Success on third downs can decide games.

Coaches focus on it, quarterbacks can become stars and defenders can become feared by stepping up to another level on those key moments. Here's a look at the Big 12's third-down conversion rate rankings, offensively and defensively, in Big 12 games during the three seasons since TCU and West Virginia joined the conference in 2012.

Third-down conversion rate
  1. Kansas State, 47.1 percent
  2. Baylor, 45.5 percent
  3. Oklahoma, 44.4 percent
  4. Texas, 42 percent
  5. Texas Tech, 41.7 percent
  6. West Virginia, 39.6 percent
  7. Iowa State, 36.9 percent
  8. TCU, 35.5 percent
  9. Oklahoma State, 35.3 percent
  10. Kansas, 30.8 percent
Third-down conversion rate allowed
  1. TCU, 31.2 percent
  2. Texas, 36.6 percent
  3. Oklahoma State, 38.5 percent
  4. West Virginia, 39.6 percent
  5. Oklahoma, 40 percent
  6. Kansas State, 41.2 percent
  7. Texas Tech, 42.5 percent
  8. Iowa State, 42.5 percent
  9. Kansas, 42.7 percent
  10. Baylor, 42.9 percent

Here are some team-by-team thoughts:

Baylor: Clearly the Bears offense overcomes the Bears defensive struggles on third down. The Bears offense had 68 drives without a first down out of 291 drives in the past three seasons. Good quarterback play from Bryce Petty and Nick Florence have played a key role as well as a solid running game that has picked up 90 first downs on the ground, best in the Big 12.

Iowa State: Ranking in the bottom half in both categories is not a good look for Paul Rhoads program. Limited production at the quarterback position and 14 third-down sacks from the defense have played a major role as well as injuries to key players like Quenton Bundrage in 2014 and Tom Farniok in 2013 have made life a lot harder on the Cyclones.

Kansas: The only team to rank in the bottom two in both categories, it's easy to see why David Beaty is taking charge in Lawrence, Kansas. It's somewhat surprising to see the Jayhawk defense so far down the list but KU had 13 third-down sacks during this span. And the quarterback position has been a major problem at KU since Todd Reesing left in 2009.

Kansas State: Yet again the Wildcats efficient offense leads the Big 12 in a key category. Strong quarterback play from Collin Klein and Jake Waters along with receiver Tyler Lockett made KSU very difficult to stop. To see Bill Snyder's team in the bottom half of the conference in conversion allowed rate is a surprise but the Wildcats have a hard time getting three-and-outs. KSU's 17.8 three-and-out percentage on defense is only better than KU's 17.7.

Oklahoma: The Sooners offense has been good on third down despite some of its recent struggles while the defense has been very average. Offensively, OU has done a good job of getting its playmakers, namely Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard, involved on third-down plays. Defensively, the Sooners have talented players, like Eric Striker, yet sit middle of the road in third down defense.

Oklahoma State: Seeing the Cowboys near the bottom on the list in offensive conversion rate will make Cowboy fans long for the days of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. OSU's defense has been consistently good on third down and its third-down production was one of the reasons for the Cowboys recent Big 12 title contention. OSU's offense will need to be a lot better if the Pokes hope to surprise in 2015.

Texas: UT's 37 sacks is one key reason the Longhorns are among the Big 12's top third-down defenses. The surprise is the Longhorns offense sitting in the top half of the conference, ahead of Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, who have generally put together more productive offenses. It's a sign UT's offense has had its moments of offensive precision even if the bad moments are the most memorable.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders haven't been great on third down but they haven't been horrible either. Improving the turnover margin is priority No. 1 for Kliff Kingsbury as the offense turns the ball over and the defense doesn't take the ball away. Once that is handled, then Tech can work on improving third down conversion rates.

TCU: The Horned Frogs defense is stellar in nearly every category, ranking first in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (4.62) and yards per carry allowed (2.13) on third down. Its offense was terrible on third down before the 2014 season, when it converted 42.9 percent on its third down attempts. TCU could end up in the top third of the conference in both categories in 2015 unless Gary Patterson's program takes a step backward this fall.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers haven't been particularly good on either side of the ball. WVU's struggles to stop the pass on defense -- 13.63 yards per completion on third down -- have hampered WVU's ability to get off the field. On offense, uneven quarterback play after Geno Smith's departure doomed the Mountaineers to finish in the middle of the pack.
It is an important spring for several players in the Big 12.

Some are fighting to keep their jobs, others are trying not to be forgotten and others have to fight off lauded Class of 2015 recruits. Here's a look at several Big 12 players who have plenty to gain during spring football.

Chris Johnson, QB, Baylor: With Seth Russell as the clear favorite to replace Bryce Petty as the starting quarterback, Johnson needs a strong spring to ensure the competition continues into the fall. He’ll also need to hold off highly regarded true freshman Jarrett Stidham.

Vernell Trent, DT, Iowa State: Trent had a decent redshirt freshman season, starting three games and finishing with 10 tackles in 2014. But ISU signed a pair of defensive tackles in the Class of 2015 with an eye on Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath becoming immediate impact performers. A good spring would help Trent secure a spot in the Cyclones’ defense.

