Oklahoma Sooners: Jake Waters

There can be various signs of success in the Big 12.

This fall there will be Big 12 players whose individual success could be a sign of greater things for their teams. Baylor needs someone to fill the void left by Tevin Reese, a healthy David Ash could transform Texas' season and consistent production from several players would boost their teams' chances to excel.

With the help of ESPN Stats & Information, here's a look at one stat from a player on each Big 12 team that could be a sign of success for their teams.

[+] EnlargeCorey Coleman
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCan Baylor wideout Corey Coleman breakout in 2014?
Baylor receiver Corey Coleman's reception per game average: The Bears’ fourth leading receiver averaged 2.7 receptions and 40.5 yards per game as a redshirt freshman. With Reese moving on to the NFL, Coleman has the chance to drastically increase his per-game averages. The Bears hope his Fiesta Bowl performance -- seven receptions for 88 yards -- are a sign of things to come. If Coleman can double his average to 5 or 6 receptions and 80-plus yards per game, it could mean the Bears offense is humming yet again.

Iowa State receiver Quenton Bundrage's reception percentage: The Cyclones’ top target caught 52.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. For comparison’s sake, Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett caught 71 percent of his passes. Iowa State has been preaching consistency since the end of the season and Bundrage has said catching more consistently and limiting his drops is his primary goal. If Bundrage can up that percentage to 70 or better, it would open up the offense and open up space for the Cyclones' other receivers and running backs.

Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart's completion percentage: Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis wouldn’t have named Cozart his starter if he wasn’t confident the sophomore could be much improved as a passer. Cozart completed just 36.5 percent of his passes during his seven games played as a freshman. If KU’s offense is going to improve under new coordinator John Reagan, Cozart needs to aim to get his completion percentage to at least 58 percent.

Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters' sack percentage: Waters was sacked 23 times in 13 games a season ago and was sacked on 8.1 percent of his pass attempts. Only Iowa State's Sam B. Richardson had a higher sack percentage in the conference. Waters needs to do a better job of getting rid of the football and limiting negative plays this fall, particularly with the Wildcats searching for a consistent running threat early in the season with John Hubert no longer in the backfield. The senior signal-caller should be aiming to cut his sack percentage to five percent or less. While that number doesn't fall solely on his shoulders, Waters can play a key role in lowering the overall number of sacks and sack percentage.

Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight's yards per attempt: Knight struggled to be a consistent passing threat as a redshirt freshman, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt. Only Texas’ Case McCoy and KU’s Jake Heaps and Cozart finished with lower yards per attempt averages among Big 12 quarterbacks who started a game last fall. The league average was 7.2. Opposing defenses will likely try to force Knight to beat them with his arm this fall, so his accuracy and decision-making will rise to the forefront as he tries to lead OU to a College Football Playoff berth. If Knight’s 2014 season average is closer to the 7.9 yards per attempt he recorded in the Sugar Bowl, it will be a great sign for the Sooners.

Oklahoma State receiver Jhajuan Seales' touchdowns: The Cowboys need a breakout season from Seales, who could be the Pokes’ next star at the position. He had just three touchdown receptions as a redshirt freshman, but if he can triple that output in 2014 that would mean the Cowboys' quarterback questions have likely been answered and Seales has taken the next step toward stardom.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
AP Photo/Tim SharpCan Texas signal-caller David Ash remain healthy in 2014?
Texas quarterback David Ash's pass attempts: Considering the state of the quarterback position in Austin, Texas, it would be great for Charlie Strong if Ash’s pass attempts surpass 200 for the second time in his career. It would mean Ash remained healthy and would give Strong an experienced signal-caller who has won 15 games as a starter. Injuries resulted in Ash attempting just 87 passes in 2013 so surpassing 200 pass attempts could help Strong have a successful first season.

TCU quarterback/receiver Trevone Boykin's total receptions: Boykin finished the 2013 season with 26 receptions for 204 yards despite starting six games at quarterback. He has been running the Horned Frogs' offense from behind center during the offseason, but if he finishes with more than 26 receptions in 2014, that’s a terrific sign for TCU. First, it means a solid option has emerged at quarterback allowing Boykin to slide to receiver. Second, it shows Boykin’s late season excellence as a pass catcher in 2013 was not a fluke, potentially making the Horned Frogs’ attack more explosive than it has been during the past two seasons.

Texas Tech receiver Jakeem Grant's yards per play: The junior wideout averaged 11.3 yards per play from scrimmage in 2013. The Red Raiders scored at least 30 points in every game in which Grant averaged at least 11 yards per play. Grant is a dynamic playmaker whom coach Kliff Kingsbury will try to get the ball as much as possible to help lessen the impact of losing Jace Amaro and Eric Ward. If Texas Tech increases Grant's touches and he rewards the coaching staff by averaging 12 yards per play in 2014, he has the potential to change games and help the offense continue to rank among the Big 12's best.

West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood's percentage of the Mountaineer’s total yardage: Smallwood accounted for 7.2 percent of WVU’s total yards from scrimmage as a freshman. Look for him to increase that percentage as a sophomore after a stellar spring. He could slide right into the versatile role manned by third-round pick Charles Sims. If the sophomore can match Sims’ 30.3 percent of WVU’s total yardage in 2013, it could be a great sign for the Mountaineers.
Coaches and players alike can make a name for themselves on third down. Receivers earn reputations for their ability to move the chains, signal-callers separate themselves as clutch performers and coaches’ creative play calling rises to the forefront during those key moments.

A closer look at the production of Big 12 offenses and defenses on third down can provide a glimpse at how champions are made and reveal areas of improvement heading into the 2014 season.

The stats, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, are from conference games only during the past two seasons in an effort to provide a fair baseline for every team. The teams are listed alphabetically with third-down conversion rate, opponent third-down conversion rate, yards per play on 3rd-and-6 or more and yards per play allowed on 3rd-and-6 or more serving as the four key categories to show production on third down, or lack thereof.

