What you need to know about the Big 12

ESPN selected Will Grier as their quarterback on the All-Big 12 team. Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

Oklahoma looks to top the Big 12 once again this season, but the return of West Virginia's Will Grier, along with the Mountaineers' strong receiving corps, could spoil the Sooners' conference championship hopes.

The Big 12's top teams are loaded with talented backs and boast strong offensive fronts, which should make for an interesting race for the Big 12 championship.

Here's everything you need to know about the Big 12, from Heisman hopefuls to strongest position groups and everything in between.


Five most important conference games

Nov. 23: Oklahoma at West Virginia

Oklahoma remains the one team that West Virginia has yet to defeat since joining the Big 12. But if the Mountaineers are to capture their first Big 12 championship, they'll have to knock off the three-time defending league champs here -- if not again in the Big 12 championship game. The Sooners throttled West Virginia in Norman last year. But this time, the Mountaineers will have the preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Grier, who broke his finger the week before the Oklahoma game -- and the Sooners will obviously be without Heisman winner Baker Mayfield.

Oct. 6: Texas vs. Oklahoma

The Red River Showdown has always been a defining game for both programs, even if it has lost its luster in recent years with the Longhorns' decline. Texas coach Tom Herman knows that the path back to Big 12 supremacy runs through Dallas, where the Longhorns have prevailed only twice this decade. But until the Longhorns become elite again at quarterback, they will continue to be an afterthought in the conference. Sam Ehlinger had his moments against Oklahoma as a true freshman. If he consistently harnesses that as a sophomore, the rest of the league will be on notice.

Sept. 22: TCU at Texas

The Horned Frogs have completely dominated this series, winning five of six against Texas since joining the Big 12 with an average margin of victory of 25 points. This will be a Big 12 tone-setter for either squad, who both will be coming off monster non-conference showdowns (Texas against USC, TCU against Ohio State). The Longhorns owned the Big 12's top defense last year with the nation's fifth-best unit in defensive efficiency; but TCU wasn't far behind at 13th. With the questions both teams face offensively, this could potentially be the rare low Big 12 scoring affair.

Oct. 20: Oklahoma at TCU

Despite getting two cracks at him last year, defensive whiz Gary Patterson had no answer for Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. Last season, however, was an outlier, as Patterson's bunch has played Oklahoma as tough as anyone in the league in recent years. TCU has the defensive line to match up with Oklahoma up front and its running game, and the secondary to hang with the Sooners' speedy deep threats. Even so, TCU will have to put up the points to have a chance. By late October, the Horned Frogs have to hope that quarterback Shawn Robinson will have found his stride.

Nov. 10: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma

Bedlam has been the biggest game in the Big 12 for the last decade with Oklahoma State's rise under Mike Gundy. But having lost quarterback Mason Rudolph and All-American wideout James Washington, the Cowboys are retooling if not rebuilding. Gundy has only two wins against the Sooners, who have won the last three Bedlam showdowns with major Big 12 title implications on the line. Oklahoma State will have to surprise with a new quarterback - whether it's Taylor Cornelius, Dru Brown or Spencer Sanders - to challenge the Sooners again. And play much better defense, too.

Heisman Hopeful

With Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield gone, West Virginia's Grier has taken over as one of college football's best passing quarterbacks -- if not the best.

Before suffering a season-ending broken finger last November, Grier was second in the nation with 34 touchdown throws and third with 3,490 yards passing. And that was coming off a messy transfer from Florida following an 18-month layoff from the field.

"It's his second year in this system, and he's much more comfortable," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said this offseason. "His timing with the guys is as good as I've seen. So from a quarterback perspective, it's as good as anyone in the country."

Having a year in the system should give Grier a boost. So should passing to one of the top receiving corps in the country. David Sills V tied for the nation's best with 18 touchdown receptions last season on the way to becoming a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver. Opposite him, Gary Jennings quietly topped the Big 12 with 97 receptions.

With that arsenal, the Mountaineers will be a threat to score on any down. Yet whether Grier can catapult himself into serious Heisman discussion will hinge on whether he can improve his efficiency on key downs. Last season, the Mountaineers struggled at times in the red zone. And they ranked all the way down at 101st nationally in third-down-conversion rate.

With Grier settled in for his senior season, the Mountaineers stand to improve dramatically there. Which could give them a shot at boasting the nation's top offense.

Should that happen -- and should Grier quarterback West Virginia into the Big 12 title game -- the Mountaineers could have their first Heisman finalist since Major Harris.