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMontell Cozart must impress the new Kansas coaching staff this spring.
Montell Cozart, QB, Kansas: The junior went from unquestioned starting quarterback to afterthought in a span of a few months. Former coach Charlie Weis anointed Cozart to be the Jayhawks quarterback of the future, but he faltered and eventually was replaced by Michael Cummings in 2014. If Cozart has any hope making a major impact during his Jayhawks career, he needs to impress the new coaching staff this spring.

Judah Jones, WR, Kansas State: The Wildcats are hoping to replace the playmaking skills of Tyler Lockett. One player isn’t going to do it, but Jones has the upside to become a key player in KSU’s offense while also making an impact on special teams. KSU has several other options at receiver, so Jones needs to rise above the competition if he hopes to separate himself this spring.

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: The junior has started 15 games during the past two seasons but faces stern competition to keep his starting spot with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield becoming eligible in the fall. As Lincoln Riley brings his version of the Air Raid to OU, many assume Mayfield is the best bet to trigger the attack. Knight can use the spring to remind everyone of his unique physical gifts.

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State: It’s time for Ateman to step up and separate himself at the receiver spot. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he brings size, speed and ball skills that are tough to duplicate, but he doesn’t dominate the way he should. With plenty of competition at the position, he needs to show he is ready to match his All-Big 12 talent with All-Big 12 production.

Daje Johnson, WR, Texas: When he touches the ball, Johnson looks like the dynamic playmaker the Longhorns have longed for during the past few seasons, but he constantly takes himself out of the equation by making bad decisions off the field. This spring is the opportunity for him to show he has the focus needed to make his final season on the 40 acres a breakout year.

Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, QBs, TCU: The battle to backup Trevone Boykin should be interesting, so the spring gives Sawyer and Muehlstein the chance to lay claim to the No. 2 spot. Both quarterbacks should get plenty of chances to impress and the winner of the backup quarterback derby could set themselves up to take over in 2016.

Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech: A strong finish to the 2014 season by Patrick Mahomes has resulted in Webb being overlooked in many ways, but a healthy Webb was productive during his first two seasons in Kliff Kingsbury’s program. The job is open heading into spring and Webb can make sure the quarterback battle in Lubbock is one of the most interesting aspects of Big 12 football in the spring.

Daikiel Shorts, WR, West Virginia: The Mountaineers need to fill the void left by Kevin White and Mario Alford. Shorts has been a contributor to the WVU offense since his true freshman season but hasn’t really developed into a game-changing target. This spring will give him the chance to show he can be a primary target for Dana Holgorsen’s team.

Ranking the Big 12 coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
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This week, ESPN.com ranked the best Power 5 coaching jobs in college football, No. 1 through 65. Below is how we rank the jobs in the Big 12:

1. Texas
The Longhorns have unlimited financial resources with a massive donor base. They are located in the middle of one of the country's pre-eminent recruiting hotbeds, too.

2. Oklahoma
The Sooners have one of the great traditions in college football, a recruiting pipeline into Texas and a supportive administration.

3. Oklahoma State
Thanks to Boone Pickens, Oklahoma State boasts facilities that take a backseat to no one. Over the past 10 years, few teams have won more than the Cowboys, either.

4. Baylor
This job would have ranked near the bottom not long ago. But Art Briles has whipped Baylor into a powerhouse. The Bears have a new stadium, a budding fan base and a brand that seems to be resonating with young recruits.

5. TCU
Facilities and conference used to be impediments for the Horned Frogs. Not anymore. TCU has a newly renovated stadium and state-of-the-art facilities, including an air-conditioned practice facility. TCU's proximity to the Metroplex makes it an attractive recruiting destination, too.

6. Texas Tech
Unlike West Virginia, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas, the Red Raiders are located in the Lone Star State, which gives them a proximity advantage in recruiting. Texas Tech also has rabid fans and a strong donor base in the Midland/Odessa area, which is pumping money into the stadium renovation.

7. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have severe recruiting challenges, with the lack of in-state talent. Still, this is the equivalent of a pro team in the state, and it has the backing necessary to win.

8. Kansas State
Nobody does more with less than Bill Snyder. Manhattan has never been a recruiting destination. But the Wildcats have passionate fans (as the court rushing in basketball the other night demonstrated) who make Bill Snyder Family Stadium a tough place to play. The Wildcats also have been making impressive facility upgrades, most recently to the Vanier Football Complex.

9. Iowa State
The Cyclones have obstacles with a small in-state recruiting pool they also have to share with Iowa. The elimination of the Big 12 North hurt Iowa State as well. But the Cyclones have something Kansas does not -- and that's a fan base committed to football.

10. Kansas
Only eight years ago, Mark Mangino took Kansas to the Orange Bowl. It seems even more amazing now. The Jayhawks are behind the rest of the league in every area, from attendance to facilities.

Five programs in need of a 2016 QB 

February, 25, 2015
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video
Quarterbacks are committing earlier and earlier in the recruiting process. With 16 of the 27 signal-callers in the ESPN Junior 300 already having given verbal pledges, there is increased pressure to get a top quarterback in the fold early. While some programs are set in 2016 or for the future at the vital position, several programs face the task of having to sign a potential difference maker at the position in the 2016 class.