Some thoughts and notes:

  • Kansas State leads the Big 12 in third-down conversion percentage in the past two seasons, and it’s no major surprise to see the Wildcats sitting atop the conference, as Bill Snyder’s Wildcats are efficient and productive. Playing three different quarterbacks -- Collin Klein, Jake Waters and Daniel Sams -- during this stretch, K-State has the Big 12’s top raw QBR on third down (85) in this span. However, Waters’ 57 raw QBR on third down was the lowest of the trio. He’s expected to be KSU’s starter this fall and will need to play better on third down if the Wildcats hope to make a Big 12 title run.
  • Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech, the only other teams joining KSU with better than 40 percent conversions on third down, combined with the Wildcats to win 92 games during the past two seasons. Third-down success on offense and overall success seem to go hand in hand.
  • [+] EnlargeBill Snyder
    AP Photo/Matt YorkBill Snyder's Kansas State teams have excelled on third down, a big reason for the Wildcats' recent success.
    Iowa State, TCU and Kansas, the bottom three teams in third-down conversion percentage, will enter 2014 with new offensive coordinators, underscoring the importance of third-down success.
  • TCU’s defense was exceptional on third down, leading the conference with a 31.9 percent opponent third-down conversion percentage. If the Horned Frogs continue that production, and the offense improves its 31.3 third-down conversion rate, TCU could return to a bowl in 2014. New coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham are tasked with jump-starting the Horned Frogs offense.
  • Oklahoma State allowed just 34.7 percent opponent third-down conversion rate, joining TCU as the lone Big 12 schools under 35 percent in that category. An underrated defense is one reason Mike Gundy's squad won 18 games while playing musical chairs at the quarterback position during the past two seasons.
  • Baylor and Kansas State are in the bottom half of the Big 12 in opponent third-down conversion rate over the past two seasons, a sign that stellar defense on third down is not a requirement to win the Big 12 title. KSU was sixth at 40.5 percent, Baylor was ninth at 44.2 percent. The Wildcats won the conference title in 2012, Baylor won in 2013.
  • West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas are the teams in the bottom half of the conference in third-down conversion rate and opponent third-down conversion rate. Those three teams combined to win 12 conference games in the past two seasons.
  • Baylor led the Big 12 in yards per play on 3rd-and-6 or more with a 6.97 ypp average. The Bears' explosive offense was joined by Oklahoma (6.96), Texas (6.89) and West Virginia (6.43) as the lone teams to average at least six yards per play in that scenario.
  • Texas Tech, at 4.68 yards per play, is surprisingly low in this scenario, rating ninth in the conference . The Red Raiders’ offense is consistently among the Big 12’s best but this is a clear area of improvement for Kliff Kingsbury’s squad.
  • OSU sits atop the conference at 3.98 yards per play allowed on 3rd-and-6 or more, another sign of how underrated its defense has been over the past two seasons.
  • KSU is the only other team that allowed less than five yards (4.23) in that scenario and is the only team in the top half of the Big 12 in yards per play and yards per play allowed in that scenario. Third-down success, on both sides of the ball, was a big part of KSU’s ability to consistently win (and surprise) during the past two seasons.
In this week's mailbag we discuss scheduling, Charlie Strong tempering expectations and quarterbacks David Ash, Trevor Knight and Jake Waters.

Remember, to submit a mailbag entry, simply go here.

Without further ado, to the ‘bag we go:

Justin in Dallas writes: Sure, Kliff Kingsbury has gotten some studs, and West Virginia is off to a hot start, but are you really going to talk about recruiting in the Big 12 and not mention Baylor? I think the blinders might be on, and you could be forgetting where Baylor’s recruiting was just a few years ago. This class, though inherently small, could be one of the best ever in Waco.

Trotter: I have no idea what makes you feel slighted, but we’ve mentioned Baylor’s impressive recruiting haul multiple times. Think about this -- Baylor has six of the league’s 22 ESPN 300 commitments. That’s better than 27 percent. And the Bears aren’t done, either. This could wind up being a top-15 class.


Steve in Phoenix writes: Does the loss of Daniel Sams at K-State help Jake Waters’ chance of a standout season? Now, he can bomb away every game if he (or rather coach Bill Snyder) wants. I know I am reaching here but there has to be a bright side to this thing.

Trotter: Sorry, you’re reaching, Steve. Waters was going to be the unequivocal starter whether Sams had stayed or not. Waters was never going to be looking over his shoulder, especially considering Sams had changed positions during the spring. The bottom line is, the Wildcats lost a big-time playmaker, who is going to be making those plays now for McNeese State.


James in El Paso, Texas, writes: Jake, Texas' backfield is going to good again this year, and maybe even great. Do you see the Longhorns winning 10 games this year if David Ash can return as the starter, and stay healthy for the entire year?

Trotter: If Ash is healthy for the entire season, that changes Texas’ outlook substantially. The Longhorns have the most experienced offense and defense returning in the Big 12, and there’s not a weak unit on the team other than quarterback and possibly placekicker. If Ash stays healthy and finally realizes his potential, Texas could be formidable. But that’s a Texas-sized if.


J.J. in Tumalo, Ore., writes: Jake, good article on Big 12 scheduling last week. But if Baylor goes 12-0 playing three complete stiffs out of conference and Oregon goes 12-1 with an out of conference win against Michigan State, why would the committee select Baylor over the Ducks? Thanks for the great blog.

Trotter: We really don’t know yet how the committee is going to select the four playoff teams. I would think that any Power-5 team that goes undefeated would be a virtual lock. Where Baylor is going to run into trouble with its scheduling is if it goes 11-1. Nonconference scheduling is likely going to carry a lot of weight in differentiating one-loss teams for the playoff. Given its nonconference slate, that wouldn't bode well for Baylor.


Trevor Collins in Burleson, Texas, writes: Even as an avid Longhorn fan, I recognized Trevor Knight’s brilliant performance in the bowl game. But I don’t really think he’s fully proven himself for a whole season. Looking back at last season, he really didn’t play a significant role in most of the Sooners’ games, and when he did his stats weren’t that great. I just feel OU is being a little overrated right now, and I’m not just saying this because I’m a UT fan. What happens if Knight doesn’t work out?

Trotter: There’s no doubt that Knight has much to prove, considering he’s only started and finished three games so far in his career (Louisiana-Monroe, Kansas State, Alabama). But there’s also no denying the talent Knight showcased in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Don’t forget about the return of nine defensive starters, which is another big reason why the Sooners are getting so much preseason love. I agree, after the inconsistency last season, there’s still much for this team to prove. But there’s a lot to like, too, especially if Knight plays anywhere near the level he did in the Sugar Bowl.


Ben in Dallas writes: Do you think it was a smart or dumb move for Charlie Strong to temper fan expectations during his tour? On one hand fans might be happier with moderate improvement. On the other hand isn't fan enthusiasm during games a problem? Telling the Texas faithful they have a shot at the playoffs might solve that.

Trotter: I liked it. For too long Texas has been playing against expectations that didn’t really reflect where the team actually was. Mack Brown told everyone he ran into that the 2013 team was going to be the one that was going to take Texas back to the top. That looked utterly ridiculous after BYU obliterated the Longhorns in Week 2. Anyone who watched the Texas spring game knows the Longhorns are still a ways off from contending for a playoff spot. They could always surprise. But Strong tempering expectations will help alleviate the pressure that has enveloped the program.
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 2003, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White came right back in 2004 and led the Sooners back to the national title game while earning first-team All-Big 12 honors for a second straight year.

