd will be fascinating to watch. Hurd has transitioned to wide receiver at his new school in the hopes of having a productive pro career.

Baylor returns 17 starters in coach Matt Rhule’s second season. Like Kansas, the Bears could get to 3-0 to start the season with an upset of Duke on Sept. 15. Then the Bears and Jayhawks open Big 12 play on Sept. 22. If Kansas wins that game, Baylor is staring at the cellar. A year ago, Baylor got its only win of the season by beating Kansas 38-7.

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8. Texas Tech (6-7)

Welcome to a Texas Tech team that’s going to have a pretty good defense. The Red Raiders return 10 starters from a team that improved mightily from 2016. Tech allowed 32 points a game in 2017 (down 11 from 2016) and 444 yards per game (down 110 from 2016). Both of those marks are the best for a Tech defense since 2013, when the Red Raiders finished 8-5.

McLane Carter got a trial by fire when he started against Texas late in the season in 2017, though the comeback win was spurred on by Nic Shimonek. Carter, should he win the starting job as expected, will need some receivers to step into a void on the outside for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense to keep humming. Five of Tech’s top six receivers are gone. So is running back Justin Stockton, who averaged six yards a carry.

The schedule breaks nicely for the Red Raiders, who host West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. Don’t be shocked if Tech wins one of those games.

7. Iowa State (8-5)

This section of the Power Rankings was tough. Do we put a Kansas State team coached by a wizard that always seems to overachieve in the No. 7 spot or an Iowa State team coached by a guy who became one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel because of the Cyclones’ 8-5 season that included an upset over Oklahoma?

Sorry ISU fans, K-State beat you out. QB Kyle Kempt got a sixth year of eligibility, a huge boost to an offense that has to replace five starters including wide receiver Allen Lazard. Running back David Montgomery will post some of the best numbers in the Big 12; he had 1,146 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2017.

The defense has to replace five starters too including do-it-all former quarterback Joel Lanning, who led the team in tackles. Linebacker Marcel Spears is back though and so is defensive end JaQuan Bailey. He had seven sacks in 2017.

Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt threw for 1,787 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo)
Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt threw for 1,787 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. (AP Photo)

6. Kansas State (8-5)

Maybe we should say Kansas State got the edge for this spot because of a last-second win over Iowa State to end the regular season in 2017? Kansas State’s offense will be intriguing in 2018. It returns eight starters and longtime offensive coordinator Dana Dimel is now coaching UTEP. In his stead, former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein has been upgraded to co-offensive coordinator along with Andre Coleman and Charlie Dickey.

Don’t look for Kansas State’s offense to suddenly turn into the Air Raid. Running back Alex Barnes could challenge the 1,000-yard mark while the coaching staff likely shuffles between Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson at quarterback. They both saw significant playing time in 2017 because of Jesse Ertz’s knee injury.

The defense needs to find six new starters and generate a pass rush. Kyle Ball is the leading returning sack leader and he had just 2.5 in 2017. But one of Bill Snyder’s hallmarks has been finding stellar defensive contributors who were unheralded recruits. There’s no reason to think that trend will stop.

5. Oklahoma State (10-3)

This is a big test for Mike Gundy. Oklahoma State is on a run of three-straight 10-win seasons and we’re not sure the pieces are there for four. Running back Justice Hill should be a beast once again. He rushed for almost 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. But he did that with a stellar passing attack that featured the Mason Rudolph to James Washington connection.

That connection is gone to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wide receiver Marcell Ateman is gone too, leaving Jalen McCleskey as the team’s top option. Maybe Tyron Johnson will deliver on the promise he’s flashed for so long.

Who will throw to them? Our guess is Taylor Cornelius, but we’re not going to rule out Hawaii transfer Dru Brown. Graduate transfers don’t often transfer to new schools to ride the bench.

Defensively, the Cowboys need to replace Tre Flowers and Chad Whitener along with DeQuinton Osborne. But with five starters returning along what Oklahoma State calls a front six, a run defense that gave up less than four yards a carry in 2017 should be stout.

4. West Virginia (7-6)

West Virginia is going to get a lot of love if it decisively beats Tennessee and NC State in the first three weeks of the season. That will set the Mountaineers up for a potential top 15 ranking and a claim to be the top threat to Oklahoma’s throne.

Don’t fall for it until November. West Virginia’s schedule lines up as easily as possible through the first two months of the season. Kansas State is the team’s toughest pre-November opponent. Then things get fun. West Virginia ends the season with a trip to Texas, a visit from TCU, a visit to Oklahoma State and then a season-ending game at home against Oklahoma. You’ll notice those four teams are all in the top half of these power rankings.

If West Virginia doesn’t get blitzed in November it’ll be because Will Grier is throwing touchdowns to David Sills and Gary Jennings and a defense that gave up over 31 points per game in 2017 is far better.

[Related: More on West Virginia, the No. 23 team in Yahoo Sports’ preseason top 25]

West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V caught 18 touchdown passes in 2017. (AP)
West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V caught 18 touchdown passes in 2017. (AP)

3. Texas (7-6)

As we said in the Texas preview, this may be the year for the Longhorns to live up to preseason expectations. It’s been a while since that happened.

Sam Ehlinger is the team’s starting quarterback after beating out Shane Buechele. Ehlinger was the team’s leading rusher with 385 yards in 2017. Someone else should take that title from Ehlinger in 2018 and someone(s) else should rush for over 400 yards. The leading candidates are Cal transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keontay Ingram.

The defense returns seven starters but has to replace Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott along with Poona Ford, a big part of Texas’ very good run defense in 2017. The 109 yards per game that Texas gave up was the fewest since 2011.

[Related: More on Texas, the No. 21 team in Yahoo Sports’ preseason top 25]

2. TCU (11-3)

The loss of Ross Blacklock to an Achilles’ injury could be a big blow to the Horned Frogs’ defense. Blacklock started every game in the middle of TCU’s defensive line and was a freshman All-American. TCU’s run defense allowed just three yards a carry, its lowest mark since 2014.

Blacklock’s injury leaves Ty Summers and Ben Banogu as the only two returning starters on TCU’s defensive front. Banogu may see some more double teams without Mat Boesen on the other side.

Shawn Robinson is officially TCU’s starting quarterback and could be more Trevone Boykin than Kenny Hill. He’ll throw a lot to Jalen Reagor and KaVontae Turpin, a player who feels like he’s been in college forever. Running back Darius Anderson is back too. He ran for eight touchdowns in 2017.

[Related: More on TCU, the No. 16 team in Yahoo Sports’ preseason top 25]

1. Oklahoma (12-2)

Can Oklahoma keep a run of scoring over 40 points per game going for a fourth-straight season? The Sooners were last below a 40-point average in 2014. That was an 8-5 season. That was also the last season without Baker Mayfield at quarterback.

This is the first season post-Baker. Kyler Murray is his successor and will have CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown to throw to. While it’s unrealistic for Murray to put up the passing stats that Mayfield did, Brown and Lamb should still have very productive seasons.

A maligned defense was actually marginally better in 2017 than in 2016, but still far worse than it was in 2015 when Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff and lost in the semifinals the first time. If Oklahoma can find suitable replacements for Emmanuel Beal, Obo Okoronkwo and Steven Parker, the Sooner defense should be good enough for the team to win the Big 12 yet again.

[Related: More on Oklahoma, the No. 7 team in Yahoo Sports’ preseason top 25]

Can Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley get similar production out of QB Kyler Murray that he did with Baker Mayfield? (AP Photo)
Can Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley get similar production out of QB Kyler Murray that he did with Baker Mayfield? (AP Photo)

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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