Here are five programs that must sign a difference maker in 2016, and some of those are well on the way.

College football's top 24 jobs

February, 24, 2015
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We've reached the final day of our project ranking each of the 65 college football jobs at the Power 5 level.

The central question to file away: If every Power 5 job came open tomorrow, which would be the most desirable? On the other side, which would be least appealing? (And everything in between.)

So who's it going to be? Which program will be deemed our No. 1 gig? Alabama? Texas? USC? Another school?

Though every coach weighs things differently -- that's why it's such a subjective, hot-button topic for debate -- the criteria are roughly the same.

The list includes factors such as location, administrative stability, support from those bosses, facilities, recruiting base, path to conference titles/playoff, sense of tradition, fervor of fan base, too much fervor from a fan base, etc.

We hope and believe we have provided an intelligent and accurate overview of the jobs in college football, from worst to best. We've also received feedback from various coaches and industry sources to help shape these rankings.

Previous rankings: The bottom of the barrel | The middle of the road

Tier 4: The Not-quites

Established brands in their respective leagues -- but is there a certain ceiling that will stop these programs from reaching the top shelf?

24. Wisconsin
Just a couple of months ago, this job might have been a tick or two higher. But Gary Andersen bolting for Oregon State -- the No. 50 program on this list -- shined a light on potential administrative woes in Madison. Andersen complained that assistants were not being paid market value and that an unnecessary admission standard was hampering his ability to get in even marginal academic risks. "We have no speed," Andersen told me in late November. "Our fastest players are walk-ons -- and Melvin Gordon. Thank God for Melvin Gordon." His successor, Paul Chryst, was at Wisconsin previously as an assistant, so he surely understands the pluses and minuses of being the Badgers' head man. He's not entering as blindly as Andersen, coming from Utah State, had. Could the situation be better? Probably. Is it as dire as Andersen made it seem? No, probably not. Look at the teams Wisconsin is being asked to compete against in the Big Ten West. Do Iowa or Nebraska have an inherent competitive advantage, really? Even last season, despite all the "adversity," Wisconsin still won the division. (Thank God for Melvin Gordon?)

The program has a solid reputation nationally, built up for years thanks in large part to the work of former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez. There were some questions about whether Alvarez's larger-than-life presence was part of the reason for Andersen's departure, but Andersen told me point-blank in November that Alvarez had been a good boss. Camp Randall Stadium is one of the better home environments in the Big Ten. Now nearly 100 years old, it has held up well; a $100 million project completed in 2005 has helped keep it modern. The coaches' and players' facilities have seen some upgrades in recent years. Last but not least: Madison is one of the better college towns in the country, so long as it's warm. If the administration proves to be a bit more flexible, understanding that it needs to keep with the times in college football, this could easily move back toward being a top-15 job.


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When listing the programs that needed a top-notch quarterback in the 2016 class, one would start with Texas. The Longhorns took a big step toward addressing the vital need on Feb. 23, securing a verbal commitment from ESPN Jr 300 Shane Buechele. He is the third ESPN Jr 300 commitment for Texas head coach Charlie Strong, joining wide receivers Collin Johnson (No. 130) and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps (No. 161).


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Big 12 morning links

February, 24, 2015
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It was good to see Kevin White, Tyler Lockett and Bryce Petty among the Big 12 players who helped themselves during the combine. And here's hoping the TCU trio can redeem themselves at pro day.
  • Dustin Garrison has decided to leave West Virginia. The running back is set to graduate and should be eligible to play immediately at his next school. It's not a major blow to the Mountaineers, as Garrison managed 20 carries for 92 yards as a junior. WVU has Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood, Andrew Buie and redshirt freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams coming off a solid season on the scout team. Garrison's decision to leave is the best move for both parties and he could be a quality pickup for any team searching for help at running back.
  • Former Oklahoma State defensive tackle James Castleman has been working out alongside people who have suffered catastrophic injuries, writes Kyle Fredrickson of The Oklahoman. It's pushed Castleman, who wasn't invitied to the NFL combine, to work harder as he prepares to try to earn a spot in the NFL. I was surprised Castleman didn't earn an invite to the combine so I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up getting drafted, particularly with a strong showing at OSU's pro day.
  • Everyone associated with Texas Tech expects more from the Red Raiders next season, reports Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News. Kliff Kingsbury found the 4-8 season to be motivating while athletic director Kirby Hocutt remains certain that Kingsbury is the right guy to get Tech back on track. And there's no reason to assume he isn't. The Red Raiders are recruiting well but there's no doubt Kingsbury needs to start a conference winning streak after going 6-12 in the Big 12 during his first two seasons. Tech fans shouldn't be impatient with Kingsbury because there aren't a lot of people who want to get things right or care more about Tech football than he does.
  • Oklahoma inside receivers coach Cale Gundy insists the Sooners are going to run the ball in Lincoln Riley's new offense, writes Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World. It's odd that people think Riley wouldn't run the ball and the myth that "Air Raid" style attacks don't run the ball is getting odd. Mike Leach is the only one who really sticks to the pass only philosophy (79.6 pass percentage) at Washington State. Riley's ECU offense was among the top five among FBS teams in pass percentage but at a much lower 62.5 pass percentage in 2014. Time will tell how much the Sooners run the ball, but I'd be surprised if Riley doesn't put together a balanced offense during his first season in charge.
  • Texas landed a quarterback for the Class of 2016 with Shane Buechele deciding to commit to the Longhorns. Buechele, the No. 246 player in the ESPN Jr300, had offers from Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech and others. UT has offered several quarterbacks in the Class of 2016 and would be wise to continue to pursue some of those signal callers even with Buechele's commitment. Not only does UT need more options at the position, they would be wise to have Plan B, C and D in place if Buechele changes his mind late in the process like Zack Gentry did during the last recruiting cycle.

