Projecting the 2024 Big 12 conference race: Utah is the pick, with Kansas and Oklahoma State not far behind

Projecting the 2024 Big 12 conference race: Utah is the pick, with Kansas and Oklahoma State not far behind

The new era of Big 12 football stands in stark contrast to the state-of-play elsewhere.

Whereas the other power conferences possess a handful of bluebloods expected to dominate their territory in 2024 — as they dominate every year — the Big 12’s membership overhaul has created unprecedented balance across its sweeping footprint.

By every identifiable measure, from tradition and resources to recruiting prowess and TV ratings, the distance from first place to last isn’t nearly as great as in the Big Ten, SEC and even the ACC.

The absence of elite programs is problematic on several levels — political leverage in playoff discussions being just one — but it sets the stage for first-rate competition during the season and makes projecting the conference race deliciously tricky.

We have not picked ties in the forecast below. The Hotline never picks ties. But there will be ties. Two-team ties. Three-team ties. Myriad-team ties.

Of that, we can be sure.

For now, we have examined the rosters, the schedules and the coaching staffs and sketched an order of finish for 2024.

Please note: The projections will be revised in the late spring, after the second transfer window.

Here we go …

1. Utah

2023 record: 8-5/5-4 Pac-12
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (20th season)
Top returnees: QB Cam Rising, LB Lander Barton
Key newcomers: WR Dorian Singer (USC), CB Kenan Johnson (Georgia Tech)
Comment: Our forecast assumes the Utes experience a reversion to the mean with injuries after getting walloped last season. They have an elite quarterback in Rising, whose career began in the Big 12 (at Texas in 2018), and should possess one of the top defenses in the conference with Barton and outside linebacker Karene Reid as the ringleaders. The 2021-22 Pac-12 champs will make it three titles in four seasons — and the 2024 will come with Utah’s first playoff berth.

2. Kansas

2023 record: 9-4/5-4 Big 12
Coach: Lance Leipold (fourth season)
Top returnees: QB Jalon Daniels, CB Cobee Bryant
Key newcomers: TE DeShawn Hanika (Iowa State), DE Dylan Wudke (Youngstown State)
Comment: The most impactful newcomer in Lawrence is not a player; he’s offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who should team with Daniels (assuming his back injury has healed) to provide the foundation for a first-rate attack. We expect the improvement on defense to continue — KU was 76th in yards allowed per play last season, compared to 116th in 2022 — and allow the Jayhawks to play complementary football.

3. Oklahoma State

2023 record: 10-4/7-2 Big 12
Coach: Mike Gundy (20th season)
Top returnees: TB Ollie Gordon, DE Xavier Ross
Key newcomers: TB A.J. Green (Arkansas), S Kobe Hylton (UTEP)
Comment: We considered the Cowboys for the top spot given their long list of offensive returnees — a group that includes Gordon, the entire line and veteran quarterback Alan Bowman. But is the defense up to the task? Is second-year coordinator Bryan Nardo the right fit in Stillwater? We aren’t convinced. OSU simply doesn’t have the balance needed to finish on top of a conference that has so few weak links.

4. Arizona

2023 record: 10-3/7-2 Pac-12
Coach: Brent Brennan (first season)
Top returnees: QB Noah Fifita, LB Jacob Manu
Key newcomers: TB Jacory Croskey-Merritt (New Mexico), DE Tre Smith (San Jose State)
Comment: The Wildcats are a trendy pick to win the Big 12 based on their 2023 success and Fifita’s return (along with star wideout Tetairoa McMillan). But we see several obstacles. Brennan was the right hire, but the staff turnover could impact cohesion. Also, the Wildcats can no longer lean into the underdog role. How will they handle the expectations? The regression will play out on the margins, but that’s all it takes.

5. Kansas State

2023 record: 9-4/6-3 Big 12
Coach: Chris Klieman (sixth season)
Top returnees: QB Avery Johnson, DE Brendan Mott
Key newcomers: WR Dante Cephas (Penn State), S Jordan Riley (Ball State)
Comment: Quarterback Will Howard’s departure (to Ohio State) creates an opportunity for Johnson, but his lack of experience (66 career pass attempts) gives us pause. That pause is extended when we consider the attrition on the offensive line: Will the Wildcats muster enough consistency and avoid racking up damaging negative-yardage plays? It’s not like the defense is a slab of granite, either. The unit was solid last season and should be again in 2024. But solid might not be enough to compete for the title.

6. West Virginia

2023 record: 9-4/6-3 Big 12
Coach: Neal Brown (sixth season)
Top returnees: QB Garrett Greene, LB Tyrin Bradley
Key newcomers: WR Jaden Bray (Oklahoma State), DB Garnett Hollis Jr. (Northwestern)
Comment: Brown climbed off the hot seat and conjured nine wins out of a roster picked for last place in the 2023 preseason media poll. Expectations are substantially higher in 2024; meeting them will be challenging. Greene’s return helps immensely, but the defense looks wobbly. Also, the Mountaineers open conference play with five grueling games in succession. Will they have anything left for November?

7. Colorado

2023 record: 4-8/1-8 Pac-12
Coach: Deion Sanders (second season)
Top returnees: QB Shedeur Sanders, CB Travis Hunter
Key newcomers: OL Justin Mayers (UTEP), DL BJ Green (Arizona State)
Comment: The Buffaloes weren’t as good as they looked at the start of 2023 or as bad as they looked in October and November. They were a vastly improved team that was still below average. In 2024, we expect them to take another step thanks to Shedeur Sanders, Hunter and upgrades on the lines of scrimmage. (They once again turned to the portal for help.) The schedule is extremely difficult, but don’t count out a bowl berth.

