Big 12 preview: Utah, Arizona, Colorado arrive to challenge OSU and Kansas State


It boasts maybe the two best running backs in the country. It has the most proven quarterbacks outside of the SEC. Its September slate is magnificent. Its conference race could feature as many as eight contenders, maybe 10.

The Big 12 probably won’t have a national title contender in 2024, or in most coming seasons. It just lost its two biggest brands — and, by nature, most likely annual contenders — to the SEC. In, perhaps, the most compelling conference in the sport, its champion will be battle-tested, confident and capable of making some playoff noise. It will almost certainly be the most entertaining. Conference realignment has been a destructive force for this sport in countless ways, but it did gift us with a magnificently messy Big 12. Let’s count our blessings. And let’s preview the Big 12!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another FBS conference exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 134 FBS teams. The previews will include 2023 breakdowns, 2024 previews and team-by-team capsules. Here are the MAC, Conference USA, AAC, MWC, Sun Belt, independents and ACC previews.

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2024 projections | Best games
Title contenders | Who’s close?
Hoping for 6-6

2023 recap

The actual Big 12 championship race was delightful enough. Texas lost to Oklahoma but won three other one-score games to finish ahead of the pack at 8-1, Oklahoma State took down Oklahoma in the last Bedlam for the foreseeable future and won three other one-score games to finish 7-2 with the Sooners, while three other teams lingered just one game behind.

Replace Texas and OU with Arizona and Utah, however, and you might have had an even wilder race. (And probably a more competitive Big 12 championship game.) That’s what awaits us this time around.

2024 projections

Four teams projected between 17th and 24th, with another four between 30th and 37th. I’ve joked for years that it feels like every game in the Big 12 is decided by three points. That might actually be true this season.

At 68.0%, the Big 12 has the highest average returning production in the conference, and it’s second in both offensive production (behind only the ACC) and defensive production (behind the Big Ten). Experience levels should create intrigue even beyond the conference title race, for which eight teams have at least a 5% chance. Lower-ranked teams like Baylor and Colorado boast quite a bit of experience as well, which could theoretically create a surge opportunity for either or both.

Five best games of 2024

Here are the five conference games that feature (a) the highest combined SP+ ratings for both teams and (b) a projected scoring margin under 10 points.

Arizona at Kansas State (Sept. 14); Utah at Oklahoma State (Sept. 21); Oklahoma State at Kansas State (Sept. 28); Arizona at Utah (Sept. 28). This had to be intentional. The four most high-quality and competitive games of the Big 12 conference season take place in Weeks 3, 4 and 5 of the season. Arizona, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Utah damn near play round-robins against each other before October even comes around.

This will serve a few different purposes. For one thing, it will create lots of early-season attention for the conference. These are massive games with obvious relevance in the expanded College Football Playoff race. It will also help to define a chaotic conference race, both by giving certain teams key tiebreaker advantages and by increasing the odds that conference favorites suffer early blemishes and potential upstarts get off to fast starts. Either way, welcome to the party, Arizona and Utah. You should fit right in.

Kansas State at Iowa State (Nov. 30). Iowa State has lost 13 of its past 16 one-score games. If fortune swings the Cyclones’ way again, then combined with massive returning production levels, they could contend. And if they do, Farmageddon 2024 could be enormous.

(By the way, Big 12, it’s not too late to revisit your dreadfully paltry permanent rivalries list to include Farmageddon, among others. You screwed up the first list, and that’s OK; you can still right a wrong.)

Conference title (and, therefore, CFP) contenders

Head coach: Chris Klieman (sixth year, 39-24 overall)

2024 projection: 17th in SP+, 9.4 average wins (6.9 in Big 12)

Over the past three seasons, Kansas State has won 27 games and averaged an SP+ ranking of 14.8. That ranks 14th nationally and second behind only Notre Dame among programs outside of the Big Ten and SEC. (Yes, that means the Wildcats are also ahead of Clemson and Florida State in that span.) Tasked with finding a successor for Bill Snyder, the man who, in two different tenures, basically ranked as the best and second-best coach in school history, Kansas State somehow landed someone up for the task. After going 12-11 in his first two seasons, Chris Klieman has established cruising altitude.

It feels like the 2024 K-State team might have a bit higher ceiling, and a bit lower floor, than recent iterations. Gone are Texas A&M-bound offensive coordinator Collin Klein, Ohio State-bound quarterback Will Howard, receiver Phillip Brooks, tight end Ben Sinnott and three members of an outstanding offensive line. But in Howard’s place steps sophomore Avery Johnson, a top-80 recruit in 2023, and through the transfer portal comes another four-star sophomore from near Wichita, running back Dylan Edwards. Edwards gained 600 yards from scrimmage with five touchdowns as a misused player at Colorado; he’ll join 1,200-yard rusher DJ Giddens and yet another exciting sophomore, wideout Jayce Brown (437 yards, 16.2 per catch), to form a particularly high-upside skill corps. If new coordinator (and longtime offensive line coach) Conor Riley pulls the strings well, and if the line gives Johnson what he needs — not a given considering how good All-American guard Cooper Beebe was, in particular — then this offense, which finished last season seventh in offensive SP+, might have the potential to do even more damage.

The K-State offense has improved, per SP+, for three straight seasons, but the defense has remained startlingly similar over time, ranking between 23rd and 38th in defensive SP+ for 10 of the past 12 years. That the Wildcats return 13 of the 18 defenders who saw 300-plus snaps last season suggests maybe they’ll be on the better side of that range in 2024, but they have to replace sacks leaders Khalid Duke and Nate Matlack. One of two sophomore pass-rushers — Tobi Osunsanmi or Austin Peay transfer Travis Bates — might have to step up. If they do, coordinator Joe Klanderman should have everything else he needs. Linebackers Austin Moore and Desmond Purnell combined for 15.5 TFLs and 34 run stops, nickelback Marques Sigle combined three TFLs with nine passes defended, and corner Jacob Parrish picked off four passes and broke up 11 more. The Wildcats have solid playmakers and the ultimate good-not-elite-defense track record.