In the years since, the Big 12 has featured some fabulous quarterbacks, including Vince Young, Zac Taylor, Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III and Collin Klein -- all of whom also earned first-team all-conference honors.

SportsNation

Who has the best chance of dethroning Bryce Petty as the All-Big 12 QB?

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    35%
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    9%
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    22%
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    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,575)

None of the above, however, managed to achieve the honor in back-to-back seasons -- a distinction Baylor's Bryce Petty has the opportunity to earn this fall.

Last season in his first as a starter, Petty delivered the fifth-highest Adjusted QBR rating in the country while quarterbacking the Bears to their first Big 12 title. As a result, he was also the overwhelming pick for first-team All-Big 12 honors.

Now a seasoned senior with plenty of firepower back to surround him, Petty will be the heavy favorite to repeat as the Big 12’s first-team quarterback. But the feat has eluded every quarterback since White in 2003-04. And this year, Petty could face more competition than he did for the honor last year.

Sophomores Davis Webb and Trevor Knight will be gunning for all-conference consideration after breaking out in their respective bowl games.

In the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb threw touchdown passes on Texas Tech’s first four drives, and quarterbacked the Red Raiders to a convincing 37-23 victory over Arizona State.

Knight was equally as impressive in leading the Sooners to a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Knight threw for four touchdowns and 403 yards, and, like Webb, was named the bowl MVP.

True, both young quarterbacks are working off a small sample size. Webb didn’t start until the sixth game of the season, and eventually lost the starting job back to fellow freshman Baker Mayfield. Webb didn’t regain his status as a starter until after Mayfield revealed he was transferring before the bowl.

Knight won Oklahoma’s starting job last preseason, but started and finished only three games the entire year.

Still, the potential they flashed in their bowl performances is undeniable. And if they consistently reach that level as sophomores, they could seriously threaten Petty’s reign as All-Big 12 quarterback.

[+] EnlargePetty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty had 32 TD passes and only three interceptions in 2013.
The same goes for Kansas State's Jake Waters, should he build on his phenomenal finish to the 2013 season. In leading K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch. Waters was also tremendous in his bowl, completing 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns as the Wildcats blasted Michigan 31-14 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

As for the rest of the league, Kansas is the only other school that has declared a starter (sophomore Montell Cozart). But it’s likely just a matter of time before Oklahoma State follows suit and anoints J.W. Walsh its starter.

Walsh struggled with his accuracy and decision-making last season, and eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October. But with Chelf gone, Walsh reestablished himself during the spring, performing with the poise and precision he did two years ago when he led the Big 12 in Adjusted QBR as a redshirt freshman.

Now, in our weekly Big 12 poll, we put the question to you. Who has the best chance of stopping Petty from becoming the first repeat All-Big 12 quarterback in a decade? Is it Webb or Knight? Waters or Walsh? Let us know what you think.
It’s never too early to start talking about bowl destinations.

There is no clear favorite in the Big 12 heading into the 2014 season and several teams could finish among the top three in the conference or fall into the bottom half of the league.

ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy and Mark Schlabach took a shot at projecting the 2014 bowl games during their "way-too-early" projections earlier this week. As a reminder, with the College Football Playoff set to debut this fall, here's a closer look at the bowl selection process in 2014.

Here’s a look at the Big 12 in those way-too-early bowl projections.

Brett McMurphy

Russell Athletic: Kansas State vs. Clemson
Buffalo Wild Wings: Oregon State vs. TCU
Liberty: Oklahoma State vs. Tennessee
Texas: Texas Tech vs. Texas A&M
Alamo: Texas vs. UCLA
Cotton: Baylor vs. Georgia
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Mark Schlabach

Russell Athletic: Notre Dame vs. Texas
Buffalo Wild Wings: Oregon State vs. TCU
Liberty: Texas Tech vs. Ole Miss
Texas: Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M
Alamo: Kansas State vs. UCLA
Peach: Georgia vs. Baylor
Cotton: Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati

A few thoughts:
  • McMurphy has Oklahoma earning a College Football Playoff berth with their rematch against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. That wouldn’t be a major surprise for a Sooners squad that returns a strong and talented defense to pair with sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.
  • Baylor and Oklahoma, the two favorites to win the conference, are projected in appearances in the Cotton, Peach and Sugar bowls. McMurphy and Schlabach expect strong years, again, from the Big 12’s representatives in the final BCS bowl games in 2013.
  • McMurphy and Schlabach each have seven Big 12 teams going bowling but the landing spots differ quite a bit, a sign of the wide-open nature of the conference this fall after the two favorites, Baylor and Oklahoma.
  • TCU’s appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is the lone agreement from the duo. With its strong defense, the Horned Frogs simply need more efficiency on offense to return to a bowl game this fall. TCU’s defense is too strong to expect a second-straight bowl less campaign.
  • Kansas State, along with Texas, provided the biggest disagreement among the two, with Schlabach expecting the Wildcats to be among the conference’s top three teams while McMurphy has Bill Snyder’s squad finishing in the bottom half of the conference. With plenty of question marks on the roster, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Wildcats fall into the bottom half of the Big 12, but quarterback Jake Waters gives KSU something the majority of the league is still searching for as a proven veteran quarterback.
  • UT is essentially interchangeable with the Wildcats with Charlie Strong’s first season in Austin projected to end in a bowl game by the duo. McMurphy projects UT among the top half of the Big 12 and Schlabach expects Strong’s influence to take a little longer to pay off during a bottom-half finish for the Longhorns.
  • Mike Gundy’s program is, understandably, expected to take a step backward after playing for a Big 12 title on the final day of the 2013 season. Projections into the Texas and Liberty bowls would represent a solid mid-conference finish for young team trying to replace several seniors.
  • Texas Tech isn't projected to make a major jump up the standings in Kliff Kingsbury's second season in Lubbock. Question marks along all three levels of the Red Raiders' defense is the likely culprit.
  • Neither McMurphy nor Schlabach projects West Virginia, Iowa State or Kansas to make a bowl appearance. Of those squads, the talent-laden Mountaineers could have the best chance of proving the duo wrong.
On Wednesday, we ranked the Big 12 position-by-position from strongest to weakest.

Last season the strongest position of the league was defensive back, headlined by Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Ahmad Dixon, Aaron Colvin and Ty Zimmerman, among others.

But those players are all gone. So what will be the strongest position in 2014?

