Big 12 preview: The Oklahoma QB machine adds Jalen Hurts

Updated: July 17, 2019

Iowa State Cyclones

2018 record and rankings: 8-5 (No. 38 in SP+, No. 38 in FPI)
2019 SP+ projection: 6.6 wins (No. 43)
2019 FPI projection: 7.9 wins (No. 26)

Follow college football long enough, and you end up with a pretty rigid set of (mostly accurate) assumptions. Certain schools will be known for offense, others for defense. Certain programs will become regular jumping-off points for up-and-coming coaches and innovators, some will lean more conservative, and at the end of the day, only certain schools will be allowed to win long term.

These baked-in assumptions make concepts such as “Iowa State, bastion of defensive creativity and innovation” pretty hard to grasp. But here we are.

In just three seasons, head coach Matt Campbell, one of the most intriguing branches on the bountiful Mount Union coaching tree, has turned Iowa State into one of the most fascinating teams in the FBS.

It started on defense. Coordinator Jon Heacock — former Youngstown State head coach and Kent State and Toledo defensive coordinator — followed Campbell to Ames in 2016, and at ISU he’s been given free rein to get weird.

And during an early-2017 identity crisis, he found something that worked, landing on a three-man, odd-front attack — a 3-3-3 of sorts. It changed things almost instantly. The Cyclones allowed just 18.5 points per game over their final 11 games, then allowed just 20.4 per game in 2018 until late-season depth issues broke things down a bit.

Another midseason change might have altered the offense’s trajectory as well.

ISU averaged only 17.5 points per game during a 1-3 start last season, so Campbell handed the offense over to freshman quarterback Brock Purdy. Sudden youth movement with an eye toward future seasons? Nope! ISU averaged 30.9 points per game from that point forward, as Purdy completed 66% of his passes with a 169.9 passer rating.

Suddenly the offense wasn’t quite as reliant on a dreadfully inefficient run game. Purdy found high levels of efficiency passing to Hakeem Butler and slot receivers Deshaunte Jones and Tarique Martin.

Losing Butler might end up hurting more than losing star running back David Montgomery. Montgomery was one of the best tackle-breakers in the country, and as such he was picked in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, but ISU ranked just 83rd in rushing marginal efficiency. The Cyclones got the majority of their good production from the passing game, and Butler (22 yards per catch, 12.2 yards per target) was incredibly dangerous.

Montgomery and Butler are about all ISU loses, though. Purdy is back, as are six offensive linemen who have combined for 114 career starts. On defense, last year’s top five linemen, four of five linebackers and seven of 10 DBs are all back. If some combination of Jones, Milton, Arkansas transfer La’Michael Pettway, junior Landen Akers and some exciting redshirt freshmen can raise their respective games, the offense could remain dangerous despite having nothing proven at running back.

Defensively, the primary issue is depth. Only two of the top 10 tacklers in the secondary played in all 13 games, and the effect was obvious. Through eight games, ISU was allowing a 58% completion rate and a 122.8 passer rating. Last five games: 70% and 151.6, respectively. There’s more experience in the back now, and the pass rush could again be dangerous with the return of defensive end JaQuan Bailey, but it goes without saying that keeping your desired lineup on the field makes a huge difference.

If we have learned anything, though, it’s that Campbell, Heacock and offensive coordinator Tom Manning aren’t scared of making risky and creative choices with their personnel if they need to. And despite some question marks on offense and the aforementioned depth issues on D, FPI has given Iowa State the third-best odds of winning the Big 12 this year. If you’re struggling to grasp “Iowa State, bastion of defensive creativity,” then just wait until you maybe have to deal with “Iowa State, Big 12 title game participant.”

Texas Tech Red Raiders

2018 record and rankings: 5-7 (No. 37 SP+, No. 34 FPI)
2019 SP+ projection: 6.3 wins (No. 55)
2019 FPI projection: 6.6 wins (No. 45)

Kliff Kingsbury’s and Matt Wells’ most recent head-coaching tenures saw a lot of striking parallels.

Each took over as head coach of his respective alma mater (where each had quarterbacked) in 2013.

They both enjoyed immediate success. Kingsbury won his first seven games on the way to a first-year Holiday Bowl win, and Wells went 19-9 with two bowl wins and a division title in his first two.