Big 12 recruiting scorecard

February, 23, 2015
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Junior day season is still underway, and that means a lot more offers and new names on the radar. Here's the latest on the 2016 recruiting trail in the Big 12:

BAYLOR
Total commits: 5
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: Baylor running back commit Kameron Martin received an offer from Texas last week, but so far that move hasn't been enough to flip him. The ESPN Junior 300 back is a cousin of former Texas great Jamaal Charles and has called UT his "dream school," but Baylor was the first to offer and he's been a loyal pledge to the Bears since July 2014.

IOWA STATE
Total commits: 0
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Cyclones were the first to offer 6-foot-5 tight end T.J. Hockenson of Chariton, Iowa. He landed his offer during a junior day visit and put up serious numbers as a junior: 73 catches, 1,116 yards and 18 touchdowns. Hockenson is expected to take a junior day trip to Kansas State as well.

KANSAS
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Jayhawks locked up their second commitment of 2016 from Antoine Frazier, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound offensive tackle from Huffman, Texas, who pledged one day after receiving an offer. Frazier was a high school teammate of KU early enrollee receiver Chase Harrell at Huffman.

KANSAS STATE
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: One of the many recruits hoping for an offer at Kansas State's junior day Feb. 28 will be Ian Rudzik, a linebacker/running back from Ulysses, Kansas, who visited KU earlier this month. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior is drawing interest from Arizona State and Minnesota, but a KSU offer might end his recruitment quickly.

OKLAHOMA
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 1
The latest: Though Oklahoma only picked up one commitment from its junior day last weekend, the Sooners did make progress with a number of key targets in the state of Texas. ESPN Junior 300 defensive end Marvin Terry, defensive tackle Chris Daniels and lineman Kellen Diesch all emerged with positive reviews and will be intriguing targets moving forward.

OKLAHOMA STATE
Total commits: 2
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: Oklahoma State went to the juco ranks for its second pledge of 2016. Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College cornerback Malik Kearse picked the Cowboys on Thursday. He originally hails from Miami, but an elbow injury in his senior year of high school meant no offers. Kearse logged two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in his first year at Fort Scott.

TCU
Total commits: 8
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 3
The latest: TCU hosted another big junior day on Saturday and received a commitment from offensive lineman Austin Myers of Manvel, Texas. The Horned Frogs also made offers to ATH Tyrell Alexander, TE Donte Coleman and 2017 ATH Roshauud Paul and were able to get ESPN Junior 300 running back Trayveon Williams and corner Jared Mayden on campus.

TEXAS
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 2
The latest: Texas made a ton of offers this week, and most of them went to quarterbacks. LSU commit Feleipe' Franks, Oregon commit Seth Green, Texas Tech commit Tristen Wallace and Baylor commit Zach Smith all picked up Texas offers, as did uncommitted passers Xavier Gaines, Woody Barrett and Bowman Sells. Considering the Horns' depth issues at QB, taking two in this class might make sense.

TEXAS TECH
Total commits: 3
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Red Raiders landed their third commitment of the 2016 class from running back Da'Leon Ward of powerhouse Dallas Skyline. The all-purpose back picked Tech over TCU and rushed for 1,779 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior, but he is still expected to take more visits despite his pledge.

WEST VIRGINIA
Total commits: 4
ESPN Junior 300 commits: 0
The latest: West Virginia is reportedly expected to get an unofficial visit from defensive end Shavar Manuel this spring. The nation's No. 2 overall 2016 recruit has Florida State in the lead following his FSU junior day trip, but WVU is on Manuel's list of upcoming trips along with Clemson, Florida, LSU and Virginia Tech.

Biggest Big 12 spring questions

February, 23, 2015
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Spring ball kicks off in Big 12 country today with Baylor slated to hold its first practice. Later this week, TCU and Texas Tech will get started, too.

Plenty of questions surround the league. Many won’t be answered until the the fall. But a few could gain clarity over the next two months.

Here are some of the biggest Big 12 questions to follow this spring:

Can freshmen factor into Baylor, Kansas State quarterback derbies?