With such players such as TCU’s Devonte Fields, Oklahoma’s Charles Tapper and Texas’ Cedric Reed returning, we believe it will be defensive line.

SportsNation

What will be the Big 12's strongest overall position in 2014?

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    32%
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    12%
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    8%
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    11%
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    37%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,613)

But do you agree?

Maybe you think it will be another position such as receiver, which includes All-American hopefuls Antwan Goodley and Tyler Lockett, and a host of potential 1,000-yard threats such as Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley.

Perhaps it’s your opinion that the strength of the Big 12 will be at linebacker, where Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU bring their entire units back, and virtually everyone else has at least one proven performer returning.

Maybe the conference’s best unit is the offensive line, with experienced centers BJ Finney (Kansas State), Dominic Espinosa (Texas) and Tom Farniok (Iowa State); talented tackles Spencer Drango (Baylor), Le'Raven Clark (Texas Tech) and Daryl Williams (Oklahoma); and versatile stalwarts Cody Whitehair (Kansas State), Quinton Spain (West Virginia) and Daniel Koenig (Oklahoma State).

Or with Baylor’s Bryce Petty, Kansas State’s Jake Waters, Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, do you believe quarterback is on its way back to becoming the dominant position in a league that not long ago was the nation’s preeminent conference for that position?

Tell us by voting in the weekly Big 12 poll.
Two weeks ago, we ranked every team in the Big 12 position-by-position coming out of the spring. Putting that together, we’ve ranked the overall league position-by-position. In other words, what is the league’s strongest position? What is its weakest?

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCedric Reed will anchor Texas' defensive line.
In 2013, there’s no doubt the strength of the league was in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett were the league’s two first-round picks. Safety Ahmad Dixon earned All-American honors and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin were longtime stalwarts in their defensive backfields.

Here’s how the positions of the league rank going into 2014:

1. Defensive line: This was easily the most difficult position to rank by team, as line figures to be the defensive strength of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs had the league’s best run defense last season, and on top of returning basically the entire unit, will be adding back 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields. The Sooners are also loaded, led by All-Big 12-caliber ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips, and the could also go three-deep across the board next year. The Longhorns have two potential first-round picks up front in tackle Malcom Brown and end Cedric Reed. And Baylor coach Art Briles is already on record stating his D-line could go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Collectively, this should be the best the conference has been at the position since Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh roamed the middle five years ago.

2. Wide receiver: The league has two superstars at receiver in Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who have the résumés to garner preseason All-American consideration. But they aren’t the only prolific playmakers here. Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley are all capable of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Baylor might feature the best receiving corps in the country, Oklahoma State is a solid nine deep and West Virginia returns its entire starting lineup from last season. Even Kansas has the nation’s second-leading receiver from 2011 in Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell. Assuming the league’s quarterbacks can get them the ball, this could be another banner year for the Big 12’s pass-catchers.

3. Linebacker: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU return virtually their entire linebacker units from last year. And from Texas Tech’s Pete Robertson and Kansas State’s Jonathan Truman to Baylor’s Bryce Hager and Oklahoma State’s Ryan Simmons, the rest of the league basically has at least one proven linebacker coming back, too.

4. Offensive line: The strength of the Big 12's offensive lines resides in experienced centers and talented tackles. Kansas State’s BJ Finney, Texas’ Dominic Espinosa and Iowa State’s Tom Farniok are all four-year starters with a combined 113 career starts. At tackle, Baylor’s Spencer Drango, Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark and Oklahoma’s Daryl Williams have NFL futures. The league also boasts three other very stout and versatile players up front in Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, West Virginia’s Quinton Spain and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Koenig, all three of which can man either guard or tackle.

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDavis Webb seems like one of the few sure things at QB in the Big 12.
5. Quarterback: The Big 12 has one Heisman candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty, a proven performer in Kansas State’s Jake Waters and two budding stars in Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight. The rest of the league is a big fat unknown at the game’s most-critical position. But if Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and Texas’ David Ash regain their forms from two seasons ago, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach builds off his strong 2013 finish, Clint Trickett can stay upright at West Virginia, and transfer Matt Joeckel and sophomore Montell Cozart prove to be the answers at TCU and Kansas, the Big 12 could be on the way back to becoming the preeminent conference for quarterbacking once again.

6. Running back: Half the teams lost their leading rushers from last season, and that doesn’t include Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams switching positions to linebacker. The Longhorns pose a potentially devastating one-two punch in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and the Mountaineers could go five-deep with Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. But the rest of the league will be leaning on potential more than past performance. That said, there is a lot to like in Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, TCU’s B.J. Catalon, Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill and Oklahoma’s Keith Ford.

7. Defensive back: With Gilbert, Verrett, Dixon, Colvin, Zimmerman, Cook and Byndom all gone, this position took a major attrition hit. Thanks to Sam Carter, Chris Hackett and Kevin White, TCU remains well stocked in its secondary. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have veterans back, too. Everywhere else, there is rebuilding to be done. But the next wave of secondary stars appears to be on its way. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune (Iowa State), Justis Nelson (Texas Tech) and Daryl Worley (West Virginia) all started as true freshmen. So did Oklahoma State corner Kevin Peterson and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who are now both juniors. It might not be long before defensive back is a strength of the league again like it was last season.
Days after last season ended, we released a Way-Too-Early 2014 Big 12 power poll. Following the many developments of signing day and spring practice, we’ve updated the poll:

1. Oklahoma Sooners (previous rank – 1): With the bulk of its defense coming back and the league’s most experienced offensive line, Oklahoma gets the top spot. Yet despite the preseason hype coming off the trouncing of Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, this is not a team without questions. No returning running back had more than 23 carries last year. No returning receiver (outside Sterling Shepard) had more than 13 catches. And though he torched the Crimson Tide, quarterback Trevor Knight has only five career starts and has been prone to getting nicked. That said, there’s plenty of young talent at the skill positions. If a few of those players emerge, and Knight builds off his Sugar Bowl performance, this could be a team that contends for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. Baylor Bears (2): Baylor won the 2013 Big 12 title without a player selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft over the weekend. That speaks to the talent the Bears have back in quarterback Bryce Petty, wideout Antwan Goodley and left tackle Spencer Drango. It’s also not unthinkable that Baylor could lead the nation in scoring again. Petty should be even sharper in his second season as the starter. And running back Johnny Jefferson and receiver Corey Coleman seem primed to make an impact as the next wave of prolific Baylor playmakers. The defense will ultimately determine whether the Bears can defend their crown. The back seven is a work in progress. But Art Briles believes he will have a dominating defensive line. If so, Baylor could become the league’s first repeat champ since 2008.