Preseason coach of the year

Two of the longest tenured coaches at the same program in college football reside in the Big 12. TCU's Gary Patterson was hired in 2000; Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, in 2005. Only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz has been at one school longer. And that doesn't include Kansas State's Bill Snyder, who would easily be the game's longest tenured coach had he not temporarily retired for three years in 2005.

Patterson, Gundy and Snyder have consistently produced winning teams. And yet Iowa State's Matt Campbell is the reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year. In his third season, Campbell's Cyclones knocked off Oklahoma and TCU, the two teams that played in the Big 12 championship game. At one point, Iowa State was in the thick of the Big 12 title race itself. If that happens again, Campbell would be line to repeat as coach of the year.

If Campbell isn't the hottest coaching name in the Big 12 at the moment, then Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is. After taking over for Bob Stoops last summer, Riley led the Sooners to the CFP. This season, he'll have to do it without Heisman Trophy quarterback Baker Mayfield. But if Oklahoma wins an unpreceded fourth straight Big 12 title with a new quarterback in Kyler Murray, then Riley could take the Big 12 coaching honor, even if the Sooners are Big 12 preseason favorites.

Elsewhere, Dana Holgorsen has his best team since arriving at West Virginia, while Tom Herman will be looking to revive the Longhorns in a critical Year 2 campaign. The Big 12 is flush with both accomplished and promising head coaches. Which is why the league figures to be among the deepest and most balanced in college football.

Team with the most to prove

This decade is almost over. And for the most part, Texas has been an irrelevant college football team since it began. Since playing for the 2009 national championship against Alabama, the Longhorns are only five games above .500 to go along with four losing seasons. As a result, there's tremendous pressure on second-year coach Tom Herman to finally turn the Longhorns around after an up-and-down rookie season. Sure, Texas hung tough with USC and Oklahoma, then later defeated Missouri in a bowl game. But seven wins just isn't good enough at Texas. Nor should it be.

But there is reason to believe the Longhorns could be on the verge of turning that corner under Herman. The season-opening debacle to Maryland included, Texas ranked fifth nationally in defensive efficiency under coordinator Todd Orlando in 2017. And though several significant pieces off that unit are gone, several key ones are back, as well. Defensive ends Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu, linebacker Gary Johnson and defensive back Kris Boyd are all All-Big 12-caliber talents. The Longhorns also just signed the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, loaded with immediate impact potential on the defensive side.

No doubt, the defense should be legit once again. And yet, it was just that last year. And Texas went just 6-6 during the regular season.

For the Longhorns to truly become a contender in the Big 12, they're going to also need elite quarterback play - something they haven't had since Colt McCoy and Vince Young. Sam Ehlinger showed promise as a true freshman. But he also battled injuries and catastrophic turnovers.

Already this preseason, Herman has been bragging on the strength and speed of his team. If Ehlinger makes a jump, Texas finally will be on its way back. If not, the Longhorns will be primed yet again to fall short of any lofty preseason expectations.

Strongest position group in the conference

Few programs in college football have better running back traditions than Oklahoma and Texas and even Oklahoma State. And this year, the collective talent at running back in the Big 12 is as good as it has been in years.

Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma State's Justice Hill and Iowa State's David Montgomery all justifiably hold All-America aspirations following monster 2017 campaigns.

After taking over the starting job in the Sooners' backfield in early October last year, Anderson led the country in yards from scrimmage. That culminated with a 200-yard rushing performance against Georgia's vaunted defense in the Rose Bowl. With Baker Mayfield gone, Anderson should receive even more touches in Oklahoma's ground game. And paired with dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray, he could especially thrive in zone-read opportunities.

Of course, Anderson isn't the league's only big-time back.

Montgomery led the country last year in broken tackles to help fuel Iowa State's surprise run to a bowl. And on top of rushing for 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns, Montgomery played a significant role in Iowa State's passing game, catching 36 passes. The Cyclones will be counting on Montgomery even more in 2018, with All-Big 12 wideout Allen Lazard no longer around.

Yet as good as Montgomery and Anderson were last year, nobody in the Big 12 ran for more yards than Hill, who averaged more than 112 yards rushing a game; no other back in the Big 12, in fact, averaged more than 88. With quarterback Mason Rudolph and wideout James Washington gone, Hill will take over as Oklahoma State's primary offensive weapon.

The Big 12's running back talent doesn't end there. TCU boasts a potent duo in Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua. K-State and West Virginia have deep backfields, as well.

The Big 12 has rightfully generated a reputation as a passing league. But in 2018, the running back could define the league.