[+] EnlargeRussell
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsAfter being the backup at Baylor, Seth Russell is now the favorite to lead the Bears.
With all-conference performers Bryce Petty and Jake Waters gone, the Bears and Wildcats will have new quarterbacks behind center. After backing up Petty the last two years, Seth Russell is the favorite to take over as the starter. In Manhattan, former walk-on Joe Hubener will be entering his fourth year on campus and holds the edge to succeed Waters. Both, however, will have to hold off a pair of talented freshmen in Jarrett Stidham and Alex Delton, who have enrolled early with sights on winning starting jobs. Stidham was the No. 3 quarterback signee in the country; Delton’s skill set fits the mold of quarterbacks who have thrived for Bill Snyder in the past. The learning curve for first-year quarterbacks is always steep. But both Snyder and Art Briles have indicated Delton and Stidham will have the chance to prove they deserve to start.

What will the new Oklahoma offense look like?

After a recent trend in the wrong direction, Bob Stoops brought in play-calling prodigy Lincoln Riley to inject life in the Sooner program. Riley is a product of the Mike Leach air raid. So how will he balance that background while also utilizing Oklahoma’s dynamic backfield trio of Samaje Perine, Alex Ross and Joe Mixon? And who will Riley turn to at quarterback among Trevor Knight, Baker Mayfield and Cody Thomas to lead the offense? Those reasons alone makes this the most fascinating spring of the Stoops era.

Who will play linebacker for TCU?

The Horned Frogs return 10 offensive starters, experience along the defensive line and a couple of key cogs in the secondary. But with All-American Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Jonathan Anderson gone, the slate has been wiped clean at linebacker. Sammy Douglas and Paul Whitmill will get the first cracks to show they can fill the void. But early enrollees Alec Dunham and Mike Freeze could push them.

Can Mason Rudolph, Patrick Mahomes take next step?

Rudolph and Mahomes were fabulous after taking over starting quarterback jobs as true freshmen late last season. Rudolph ignited Oklahoma State to wins over Oklahoma and Washington, elevating expectations in Stillwater for 2015. Mahomes threw 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions in Texas Tech’s final three games, and passed for 598 yards in the season finale against Baylor. The fortunes of both the Cowboys and Red Raiders will hinge on whether their young quarterbacks can build on such promising performances.

Is Jerrod Heard ready?

Though he had moments, the prospects of Tyrone Swoopes becoming Texas' long-lost, long-term answer at quarterback diminished toward the end of last season as the Longhorns flat-lined offensively. That has opened the door for Heard to make a run at the job this spring. Heard has the pedigree. He won two state championships in high school and was an ESPN 300 recruit. But by all accounts, he wasn't ready to step in last season. Will that change this spring?

Who will catch passes at Kansas State and West Virginia?

The Wildcats and the Mountaineers between them graduated 359 receptions and 4,966 receiving yards after Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, Kevin White and Mario Alford left. That is an unenviable -- and unbelievable -- amount of production to replace. This spring, both schools will begin to sift through who they can lean on at receiver in 2015.

Can Skyler Howard hold off William Crest?

After taking over for injured quarterback Clint Trickett late last season, Howard brought another dimension to the West Virginia offense with his wheels. At the same time, he struggled with his accuracy. As a result, Howard didn’t quite lock up the job for 2015. Now, he’ll have to fend off Crest, who actually beat Howard out for the No. 2 job coming out of August before a shoulder injury forced a redshirt. Crest, a four-star signee last year, is a talented prospect. Howard will have to be more precise with his arm to remain behind center.

Can David Gibbs turn around the Tech defense?

Last season the Red Raiders fielded one of the most futile defenses in Big 12 history. Tech will now hope its new coordinator can cure those ills on that side of the ball. Getting the Red Raiders to play more opportunistic will be one key. Under Gibbs, Houston forced 73 turnovers the last two seasons. Over the same span, the Red Raiders forced just 34.

Can a new staff give Kansas hope?

In five years under Turner Gill and Charlie Weis, the Jayhawks failed to total more than three victories in a season. Kansas brought in David Beaty to set the Jayhawks back on a course to respectability. How will he begin to set that plan into motion? This spring will give us a glimpse.

How will Iowa State replace its dismissed players?

Since the end of the season, Iowa State lost running back DeVondrick Nealy, safety T.J. Mutcherson and wide receivers P.J. Harris and Tad Ecby. All four were supposed to play big roles for the Cyclones in 2015. With Quenton Bundrage's from a knee injury, Iowa State should be fine at receiver. But finding a starting running back to replace Nealy and safety to step in for Mutcherson will be paramount this spring.
In today's Big 12 Twitter mailbag, we discuss the position unit with the most to prove, who holds the edge at quarterback in Manhattan, and whether the the league will finally rid itself of the ridiculous co-champions rule.

On to the 'bag:

@jake_trotter: Taking quarterback out of the equation, I think it might be the Baylor defensive backs. When ranking individual position groups, the Baylor secondary generated the most discussion. Yeah, they have four starters back. But true freshman Patrick Mahomes also lit them up for 600 yards passing. I like Orion Stewart, and you would think cornerbacks Ryan Reid and Xavien Howard would be better in their second seasons as starters. Then again, this was a unit that was really poor at times last season. It collectively has a lot to prove, in my opinion.