My favorite player: QB Avery Johnson. You never want to overreact to small sample sizes, but when the small samples and recruiting rankings agree, it’s pretty easy to overreact.

Best 2023 Total QBR for returning QBs (min. 100 action plays):

  1. Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma (now Oregon): 88.8

  2. Conner Weigman, Texas A&M: 88.8

  3. Avery Johnson, Kansas State: 87.0

  4. Carson Beck, Georgia: 84.6

Despite just 127 action plays (71 dropbacks), that’s pretty good company. Johnson completed only 56% of his passes while spending much of his freshman year as a run-first, change-of-pace guy. But he averaged 13.0 yards per completion, threw no picks, took only one sack and averaged 6.1 yards per carry. His dual-threat potential is otherworldly.

Head coach: Kyle Whittingham (20th year, 162-79 overall)

2024 projection: 18th in SP+, 9.4 average wins (7.5 in Big 12)

Time for a do-over! A year ago, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising was attempting to come back from a bowl-game ACL injury so he could try to lead his Utes to a third straight Pac-12 title. Among those likely to help with the cause: tight end Brant Kuithe, who was also attempting to come back from injury. They didn’t make it back in time, however, each missing the full 2023 season. Running back Micah Bernard was lost for nearly the entire season, too. Transfer receiver Mycah Pittman made it 15 snaps before getting hurt.

Kyle Whittingham’s Utes did not three-peat. It said something about their high floor that they still won eight games while tumbling from 11th to 65th in offensive SP+ and failing to hit 21 points six times. But they still lost four of their last six games. After two titles, three seasons with double-digit wins and four straight years in the SP+ top 20, 2023 was at least a temporary setback.

Rising, Kuithe, Bernard and Pittman are all suiting up this fall, along with some new transfers — running back Anthony Woods (1,100 yards at Idaho), receivers Damien Alford (Syracuse) and Dorian Singer (USC), tight end Carsen Ryan (UCLA) — and four of last year’s top seven linemen. If the injury bug is kinder and the Utes return to the offensive SP+ top 20, they’re probably Big 12 favorites because the defense should be the typical Utah defense. The Utes have ranked in the defensive SP+ top 25 in five of the past six seasons, and of the 17 defenders with 300-plus snaps last year, 12 are back. That’s depth defensive coordinator (and head coach-in-waiting) Morgan Scalley can work with.

If there’s one concern for the Utes on D, it comes at the back. Four of the five departures came in the secondary; corner Zemaiah Vaughn is proven, and a number of sophomores like safety Tao Johnson got their feet wet last season. But Whittingham still felt the need to sign three DB transfers. Departed safeties Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop were particularly disruptive, so the bar’s high, but the offense and its health have a bit more to prove.

My favorite player: QB Cam Rising. While leading the Utes to two conference titles in 2021-22, Rising threw for 5,527 passing yards with a 64% completion rate, 46 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and only 15 sacks. He also rushed for 1,070 yards (not including sacks) and 12 touchdowns. Andy Ludwig’s offense is going to run the ball quite a bit, but when Rising had to sling the ball around, he looked great doing it: He has thrown for over 300 yards three times with Utah (all against USC, hilariously enough), and the Utes went 3-0 and averaged 44 points in those games.

For active players with at least 250 action plays, Rising’s Total QBR ranks behind only two players, each of whom has started only one season.

Career Total QBR (min. 250 action plays)

  1. Carson Beck, Georgia (85.5)

  2. Noah Fifita, Arizona (83.6)

  3. Cam Rising, Utah (82.7)

  4. Jalen Milroe, Alabama (80.7)

  5. Dillon Gabriel, Oregon (77.6)

By the way, while the Big 12 has two of the top three here, it also has No. 6 (TCU’s Josh Hoover) and No. 8 (WVU’s Garrett Greene). There are going to be some fun offenses in this league.

Head coach: Mike Gundy (20th year, 166-79 overall)

2024 projection: 20th in SP+, 8.3 average wins (6.0 in Big 12)

Mike Gundy has been either a quarterback, assistant coach or head coach on 33 of the past 38 Oklahoma State football teams, a list that includes, per SP+, six of the nine best Cowboys teams of all time (in chronological order: 1988, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2017). You just don’t see that in modern-day college football.

Since the program’s overall peak in the 2008-12 range, success has come in waves for Gundy’s Cowboys. After nearly reaching the CFP in 2021, they went just 7-6 in 2022 and actually slipped further in SP+ last year despite the surprising Big 12 championship bid. But they head into 2024 ranked third in returning production, with the best running back in the country and a defensive coordinator moving past some growing pains. (Bryan Nardo jumped from Division II Gannon to OSU in 2023.) It sure feels like another wave could be on the way.

Unsure of the best path forward at either QB or running back, the Pokes started slowly in 2023. But as has been the case plenty of times, Gundy and his staff reassessed, committed to a certain identity and surged. After a humiliating 33-7 loss to South Alabama in Week 3, veteran Alan Bowman took over full-time at QB, and running back Ollie Gordon II, who had just 19 carries in three weeks, began carrying the load in the run game. Bowman ended up solid enough, ranking eighth in the Big 12 in Total QBR from Week 4 onward. Gordon, however, was transformational. He rushed for at least 118 yards in nine of his last 11 games, and after a tight loss at Iowa State in Week 4, OSU won eight of its last 10.

We’ll see what punishment Gordon incurs after a recent DUI arrest, but he’s the best back in college football. And with Bowman, last year’s leading receivers (Brennan Presley and Rashod Owens) and basically every single lineman back, OSU’s offense won’t need to figure itself out. The identity’s set this time.

