For the first time since the Big 12 eliminated its two-division format for the 2011 season, the conference will crown its champion this December with a winner-take-all matchup at AT&T Stadium between the top two finishers in the regular-season standings.
That has triggered lots of speculation about which teams will play in Arlington for the title on Dec. 1 or Dec. 2, depending on the preference of the TV network handling the telecast.
For months, most of the way-too-early Top 25 projections from pundits have suggested a likely matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to settle this year’s Big 12 title. But that was before Wednesday’s surprise retirement by longtime Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops, clearing the way for Lincoln Riley to lead the program after serving as OU’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons.
It will be interesting to see how Riley’s presence at the helm of the Sooners’ program alters projections by preseason prognosticators, if it happens at all. It is interesting to note that the first projection to surface since Stoops’ departure, offered this week by Athlon Sports, includes only one Oklahoma team in the title-game matchup.
But the surprise absentee from north of the Red River is Oklahoma State, which has been replaced by a team from Texas.
Athlon’s projected participants, selected long before Stoops’ decision became public, are Oklahoma and … Texas, a team coming off three consecutive losing records but sporting a new coach in Tom Herman. After posting a 22-4 mark the past two seasons at Houston, Herman takes over a team that finished with a combined record of 16-21 the past three seasons under former coach Charlie Strong.
The magazine’s prognosticators seem sold on Herman’s turnaround touch, projecting Texas to finish 9-4 this season with a loss to Oklahoma in the 2017 Big 12 championship game. Athlon places Texas at No. 13 in its preseason rankings, above the Longhorns’ preseason perch by The Sporting News (No. 21), and second only to Oklahoma (No. 8) among Big 12 teams. Its analysis of the Longhorns includes this comment: “Things may be set up for Texas and Herman to crash the Big 12 party this season thanks to UT’s veteran roster, including experienced offensive and defensive lines and a laser-accurate quarterback.”
Other league teams to crack the Top 25 in the magazine’s preseason projections include Oklahoma State (No. 14) and Kansas State (No. 22). Two schools barely miss the cutoff: West Virginia (No. 26) and TCU (No. 32). The forecast calls for seven bowl berths, but no spot in the College Football Playoff, for Big 12 teams during the 2017 season.
The postseason projections: Oklahoma vs. Michigan (Cotton Bowl); Texas vs. Stanford (Alamo Bowl); Oklahoma State vs. Notre Dame (Camping World Bowl); Kansas State vs. Utah (Cactus Bowl); West Virginia vs. South Carolina (Liberty Bowl); TCU vs. UTSA (Heart of Dallas Bowl) and Baylor vs. Arkansas (Texas Bowl).
Texas Tech is pegged to finish 5-7 and short of a bowl berth in what projects as a pivotal season for fifth-year coach Kliff Kingsbury.