8. Iowa State

2023 record: 7-6/6-3 Big 12
Coach: Matt Campbell (ninth season)
Top returnees: QB Rocco Becht, DB Jeremiah Cooper
Key newcomers: OL Dylan Barrett (Wisconsin), DE Kenard Snyder (Louisiana Monroe)
Comment: As opposed to so many of their peers, the Cyclones enter the Big 12’s next era with more questions on offense than defense. They allowed just 5.2 yards per play last season and have enough returnees to maintain that level of efficiency. Success hinges on the offensive line giving Becht time to throw and tailback Abu Sama III room to run.

9. TCU

2023 record: 5-7/3-6 Big 12
Coach: Sonny Dykes (third season)
Top returnees: QB Josh Hoover, LB Namdi Obiazor
Key newcomers: OL Cade Bennett (San Diego State), CB JaTravis Broughton (Utah)
Comment: The most significant addition, in our view, is Andy Avalos, a superb defensive coordinator (at Oregon) who was terminated as Boise State’s head coach last season. If Avalos has the expected impact and Hoover makes the expected improvement, the Frogs should regain lost ground — not all, but some. Eight wins is the benchmark for Dykes and Co. on an annual basis.

10. Texas Tech

2023 record: 7-6/5-4 Big 12
Coach: Joey McGuire (third season)
Top returnees: QB Behren Morton, DB C.J. Baskerville
Key newcomers: WR Josh Kelly (Washington State), DL De’Braylon Carroll (Rice)
Comment: The Red Raiders are in the group of mid-level Big 12 programs that stand to lose ground competitively in the aftermath of conference expansion, with their trajectory in 2024 as the first piece of evidence. The drop won’t be steep — McGuire’s group should avoid the bottom tier — but Texas Tech doesn’t have a single outstanding unit that it can lean into for salvation.

11. Cincinnati

2023 record: 3-9/1-8 Big 12
Coach: Scott Satterfield (second season)
Top returnees: OL Luke Kandra, DT Dontay Corleone
Key newcomers: QB Brendan Sorsby (Indiana), DE Mikah Coleman (Eastern Michigan)
Comment: The Bearcats stand as our Big 12 sleeper pick for 2024 — not that we expect them to contend for the title, but they should be dramatically improved with the addition of Sorsby and the return of the entire starting offensive line. The defense should be fairly stout, as well. Also, the Bearcats will benefit immensely from low expectations. Our only hesitation with this projection, frankly, is that it’s too low.

12. UCF

2023 record: 6-7/3-6 Big 12
Coach: Gus Malzahn (fourth season)
Top returnees: WR Kobe Hudson, DT Ricky Barber
Key newcomers: QB KJ Jefferson (Arkansas), LB Jesiah Pierre (Texas Tech)
Comment: The Knights only won three conference games in their inaugural season in the Big 12, but that was more than any of the other newcomers. We don’t foresee much of an uptick in ’24 with a difficult schedule and uncertainty at quarterback. Jefferson wasn’t consistent enough at Arkansas to suggest he can lead UCF to a top-tier finish in the Big 12.

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13. Brigham Young

2023 record: 5-7/2-7 Big 12
Coach: Kalani Sitake (ninth season)
Top returnees: QB Jake Retzlaff, DE Tyler Batty
Key newcomers: QB Gerry Bohanon (Baylor), DE Jack Kelly (Weber State)
Comment: The Cougars are the only team in our projections with quarterbacks listed in both the returning player and newcomer categories, which reflects the uncertain state of the position specifically and BYU’s tenuous footing in the 2024 race broadly. The defense is also a concern after yielding 177.7 yards per game on the ground — and a whopping 4.9 yards per carry — last season.

14. Arizona State

2023 record: 3-9/2-7 Pac-12
Coach: Kenny Dillingham (second season)
Top returnees: QB Jaden Rashada, S Shamari Simmons
Key newcomers: RB Raleek Brown (USC), S Kamari Wilson (Florida)
Comment: The Sun Devils were competitive last season (until the final weeks, at least), and that should be the case again in 2024. The degree of material improvement, however, is difficult to predict because of all the roster and staff turnover sustained in the past 15 months, plus the unresolved NCAA investigation. Three conference wins would constitute a successful season, while final judgment on the Dillingham era must wait until 2025.

15. Baylor

2023 record: 3-9/2-7 Big 12
Coach: Dave Aranda (fifth season)
Top returnees: WR Monaray Baldwin, CB Caden Jenkins
Key newcomers: WR Jamaal Bell (Nevada), DE Steve Linton (Texas Tech)
Comment: The situation in Waco, which was plenty bleak at the close of a disappointing season, turned downright grim in early December when quarterback Blake Shapen transferred to Mississippi State. His departure left the Bears with a massive void. If Aranda doesn’t find a solution and produce a significant course correction, he might be out of work by December.

16. Houston

2023 record: 4-8/2-7 Big 12
Coach: Willie Fritz (first season)
Top returnees: QB Donovan Smith, CB Isaiah Hamilton
Key newcomers: WR Mekhi Mews (Georgia), DB Hershey McLaurin (West Virginia)
Comment: The Cougars made one of the smartest hires of the offseason, for Fritz was the architect of Tulane’s rise to prominence. He will have more resources to work with in Houston, along with tougher competition. We expect immediate progress, but with a difficult schedule, the Cougars might not produce a record that reflects their improvement.

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