Despite the abysmal start, OSU finished the year 28th in offensive SP+. But the defense ranked 69th, its worst performance since 2018. It would make perfect sense if Nardo needed a trial-and-error year — when Gundy brought offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich from Division II in 2013, OSU suffered two years of offensive slippage before surging again — but Nardo will know his personnel awfully well this fall. Eighteen players saw at least 200 snaps last fall, and 13 are back. Each level of the defense has known playmakers, from defensive tackle Collin Clay (6.5 TFLs at 330 pounds, a rare combination), to linebackers Nick Martin and Collin Oliver (combined: 33 TFLs, 12 sacks, 41 run stops), to safeties Trey Rucker and Kendal Daniels (combined: eight TFLs, 18 run stops). Despite spending most of the time in a 3-3-5 alignment, the Pokes weren’t good enough against the pass, though cornerback Cam Smith flashed potential as a sophomore. If inexperience slowed OSU down in any way last fall, it won’t this time around.

My favorite player: RB Ollie Gordon II. He rushed for just 109 yards in the first three weeks but still charged back to lead the nation in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. In a three-week span against Kansas, West Virginia and Cincinnati, he rushed 83 times for 721 yards and seven touchdowns while catching 10 passes for 137 more yards and another score. That’s positively absurd.

Head coach: Brent Brennan (first year)

2024 projection: 24th in SP+, 8.6 average wins (6.2 in Big 12)

According to SP+, the 10 best Arizona teams of all time were Jim Young’s 1975 team, Larry Smith’s last four teams (1983-86), Dick Tomey’s three best Desert Swarm teams (1993-94, 1998), Mike Stoops’ 2008 team that scored 40-plus points six times (but went 0-4 in one-score games) and, out of nowhere, Jedd Fisch’s 2023 team.

I mean out of nowhere.

  • Arizona, 2020-22: 6-23 record, 21.5% average SP+ percentile

  • Arizona, 2023: 10-3 record, 87.2% average SP+ percentile

The Wildcats endured one of their worst-ever funks to start the 2020s, then pulled off the leap of all second-year leaps with Fisch and new quarterback Noah Fifita in 2023. A 5-foot-11 redshirt freshman, Fifita threw for 2,869 yards and 25 touchdowns, with an almost mistake-free 72% completion rate and six interceptions. He formed a brilliant partnership with receivers Tetairoa McMillan and Jacob Cowing. When Arizona almost knocked off both Washington and USC in Weeks 5-6, we thought of them as near upsets; they looked completely different when Arizona finished the year on a seven-game winning streak.

When a team makes an unforeseen surge, gravity often takes over pretty quickly. It wouldn’t be a total surprise if Arizona fell back a bit. Fisch, after all, left for Washington, and of the 18 defenders who saw at least 200 snaps for the best Arizona defense in 13 years, only eight return, including only one of seven linemen. But new head coach Brent Brennan, formerly of San Jose State, managed to hold on to both Fifita and McMillan, plus four-fifths of a line that played above its collective experience level.

Brennan also made some pretty astute transfer additions. Needing to replace quite a few pieces in the skill corps, he brought running back Quali Conley (6.4 yards per carry last season) and tight end Sam Olson with him from SJSU and landed big-play receiver Raymello Murphy from Old Dominion. And after a whirlwind recruitment, he landed New Mexico’s Jacory Croskey-Merritt as well. It was Croskey-Merritt’s third commitment of the offseason: Arizona, then Ole Miss, then Arizona again. But he rushed for 1,190 yards and 17 touchdowns last year — he might be worth the trouble.

Duane Akina’s* defense will be made or broken by transfers. Brennan nabbed 11 of them, including FBS starters (or part-time starters) in tackles Kevon Darton (Syracuse) and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (USC) and edge rushers Tre Smith (SJSU) and Lance Keneley (Stanford). He brought in four defensive backs, too, though that’s not quite as important with the return of safety Dalton Johnson (six TFLs, nine run stops) and corner Tacario Davis (one INT, 13 breakups), among others.

* The 67-year-old Akina was Dick Tomey’s offensive coordinator at Arizona in the 1990s. He was an analyst on Fisch’s staff last year, and Brennan promoted him. He’s now been both coordinators for the same school. Hell yes.

My favorite player: WR Tetairoa McMillan. I should probably just go with Fifita, but that would be three QBs in four teams, so let’s vary things up and go with the guy who made 16 contested catches and only two drops and, in the last four games, caught 38 passes for 649 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Wildcats averaged 43.3 points per game in this span. If Arizona backs up last year’s surge with another strong performance, it will be because of Fifita-to-McMillan.

A couple of breaks away from a run

Head coach: Matt Campbell (ninth year, 53-48 overall)

2024 projection: 30th in SP+, 7.5 average wins (5.3 in Big 12)

Nine years is long enough for a couple of different narrative arcs. For a while, we talked about Matt Campbell as the chosen one, a coach destined to land one of the sport’s huge jobs. But after a preseason top-10 ranking in 2021, his Cyclones lost 14 of 21 games starting in late 2021, and Campbell became the poster boy for missed opportunities and closed windows.

Now comes a chance at another plot device: the redemption arc. ISU finished the 2023 regular season with five wins in seven games. Freshmen seized opportunities at quarterback (Rocco Becht), running back (Abu Sama III) and tight end (Benjamin Brahmer), and a young defense with 12 freshmen and sophomores logging at least 200 snaps finished in the defensive SP+ top 30. (This was nothing new: Jon Heacock’s 3-3-5 defense has averaged a 26.3 ranking since 2017.)