Both dealt with downturns. After his 7-0 start, Kingsbury lost 13 of his next 18 games, then rounded into .500 form. Wells went from 10-4 in 2014 to 15-23 from 2015 to ’17. Kingsbury’s defense consistently tripped him up despite prolific offense, while Wells’ offense was Utah State’s primary culprit.

Another problem: close games. From 2013 to 2017, Wells was 5-15 in games decided by one possession and Kingsbury was 9-12.

Both got a sixth year in charge despite diminishing returns, and, with dynamic young QBs behind center, both improved on paper. With freshman Alan Bowman, Kingsbury’s Red Raiders jumped from 52nd in SP+ in 2017 to as high as 25th during a 5-2 start. And with sophomore Jordan Love, Wells’ Aggies jumped from 83rd in 2017 to as high as 21st.

The parallels stop there because Bowman got hurt — OK, he didn’t just get hurt, he suffered a recurring collapsed lung — and Love did not. USU narrowly fell at Michigan State and Boise State but rolled to 11-2. Texas Tech lost a pair of tight games to Iowa State and Oklahoma, then lost Bowman for the season. The Red Raiders still nearly beat Texas but fell flat in the last two games and finished 5-7.

At the end of 2018, Kingsbury got fired and Wells got promoted. Fickle business, this.

(Don’t feel too bad for Kingsbury, of course. His firing resulted in him … getting a promotion. He’s now an NFL head coach and can draft good defensive players instead of having to recruit them. He also got to draft long-coveted Kyler Murray after coming up short in recruiting him.)

Wells turned things around with Love and an old Big 12 offensive coordinator in former Missouri playcaller David Yost. After five straight years of ranking between 90th and 100th in offensive SP+, USU leaped to 22nd, and Yost followed Wells to Lubbock.

Yost should have fun with what he inherits. In parts of just eight games, Bowman completed 69% of his passes and threw for 2,638 yards. Despite losing leading receivers Antoine Wesley and Ja’Deion High, Tech still returns seniors RJ Turner and Seth Collins, junior T.J. Vasher and sophomore KeSean Carter in the receiving corps, and Wells added a Mountain West stud in Nevada transfer McLane Mannix.

The line features six guys with a combined 116 career starts (including all-conference guard Jack Anderson), and the run game could have a miniature thunder-and-lightning component with efficient sophomore Ta’Zhawn Henry (5-7, 170) and senior Utah transfer Armand Shyne (5-11, 210).

Defense was never the problem for Wells at USU, but it took a definitive step forward when he brought veteran coordinator Keith Patterson aboard in 2018. The Aggies jumped from 67th in defensive SP+ to 35th, due primarily to a hyperactive secondary.

Patterson has lots of success and failure on his résumé, which includes coordinator or co-coordinator stints at Tulsa, Pitt, WVU, and Arizona State. His first Tech defense will feature a mix of decent veterans (tackle Broderick Washington Jr., linebacker Jordyn Brooks, corner Damarcus Fields), returnees from injury (end Quentin Yontz, corners Octavious Morgan and Jaylon Lane), and pieces from the discard pile (Cal linebacker Evan Rambo, Penn State corner Zech McPhearson).

The corners have some aggressiveness potential, but the top three safeties are gone, so that aggressiveness could come with a price. But at least the bar is low — Wells’ worst USU defense was better than anything Tech produced in the past five years.

Kansas State Wildcats

2018 record and rankings: 5-7 (No. 78 SP+, No. 62 FPI)
2019 SP+ projection: 5.6 wins (No. 64)
2019 FPI projection: 5.3 wins (No. 57)

Chris Klieman is pretty good at succeeding a legend. The 51-year old Northern Iowa grad came to North Dakota State in 2011 and became Craig Bohl’s defensive coordinator the next year. During this period, the Bison went 43-2 and won their first, second and third FCS national titles. For good measure, they also beat FBS’ Minnesota, Colorado State and, yes, Kansas State.

When Bohl left for Wyoming, Klieman faced an almost impossible task: How in the world do you stand out when there’s no way to top what your predecessor did? He came as close as possible. NDSU beat Iowa State in 2014 and a ranked Iowa in 2016. Oh yeah, and the Bison went 69-6 and won four more national titles. Maybe he didn’t raise the standards in Fargo, but he definitely met them.

By comparison, his next task might be downright easy. After all, all he’s got to do now is succeed the only modern football coach to win at Kansas State.

No seriously, the only one.

