NCAA Football: Pop-Tarts Bowl-North Carolina State at Kansas State

The Big 12 prepares to enter its final form (for now) as the Four Corners schools join from the Pac-12 to push the league to 16 teams in the 2024 season. Now, the league stretches from Arizona to Florida and from Ohio to Texas, creating a varied league filled with aspirational programs hoping to make runs. 

When it comes to making a run, it can truly feel like anyone's game during spring practices. Who would have expected Arizona to win 10 games and an Alamo Bowl last season? Could someone be the next 2022 TCU, jumping from missing a bowl to the College Football Playoff National Championship? And by the way, could a guaranteed CFP berth only make the competition in America's most balanced conference even rowdier? 

Spring ball is time for a massive serving of hope for each of the 16 fanbases in the Big 12. For this moment, every new addition is great. Every loss wasn't a big deal. The world is in front of them. At other schools, everything is reversed. 

For the record, these spring overreactions have been a mixed bag over the years. Last season, I bragged that Oklahoma State was about to fall off a cliff (the Cowboys made the conference title game), Baylor's defense was fixed (yikes) and the TCU passing game would improve without Max Duggan (it didn't). But, at the same time, I called Kansas State tight end Ben Sinnott's ascendance and read the tea leaves on Houston's offensive collapse. 

Which overreactions will go most wrong in 2024? Here's one for every Big 12 team as spring practices have now concluded.


Tetairoa McMillan is the Big 12's best player: McMillan was a huge get for Arizona when he committed, and the Hawaii native has already exceeded expectations. In his second season, McMillan exploded for 90 catches for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns to pace a Wildcats team that won 10 games for the first time in nearly a decade. Despite the coaching change, McMillan opted to stick around and keep building with quarterback Noah Fifita. Statistically, McMillan is the top returning receiver in the Power Four. Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon provides a strong foil, but McMillan will have to take on an even bigger role to keep Arizona in conference championship contention. A Biletnikoff Award is on the table. 

Arizona State

QB will doom ASU again: Kenny Dillingham has had a strange first year in Tempe, Arizona, and things didn't settle down much over the spring. Quarterback Jaden Rashada opted to enter the transfer portal, leaving a gaping hole at the position for the second straight year. Michigan State transfer Sam Leavitt showed some flashes over the spring and redshirt senior Trenton Bourguet remains on campus, but neither is ready for primetime. There are some nice skill position pieces on the board for Dillingham, but turning them into a consistent offense will prove difficult. Granted, a more manageable schedule should help matters, but a highly balanced Big 12 will only make for a tougher road at Arizona State. 


The Bears are back to business: After a shocking 3-9 campaign, the worst in six years at Baylor, Dave Aranda has done the impossible: come back from the dead. Most expected Aranda gone after the miserable season, but the athletic department not only doubled down but provided him with further resources. Aranda poached sought-after assistants offensive coordinator Jake Spavital (Cal) and running backs coach Khenon Hall (SMU). He landed several top transfers, including MAC MVP DeQuan Finn and two of the top offensive line prospects in the portal, Kurt Danneker (Ohio) and Omar Aigbedion (Montana State). Now, Baylor expects to get back to a bowl game. Will it happen? We'll see. 

2023 MAC Championship - Miami (OH) v Toledo
DeQuan Finn could provide a huge spark in turning this Baylor football program around in 2024.  Getty Images


Gerry Bohanon's presence is a game changer: Bohanon was a surprise addition to the BYU quarterback room as a transfer from South Florida, but he has quickly pushed Jake Retzlaff for the starting job. However, Bohanon's impact will be felt regardless of whether he wins. The Earle, Arkansas, native quarterbacked Baylor's 2021 Big 12 title team and was a strong leader in the locker room. He was recruited by several of the best programs in the nation as a defensive player and should find a way to factor into the lineup for offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. More than anything, Bohanon provides a safety cushion of dual-threat ability at the position. The bar to knock him off will be high. BYU finished last in the Big 12 in both passing and rushing offense last season. 


The QB answer is on campus: The Bearcats leaned on veteran transfer Emory Jones under center last season but finished with a bottom-three passing unit in the Big 12. While the position is not fully fixed, the Bearcats received a much-needed infusion of young talent. Indiana transfer Brendan Sorsby showed flashes in his second season with the Hoosiers, throwing for 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Indiana's results improved dramatically with Sorsby in the lineup. The Bearcats also return exciting redshirt freshman Brady Drogosh, a blue-chip recruit in the Class of 2023. Cincinnati has plenty of other holes to fill, but the answer to quarterback should be on the roster. 


The defensive front will be nasty: The Buffaloes were aggressive in the transfer portal for the second straight year. This time, Colorado hit on some sure things defensively. Defensive ends Dayon Hayes and Rayyan Buell ranked among the best overall players in the post-spring window. B.J. Green was a major pickup early. Deion Sanders augmented the proven commodities with some high-upside plays in LSU's Quency Wiggins and Alabama's Anquin Barnes. The ace in the hole is Houston transfer Chidozie Nwankwo, one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the sport over the past two seasons. Questions remain across the roster, but Colorado should be dramatically improved on defense if the unit blends well. 


The Knights are physically ready: UCF had some highs during its first year in the Big 12. But while the Knights seemed physically ready to compete in the conference, the team went just 1-7 against legacy power conference programs. The lowlight was giving up 29 unanswered points in a heartbreaking loss to Baylor. UCF reeled in physical specimen KJ Jefferson at quarterback from Arkansas and 230-pound rusher Peny Boone from Louisville. Gus Malzahn also landed some size on the edge with Miami's Nyjalik Kelly and Texas Tech's Jesiah Pierre coming into the fold. Malzahn has built a quickly rising program in Orlando, but instilling a mean streak could be the final step. 