ISU currently ranks first nationally in returning production. Becht is back after throwing for 3,120 yards and 23 touchdowns. Sama, who rushed for 276 yards and three scores against Kansas State, will run behind a huge line (average size: 6-foot-6, 323 pounds) that returns all five starters. The top four passing targets return, including slot receiver Jaylin Noel, big-play man Jayden Higgins and Brahmer; Campbell also added potential deep threats in NDSU’s Elijah Green and Army’s Isaiah Alston.

The defense was mostly sound against the run but all-or-nothing against the pass. Every primary lineman returns, led by tackle Tyler Onyedim, and Campbell added end Kenard Snyder (15 TFLs) from ULM. The secondary returns six of last year’s top eight, including corner Myles Purchase (13 breakups) and safety Jeremiah Cooper (five INTs, 13 breakups). Any semblance of a pass rush — the Cyclones were 122nd in sack rate and almost never blitzed — would make this a potential top-20 unit.

Closed windows or not, there are worse things in the world than simply ending up as ISU’s best coach in 40-plus years. If Campbell’s Cyclones improve as projected and figure out what they did to offend the god of close games — they’ve won just three of their past 16 one-score finishes — they are absolute Big 12 contenders.

My favorite player: WR Jayden Higgins. In the past 20 years, an Iowa State player has produced at least 170 receiving yards in a game just seven times. Two of them came from Higgins in the second half of last season. He caught six passes for 172 yards in a blowout of Cincinnati, then caught nine for 214 in the Liberty Bowl against Memphis. Among those with 40-plus targets, Higgins was second in the Big 12 in yards per route and yards per game, fourth in contested catches and sixth in yards per catch. There are potential stars everywhere you look on this offense, but he might be at the top of the list.

Head coach: Neal Brown (sixth year, 31-29 overall)

2024 projection: 34th in SP+, 6.7 average wins (4.9 in Big 12)

You’re not fired until you’re fired. Neal Brown entered 2023 just 22-25 as West Virginia’s head coach, having finished only one season over .500 (6-4 in the 2020 COVID season. It was a bit of an upset when he earned a fifth season on the job, and it was fair to assume that 2023 would be his final year. But the Mountaineers improved from 43rd to 35th in offensive SP+ and from 80th to 48th on defense. They pulled efficiency from their run game and big plays from the pass, and they remained one of the nation’s most aggressive fourth-down teams (eighth in go rate and sixth in points after fourth-down conversions). They bounced from 5-7 to 9-4 and earned Brown an upset of a contract extension.

The offense should remain exciting. Quarterback Garrett Greene is wonderfully explosive (16.4 yards per completion, 7.0 yards per non-sack carry), and he’s got a skill corps packed with both thunder (238-pound running back CJ Donaldson Jr. and tight end Kole Taylor) and lightning (running back Jahiem White and receivers Preston Fox, Traylon Ray and Hudson Clement, who averaged 20 yards per catch between them) options. Perhaps most importantly, the line, which ranked eighth in pressure rate allowed and 15th in blown block rate, returns three starters, plus two more who started at least three games.

The best thing you can say about the defense is that Brown understood its weaknesses and tried to address them. He brought in six defensive backs, including five corners. Among them, seniors Garnett Hollis Jr. (Northwestern), Dontez Fagan (Charlotte) and Ayden Garnes (Duquesne) appear particularly disruptive. That would help, as despite a decent pass rush and solid disruption numbers, WVU ranked 70th in passing success rate allowed and 85th in QBR allowed. The front six suffered quite a bit of attrition, but coordinator Jordan Lesley played a lot of guys in 2023 — five linemen and four linebackers return after logging at least 100 snaps — and Brown didn’t feel the need to add much there. (He did, however, land one of the most intriguing FCS transfers in the country: Gardner-Webb linebacker Ty French, who made 22.5 TFLs with 9.5 sacks last season.)

My favorite player: QB Garrett Greene. Let’s stick with the “in the past 20 years …” theme for a moment: In the past 20 years, WVU quarterbacks have produced a Total QBR of 75 or more seven times: Pat White in 2005-07, Geno Smith in 2012, Will Grier in 2017-18 and Greene last season. That is spectacular company. I think Greene’s 53% completion rate threw people off the scent, but virtually every completion he threw produced a successful play, he made loads of big plays with his arm and legs, and he did so with almost no sacks (five), interceptions (four) or fumbles (one). Just a fascinating mix.

Head coach: Sonny Dykes (third year, 18-9 overall)

2024 projection: 36th in SP+, 7.1 average wins (5.0 in Big 12)

Sonny Dykes inherited a team that had won 16 games in three years and proceeded to win 18 in two (and from an average SP+ ranking of 51.0 to 22.0). So things are looking up, yeah? What, did TCU go 7-6 in the first year, then jump up to 9-4 or something? A couple of solid seasons with hope for a breakthrough in Year 3?

Not so much. The Frogs have become the poster children for (a) how volatile rosters can become in the portal era and (b) how fickle the god of close games can be. Thanks in part to some key portal additions, TCU rode a 6-1 record in one-score finishes to a 13-2 record and a shocking CFP National Championship appearance. Facing major turnover, Dykes took on another solid batch of transfers last season, but TCU slipped a bit and also went 0-4 in one-score games. The result: a wild swing from 13-2 to 5-7.

TCU is almost impossible to evaluate at the moment. Dykes brought in more than 20 transfers this time, his biggest batch yet, and sophomore quarterback Josh Hoover was a pleasant surprise last season. Hoover has some nice receivers at his disposal — in terms of incumbents (JP Richardson, Savion Williams), transfers (Boise State WR Eric McAlister, Baylor TE Drake Dabney) and fun redshirt freshmen (Jordyn Bailey, Notre Dame transfer Braylon James) — but the offensive line will be new, and no running back on the roster had more than 176 rushing yards in 2023.

