DALLAS — The Big 12 is about to go from fun-sized to super-sized.
The conference will be adding four new members for 2023. With Texas and Oklahoma still hanging around for a year or two before heading to the promised land of the SEC, the Big 12 will go from a 10-team league to 14 schools.
Good luck picking a conference favorite from 14 teams. It’s hard enough as it is. Baylor went from two wins to Big 12 champs in 2021. And you know the story of TCU this past season, from being picked seventh in the Big 12 to finishing second in the country.
The expansion gang of four — BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston — are wild cards that only add to the degree of difficulty.
Plus, the Big 12 schedule hasn’t been released. With the round-robin format a thing of the past, the schedule could be a deciding factor.
Picking in January, more than seven months before the openers is plenty risky in the age of the transfer portal and NIL.
With all those caveats doubling as handy excuses, here’s a way, way, way too early breakdown of the Big 12 for 2023.
Who can be TCU next season?
While the Horned Frogs seemed to come out of nowhere — or at least Fort Worth — there were signs that TCU had accumulated more talent than their 2021 record indicated.
Who’s next to shock the world? Iowa State can’t be that bad again. Mike Gundy seems to do his best work at Oklahoma State when he’s written off. Quarterback Jalon Daniels makes Kansas a scary offensive proposition.
How about Texas Tech as the likeliest unlikely breakthrough team? The Red Raiders did win eight games, beat Texas and OU in the same season for the first time and then handled Ole Miss in the Texas Bowl. Fourteen key seniors are returning because of the extra year of eligibility created by COVID-19, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. One of those returning is quarterback Tyler Shough, the bowl MVP.
“I feel like we’re building that momentum and I really want to be a part of something special,” Shough said after the game.
Can Texas and OU have one-last Big 12 curtain call?
Uh, it might be a stretch.
Texas will undoubtedly be ranked in the AP Top 25 and the USA Today coaches poll, because there seems to be some obscure bylaw. Then reality usually sets in.
Whether incumbent Quinn Ewers or five-star freshman Arch Manning wins the quarterback job, Texas still has to replace the productivity of Doak Walker winner Bijan Robinson and the leadership of Roschon Johnson. Coach Steve Sarkisian is one game over .500 (13-12) entering his third season in Austin and fans are getting antsy.
At Oklahoma, fans may be at a stage beyond antsy as Brent Venables enters Year 2. As bad as the back-to-back losses to TCU and Texas were by a combined margin of 104-24, the end of the season might have been worse. The Sooners dropped four of their last five, with each loss by three points, en route to a 6-7 finish.
Venables does have the nation’s fifth-best recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite ranking and has brought in 10 transfers. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who was solid when healthy, is returning although running back Eric Gray and top receiver Marvin Mims have departed.
Will TCU sustain?
The legacy of the 2022 Horned Frogs is written, even with that painful 65-7 loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game. The future is hardly set.
Sonny Dykes seemed to push pretty much all the right buttons for the first 14 games and won over Gary Patterson’s players. In the process, Dykes probably raised expectations, maybe too high. Even a nine-win season, which would be a neat achievement, might be viewed as a step back.
Nine wins may be difficult. With TCU’s success, more players may be leaving for the NFL with eligibility remaining, having seen their stock rise. The loss of offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, the Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant, to Clemson leaves a major hole.
So what about the Big 12 champs?
With all the focus on TCU throughout the season, remember that Kansas State was the team celebrating a title at AT&T Stadium in December.
Do-everything back Deuce Vaughn, the engine of the offense, has departed. The Wildcats do have quarterback Will Howard returning and he will be operating behind the most experienced offensive line in the conference.
Much may depend on the NFL decision of standout edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah.
Will Baylor bounce back?
Back in July, every reporter at Big 12 media days was seemingly focused on Baylor coach Dave Aranda and his Zen-like approach to coaching.
Then the preseason favorites stumbled down the stretch and probably still haven’t thawed out from the Armed Forces Bowl. Plenty of talent from the Matt Rhule era has departed.
While Richard Reese is a running back to build upon, quarterback is a major question. Blake Shapen wasn’t the same after taking a hard hit at West Virginia and the Bears ventured into the transfer portal for former four-star recruit Sawyer Robertson from Mississippi State. Expect an interesting competition in spring practice.
What about the newcomers?
Great question. All four schools went to bowls with BYU and Houston winning their games. Cincinnati, which has a new coach in Scott Satterfield from Louisville, became the first group of five team to reach the playoff in 2021. UCF reached the American title game against Tulane.
Each will probably have to adjust to life in the Big 12, although BYU has featured a handful of Pac-12 teams on its schedule. BYU lost a lot of productivity. Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis is the frontrunner in a crowded quarterback room.
The Athletic reported that Cincinnati is facing the prospect of the deep-pocketed SEC schools poaching players off its roster. At UCF, coach Gus Malzahn has given up the play-calling duties and hired Darin Hinshaw as the new offensive coordinator. He has a nice building block in returning quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.
Houston began the 2022 season in the Top 25 then stumbled. Coach Dana Holgorsen has work to do to be competitive in the Big 12 immediately. He does have an heir apparent for productive quarterback Clayton Tune in Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith.