MORGANTOWN — The Big 12’s coaches, top players and media gather deep in the heart of Texas on Monday and Tuesday to probe, dissect and analyze the upcoming football season in what has become a summer ritual known as Media Day.
What makes this year intriguing, however, is that this football season is something of a journey into the unknown. There is instability in a league which previously offered the stability of such things as Oklahoma’s dominance, a roster of high class Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks, the steady hand of Bill Snyder’s guidance at Kansas State, an absence of defense, and Kansas having a guaranteed spot in the cellar.
So, what are the key areas for the media to explore as it goes through this yearly exercise before the final football season of the 2010s?
1. How will WVU, Kansas State handle coaching transitions?
This is the question closest to those who live and breathe West Virginia. This season, the Mountaineers have undergone transitions in the form of the departure of Dana Holgorsen at the helm and Neal Brown taking the top job.
While this hardly matches the change a couple of years back when Bob Stoops, who had dominated the Big 12 at Oklahoma, stepped aside to make way for Lincoln Riley, a transition that somehow was made without the Sooners missing a beat, the head coaching change has a major impact on an area where football is looked upon less as a sport, recreation or pastime and more the place where a poor, often ridiculed state draws much of its pride.
Brown has work ahead of him, and he knows it. He has been picked to finish No. 8 in the conference, has huge voids to fill at the quarterback and wide receiver positions in a league where those are the primary positions, and he has to prove himself to be as effective a coach at a Power 5 school as he was at Troy.
Nationally, the transition at Kansas State — where Snyder twice took the program from the basement to the penthouse while establishing a reputation for doing things the right way — is a bigger story as Charlie Kleiman comes in riding a wave of success at North Dakota State. Across Kansas, there is a major media draw, where baseball is king, as the Jayhawks decided to take a chance on rebuilding its ramshackle program with Les Miles, a name from the past.
Miles won the national championship at LSU, but that was back when most of his players just beginning grade school. How he will do having tasted the champagne of success having to settle on a $6 bottle of sparkling wine while building a program from near scratch is going to be a year-long story.
The other new coach in the league has to wonder what he’s gotten himself into. Matt Wells replaces Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, a coach who wasn’t good enough to keep coaching the Red Raiders and got himself fired and was hired as an NFL head coach.
2. Who will reign supreme in the Red River Rivalry?
The second area that will be probed leads right into the heartbeat of the Big 12 Conference, for if anything defines Big 12 football it is the Red River Rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas: the two teams with the richest football traditions.
Simply put, the Sooners have dominated the league recently, while Texas slid onto the fringes of the big time, much to the detriment of the Big 12’s reputation. This season, while Oklahoma remains a heavy favorite, it does so without such luminaries as Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, and Texas seems ready to return to the top under Tom Herman.
This year, it is Texas with the featured quarterback in the league in Sam Ehlinger, the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. He is a good one, a playmaker, but has not shown himself to be of superstar stature and therefore it is unknown how he will hold up under the glare of the publicity that is about to come rushing his way.
At the same time, Oklahoma will rely on Jalen Hurts, a humble quiet quarterback who already has stood in the spotlight as a winner of 26 of 28 starts at Alabama. Hurts could really rise up working with Riley, the nation’s best quarterback coach.
3. Should we be looking at Iowa State as the rising power in the Big 12?
It’s hard to imagine that the school in Ames, Iowa, could displace college football showcases like Austin and Norman. Matt Campbell, however, may just be the right coach in the right place.
He fits Iowa State with his approach to the game the way that old pair of comfortable tennis shoes fit you. It’s as though he was made to coach the Cyclones: tough, ground oriented, disciplined.
He is Midwestern and Iowan as corn on the cob, sort of like how Don Nehlen fit West Virginia.
And, Campbell may be there a while, for he just got an extension through 2024. If he does have the success that may be awaiting him this year, those top line programs are going to be knocking on his door offering creamed corn.
4. Are we going to see a return of the running game in Big 12 football?
The league had become an aerial circus and has had quarterbacks win each of the last two Heisman Trophies. But, there are indications that the quarterback and receiver play just isn’t there through the league as it has been the past few years, which could mean that the stars of the conference may well wind up being running backs.
Certainly, West Virginia has a stable full of horses eager to carry the ball in Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield, while Kansas may have the most dynamic RB in sophomore Pooka Williams Jr., who was just reinstated after a seven-month suspension.
Williams gained 1,125 yards as a freshman and had 33 pass receptions. With Miles calling the plays now, those numbers could go quite a bit higher.
Oklahoma, of course, is never without potential NFL running backs and the league’s other ball-toting Kennedy — Kennedy Brooks — will build on the 1,056 yards and 12 touchdowns he had last year as he again shares time with Trey Sermon. Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State no longer lingers in the shadow of Justice Hill, and when he contributed three 100-yard games while Hill was healing from a rib injury, Hubbard showed he was ready to be the featured back.
5. Will there be conference expansion?
We know, they keep saying there will be no expansion in the Big 12 and that they like a regular season where teams play everyone once and then have a championship game, but two more teams would allow divisions.
That means there could be two races to reach the championship game and the possibility of it not being a rematch.
It just makes sense, if they can find the right two teams (maybe Holgorsen’s Houston team and Cincinnati. Just thinking).
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.