Defensively, Dykes replaced coordinator Joe Gillespie with former Boise State head coach Andy Avalos after the Horned Frogs slipped to 54th in defensive SP+, and he signed 12 transfers to combine with the six or so starters he has returning. TCU defended the run reasonably well and still has good size up front in players like Caleb Fox and Tymon Mitchell. But both the pass rush and pass defense stank. The most important transfers, then, are the pass rushers — namely, Nana Osafo-Mensah (Notre Dame) and Devean Deal (Tulane) — and coverage guys like LaMareon James (Old Dominion), Jaise Oliver (Tulsa), JaTravis McCloud (Utah) and Jevon McIver Jr. (APSU). The offense should be good because of the passing game alone, but TCU could be undone quickly if the pass defense doesn’t improve.

My favorite player: OG Cade Bennett. We need to give more love to the big guys in this piece. TCU’s line indeed lost four starters and brought in five transfers this fall, so it’s going to look awfully new. That doesn’t have to be a negative, though, especially if Bennett thrives in his jump to the Big 12. The former San Diego State guard was one of only 13 linemen to record seven or fewer missed blocks and three or fewer penalties in 700-plus snaps. He’s an awfully good starting point for a rebuild.

Head coach: Lance Leipold (fourth year, 17-21 overall)

2024 projection: 37th in SP+, 7.9 average wins (5.4 in Big 12)

A couple of years ago, after I visited Lawrence for a piece on Lance Leipold and his building job at KU, I told a Kansas State fan that, as sacrilegious as it might sound, Leipold was putting off major Bill Snyder vibes. I was evidently underselling it.

Both Snyder and Leipold took their respective jobs at K-State and KU at a time of shocking ineptitude. In the 10 years before Snyder arrived at Kansas State in 1989, the Wildcats had a 0.221 win percentage with an average SP+ percentile rating of 22.1%. In the 10 years before Leipold arrived at Kansas, the Jayhawks had a 0.154 win percentage and a 16.8% average percentile rating — even lower than K-State’s devastating late-1980s lows.

  • Their first years on the job: Snyder 1-10 (10.4% percentile rating), Leipold 2-10 (7.4%).

  • Second years: Snyder 5-6 (42.2%), Leipold 6-7 (54.4%).

  • Third years: Snyder 7-4 (71.4%), Leipold 9-4 (78.8%).

Leipold inherited a job even harder than Snyder’s, and through three years, he has reached even higher highs.

If you’re aspiring to Snyder levels, the job has just begun. In his seventh season, after all, Snyder fielded his first of many top-five teams. But if quarterback Jalon Daniels is healthy, further improvement is possible in 2024. Daniels threw for 2,014 yards and rushed for 452 (not including sacks) in nine games in 2022, ranking third in Total QBR behind just Hendon Hooker and C.J. Stroud. He’ll share a backfield with an absolute star in running back Devin Neal, and he’ll throw to last year’s top three receivers, Lawrence Arnold, Luke Grimm and Quentin Skinner (combined: 1,924 receiving yards and 14 TDs). The line has three starters to replace but adds Texas A&M center Bryce Foster, among others. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes tends to know what to do with good run personnel, and he’s got it.

The defense is the reason KU is projected only eighth in the conference. The Jayhawks have improved under coordinator Brian Borland, but they were still just 62nd in defensive SP+ last season. The cornerback duo of Cobee Bryant and Mello Dotson (combined: eight INTs, 16 PBUs) is awesome, but the run defense wasn’t good enough, and half the two-deep for the front six is gone. Still, if some combination of end Jereme Robinson and inexperienced former blue-chippers like junior Dylan Brooks, redshirt freshman Bai Jobe and incoming freshman DJ Warner can create disruption up front, the Jayhawks could quickly move up the contenders list.

My favorite player: QB Jalon Daniels. He led an upset of Texas in 2021, and he was almost perfect in KU’s 5-0 start in 2022. He has started only 21 games, but he has thrown for 4,297 yards and rushed for 889. He’s ridiculously poised and has a perfect sense of when to use his legs. If healthy, he’s probably the best QB in the conference. But that’s quite a big if at this point.

Head coach: Joey McGuire (third year, 15-11 overall)

2024 projection: 42nd in SP+, 7.1 average wins (4.7 in Big 12)

In Year 1 under Joey McGuire, Texas Tech won eight games by throwing for 4,000 yards, averaging the most plays per game in the country and forcing just enough passing downs on defense to get by. In Year 2, despite a much less consistent passing game, the Red Raiders won seven by leaning on a workhorse running back, preventing big plays and forcing field goals in the red zone. They began the season a disappointing 3-5 but won four of five down the stretch.

On one hand, McGuire’s Tech is clearly a resourceful bunch and has been good at just about everything at least once in two years. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see if a reliable identity takes shape moving forward. The Red Raiders are right in the middle of the national pack from a returning production standpoint, so you can easily find reasons for optimism or pessimism. Quarterback Behren Morton battled a right shoulder injury in the spring and will have both a brand-new receiving corps and a brand-new line; the former is replacing its top three targets but brings in Washington State’s Josh Kelly and Florida’s Caleb Douglas, among others; the latter replaces six of last year’s top eight but reeled in starters from three Group of 5 programs, including all-conference guards Davion Carter (Memphis) and Vinny Sciury (Toledo). That’s a lot of new blood, but the new guys are relatively proven, and besides, this is running back Tahj Brooks‘ offense. He rushed 290 times for 1,541 yards and 10 scores, doing some epic work after contact (3.3 yards per carry after contact).

On defense, veteran coordinator Tim DeRuyter returns sturdy veterans in safety C.J. Baskerville (10 passes defended and almost no missed tackles) and corner Bralyn Lux (nine passes defended, 3.5 TFLs and a paltry 25.3 QBR allowed), plus a sophomore star in linebacker Ben Roberts and a number of solid edge rushers. But the top two tackles are gone, as are eight of last year’s top 14 players from a snap counts perspective.