Trotter: Great question, and I don't know the answer. The Horned Frogs were completely decimated by graduation, losing All-American Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet, and key reserve Jonathan Anderson. This is the one glaring issue the Horned Frogs going into 2015. They were actually in this situation two years ago, and Dawson and Mallet stepped up. They will need a couple of guys to emerge again from a pool of inexperienced returners -- Sammy Douglas, Paul Whitmill and Ty Summers -- and incoming freshmen Alec Dunham, Mike Freeze and Semaj Thomas.

Trotter: The edge goes to Joe Hubener. This will be his fourth year on campus. He has a huge advantage when it comes to maturity and knowledge running K-State's offense. Even though he's played sparingly, I've also heard good things about his arm strength and mobility. Then again, Alex Delton is a talented and intriguing prospect. Should Hubener struggle to move the chains (which is a distinct possibility given how many new faces K-State will have to rely on in the passing game), the Wildcats could turn to Delton for a spark.

Trotter: I'm concerned with some of the rhetoric defending the status quo, but ultimately I'm confident the Big 12 will tweak this rule during the spring meetings. The confusion hurt the Big 12 in the playoff rankings this past season. And I think they realize having co-champs will hurt them again unless they change it.

Trotter: This is a common misconception. This is not up to Bob Bowlsby. The schools are the ones that vote on rule changes. The conference just enforces them.

Trotter: I really liked what I saw from defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway last season. He might not be Malcom Brown, but the 300-pound Ridgeway could be one of the best tackles in the league, and the new anchor up front for the Texas defense.

Trotter: If not him, then who? Michael Cummings was effective after taking over for Montell Cozart, leading the Jayhawks to a win against Iowa State and a near upset of TCU. I know the scheme will be more wide open under new coordinator Rob Likens. And yes, the Jayhawks have a couple of intriguing incoming freshmen quarterbacks in Carter Stanley and Ryan Willis. But even if Cummings doesn't have the job locked up yet, he has to be considered the front-runner.

Trotter: That will hinge on how good the Sooners are, and how Samaje Perine is utilized in the Lincoln Riley air raid offense. Perine is not winning the Heisman on another 8-5 team. And he's not going to have the numbers getting less than 20 carries per game. But if Oklahoma emerges as a playoff contender, and Perine remains the focal point of the attack, then he could force himself into the mix. Remember, Perine rushed for more than 1,700 yards as a true freshman despite starting just over half the season.

Trotter: Baylor at TCU on Black Friday tops the list. That game could determine the Big 12 title and a playoff spot. Both teams will have to win at Stillwater in November first. Honorable mention honors go to the Red River Showdown, which, someday, will matter again..

Playing good defense wasn’t just a 2014 trademark of the TCU Horned Frogs.

Gary Patterson’s program has played strong defense since it joined the Big 12, sitting atop the conference in points per drive allowed by a comfortable margin after three seasons as a member. TCU is joined by Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in the top three, making it no surprise those two teams have been in the middle of the Big 12 title battle more often than not in recent years.

Here’s a look at the Big 12’s points per drive allowed rankings since TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012 (conference games only).

1. TCU, 1.58
Conference record: 14-13
Summary: Patterson’s team prides itself on good defense, and a change in conference didn’t change the production of the Horned Frogs' defensive unit. TCU creates turnovers, limits big plays and makes offenses uncomfortable to cement its spot as the toughest defense to score against during the past three seasons.
Key stat: TCU sets the standard, leading the Big 12 in several other key stats including yards per play (5.24), forced turnovers (66) and third-down conversion percentage (31.2 percent).

2. Oklahoma State, 1.77
Conference record: 16-11
Summary: Ever since Mike Gundy’s team started lighting up scoreboards there’s been a myth the Cowboys never play good defense. Yet TCU is the only defense that is harder to score on than OSU's. The Pokes rarely rank among the best in the league in total yards allowed but is third in yards per play allowed (5.41).
Key stat: OSU’s defense steps up in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on 54.1 percent of opponents' red zone drives, ranking second in the conference behind TCU (42.2 percent).

3 (tied). Oklahoma, 1.83
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Sooners' defense has had plenty of ugly moments but has been solid overall, particularly when it comes to allowing opponents to score. OU ranks among the Big 12’s best in punt percentage (43.3) and percentage of possible yardage allowed (40.7). Mike Stoops has work to do, but the Sooners' defense has not been horrible during the past three seasons.
Key stat: Limiting the big play has been one of the Sooners' specialties as they rank second in the Big 12 in percent of plays allowed gaining 10 yards or more (18.7).

3 (tied). Kansas State, 1.83
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Wildcats consistently have underrated athletes on defense who force offenses to methodically drive down the field if they hope to score. They get pressure on the quarterback (64 sacks, second in the Big 12) while limiting big plays in the passing game (6.7 passing yards per attempt).
Key stat: KSU’s plus-33 turnover margin is mind-boggling but not surprising. Bill Snyder’s teams win with relentless efficiency and playmaking in key moments.

