The 2022 Big 12 season ranks among the most competitive in the history of the league as all 10 members had a puncher's chance at bowl eligibility. The league didn't have a single team ranked below average in SP+, with West Virginia ranking as the only team outside of the top 60. Even Iowa State, which finished a paltry 4-8, rated higher than the Purdue team that earned a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
However, the pathway is about to get even harder as the Big 12 expands to 14 teams for the first time in its history. BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF enter their lone year of overlap with Texas and Oklahoma, making for an incredibly unique campaign. Those four programs have each reached New Year's Six bowls and posted 10-win seasons in recent memory, which should only up the level of competition in 2023.
The Big 12 has produced a new conference title game participant every season since its return in 2017, and its more underrated teams consistently work their way up the polls. With that in mind, here's one question every team in the conference has to answer to push their way into that conversation for the 2023 season.
Do the Bears have difference-makers at WR? Blake Shapen earned his share of criticism in his first year as the starting quarterback, and he faces a potential battle against transfer Sawyer Robinson. But while Shapen needs to improve, his receiving room didn't do him many favors. There was not a single receiver on the roster who posted more than 33 catches, and only one returning wideout reached even 400 yards receiving.
Monaray Baldwin showed some special traits as a de facto WR1, but his diminutive size and injury history limits his reliability. Auburn transfer Hal Pressley was underwhelming in his first major action, though early reviews from spring are strong. The Bears added Arkansas transfer Ketron Jackson to the mix to get another big-bodied receiver to make the game easier for the quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes runs the tight end room, and the Bears have some weapons in senior Drake Dabney and transfer Jake Roberts to grow in the intermediate game. For Baylor's offense to hit another level, the receivers have to be downfield weapons, too.
Can Jay Hill quickly flip the BYU defense? After a disappointing 2022 campaign, coach Kalani Sitake wasted no time reaching back into his past and snatching an accomplished defensive coordinator who also sprouted from the Kyle Whittingham tree. Jay Hill came to BYU after a successful stint as the coach at FCS Weber State and leaves as the winningest coach in program history with five top-10 finishes in the past six years.
Now, Hill has work cut out reimagining a defense that gave up more than 400 yards and 29 points per game. BYU went transfer-heavy to prepare for their move into the Big 12, adding Hill protégé Eddie Heckard from Weber State at cornerback and two transfers from rival Southern Utah. Hill described his defense as "complicated," so BYU can't waste a second in spring ball.
What does a Scott Satterfield program look like? Once upon a time, Scott Satterfield was one of the savviest coaches in college football. Satterfield took over a successful Appalachian State program and successfully transitioned the Mountaineers from the FCS to the Sun Belt with three straight conference titles. However, his Louisville tenure was utterly unspectacular, and he was unceremoniously pushed out of town in favor of Jeff Brohm.
Lucky for him, Satterfield landed at one of the healthiest programs in the sport and now is tasked again with transitioning a program upward. Satterfield helped build the Appalachian State machine in Boone, but there were few pieces of DNA that seemed to travel with him to Louisville. Satterfield will need to use this time to create a full-scale vision of success if Cincinnati wants to keep its winning ways alive.
Can Donovan Smith settle the QB position? Quarterback Clayton Tune locked down the position at an elite level for multiple years, but the quarterback recruiting and development behind him has been decidedly lacking. The Cougars lost scholarship quarterbacks Maddox Kopp and Sofian Massoud before the 2022 season and added unproven Arkansas transfer Lucas Coley as a potential developmental prospect. He threw only three passes for 8 yards.
With that backdrop, Houston added Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith to save the quarterback room. Smith threw for 2,686 yards and 19 touchdowns over the past two seasons in a reserve role, but also has struggled with turnovers and inconsistency. Coley is the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster in spring camp. Georgian high school prospect Caleb McMickle arrives this summer, but he primarily had FCS offers. If the Smith gamble doesn't work out, there's no obvious escape hatch.
