We've reached the time of year in which we pretend to know a lot more about college football than we actually do. I'm not just talking about myself and other members of the media but fans as well. We've never seen any of the teams play in their current forms, yet somehow we all believe we know exactly what's going to happen.
We vote on who will win their divisions and conferences. We pick teams that will earn spots in the College Football Playoff. We will be wrong. A lot. It comes with the territory, and it's part of what makes college football so exciting.
When trying to figure out a sport that features so many teams (130 this year) all trying different things with the same ultimate goal in mind, surprises are going to happen. Every year we see a team that the general public had low expectations for coming into the year exceed them. It's going to happen again this year, that much I know. I just don't know which team it will be, but I'm going to try to figure it out.
When it comes to looking for a dark horse team, there are a few things to consider. Veteran teams have a chance to excel, and I'm not just talking about teams with a lot of returning starters. Having plenty of starters coming back is nice, but I'm talking about experience on the depth chart as a whole. I want teams with a lot of seniors and juniors in the two-deep.
I also like teams with experienced offensive lines. As important as quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers can be for an offense, replacing them is a lot less difficult when you have a strong, veteran offensive line doing all the dirty work for you at the line of scrimmage.
Then there are a few other factors. Things like a favorable schedule and it never hurts to have talent on the roster, either. When I look at all these factors and try to fit them together, I believe I can get a sense of which teams are better positioned to be that dark horse. So in this post, I'm going to look at three potential dark horse teams in the Big 12 this season.
Now obviously, when we talk about dark horses, we're naming teams that aren't expected to contend for a conference title. So I've eliminated Oklahoma and Oklahoma State from consideration. After that, things look pretty wide open in the Big 12.
And of the eight remaining teams in the conference, these are the three I believe to be the best positioned to step up and surprise us in 2017, listed in alphabetical order.
The Horned Frogs took a significant step backward last season. After winning 23 games between 2014 and 2015, the Frogs only managed to go 6-7 last year (4-5 Big 12). What stood out was that TCU wasn't only losing games last year, it was getting beat rather soundly. While it hung with Oklahoma in a 52-46 loss in early October, TCU followed that with a 24-point loss to West Virginia, a 25-point loss to Oklahoma State and another 24-point loss to Kansas State.
As a result, the expectations for Gary Patterson's team have dropped a bit -- the media poll for 2017 has the Frogs finishing fifth in the conference -- but I wouldn't be surprised if we see a much stronger finish than that.
TCU has one of the most experienced teams in the conference this season. In fact, using Phil Steele's two-deep breakdown, the only Big 12 team with more experience is Oklahoma State. The Frogs also have a veteran offensive line, and when it comes to recruiting, TCU has fared well lately, too. In fact, over the last five years, the only two Big 12 teams to recruit better than TCU are Oklahoma and Texas.
During radio appearances this summer, I've been asked on more than a few occasions which team I think could be a real CFP sleeper in 2017, and the one team I've answered with every time is Texas. I just believe that things are set up pretty well for Tom Herman in his first season in Austin.
The Longhorns have been a disappointment more often than not of late, and while that was certainly still the case under Charlie Strong (he went 16-21 in three seasons with only one bowl appearance), he was doing some things right. Namely, he was recruiting pretty well. Strong put together top 10 recruiting classes in 2015 and 2016, and while they weren't enough to get Texas over the hump the last two seasons, they're older now and ready to contribute more so than before. In fact, Texas has the third-most experience on its roster in the Big 12 (if you read about TCU, you know the top two). The Horns also have a veteran offensive line.
What worries me here is a schedule that's rather difficult. There's a road trip to USC in mid-September, and the Horns will get both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks. If there's any silver lining here, it's that the Oklahoma game will be at the Cotton Bowl, while State must come to Austin.
That's not the case with Baylor, TCU and West Virginia, all of whom Texas will play on the road. Still, we've seen what Herman did with Ohio State's offense while there and how quickly he helped make Houston into a credible threat, so count me as a firm believer in the Horns heading into 2017.
Considering West Virginia went 10-3 last season (7-2 Big 12), there's a reasonable argument to make that it shouldn't be considered a dark horse. In fact, I debated whether or not I should include it here, but when the Big 12 media poll was released last week, that clinched it for me. The Mountaineers were picked to finish sixth.
I mean, it could happen, but the Mountaineers could also be in the top three pushing for a conference title again as well. Like TCU and Texas, West Virginia has an experienced team, though not quite to the level of those two. That is one of the reasons why, while I have West Virginia on this list and I believe it is entirely capable of surpassing expectations, I'm not as confident in it as I am TCU and Texas this year.
The good news is that the schedule does provide some relief. While the Mountaineers will have five Big 12 road games this season -- games against Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State are winnable -- TCU and Oklahoma will prove to be more difficult. WVU also has the benefit of getting Oklahoma State and Texas in Morgantown.
What truly concerns me about West Virginia's ability to surprise again, however, is on the defensive side of the ball. In my mind, the biggest factor in West Virginia's successful 2016 campaign was its defense. Well, this year the 'Neers have a lot of productivity to replace on that side of the ball, so if we see a slip in performance there, it'll be hard to win 10 games again.