McGuire didn’t go crazy in the transfer portal, but he did still bring in a pair of defensive tackles (Rice tackle De’Braylon Carroll could be a keeper) and might need either smaller-school transfers or youngsters to provide depth sooner than later.

My favorite player: RB Tahj Brooks. Break tackles and move the chains. Brooks might not be the most explosive back in the country, but he ranked second nationally in forced missed tackles, fourth in first-down rushes and first in carries of at least 5 yards.

Brooks somehow lost yardage on only 15 of his 290 carries, and the more the offense began to focus on getting him the ball, the more Tech started winning.

Head coach: Gus Malzahn (fourth year, 24-16 overall)

2024 projection: 48th in SP+, 6.5 average wins (4.4 in Big 12)

Following one of the most volatile five-year runs you’ll ever see from a college football program, UCF has established some level of stability. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

From 2013 to ’17, UCF enjoyed a pair of top-10 finishes, going 12-1 with a Fiesta Bowl win in 2013 and 13-0 with a Peach Bowl win in 2017. Oh yeah, and in between, the Knights went 0-12.

The 2015 season was like a strange video game glitch of some sort, but when Scott Frost took over for George O’Leary in 2016, he quickly got the Knights back on the track they appeared to be on a few years earlier. Since the 2017 surge, however, their progress has slowly dissipated. They were still excellent under Josh Heupel, ripping off three more SP+ top-25 performances, and they’ve still been decent under Gus Malzahn, winning 24 games with about a top-50 average performance. But returns are diminishing, and now would be an awfully good time to right that.

Thanks to strong portal moves, the Knights could indeed have the star power to reverse course. Quarterback KJ Jefferson (Arkansas) was born to be a dual-threat Malzahn quarterback, and Peny Boone (Toledo) joins RJ Harvey in a backfield that now features two 1,400-yard rushers. Receiver Kobe Hudson averaged 20.5 yards per catch last season, and now he’s joined by Jacoby Jones (17.2 at Ohio in 2022) and Ja’Varrius Johnson (18.3 at Auburn). The line is experienced, and Malzahn took fliers on wayward former blue-chippers like receiver Agiye Hall (Texas) and quarterback Jacurri Brown (Miami), too. The upside here far exceeds the Knights’ No. 54 offensive projection.

Figuring out the defense is a little trickier, since Malzahn basically traded out one lineup (seven of last year’s starters are gone) for another (12 incoming transfers were at least part-time starters elsewhere). Tackle Lee Hunter is one of the best big-man playmakers in college football, linebacker Ethan Barr made 10 run stops at Vanderbilt, and nickelback Deshawn Pace might have been Cincinnati’s best player last season (11.5 TFLs, 7 passes defended, 13 run stops). And once again, Malzahn took chances on unproven former blue-chippers like defensive end Nyjalik Kelly (Miami) and DB Tre’Quon Fegans (USC).

The ingredients here seem pretty impressive, and I would say UCF is one of the candidates to most significantly exceed its SP+ projections. But the ingredients probably should have produced something better than a top-50 level the past few years, too. Malzahn bears some burden of proof.

My favorite player: DT Lee Hunter. He was second on the team in TFLs (12), third in tackles (74) and first in tackles per snap (13.2%). He made 23 run stops and three sacks. He is also 6-foot-4, 320 pounds. SIX-FOUR, THREE TWENTY! And his stat line makes you think he’s a linebacker! That shouldn’t be possible!

Just looking for a path to 6-6

Head coach: Dave Aranda (fifth year, 23-25 overall)

2024 projection: 61st in SP+, 5.3 average wins (3.7 in Big 12)

Over the past 25 years, Baylor has lost at least nine games seven times and won at least 10 six times. The Bears are either good or bad and rarely in between. They don’t waste time being average.

They were bad in 2023. They didn’t fall to 3-9 because they were beset by turnover luck or bad bounces in close games (they were 2-3 in one-score finishes). They just weren’t good. And that’s a strange thing to say when you look at their roster.

The Bears have an excellent pair of receivers in Monaray Baldwin and Ketron Jackson Jr. They have a big, solid offensive line (albeit one that had up to three freshmen on it last year). They have one of the league’s better linebackers in Matt Jones. They have a ball-hawking safety in Devyn Bobby and, in corner Caden Jenkins, one of the best freshmen of 2023. They have a couple of explosive return men, too, in Richard Reese (kickoffs) and Josh Cameron (punts).

Thanks to the transfer portal, they also have a lovely dual-threat quarterback in Dequan Finn (2,657 passing yards, 660 rushing yards and 29 combined TDs at Toledo), a solid inside-outside receiver in Ashtyn Hawkins (874 yards at Texas State), a couple of offensive line stars from the lower levels (Ohio’s Kurt Danneker and Montana State’s Omar Aigbedion), a 330-pound playmaker at defensive tackle (Texas Southern’s Elinus Noel III), one of Texas Tech’s best 2023 defenders (edge rusher Steve Linton) and, in Kendrick Simpkins, a safety who lives behind the line of scrimmage (12 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 5 run stops and 4 forced fumbles at WKU). They also have a new offensive coordinator in the well-traveled Jake Spavital.

Dave Aranda is one of three current Big 12 coaches to have won a Big 12 title; his Bears went 12-2 in 2021, but they’re otherwise 11-23 in three years. It feels like there’s potential here for another major surge, and the Bears need to live up to at least some of that potential if Aranda is going to see a sixth season in Waco.

My favorite player: CB Caden Jenkins. As a freshman, Jenkins allowed just a 44% completion rate, and he picked off three passes (and broke up three more) while allowing just one touchdown and one completion of 20-plus yards. He allowed just a 37.6 QBR as primary coverage guy … and the Bears still ranked a ghastly 124th in passing success rate allowed and 112th in QBR allowed. How is that even possible??