3. Kansas State Wildcats (3): After rebounding to win six of its final seven games to end last season -- including destroying Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, K-State carried plenty of momentum into the offseason. With only 10 returning starters, there are some holes that need to be filled. But the Wildcats feature some of the best returning standouts in the league in quarterback Jake Waters, wideout Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller. If highly touted juco transfers Terrell Clinkscales, D'Vonta Derricott and Danzel McDaniel successfully step into some of those voids defensively, and an adequate successor to outgoing running back John Hubert surfaces, the Wildcats will have a say in the conference race.

4. Texas Longhorns (4): Discerning what team to rank fourth was the most difficult part of putting this list together. A case could be made here for Texas Tech, Oklahoma State or even TCU with its returning defense. But I couldn’t shake the memory of Texas obliterating both the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs last year while starting Case McCoy at quarterback. Given all the turnover Oklahoma State has, the Longhorns ultimately got the slight nod at fourth. With veterans littering the roster, Texas is solid pretty much everywhere -- well, everywhere except quarterback. But if the Longhorns can get anything out of the position -- David Ash? Max Wittek? Jerrod Heard? -- they could be a load in Charlie Strong’s debut season.

5. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6): The Red Raiders climbed a spot thanks to the rapid development of sophomore quarterback Davis Webb. Including the National University Holiday Bowl and Tech’s three open spring scrimmages, Webb tossed 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. With added weight and swelling confidence, Webb has been performing like an all-conference-caliber quarterback since the bowl game. Webb will have plenty of big-play weapons to operate with and his protection should be better, as well, with 75 career starts returning along the offensive line. Whether Tech truly emerges as a dark-horse contender, though, hinges on whether its four juco defensive linemen can remedy an ailing run defense that ranked ninth in the league last year.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (5): After getting picked in 2010 by some to finish last in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma State reeled off 11 wins. Two years ago, the Cowboys got no love in the preseason again, and won eight games with three different quarterbacks. The recent track record in Stillwater suggests this is not a team to overlook in 2014. But if the Cowboys are going to surprise again, they’ll have to do so with a host of new faces. One reason for optimism is junior quarterback J.W. Walsh, who this spring rekindled his freshman form, when he led the entire Big 12 in Adjusted QBR. The Cowboys love Walsh’s toughness and leadership. If he can recapture the throwing accuracy that escaped him last season, Oklahoma State could be a factor.

7. TCU Horned Frogs (7): The biggest development for the Horned Frogs this offseason occurred after the spring when they added Matt Joeckel. The Texas A&M quarterback transfer, who will be eligible this season, is familiar with the offense new coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie installed this spring, and could give TCU just the jolt it needs at quarterback. The other big development this spring was the reemergence of 2012 AP Big 12 Defensive Player of Year Devonte Fields, who had a nightmare 2013 season. If Fields returns to wreaking havoc off the edge defensively, and Joeckel gives the offense above average quarterback play, TCU could finally be a force in its third year in the Big 12.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers (9): Dana Holgorsen is not lacking offensive firepower, with the league’s deepest running back stable and the entire receiving corps returning. With seven starters back on the other side, the defense has a chance to be much improved in the new Tony Gibson/Tom Bradley regime, too. West Virginia, however, gained little clarity about the quarterback position this spring, with Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery and the other contenders failing to make a move up the depth chart. To challenge to finish in the top half of the Big 12, the Mountaineers will have to get more out of their quarterback than they did last year -- regardless of the other pieces.

9. Iowa State Cyclones (8): Buoyed by a new play-caller and 10 returning starters, Iowa State could boast its best offense since Seneca Wallace was behind center over a decade ago. Mark Mangino has a proven track record as a coordinator, and plenty of weapons to utilize in running back Aaron Wimberly, wideout Quenton Bundrage and tight end E.J. Bibbs. The offensive line is seasoned, and sophomore Grant Rohach might finally be Iowa State’s long-term answer at quarterback following a strong spring. The defense, however, is an even bigger question mark coming out of the spring. Projected starting linemen Rodney Coe and David Irving were dismissed and safety Devron Moore left after getting homesick. The Cyclones had been stout defensively under Paul Rhoads and coordinator Wally Burnham up until last season, when they ranked last in the league.

10. Kansas Jayhawks (10): Coming out of the spring, the Jayhawks have some definite strengths they can point to, notably linebacker Ben Heeney and cornerback Dexter McDonald. Elsewhere, Kansas still has catching up to do before breaking out of the cellar. At least now the Jayhawks have a long-term quarterback to build around in sophomore Montell Cozart, who was named the starter after shining in the spring game.

TCU’s future starting quarterback might have spent his spring in College Station, Texas.

It’s possible Texas' next starter hasn’t even moved to Austin yet.

And half the teams in the Big 12 still haven't officially named a starter for the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeJ.W. Walsh
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtJ.W. Walsh showed comfort and patience this spring, emerging as the clear favorite to become Oklahoma State's starting quarterback.
But while quarterback continues to be the Big 12’s biggest moving part, the spring brought at least some clarity to the position across the league.

After losing the job last season, J.W. Walsh retook a commanding lead in Oklahoma State’s third quarterback derby in as many years.

Grant Rohach built off his strong finish last season to head into the summer as the clear frontrunner at Iowa State.

And even though Clint Trickett sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder injury, none of West Virginia’s other spring contenders could unseat him from the top of the depth chart.

Elsewhere, Kansas surprisingly named sophomore Montell Cozart as its starter days after he outshined incumbent Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the Jayhawks’ spring game.

And Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb rode the momentum of their breakout bowl performances to spring improvement.

Even the two schools with the biggest quarterback questions received some possible panaceas this spring.

Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel’s backup at Texas A&M the last two seasons, revealed two weeks ago that he would be transferring to TCU, where he’ll be eligible immediately. The Horned Frogs, who are installing an up-tempo offense similar to one Joeckel played in with the Aggies, ended spring with Trevone Boykin as their No. 1 quarterback, even though Boykin finished last year as a receiver.

To the south, another high-profile transfer could soon be following Joeckel to the Big 12. Since announcing he was transferring from USC, Max Wittek has visited Texas three times, including the Longhorns’ spring game. Wittek would be eligible right away as well, and with David Ash out for now with a fractured foot, Wittek could viably challenge to become Texas’ opening game starter.

Such positive developments at the most critical of positions are welcome developments for a league that struggled and juggled at quarterback through much of the 2013 season. In fact, Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only Big 12 quarterback to start every game for his team last season.

Petty, who was on the short list of Heisman contenders until November, will again be the class of the league at quarterback.

But he should have plenty more company this season, beginning with Kansas State's Jake Waters, who improved as much as any quarterback in the country did over the course of last season. In leading the Wildcats to victories in six of their final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch.