5. Texas, 1.84
Conference record: 17-10
Summary: UT’s defense has been full of athletes but inconsistent at times. The Longhorns are good on third down, allowing a 36.2 percent conversion rate, yet sit in the middle of the conference as neither exceptional or bad in most key categories.
Key stat: The Longhorns' 79 sacks by far are the most in the Big 12 during the past three seasons, with K-State’s 64 ranking second.

6. Baylor, 2.13
Conference record: 20-7
Summary: The Bears' defense is getting better but still has a ways to go before it locks down a spot among the conference’s top units. BU’s run defense is strong (3.93 yards per rush, second in Big 12) but its struggles to stop teams once they get in the red zone are at the heart of its medicore ranking. BU is in the bottom third of the Big 12 in red zone touchdown percentage (71.6 percent) and goal-to-go touchdown percentage (82 percent).
Key stat: BU’s run defense is second in the Big 12 at 3.93 yards per carry.

7. West Virginia, 2.33
Conference record: 11-16
Summary: It’s taken a while for the Mountaineers to get settled in the Big 12 as they were forced to play young, inexperienced talent on defense early in their transition to the conference. The Mountaineers' defense has been improving, however, as their young talent has begun to mature.
Key stat: A lack of a pass rush has also been an issue for WVU with 34 sacks in 27 conference games, tied for eighth worst in the Big 12.

8. Iowa State, 2.44
Conference record: 5-22
Summary: The Cyclones feature the least disruptive defense in the conference with a Big 12-worst 29 percent of opponents' plays resulting in zero or negative yardage. ISU tends to have quality linebacker play but its defensive line and secondary play needs improving.
Key stat: The Cyclones allowed 5.33 yards per carry during this span, worst in the Big 12.

9. Kansas, 2.59
Conference record: 2-25
Summary: The Jayhawks are second in the conference in forced fumbles (28) but that didn’t do much to change the production of their defense. KU’s inability to consistently force punts and struggles to stop the run (5.11 yards per carry allowed) or pass (8.24 yards per pass attempt allowed) are at the root of the problem.
Key stat: KU’s 6.55 yards per play allowed was the Big 12’s worst.

10. Texas Tech, 2.63
Conference record: 10-17
Summary: New Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs is tasked with creating more turnovers for the Red Raiders, who have forced 34 turnovers in 27 games during the past three seasons. The inability to slow offenses or take the ball away has made Tech the Big 12’s easiest defense to score on.
Key stat: Tech’s minus-159 points off turnover margin speaks volumes. Having to make up an average of 5.8 points per game is a good way to end up 10-17 during this three-year span.
The last two weeks we analyzed and ranked the individual position units in the Big 12 heading into the spring, measuring them based on past performance, future potential and quality depth.

Below is a snapshot recap of how each position group of every Big 12 team was ranked:

BAYLOR: The Bears are stout in the trenches and lethal at the offensive skill positions.
  • QBs: 4th; RBs: 2nd; WRs: 1st; OL: 1st; DL: 1st; LBs: 5th; DBs: 5th; STs: 4th
  • Average rank: 2.875
TCU: The Horned Frogs have pieces to replace defensively; but the offense should be awesome.
  • QBs: 1st; RBs: 3rd; WRs: 2nd; OL: 2nd; DL: 2nd; LBs: 9th; DBs: 4th; STs: 1st
  • Average rank: 3.000
OKLAHOMA STATE: Lots of buzz around quarterback Mason Rudolph, but an experienced defense could be what elevates Oklahoma State into a contender.
  • QBs: 2nd; RBs: 8th; WRs: 3rd; OL: 4th; DL: 4th; LBs: 2nd; DBs: 2nd; STs: 7th
  • Average rank: 4.000
OKLAHOMA: It will be interesting to see how new coordinator Lincoln Riley utilizes one of the most talented and deepest position groups in the league, OU's running backs.
  • QBs: 5th; RBs: 1st; WRs: 4th; OL: 5th; DL: 5th; LBs: 1st; DBs: 7th; STs: 5th
  • Average rank: 4.125
WEST VIRGINIA: The offense needs some retooling, but the secondary should be formidable.
  • QBs: 6th; RBs: 4th; WRs: 7th; OL: 9th; DL: 7th; LBs: 4th; DBs: 1st; STs: 3rd
  • Average rank: 5.125
TEXAS: Finally unlocking an answer at quarterback would boost the rest of the offensive units.
  • QBs: 7th; RBs: 6th; WRs: 8th; OL: 7th; DL: 3rd; LBs: 3rd; DBs: 6th; STs: 8th
  • Average rank: 6.000
TEXAS TECH: The Red Raiders have enough firepower offensively; but can the defense come around under David Gibbs?
  • QBs: 3rd; RBs: 5th; WRs: 5th; OL: 3rd; DL: 8th; LBs: 7th; DBs: 8th; STs: 9th
  • Average rank: 6.000
KANSAS STATE: The offense is a blank slate, but no one should discount Bill Snyder's capacity to rebuild with unknown parts.
  • QBs: 10th; RBs: 9th; WRs: 9th; OL: 6th; DL: 6th; LBs: 6th; DBs: 3rd; STs: 2nd
  • Average rank: 6.375
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones had the worst statistical defense in college football last year for a reason.
  • QBs: 8th; RBs: 10th; WRs: 6th; OL: 8th; DL: 10th; LBs: 10th; DBs: 9th; STs: 6th
  • Average rank: 8.375
KANSAS: David Beaty and his staff have their work cut out.
  • QBs: 9th; RBs: 7th; WRs: 10th; OL: 10th; DL: 9th; LBs: 8th; DBs: 10th; STs: 10th
  • Average rank: 9.125

Ultimate ESPN 300: Who's next? 