Head coach: Kalani Sitake (eighth year, 61-41 overall)

2024 projection: 67th in SP+, 4.3 average wins (2.9 in Big 12)

Forty years ago, BYU went 13-0 and won maybe the most shocking national title of all time. It’s fair to wonder what the ceiling might be if a new BYU were to attempt to move up the football ladder in the current landscape; regardless, nearly four decades after reaching the sport’s pinnacle, the Cougars finally reached a power conference.

Their Big 12 debut … wasn’t great. The offense vanished after a 4-1 start, and the defense wasn’t nearly good enough to pick up the slack. They regressed in the SP+ rankings for the third straight season, and their No. 76 final ranking was their second worst in 20 years. Sitake has engineered a turnaround before, but both O and D have a lot of cracks to repair.

After a lovely run at Weber State, Jay Hill’s first BYU defense was below average against the run and far too soft against the pass. But of the 13 returnees with at least 100 defensive snaps, seven were freshmen or sophomores. In corner Jakob Robinson and end Tyler Batty, the Cougars’ best coverage guy and pass rusher each return; we’ll see if development and experience raise the floor for the rest. The run defense, meanwhile, could benefit from pure heft: Only one returnee is listed at over 300 pounds.

With Kedon Slovis gone, sophomore Jake Retzlaff unimpressive in a late-2023 sample and Sitake bringing in three transfers — USF’s Gerry Bohanon, Utah State’s McCae Hillstead, WMU’s Treyson Bourguet — it’s fair to assume the QB job will be up for grabs in fall camp. Bohanon has flashed solid dual-threat potential through the years, and the run game would benefit massively from some QB mobility considering the Cougars ranked 129th in rushing success rate. The line returns four of last year’s top six and has all the size the offensive line lacks, at least. In the receiving corps, seven of last year’s top eight targets return, including junior Chase Roberts, who posted solid numbers despite all the unreliability around him.

My favorite player: DE Tyler Batty. The 6-foot-5, 273-pounder ranked first on the team in TFLs (8.5), sacks (5.5) and pressures (30) and second in run stops (10). If the players around him develop and improve, that could free him up to post some of the best disruption stats in the Big 12.

Head coach: Deion Sanders (second year, 4-8 overall)

2024 projection: 69th in SP+, 3.8 average wins (2.5 in Big 12)

Based on the ratings in the upcoming new EA Sports college football game, you might have expected Colorado to land a lot higher on this list. And if the projections were based on “How good are your two best players?” or “How were your TV ratings last fall?” Deion Sanders’ Buffaloes would have. But their actual track record has earned no such respect.

Sanders inherited an utterly dreadful team that had gone 1-11 and ranked 126th in SP+, and his wheeling and dealing in the transfer portal produced a team good enough to improve by three wins and 45 spots in SP+. But the hype machine, already loud in the offseason, grew out of control, and after a 3-0 start, the Buffs won just one more game and finished 81st.

Quarterback Shedeur Sanders and two-way standout Travis Hunter are back, but for the second straight year, Deion Sanders flipped a huge portion of the roster. The offensive line, a massive weakness a year ago — and a unit done no favors by Shedeur Sanders’ propensity for holding on to the ball too long — will have a two-deep almost exclusively full of newcomers like All-Conference USA guard Justin Mayers (UTEP), former blue-chippers Tyler Johnson (Houston) and Zack Owens (Clemson) and five-star freshman Jordan Seaton. A receiving corps of Hunter, sophomore Omarion Miller, senior Jimmy Horn Jr. and transfers LaJohntay Wester (FAU) and Will Sheppard (Vanderbilt) could make Sanders’ job easier, too. Coach Prime also brought in exciting running backs Isaiah Augustave (Arkansas) and Dallan Hayden (Ohio State), but we don’t yet have evidence that he’ll allow offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to actually take the ball out of Shedeur’s hands by calling run plays.

Sanders did do a more interesting job of signing potential impact transfers on defense this time, bringing in known disruptors like linemen Dayon Hayes (Pitt), B.J. Green II (Arizona State) and Rayyan Buell (Ohio) and linebackers Nikhai Hill-Green (Charlotte) and Jaylen Wester (FAU). All of these moves are likely to generate further improvement. But the hype machine is likely making too much noise yet again, and mere improvement will probably again be viewed as disappointing.

My favorite player: WR/CB Travis Hunter. He had three interceptions and three 100-yard receiving games. He allowed a 47% completion rate on defense and produced a 74% catch rate on offense. Hunter produced maybe the most unique overall stat line we’ve seen in ages, and he did it by playing so, so many snaps.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Hunter played at least one snap at running back, wide receiver, slot receiver, tight end, outside cornerback, slot corner, safety, outside linebacker and inside linebacker. He also recorded 23 special teams snaps. And he was, at worst, good everywhere he lined up. Just an incredible prospect.

Head coach: Scott Satterfield (second year, 3-9 overall)

2024 projection: 70th in SP+, 5.1 average wins (3.1 in Big 12)

Luke Fickell did Scott Satterfield no favors. In 2020-21, Fickell generated back-to-back top-10 finishes at Cincinnati, the second and third such finishes in school history; after winning nine or more games only seven times before 2018, the Bearcats did so five years in a row. They slipped from sixth to 33rd in SP+ in 2022, however, and they headed into 2023 ranked 126th in returning production. Anyone succeeding the Wisconsin-bound Fickell was going to struggle last fall.

Satterfield did exactly that. Cincinnati’s offense ran the ball well but consistently self-destructed in the red zone, and the defense gave up a steady stream of devastating big plays. The schedule got harder just as Cincy fielded its worst team in six years.

Cincinnati was in the CFP less than three years ago and has been somewhere between solid and good for most of the 21st century. But most of the reasons for previous success are gone.