Do the Cyclones have offensive playmakers? John Heacock's defense was perhaps the Big 12's best in 2022, but the offense was so painful that it didn't matter. The Cyclones ranked last in the conference in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense, and only ranked in the top half of passing offenses because quarterback Hunter Dekkers threw the third-most passes in the conference to try to bail out the unit.
All-world receiver Xavier Hutchinson is gone, leaving an underwhelming group of weapons. Jaylin Noel should step into a bigger role with Hutchinson gone, but no other receiver had more than 400 yards receiving. Jirehl Brock also needs to be more consistent and healthy at running back to give the offense another dimension. Iowa State added speedy running back transfer Arlen Harris from Stanford to bring some depth, and every bit is needed.
Does QB Jalon Daniels have another leap in him? The leap Daniels took between his second and third season was legitimately unbelievable. The Lawndale, California, native showed flashes early in his career, but he led Kansas to a 5-0 start and ranked as the national leader in QBR before suffering a major shoulder injury that knocked him out for half the season. He still showed flashes after his return, but never recaptured the start.
Daniels jumped from 4.7 to 7.3 to 8.8 yards per attempt over his first three seasons. His yards per carry increased from 0.3 to 2.5 to 5.4 over the same time period. The talent is there for Daniels to legitimately compete to be one of the best overall quarterbacks in the nation in Lance Leipold's creative offense. Is Year 3 the moment he takes that superstar leap?
Where do the Wildcats find a running game? Kansas State put together one of the greatest seasons in program history to capture a Big 12 title and earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl. But now, coach Chris Klieman is charged with replacing one of the nation's top rushing attacks with both running back Deuce Vaughn and dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez off to the next level.
Sophomore DJ Giddens will get first crack at workhorse responsibilities. Unlike the snack-sized Vaughn, Giddens boasts a robust 6-foot-1, 212-pound frame. The Wildcats also added another speedy back in Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward, who has just under 1,200 yards in his past two seasons. Quarterback Will Howard ran more liberally earlier in his career, but offensive coordinator Collin Klein protected him far more in 2022. The Wildcats also have fellow top recruits Jake Rubley and Avery Johnson as potential athletic quarterbacks to provide a change of pace.
Can transfers fix the defense? Sooners coach Brent Venables leaned heavily on the transfer portal in his first season, ultimately flipping 40% of the roster. Results were decidedly disastrous as Oklahoma went 6-7, its worst record since 1998, the year before Bob Stoops took over. The defense was perhaps the worst of Venables' career, too, finishing No. 122 in total defense behind FIU, Louisiana-Monroe and Hawaii.
Oklahoma brought in an elite defensive recruiting class, finishing No. 4 in the high school composite rankings, but it will once again rely on transfers to fill major holes. Two defenders -- safety Reggie Pearson and defensive lineman Trace Ford -- come from Big 12 opponents (Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, respectively). Defensive lineman Davon Sears moves up from Texas State, while linebacker Dasan McCullough ranked as one of the best players in the portal. Oklahoma finished bottom-30 nationally in both rushing and passing defense despite ranking among the league leaders in both interceptions and sacks. Havoc plays won't save Oklahoma; the Sooners need a full-scale upgrade.
Can transfers save the offense? Both Oklahoma schools are betting their life savings on transfers this offseason. The Cowboys lost an embarrassing collection of talent to the transfer portal after the program opted to retain offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn, including nearly the entire receiver room and quarterback Spencer Sanders. When Sanders wasn't in the lineup last season, Oklahoma State's offense was horrifically bad, averaging just 18 points per game with a 1-3 record.
Oklahoma State identified former Texas Tech and Michigan quarterback Alan Bowman to settle the room. Underclassmen Garret Rangel and Zane Flores remain the future at the position, but Bowman proved during his time at Texas Tech that he can make any throw. The receiver room will look completely different after adding three wideouts and a tight end through the portal. Dunn has to pitch a perfect game in order to get the offense fully back on track after the disastrous offseason.
