Preseason Tier List: Sorting Out Big 12 Football Contenders in 2023

The Big 12 isn’t short on parity with six different teams playing for a conference title the past three seasons, and 2023 looks to be more of the same.

The deep league got even deeper with the additions of UCF, Houston, BYU and Cincinnati, and though the league might be missing a true bell cow this season, the coin-flip nature of every Saturday looks like it’ll be a lot of fun. So, I thought it’d be nice to make a preseason tier list of the Big 12’s 14 schools heading into the year.

Preseason Contenders: Kansas State, Texas

Although the Big 12 is deep this year, the top isn’t as strong as it has been in previous seasons (at least, that’s how it feels here in July). Kansas State and Texas should be the favorites to make it to the Big 12 title game. I’m very much in the camp of “I’ll believe it when I see it” when it comes to the Longhorns being back, so I’d still give a slight edge to K-State.

But in a world where Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor are all coming off down years and where TCU lost a ton after its magical run, give me the Wildcats and Longhorns.

Will Howard has bided his time in Manhattan and has put in some good performances while stepping in for injured starters. Look no further than him torching Oklahoma State for 296 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions last season. Plus, he just seems like the prototypical K-State quarterback who might not be the flashiest but just grinds teams into submission.

Texas’ ascension to the top, to me, has to do with the rest of the league being a little down. It finally feels like the Big 12 is in a spot where Texas’ talent could overpower some teams trying to get back on track.

Are They Ready?: Texas Tech, Kansas, TCU, Oklahoma

The Red Raiders have more hype around them this season than they have since Mike Leach was swinging his sword in Lubbock, but is that hype justified? I think Tech undoubtedly took a step forward in 2022, winning eight games for the first time since 2013. With that being said, Tech went to double-OT with Houston and got drummed by a down Baylor team. Joey McGuire is recruiting great, but I think the Red Raiders still might be a year or two out from contending.

Kansas football — once a laughing stock, now a game opposing fans don’t want to see on their schedule. In Year 2, Lance Leipold made the Jayhawks bowl eligible for the first time since 2008. Rock Chalk also has perhaps the most exciting backfield duo in the conference in quarterback Jalon Daniels and Devin Neal. Surely KU won’t contend for a spot in Arlington, right? Right?

I get that Oklahoma has talent that (outside of Texas) the rest of the league doesn’t have. But is a team that went 6-7 last year and had a two-week stretch of losing two games by a combined score of 104-24 really going to jump right back up to competing for a conference title? That’s a legitimate question because I have no idea.

Lastly TCU’s questions revolve around all the Horned Frogs lost. Year 1 of the Sonny Dykes era was magical. He brought the most out of guys like Max Duggan, but he’ll need to do something similar with his 2023 roster to get back to Arlington.

Teams That Will Scrap Every Saturday: Oklahoma State, Baylor, UCF

I don’t think any team is looking forward to playing one of these three teams. Not because they’re the most talented but because you know that any of the three will go full Dan Campbell and bite a kneecap off if it comes to it.

Oklahoma State was uncompetitive at times last season, but I wouldn’t anticipate a Mike Gundy-coached team to stay down. The Cowboys made moves in the portal, tweaked some offensive schemes and overhauled the defense with a classic Gundy hire in Bryan Nardo. This might not be the greatest year in OSU football history, but I expect the Pokes to put up a fight every weekend, which should be a lot of fun to follow.

Baylor is in a similar spot to the Cowboys. After a stellar 2021 campaign, the Bears got punched in the mouth in 2022. Any time your season ends in a blizzard loss to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl a year removed from winning the Sugar Bowl, things went a little sideways. If Blake Shapen can return to the player he was in the first half of the 2021 Big 12 Championship game, the Bears will be just fine. Even if he can’t I think Dave Aranda and Co. will figure enough out to fight every week.

Among all the newcomers, UCF seems the most ready to make a splash at the Power Five level. Whether it’s the bat-poop crazy Twitter mafia, the former SEC head coach or the fact that they have an entire talent-rich state to themselves in the Big 12, traveling to the Bounce House won’t be fun place to go for opposing teams in 2023.

Could Upset Some Teams: BYU, West Virginia, Houston

I don’t think any of these three are going to be a real threat to get to Arlington this season, but I do think all three will bite a team that doesn’t take them seriously.

LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo is going to be a madhouse this year with the Cougars at long last in the Power Five. That mixed with Mormon missions perhaps leading to an older roster makes me think BYU could be on track for bowl eligibility in Year 1. Games in particular I would watch out for are Texas Tech’s trip to Provo a week after the Red Raiders host K-State, and Oklahoma’s trip to Provo on Nov. 18.

I think it’s a little wild that West Virginia was picked last in a conference with four newcomers. The Mountaineers haven’t won more than six games since 2018, but they seemed to figure a few things out toward the end of last season, beating OU and OSU in November. Neal Brown’s seat is as hot as Randy Rutherford’s jumper, but Texas Tech, BYU, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati all have to go to Morgantown this season, and WVU also plays newcomers UCF and Houston. I don’t know whether it’ll be enough to save Brown’s job, but I don’t think the Mountaineers will finish last.

I have less faith in Houston, but any game the Cougars play against a Texas school this season could be must-see TV. The Cougars host Texas on Oct. 21 in what will be the teams’ first meeting since 2002. I fully expect Dana to Stone Cold Steve Austin a couple of Red Bulls at some point during that game. The Texas Tech game on Sept. 30 also ought to be a lot of fun after Tech beat the Cougars in double-OT last season. Plus, I expect Tech transfer Donovan Smith to start at quarterback for the Cougars.

At a Crossroads: Iowa State, Cincinnati

I have no idea what to make of Iowa State or Cincinnati.

At one point Matt Campbell’s stock was soaring, and I still think he is one of the best coaches ISU’s history. But the last two years have been … weird? First off in 2021 the Cyclones had Brock Purdy and Breese Hall, two NFL starters as rookies, and went 7-6. Like, what? People think OSU’s 2017 season (the last of the Rudolph era) was disappointing, but the Cowboys at least went 10-3.

Then last season was Campbell’s worst since his first year, with ISU going 4-8. So I don’t know what to make of the Cyclones. After being a team on the rise that made the Big 12 Championship in 2020, the Cyclones have fallen hard.

As for Cincy, the pomp and circumstance of the Bearcats joining the Big 12 sort of got its legs swept out from under it when Luke Fickell jumped ship to Wisconsin. In comes Scott Satterfield who was successful at Appalachian State, but taking over a steady build into a new conference seems like a tough task.