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the confidence Waters carried throughout the spring, which included a crisp effort in the spring game minus his favorite receiver, Tyler Lockett, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor injury.

“He just understands things a lot better,” Snyder said. “He has gained more confidence, probably just because of going through the process of going through some growing pains.”

Both Walsh and Rohach also went through growing pains last season.

But after a jittery sophomore campaign in which he eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October, Walsh re-established himself this spring and performed with the poise he did two years ago as a freshman to emerge as the favorite to become the Cowboys' starter again.

“J.W. has become more of a leader,” offensive tackle Daniel Koenig said after Oklahoma State’s “Orange Blitz” scrimmage. “He’s staying in the pocket more, which is good. Maybe a year or two years ago, he’d get nervous back there and start scrambling. But now he’s sitting in there and throwing.”

Rohach, who finished off the 2013 season by leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at West Virginia, also showed more confidence this spring, leading Iowa State on three of its six scoring drives in the spring game. Coach Paul Rhoads said he’d wait until mid-August before declaring a starter, but Rohach seems to have the clear edge over Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning heading into the summer.

"To begin [the spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes, and I think I got a lot better."

Webb and Knight also used their final performances of last season to springboard into their second springs on campus.

Webb has been especially impressive since earning MVP honors in the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. In Texas Tech’s three spring open scrimmages, he tossed 13 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“He is night and day from what he was at this time last year,” Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I am really impressed with him.”

With a limited playbook and a no-contact jersey, Knight had a lackluster showing in Oklahoma’s spring game, and was actually outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. But behind closed practices, the Sooners liked the development they saw from their sophomore quarterback, who last torched two-time defending national champ Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“He’s continued to make strides,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s not even like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl -- there are things he missed in that game. He’s by no means a finished product.”

The quarterback position in the Big 12 is by no means a finished product, either, coming out of the spring. But the position looks better -- and clearer -- now than it did just two months ago.
Baylor’s Bryce Petty is the Big 12’s top quarterback.

Yet, he’s likely to have a few returning quarterbacks nipping at his heels for that title this fall. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb, Kansas State’s Jake Waters and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight are some conference quarterbacks who, with strong seasons, could battle Petty for the honor.

A closer look at the production of the Big 12’s returning quarterbacks reveals some areas of improvement for the record-setting Petty, Webb’s overlooked success and a pair of returning quarterbacks who changed positions after ranking among the conference’s best in a few passing categories. Here are some interesting tidbits, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, about the 2013 production of some of the Big 12’s top returning quarterbacks.

    [+] EnlargeBryce Petty
    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBryce Petty is the Big 12's best returning QB, but there are a few players who could challenge him for that title this fall.
  • Petty had 10.67 touchdowns for every interception he threw last season, which ranked second among FBS quarterbacks who started at least four games and first among Big 12 signal-callers. Petty’s production, efficiency and ability to take care of the ball while averaging 31 pass attempts per game is one reason he’s the favorite to be named the Big 12 offensive player of the year for the second straight season.
  • As good as Petty was throughout the season, he ranked fourth in the Big 12 in third-down conversion percentage, converting 40.8 percent of his third-down throws into first downs. Petty’s third-down conversion percentage is one of the few categories he can improve on this fall.
  • Kansas State's Daniel Sams, who has moved to receiver, converted 68.4 percent of his third-down throws into first downs, which led all Big 12 quarterbacks who started a game in 2013. Sams' percentage is impressive, but he only averaged 4.08 passes per game last season, making the number a bit misleading. Nonetheless, Sams was a more productive quarterback than it may seem, as he finished among the top-5 quarterbacks in the Big 12 in multiple categories, including adjusted QBR (68.3 on a scale of 0-100 with 50 being average) and yards per pass attempt (8.53).
  • One potential reason for Sams’ move? He was intercepted on 7.5 percent of his pass attempts, easily the worst in the Big 12. For comparison’s sake, Petty was intercepted on just 0.7 percent of his attempts.
  • Webb was the Big 12’s toughest quarterback to sack last season. The sophomore was sacked just 1.9 percent of the time in 2013. It’s a revealing and encouraging number for Texas Tech fans because it shows Webb, who averaged 36.1 pass attempts per game, makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball fast in the Red Raiders' offense.
  • Waters was extremely efficient for Kansas State with 65.4 percent of his completions going for first downs or touchdowns. Only Petty and Sams had better percentages in 2013.
  • A pair of returning Bedlam quarterbacks, OU’s Knight and Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh, were right behind Webb in sack percentage. Walsh was sacked just 2.6 percent of the time, while Knight was sacked just 2.9 percent of the time. Both quarterbacks used their mobility and athleticism to make it difficult on defenses to sack them.
  • Knight was particularly hard to sack on third downs, as his 2.1 sack percentage led the Big 12.
  • Webb is the Big 12’s top returning quarterback in raw QBR on third down, recording a 85.3 raw QBR on third-down plays. Texas’ David Ash (83), Walsh (82.4) and Knight (78.4) each finished with a higher raw QBR on third down than Petty’s 76.
  • After finishing 2012 as one of the nation’s leaders in adjusted QBR, Walsh continues to be underappreciated for his actual production for the Cowboys. His 75 adjusted QBR was fifth in the Big 12, placing him ahead of Knight, Ash, Waters, OU’s Blake Bell, and Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech quarterback who transferred to OU in January after earning Big 12 offensive newcomer-of-the-year honors.
  • Bell ranked seventh in the Big 12 in clutch-weighted expected points added, a ESPN metric which measures a quarterback’s impact on clutch plays. The senior, who moved to tight end this spring, added 19.85 points on clutch plays which ranked him ahead of Mayfield, Knight, Ash and Texas’ Case McCoy. For comparison’s sake, Petty’s 69.82 CWEPA led the Big 12 and the league average was 14.7.
Summary: There are several interesting takeaways from these tidbits ... Petty’s exceptional season was not one without flaws, but he remains the Big 12’s best quarterback, particularly with his hunger to improve on his weaknesses. ... Webb could have arguably been considered the Big 12’s second-best quarterback as a true freshman, despite watching his teammate Mayfield earn the newcomer of the year honor. ... Bell and Sams might be more valuable to their teams at their new positions, but both players were productive under center in 2013. ... People are quick to point out Walsh’s weaknesses, but he has a clear track record of being a productive playmaker for OSU.
With spring ball done, we’ll be reexamining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, beginning Monday with quarterbacks. Some of these outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. Baylor (pre-spring ranking: 1): After lighting up Big 12 defenses last fall, Bryce Petty thinks there’s still room for improvement going into his second and final season as Baylor’s starting QB. He spent spring break with QB guru George Whitfield working on pocket presence and completing passes in the face of the blitz. Petty connected on 62 percent of his throws last season while finishing fourth nationally in passing yards. If that completion percentage goes up by even just a little bit, look out.