Can Kendal Briles keep the train on the tracks? Former TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley put together a masterclass during his lone season in Fort Worth to earn the Frogs a trip to the College Football Playoff National Championship. After the Broyles Award winner left to take the same position at Clemson, Sonny Dykes opted to hire controversial offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to lead the offense.
Briles comes in with a different philosophy after three years at Arkansas and has to create a unit from scratch after the Frogs' quarterback and leading rusher, receiver and lineman all left for the NFL. Arkansas recruited expected starter Chandler Morris in 2020, so Briles should have some familiarity with his skillset. At running back, things get more complicated. A wave of transfers should help, but development takes center stage for the TCU offense in 2023.
Who steps up in the RB room? While all the conversation around Austin centers on Quinn Ewers vs. Arch Manning in the quarterback room, the more important battle is happening one position group over. The Longhorns rode running back Bijan Robinson to eight wins, and the stellar workhorse had 631 yards and seven touchdowns in Texas' last three wins. Now, Texas has to replace both Robinson and star backup Roschon Johnson.
With Robinson and Johnson out of the Alamo Bowl, Texas leaned heavily on Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson and underclassman Jonathon Brooks to mixed results. The pair rushed for just 45 yards on 14 carries in a 27-20 loss against Washington. In addition to Brooks and Robinson, star recruits Jaydon Blue and CJ Baxter will compete for snaps. Savion Red is also getting a look after starting his career at wide receiver. For all the focus on the Steve Sarkisian passing game, the running game has carried by far the heavier load in Sark's first two seasons. The talent is there, but the underclassmen have to grow up quickly to ease the pressure on the quarterback room.
Who emerges as the top QB option? The Red Raiders have been snakebitten at the quarterback position for years thanks to a wave of injuries and inconsistent play. Despite the issues, offensive coordinator Zach Kittley managed to coach three different starting quarterbacks to 1,000 yards passing and a positive TD-to-INT ratio during the Red Raiders breakout 8-5 campaign.
Incumbent starter Tyler Shough is back for another season, but injuries have limited him to just 269 pass attempts over the past two seasons. However, Shough went 5-0 as a starter when he was healthy. Backup Behren Morton showed flashes of his blue-chip ability, but he completed just 57% of his passes. Shough has the upper hand to retain the job with his experience, but Morton will push him in camp. The Red Raiders are shallow at the position after the transfer of Donovan Smith, so managing the position will be critical for Joey McGuire and his staff.
What will the new coordinators bring to the table? UCF coach Gus Malzahn has long been known as an elite identifier of up-and-coming coaching talent. The 2022 staff was no exception as former Troy coach Chip Lindsey and longtime Malzahn assistant Travis Williams each earned opportunities elsewhere following a 9-5 campaign in Malzahn's second season. Malzahn leaned on familiarity with his two hires, bringing in former analyst Darin Hinshaw to run the offense and elevating Addison Williams to defensive coordinator.
Hinshaw spent to the 2022 season at UAB coordinating one of the top running games in college football. Prior to his stint as defensive backs coach at UCF, Williams had experience as an analyst at Auburn and running smaller college defenses. UCF has a strong collection of talent that's ready for the Big 12, and the program could use a little boost from some coaching innovation.
What is the plan offensively?: West Virginia coach Neal Brown is an Air Raid disciple, but his offenses have been all over the place over his four seasons in Morgantown because of personnel deficiencies. After offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and quarterback JT Daniels both left after just one season, the Mountaineers are back to the drawing board.
Brown has previously been involved with play-calling responsibilities during his time in Morgantown, but he gave them up when Harrell came to town. Running backs coach Chad Scott was named offensive coordinator, but Brown has been noncommittal on play-calling. Adding to the complications, the top four pass-catchers from West Virginia's 2022 squad are all gone, though running backs Tony Mathis, C.J. Donaldson and Justin Johnson give the Mountaineers a three-headed monster in the backfield. Brown and his staff will need to be creative to find a quarterback and philosophy that can get the most out of the talent.