Win percentage as Kansas State head coach (1946-present): Bill Snyder (320 games, .656 win percentage), Ron Prince (37 games, .459), Vince Gibson (85 games, .388), Bill Meek (39 games, .372), Jim Dickey (80 games, .313)

Ron Prince succeeded Bill Snyder the first time he retired and went 17-20 in three years at Kansas State. That was, in its own way, a rousing success.

Snyder was responsible for almost literally everything good that has happened to the KSU football brand. Two Big 12 titles and nine bowl wins? All his. Twelve consensus All-Americans? Eleven were his. He took walk-ons and a random smattering of blue-chippers and crafted a team that was smart, controlled and guaranteed to make fewer mistakes than you.

After a while, though, those walk-on-made-good stories seemed to add up a bit. Per ESPN, the best signing class of his last five seasons ranked 57th. Transfers were adding up. Eventually, attrition took its toll.

After willing KSU to at least bowl eligibility for every year since his return to coaching, Snyder’s 2018 team fell to 5-7. Eventually, the balance between winning with diamonds in the rough and cratering leaned more toward the latter. Even typically great close-game execution faltered — the Wildcats went 2-4 in one-possession finishes, with wins over only Kansas and South Dakota. It was a good time for the legend to go.

One assumes that Klieman will know how to navigate within the every-little-detail-counts culture that Snyder created. That’s basically what he oversaw in Fargo. Both of his coordinators boast extensive NDSU experience — offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham was his OC at NDSU for 2017-18 (he was also Iowa State’s OC for 2012-13), and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton was in the same role at NDSU before joining Bohl and completely turning around Wyoming’s defense in 2017. They both know what’s required of them and what it takes to build the culture Klieman wants to build.

Now we just have to wait and see how long it takes to turn KSU into NDSU South. Klieman won’t have to undergo a total youth movement if he doesn’t want to — he’s got veterans like junior quarterback Skylar Thompson, senior running backs James Gilbert and Jordon Brown (both transfers), senior receiver Dalton Schoen, three multiyear starters on the offensive line, and a defense that could start as many as nine or 10 juniors and seniors.

Still, the actual talent here is debatable. KSU ranked 78th in SP+ last year — the Wildcats weren’t a particularly unlucky 5-7 — and the best-case scenario is that youngsters begin to overtake upperclassmen as the 2019 season unfolds. But no matter how 2019 unfolds, the long-term prognosis involved with this hire makes a whole lot of sense.

Kansas Jayhawks

2018 record and rankings: 3-9 (No. 100 SP+, No. 80 FPI)
2019 SP+ projection: 2.6 wins (No. 107)
2019 FPI projection: 2.8 wins (No. 108)

Once upon a time, Les Miles was an amazing underdog coach. His drastically outmanned turn-of-the-century Oklahoma State teams upset rival Oklahoma twice in a row (2001 and 2002), and, during his heyday at LSU, his teams found themselves when doubted: the Tigers went 8-4-1 against the spread, with six outright wins, as an underdog from late 2008 through 2012. Putting Miles in a Kansas hat and asking him to go do wild, improbable things feels, in some way, right. The Mad Hatter going fully mad again.

Of course, there were times when Miles’ teams played much worse as an underdog, too. His last seven games as such at LSU, for instance, produced seven losses by an average of 18 points. By the end of his time in Baton Rouge, he was a coach with a game plan that worked when he had the talent advantage and didn’t when he didn’t.

He’s not going to have many talent advantages in Lawrence. SP+ projects that Kansas will win 2.6 games in Miles’ first season. FPI more optimistically projects 2.8.

Unlike another retread hire of sorts — new UNC coach Mack Brown, who brought in a tempo-and-space offensive coordinator (Phil Long) and one of college football’s more creative defensive coordinators (Jay Bateman) in an attempt to prove he has figured out how to stay with the times — Miles appears to be building a program with what he knows. He has handed the reins of his offense to Les Koenning, an experienced former OC at, most recently, Texas AM, South Alabama, Mississippi State and UAB.

Koenning was decent if frustrating at AM and MSU but left no positive impact at the smaller, more underdog schools. He generally attempts to establish the type of physical identity that Miles himself prefers, and that could make some semblance of sense with Pooka Williams back. The sophomore running back, and one of the few blue-chip signings of the David Beaty era, exploded for 1,414 combined rushing and receiving yards last year and proved semi-durable despite his 5-10, 170-pound stature. Williams was accused of domestic battery last winter, signed a diversion agreement to avoid conviction, and eventually received a mere one-game suspension.