2. Kansas State (2): Outside Petty, Jake Waters owns the most proven track record in the league. That speaks to the inexperience of the position in the conference, but it also speaks to the way Waters closed out last season. While quarterbacking the Wildcats to wins in six of their seven final games, he actually posted a better Adjusted Total QBR than Petty during that stretch. Even with Tyler Lockett sitting out, Waters still delivered a crisp spring game performance and seems poised for a big final season in the “Little Apple.”

3. Oklahoma (3): Trevor Knight might have been underwhelming in the Sooners’ spring game. But don’t let that be a deception. After recovering from some minor early season injuries in 2013, Knight took a major step forward late in the season, capped with a spectacular MVP performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. He’ll have to stay healthy (which was a problem his first season), and he’ll have to become more consistent with his passing accuracy. But the talent and upside is there for Knight to have a monster sophomore campaign. The Sooners still need to iron out who exactly Knight’s backup will be, especially given his penchant for getting nicked up. Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen failed to move the needle much in the spring. Blake Bell is at tight end. And Baker Mayfield, while terrific the entire spring after transferring in from Texas Tech, remains ineligible for 2014.

4. Texas Tech (4): While Knight had a lackluster spring game outing, Davis Webb had a spectacular one. Texas Tech’s lack of QB depth is scary (incoming freshman Patrick Mahomes will be the backup by default), but there’s no getting around how impressive Webb has been dating back to Texas Tech’s dominating win over Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Including that game and three open scrimmages in the spring, Webb threw 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. This spring, Webb showed more zip on his passes after adding close to 20 pounds of muscle. He hopes to get even stronger this summer, and has plans to train with Whitfield in May. If Webb goes down with injury, the Red Raiders will probably be toast. But if he stays upright, Tech could emerge as a dark-horse contender for the Big 12 title.

5. Oklahoma State (5): After a series of steady performances over the spring, veteran J.W. Walsh will go into the summer as the overwhelming favorite to open as the starter against Florida State. Even though he struggled with his accuracy and decision-making in 2013, the Oklahoma State coaching staff loves Walsh’s leadership, toughness and commitment. If Walsh can revert to completing passes at the rate he did as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago (67 percent), he could enjoy plenty of success. If he doesn’t, the Cowboys have a couple of other interesting options, who both had their moments in the spring. Walk-on Daxx Garman has the strongest arm on the roster. True freshman Mason Rudolph can make all the throws, too, though clearly still has a steep learning curve.

6. TCU (8): The Horned Frogs made the biggest jump on this list with the addition of transfer Matt Joeckel, who after backing up Johnny Manziel the past two seasons should be the odds-on favorite to take over as the starter. Coming from Texas A&M, Joeckel actually has the most experience among TCU’s other QBs operating the offense Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie installed during the spring. Joeckel’s arrival gives TCU the luxury to bring talented incoming freshmen Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein along more slowly. It also allows the Horned Frogs to use Trevone Boykin the way they did last season, as a receiver and situational quarterback. With only one career start, Joeckel, of course, has much to prove. But the same goes for the majority of the league’s QBs.

7. Texas (6): The Longhorns ended spring ball with Tyrone Swoopes as their starting QB. That didn’t go well in the spring game, as Swoopes struggled mightily through most of the scrimmage. Texas could move back up the Big 12 QB rankings if USC transfer Max Wittek announces his intentions to enroll. But until he does, he can’t be counted on. Throw in David Ash’s foot injury and concussion past and true freshman Jerrod Heard’s inexperience, and Charlie Strong’s first summer in Austin figures to include plenty of QB uncertainty.

8. West Virginia (7): With Clint Trickett sitting out the spring after shoulder surgery, juco transfer Skyler Howard had ample opportunity to make a mark. Instead, the Mountaineers exited spring the way they started it -- with Trickett still atop the depth chart. A dearth of options is not coach Dana Holgorsen’s problem. Veteran Paul Millard outplayed Howard in the spring game. Logan Moore emerged after moving from receiver to QB before the spring. And four-star signee William Crest will join the fray this summer. But Holgorsen must get better QB play than he did last fall for the Mountaineers to recover from a disastrous losing season.

9. Iowa State (9): According to coach Paul Rhoads, the Cyclones’ QB competition will linger into mid-August. But Grant Rohach will go into the summer with the clear edge after outperforming Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning in the spring game. Rohach showed promise late last season, leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, overtime victory at West Virginia in the season finale. But after furiously rotating through QBs in recent years, the Cyclones understandably want to give this derby due process to play out.

10. Kansas (10): Six of the league’s teams went into the spring with a quarterback battle. Of those, only the Jayhawks came out with an unequivocal starter. After sophomore Montell Cozart outshined Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the spring game, coach Charlie Weis wasted little time in declaring Cozart the starter. Cozart still has a long ways to go, especially with his passing. But at least Kansas now has a young dual-threat QB with upside to build around.
The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s captured three Super Bowls on the backs of their triplets. Running back Emmitt Smith churned out yardage between the tackles. Wide receiver Michael Irvin hauled in receptions downfield. And quarterback Troy Aikman captained the unstoppable attack.

Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.

So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:

1. Baylor

QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley

The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.

2. Oklahoma

QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard

Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.

3. Texas Tech

QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant

Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.

4. Texas

QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley

The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.

5. Kansas State

QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett

The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.

6. Iowa State

QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage

Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.

7. Oklahoma State

QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales

Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.

8. West Virginia

QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White

The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.

9. TCU

QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson

Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.

10. Kansas

QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell

Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.
It’s Take Two Tuesday again, when we give our takes on a burning question in the league.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of jumping up and challenging Big 12 favorites Baylor and Oklahoma for the conference crown?

Take 1: Max Olson -- Texas

Oklahoma and Baylor should both be considered top-10 squads in 2014, there’s no dispute about that. They’re in terrific shape going forward. But the way this league is set up, it’s hard to see either emerging undefeated by December.

The team best built to challenge them is Texas, at least on paper. Remember, for all its flaws in 2013, the Longhorns were two quarters away from winning the Big 12 despite major injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. They lose key pieces, but could come back better than expected.

That’s because there’s a new sheriff in town. Charlie Strong is dedicated to changing the mentality of this program and bringing back the toughness and accountability that went missing in recent years. He put together an impressive staff and brought in a revered strength coach. This program is undergoing big changes.