Satterfield added 14 transfers on defense, including seven defensive backs and a trio of pass rushers. The bones of the run defense are solid with tackle Dontay Corleone and linebacker Jack Dingle, but newcomers must make an immediate difference against the pass.

Corey Kiner rushed for 1,047 yards (5.5 per carry) and was among the nation’s leaders in averaging 3.5 yards per carry after contact. He’s back, as are the Bearcats’ top six linemen, led by guard Luke Kandra and center Gavin Gerhardt. But receiver Xzavier Henderson is the only familiar face in a passing game that could get a boost from receivers Tyrin Smith (UTEP) and Jamoi Mayes (Chattanooga) but needs a quarterback. Indiana transfer Brendan Sorsby appears likely to start; at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he looks the part, and he has decent mobility, but his Total QBR (57.6, 71st nationally) almost perfectly matched that of last year’s Cincy starter Emory Jones (57.9, 68th). Hopefully there’s room for growth there.

My favorite player: DT Dontay Corleone. I’m obviously a sucker for an active big man, and the 6-foot-1, 320-pound Cincinnati native qualifies. Corleone led the team in run stops (14) and was second in TFLs (6.5) and sacks (three). He also dropped into coverage three times and broke up a pass. He could be a star with a bit more support around him.

Head coach: Willie Fritz (first year)

2024 projection: 79th in SP+, 3.4 average wins (2.2 in Big 12)

He won two juco national titles at Blinn College. He engineered three top-20 finishes at Division II Central Missouri. He reached the FCS national title game twice with Sam Houston. He took over Georgia Southern as the Eagles were jumping to FBS and won 16 of his first 21 games. He took over a dire Tulane program and left it having won 23 of his last 27 games.

Willie Fritz wins. The 64-year-old finally got a shot at a power conference gig, and there’s no reason to think he won’t make the most of it. Eventually. In 2024, he inherits the remainders of what was, per SP+, the worst Houston team since the 0-11 team in 2001. Including jucos, he has brought in more than 30 transfers.

The offense will probably find traction first. Between incumbent Donovan Smith and Louisiana transfer Zeon Chriss, a good dual-threat QB should emerge, and holdover Joseph Manjack IV and transfers Devan Williams (Tulsa), Marquis Shoulders (Tulsa), Mekhi Mews (Georgia) and tight ends Maliq Carr (Michigan State) and Jayden York (Texas Tech) all averaged at least 1.9 yards per route, a solid average. The offensive line is replacing three starters and welcoming four transfers and two jucos, and the running backs have minimal experience, but upside at QB alone could produce solid results.

The defense is starting from scratch. Eighteen players saw at least 200 snaps, and only four return, but Fritz added 17 defensive transfers, plus two jucos, and a few of them — ends Keith Cooper (Tulane) and Gabe Peterson (NMSU), linebacker Kendre Gant (Louisiana), safeties Teagan Wilk (ECU) and Hershey McLaurin (WVU), corners Jeremiah Wilson (Syracuse) and Kriston Davis (Southern) — have track records for disruptive play. It might take coordinator Shiel Wood a little while to get things sorted out, though.

My favorite player: LB Kendre Gant. Maybe the two most exciting players on the roster were Ragin’ Cajuns in 2023. Quarterback Zeon Chriss averaged 7.9 yards per dropback and 8.4 yards per (non-sack) carry, and Gant was one of only three FBS defenders to combine 12 TFLs with 6 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 2023. Strangely, all three will play in the Big 12 this year. (The others: Oklahoma State’s Collin Oliver and Baylor-bound WKU safety Kendrick Simpkins.)

Head coach: Kenny Dillingham (second year, 3-9 overall)

2024 projection: 88th in SP+, 3.4 average wins (2.0 in Big 12)

For a moment, it looked like Arizona State’s hire of 63-year-old Herm Edwards, as shocking as it was at the time, might actually work out. He had been retired for a decade and hadn’t coached in college in nearly 30 years, but he engineered improvement for three straight years, and ASU won eight games in 2019 and 2021. But then the recruiting violation allegations began adding up, the transfers began filtering out, and everything disintegrated. Edwards was fired early in a 3-9 season in 2022 and was given an NCAA show cause months later.

He left a mess of an ASU roster. Even with replacement Kenny Dillingham landing blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada and finding some successful transfers like running back Cameron Skattebo, center Leif Fautanu, defensive linemen Dashaun Mallory and Prince Dorbah, linebacker Tate Romney and safety Shamari Simmons, the 2023 Sun Devils didn’t have nearly enough to offer. Last year was a total reset that, per SP+, produced ASU’s worst team since 1947.

After landing 31 transfers in 2023, Dillingham went for another 29 in 2024. That includes former blue-chippers in quarterbacks Jeff Sims (Nebraska) and Sam Leavitt (Michigan State), running back Raleek Brown (USC), receiver Malik McClain (Penn State), defensive tackle J’Mond Tapp (Texas), safeties Cole Martin (Oregon) and Kamari Wilson (Florida) and corner Laterrance Welch (LSU). They’ll mix with some of last year’s better performers — quarterback Trenton Bourguet, Skattebo, Fautanu, guard Cade Briggs, Dorbah, Romney, Simmons — to form … something. The Sun Devils almost can’t be worse than they were last year, and there does appear to be some upside here and there, but against a schedule that features seven top-50 opponents, ASU will have to improve a ton to reach a bowl. Last year was an extreme Year 0 for Dillingham, and this almost feels like a Year 0.5.

My favorite player: RG Cade Briggs. ASU ranked 22nd in blown run block rate and 59th in pressure rate allowed. For the Sun Devils, those were some extreme strengths. Center Leif Fautanu earned honorable mention All-Pac-12, but Briggs probably should have, too: He played right guard, left guard and left tackle and despite the variety — and despite ASU being his third school in three years — he committed only one penalty all year and allowed zero sacks. Damn.

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