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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It’s never too early to look ahead to next year. Here are seven prospects in the 2015 class who could make their mark in future editions of the Ultimate ESPN 300.

DT Daylon Mack (Texas A&M): Last year it was DE Myles Garrett who made a splash for the Aggies, and Mack is expected to do the same in 2015. While Texas A&M returns some quality young defensive tackles, none has Mack's combination of explosive power and quickness plus the ability to be a disruptive force in the backfield.

S Derwin James (FSU):

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The last two weeks we've been analyzing and ranking individual position units in the Big 12. In our weekly Big 12 roundtable, we discuss the league's strongest overall position group, the strongest individual position group and the position group to watch this spring:

What is the strongest overall position group in the league heading into spring ball?

Olson: I'm leaning toward running backs right now, though I do think this is shaping up to be a deep year in the secondary. The Big 12 has, in my opinion, at least six premier backs returning in 2015: Samaje Perine, Aaron Green, Shock Linwood, DeAndre Washington, Johnathan Gray and Rushel Shell. A few others could rise to their level this season, and the freshman class of backs in this league is awfully exciting.

Trotter: I'm going with wide receivers. I'd like to see a better one-two punch heading into next season than Baylor's Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. The Horned Frogs might not have a superstar receiver, but they have three darn good ones who know how to play. Oklahoma State's group of receivers is going to excellent and also deep. And when healthy, Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard is All-American caliber.

[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSamaje Perine heads a deep group of running backs at Oklahoma.
Chatmon: I’d have to agree with Max. The running back position is loaded with stars from OU’s Perine to Texas Tech’s Washington. The interesting aspect of the Big 12’s plethora of ball carriers is the star power is supported by quality depth at most Big 12 schools. The conference is full of running backs in a backup role who would start at the majority of FBS schools, including Oklahoma's Keith Ford, West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood and others.

What about strongest individual position unit?

Olson: If Ohio State's quarterbacks could team up with Oklahoma's running backs and Baylor's receivers, there would be no need for a College Football Playoff. I'll go with the Bears' wideouts as the strongest group because Coleman and Cannon are going to be prolific no matter who's playing quarterback. I'm excited to see what guys such as Davion Hall, Jay Lee and Ishmael Zamora can do with more reps. Oklahoma will face some challenges in divvying up its carries, whereas in Baylor's offense, it really doesn't matter who gets the ball.

Trotter: Assuming we're not counting quarterbacks (in which case the answer would be TCU), I'm going with the Oklahoma running backs, slightly over the Baylor wide receivers and Baylor defensive line. Perine has the capability and durability to rush for 2,000 yards. Alex Ross was an All-Big 12 kick returner and could start for almost half the teams in the league. Joe Mixon is the "X" factor. He was more ballyhooed coming out of high school than Perine. If he lives up anywhere close to the hype, this could become the best running back group in the country.

Chatmon: It has to be Baylor’s defensive line. I love what defensive tackle Andrew Billings brings to the table and defensive end Shawn Oakman is extremely productive and can get even better. Add defensive tackle Beau Blackshear and defensive end K.J. Smith into the mix and Baylor has four quality defensive linemen along with good depth. The healthy return of defensive end Jamal Palmer would take this unit to an even higher level.

What is the position unit to watch this spring?

Olson: Texas' concerning quarterback situation might not get resolved until fall camp, but the Longhorns need to find some answers along the offensive line this spring. Joe Wickline needs a lot more competition and depth, and I wouldn't be surprised if junior college transfers Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson work with the No. 1 line right away. That group is in for a shakeup, and certainly a necessary one for the growth of Texas' offense.

Trotter: Again, taking out quarterbacks -- Texas, Oklahoma, K-State and West Virginia each have intriguing QB derbies -- some of the units I'll be watching this spring include the Oklahoma and Texas receivers, the K-State running backs, the Oklahoma State offensive line and the Texas Tech linebackers. Outside of Shepard, no returning receiver in Norman or Austin has yet to stand out. With its entire passing attack graduated, K-State desperately needs a featured running back to emerge (Dalvin Warmack?). Improved offensive line play could be the biggest key to Oklahoma State challenging TCU and Baylor. And I'm curious to see how Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell makes an impact with the Red Raiders, who need another defensive difference-maker to pair with Pete Robertson.

Chatmon: I’m looking forward to seeing how the battle to become Mason Rudolph’s top target at Oklahoma State turns out. My favorite to win the battle is sophomore James Washington, but the Pokes have a meeting room full of potential playmakers. Brandon Sheperd really came on at the end of the year, Jhajuan Seales has made plenty of plays during his career and Marcell Ateman could be the most talented receiver on the roster. I can’t wait to see who steps up.

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