And there’s enough talent on board to sustain another run at a conference title. Joe Wickline and Shawn Watson will build an offense around the run game trio of Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron, and there’s good depth at receiver and on the line. What Texas needs most is a full year from David Ash, but Max Wittek seems likely to become the insurance option there.

If Texas is going to challenge the league favorites, it’ll be with a defense that brings back leaders at all three levels (Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond, Quandre Diggs) and is full of experienced talent. This is a unit that will line up a bunch of different ways and cause a lot of problems.

Revamping this Texas program will take time, but the Longhorns could have enough to make another run in 2014.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- Kansas State

[+] EnlargeJake Waters
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesJake Waters was one of the nation's most effective quarterbacks during the second half of last season.
The Longhorns certainly have the talent and supporting cast to seriously compete for a Big 12 title. But until they find the answer at quarterback -- and I’m dubious they will in Strong’s first season – it’s hard to see them doing so.

The Kansas State Wildcats have no such issues. And they too have the surrounding cast to make a run at the Bears and Sooners for the league championship.

After struggling early, Jake Waters settled in at quarterback the last half of the season and cut talented playmaker Daniel Sams out of the rotation. From Oct. 26 on, Waters produced the 13th-best Adjusted QBR in the country, according to ESPN Stats & Info, while leading the Wildcats to wins in six of their final seven games (he threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in the lone loss, too).

Besides Waters, K-State also boasts one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the uncoverable Tyler Lockett, who had the third-most receiving yards in college football during the same Oct. 26-on stretch.

On the other side, Bill Snyder replenished his defense with a trio of ESPN JC 50 signees in defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales, outside linebacker D'Vonta Derricott and cornerback Danzel McDaniel, who should fill the slots in the lineup where the Wildcats have holes.

K-State will have to earn its way into the conference title chase, with road trips to both Baylor and Oklahoma. But K-State gets the Longhorns in the Little Apple, where it hasn’t lost to Texas since 2002.

The Wildcats also get defending national runner-up Auburn in Manhattan, Kan., earlier in September. If they topple the Tigers in that Thursday night clash, the rest of the Big 12 will quickly realize that K-State is a legitimate contender.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
10:00
AM ET
Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Big 12 has forged a national identity of elite quarterbacking. In fact, dating back to 2000, the Big 12 had a quarterback become a Heisman finalist in every season but three.

Last season, however, that identity all but vanished.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight torched Alabama for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Bryce Petty briefly emerged into a Heisman contender at Baylor. But otherwise it was a dismal season for quarterbacking according to the Big 12’s high standards. Oklahoma State’s Clint Chelf was named the league’s second-team quarterback despite starting only half of 2013. Nine of the league’s 10 teams juggled starting quarterbacks well into October.

But thanks to breakout performances during the bowl season, coupled with the imminent arrival of numerous blue-chip freshmen, the conference appears on the way back to restoring its quarterbacking reputation heading into spring practice.

Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech have their starters cemented. Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and West Virginia will welcome true freshmen with the pedigrees and opportunities to compete for jobs right away. And Kansas (Montell Cozart) and Iowa State (Grant Rohach) enjoyed promising moments from a pair of freshmen.

After totaling 46 touchdowns to just three interceptions in his first season as the starter, Petty headlines the position in the league again.

But if the bowl season was any indication, he won’t be the lone headliner.

Oklahoma freshman Trevor Knight torched Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to the level backup Blake Bell asked to change his position to tight end.

In the National University Holiday Bowl, Texas Tech freshman Davis Webb lit up Arizona State, too, driving Michael Brewer to ask for a transfer.

And Kansas State’s Jake Waters capped a red-hot second half of his season by throwing for three touchdowns in a rout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Knight, Webb and Waters delivered three of college football’s 10 best bowl performances according to the Adjusted QBR metric. All three rapidly improved in their first seasons. And that rapid improvement figures only to continue in their second.

“Traditionally, Year 2 in the offense is when you see the most growth in a quarterback,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Of the three, Knight was the only full-time starter to begin the season. Spearheaded by a dazzling preseason, he beat out Bell, who was the favorite to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. But Knight completed just 21 of his first 48 pass attempts, and after a knee injury, lost the job to Bell not even two games in.

Knight, however, emerged late in the season, and displaying improvement with his accuracy, led the Sooners to a late November win at Kansas State. Then in the Sugar Bowl, he finally showed why he won the job originally in August. Against one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes as the Sooners toppled the Crimson Tide in one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history.

“If you’re going to win a championship, your quarterback is going to have to make plays,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We all saw Trevor [struggle] as a young freshman, first start, first game. To see him grow throughout the entire year and play extremely well down the stretch and played really well in the Sugar Bowl, obviously -- he’s obviously got a great future.”

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesTexas Tech signal-caller Davis Webb had a breakout performance against Arizona State, completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
The same goes for Webb.

Despite being the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster in August, Webb was beaten out by walk-on true freshman Baker Mayfield. But like Knight, Webb settled in behind the scenes. After Mayfield injured his knee, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. Then, after Mayfield transferred, Webb was almost flawless against the Sun Devils. He passed for 403 yards and four touchdowns as Texas Tech controlled the game the entire night.

“The success he had in that bowl game against one of the top defenses showed what he can be,” Kingsbury said.

Waters’ bowl success showed the same.

Out of junior college, Waters beat out Daniel Sams for the starting job to begin the season. But with Waters taking the majority of the snaps, K-State fell in its season opener to FCS opponent North Dakota State. The next two months weren’t much better for Waters or the Wildcats, as the defending Big 12 champs stumbled to a 2-4 start.

But after losing snaps to Sams, Waters reestablished control of the position and quarterbacked K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, including a 31-14 rout of Michigan in the bowl. Waters had his best outing yet, too, completing 78 percent of his passes for three touchdowns.

While Waters, Webb and Knight will be looking to build off their bowl performances this spring, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph will be looking to win a job. Perhaps the most highly acclaimed quarterback the Cowboys have ever signed, Rudolph had a monster senior season in Rock Hill, S.C., throwing for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. Enrolled for spring ball, the ESPN 300 recruit will challenge J.W. Walsh.

“Mason really brings all of the characteristics you want to see in a quarterback,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “All of the intangibles.”

Plenty more quarterback talent is on its way, too.

Texas’ Jerrod Heard, West Virginia’s William Crest and TCU’s Foster Sawyer were also four-star recruits in the 2014 class, and they will be joining their schools in the summer with chances to play right away.

Such opportunities exist because the Big 12 quarterback play was down last season. But heading to spring, the league’s most identifiable position is on its way back up.

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