FRISCO, Texas — Big 12 Media Days wrapped up on Tuesday at the Ford Center as Texas, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia all took center stage for day two of the league’s annual mid-summer gathering.
TCU coaches and players may not have been on the scene for the second day of press conferences and more, but with round robin-format in the Big 12, every team has relevance for the Horned Frogs. It wasn’t uncommon to hear Gary Patterson’s name brought to the table, including some praise from Baylor head coach Matt Rhule early on.
But with Media Days behind us, the countdown to Week 1 is now officially on. Here are some storylines worth noting as players and coaches make their way out of Frisco and ramp up the preparations for the 2018 season.
Big 12 quarterbacks eager to face the TCU defense
With offense holding its place as the name of the game, defense has often been regarded as “optional” in the Big 12. Of course, that’s hardly the case at TCU with the brilliant defensive schemes Patterson has utilized over the years.
Going up against the TCU defense can be a daunting task for any opponent. But several players on Tuesday voiced excitement about getting another crack at it against the unit that has set the benchmark in the Big 12. Among them: Kansas State quarterback Alex Delton and Heisman-hopeful West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. Both the Wildcats and Mountaineers suffered defeats vs. the Horned Frogs in 2017, though West Virginia made it a fight up until the end before falling 31-24.
“This is a strong league, but TCU in particular — Gary Patterson — is known for [defense],” Grier said. “It was a fun game. They’re challenging. They make you play hard and earn every yard. I enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to playing them again this year.”
West Virginia only mustered 3 points in the first half of that contest, but the Mountaineers offense found a groove with 21 points in the second half — including two long touchdown passes. Grier finished the day with 366 yards through the air.
Delton, who made his first-career start during the 26-6 loss to TCU in Manhattan, Kan. one week after West Virginia fell victim to TCU, said he was “thankful” for the lopsided defeat in hindsight.
“Coach Patterson got after us and whooped our butts — schematically and all-around,” Delton said. “There’s not much you can do about it besides taking the loss and moving on, but I learned a lot and I’m thankful for that game. It was the foundation of my playing career.”
Case in point, Delton exploded for 286 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns one week later as he nearly led the Wildcats to an upset of eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma. An injury vs. Texas Tech, however, would eventually stifle his mid-season momentum.
Running back dominance in the near future?
Is is time for the backfield to take center stage in the Big 12? There’s no guarantees, but there are certainly hints that we could be heading in that direction.
The Big 12 has been known for having no shortage of prolific passers in recent years, but with Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph now off to the NFL, Grier is the lone quarterback in the league that falls in the caliber. Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer could be on his way to joining those ranks, but has yet to play a full season. And many of the newer faces — Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray among them — have been touted for their abilities on the ground above all else.
As all of that unfolds, the depth at running back only appears to be improving across the league. Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson is looking to improve on a breakout 2017 season that saw him rush for 201 yards in the Rose Bowl vs Georgia. Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill has been labeled a dark-horse Heisman candidate by some experts after emerging as a workhorse in Stillwater. And TCU’s two-headed monster of Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua is poised to create headaches for defenders once again.
Hill, for one, is excited about the potential changing of the guard after rushing for 1,467 yards in 2017.
“I like it. I want this conference to be known as a balanced conference for playmakers,” Hill said. “If everybody out here is running the ball, that’s good for me and good for the conference. Everyone is still going to make plays and it will make the Big 12 look versatile.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, however, doesn’t see a transition. Rather, he thinks existing success in the backfield has been overshadowed by the publicity quarterbacks receive.
“We know in this league, and I think some people outside of it don’t realize, that we run the football,” Gundy said. “Kliff is from the history of the Mike Leach family where the run was somewhat non-existent, and he wants to run the ball. Dana wants to run the ball. Oklahoma wants to run the ball. We want to run the ball.”
Transition or not, the Big 12 seems poised to make some more noise on the ground this season than many may be accustomed to.
The questions haven’t gone away at Texas
While Texas coach Tom Herman said his players are now largely bought in to the vision of the team rather than simply being “compliant,” there is still no shortage of unknowns on the Forty Acres as the 2018 season creeps closer and closer. Exiting media days, Herman has still yet to name a starting quarterback between Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele, and the second-year head coach seemed nothing short of stumped when asked to estimate how many elite, championship-caliber players he has on the roster before finally offering his opinion.
“I do think we have some and I think every coach that sits up here would tell you not enough,” Herman said. “I do think we’re getting closer and closer to those elite programs in terms of the necessary elite championship caliber talent.”
Once again, the Longhorns get two Power 5 matchups in non-conference play in the forms of Maryland and USC. After the duel with the Trojans in Week 3, they’ll be thrown immediately into their Big 12 opener vs. TCU in Austin. By the end of September, it should be clear whether or not Texas is “back” for real this time.
But could Baylor actually make a leap forward?
Just up the interstate from Austin, Baylor coach Matt Rhule is carrying a whole load of optimism after going 1-11 with the Bears in his debut season. Of course, the 2017 campaign in Waco was hardly an appropriate sample given the lack of depth on the roster, and Rhule remarked that the is “lightyears” ahead of the level it was at last July.
“Obviously the first year was not what we wanted and we’re looking forward to moving into year two,” Rhule said. “The players have worked extremely hard and right now we’re at a point where we have to learn how to win. We’re a year older and a year more mature.”
The progress isn’t limited to gamedays either. With all that Baylor has endured in the last two years, earning the respect of the public has been at the forefront of Rhule and his entire coaching staff.
“The biggest thing I want people to know is that everyone is making sure this not a clean program, but a pristine program in terms of the way we handle everything,” Rhule said. “In regards to football, everyone is to the point of ‘this is what we’re doing and we’re all in.’ And that comes from adversity like we faced last season.”
If there’s any guarantees, expect the Bears to be winning far more than a single game this year. ESPN’s FPI projections have Baylor at approximately 6 wins, and while it may be generous, it’s not unfathomable. It may not seem intuitive, but teams simply can’t walk into matchups with the Bears expecting a cupcake this time around.