Year 1 of the Willie Fritz era will be rough: Coaching transitions are harder than ever in the transfer portal era, and the Cougars were the only Big 12 program to fire a coach last season. Willie Fritz is a strong hire for Houston, but Year 1 is off to a brutal start. More than 30 players transferred from the program, including a number of high-end contributors such as receivers Sam Brown and Matthew Golden. Fritz brought in Louisiana's Zeon Chriss to compete for the starting QB job with Donovan Smith, but neither is a proven commodity in Fritz's unique offense. Fritz is a miracle worker and will make Houston a winner … eventually. It probably won't be in Year 1, though. 

Iowa State

The Cyclones are the Big 12's most underrated team: Iowa State may just be the team flying under the radar the most heading into this college football season. Most jumped off the bandwagon after a 1-2 start to the 2023 season, but Iowa State turned things around to post a 6-3 Big 12 record behind quarterback Rocco Becht, wide receiver Jayden Higgins and breakout running back Abu Sama III. Now, the Cyclones are the only team in college football to rank top-five nationally in returning production on both sides of the ball. Could this be Matt Campbell's best team yet? 

Oklahoma State

Collin Oliver will be an All-American: Oliver was incredible as a freshman, finishing with 10.5 sacks. Over the past two years, he has struggled to return to the production he achieved under then-defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Bryan Nardo appears to have learned and will reportedly use a fourth true rusher more often, which should create plenty of opportunities for Oliver. Granted, the 235-pound Oklahoma native is still listed as a linebacker, but a more versatile role should better take advantage of his unique bend and skillset. By the way, word is already getting around about Oliver's potential. CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson ranked Oliver as a first-round pick in his Way-Too-Early 2025 NFL Mock Draft


Everything hangs on Jalon Daniels: The talented quarterback was named preseason Big 12 Player of the Year entering last season but was limited to three games because of injuries. Kansas had a strong backup plan in Jason Bean, but primary backup Cole Ballard was limited in his first career start. When Daniels is in the lineup, Kansas is a serious Big 12 contender. Over the past two seasons, Daniels has completed nearly 70% of his passes with 30 total touchdowns to just five interceptions. The Jayhawks' roster is built to perfection around him with running back Devin Neal and a seasoned group of receivers. It would be a tragedy to not see Daniels orchestrate a historic season. 

Kansas State

K-State is the best rushing offense in America: The Wildcats were already poised to take a massive step forward on the ground after turning to dynamic young quarterback Avery Johnson full time, but the addition of running back Dylan Edwards via Colorado only cements their status. Johnson and Edwards previously headlined a star-studded 2023 recruiting class before Edwards flipped to the Buffs, but now they finally team up to give Kansas State one of the speediest backfields in America. By the way, returning running back DJ Gidden posted 1,226 yards and 10 touchdowns during a sensational sophomore season. The Wildcats may ride their three-headed monster all the way to the Big 12 title game. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Pop-Tarts Bowl - NC State vs Kansas State
DJ Gidden is part of a three-headed monster in the backfield that should wreak havoc on opponents for K-State.  Getty Images


Andy Avalos solved the defense: Avalos was a late hire after losing his head coaching job at Boise State, but he has proven to quickly be a miracle worker in Fort Worth, Texas. All the reports coming out of Fort Worth have raved about the year-over-year improvement that ranked among the bottom 30 in college football last season. Avalos moves back towards a traditional four-defensive back group and typically rushes four players, a departure from the 3-3-5 that TCU previously ran. Avalos also brought former Nevada coach Ken Wilson in to coach linebackers, which is a signature position group in his defense. TCU's talent acquisition has ranked among the best in the Big 12, so a coaching shift could bring them quickly back to contention. 

Texas Tech

The offense won't look very Air Raid-y: Lubbock, Texas, is where the Air Raid became a college football darling, and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley came up in the system. But when running back Tahj Brooks and a hyper-talented tight end room come to campus, don't expect Kittley to get complacent. Brooks ran for more than 1,500 yards last season and should play an even bigger role running behind twin 270-pound tight ends Mason Tharp and Jalin Conyers. After running out a number of possession-style receivers last year, expect quarterback Behren Morton's 8.4 average depth of target to jump thanks to a speedy group of receivers. Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire has the distinct advantage of being schematically versatile with his Texas high school coaching background. That'll be put to full use in Lubbock this fall. 


Cameron Rising is back: Rising led the Utes to back-to-back Pac-12 championships in his last two active seasons of work. After missing 2023 with a torn ACL, Rising looked back to his full stature during a strong spring game. Rising completed 15 of 19 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in his first public action since the injury and dazzled crowds with his downfield throwing. Utah managed to win eight games last season with wildly inconsistent quarterback play. If Rising is back to his previous form, Utah is potentially the preseason favorite. 

West Virginia

The Mountaineers can make the title game: It's nearly impossible to quantify the vibe shift that has taken place in Morgantown, West Vriginia. Less than a year after Neal Brown was firmly on the hot seat, West Virginia featured a wacky and fun spring game headlined by linebacker Trey Lathan rocking a "Neal Breezy" shirt. There's plenty to get excited about on the football side, too, headlined by superstar running back duo CJ Donaldson and Jaheim White. The Mountaineers used some good luck to win nine games last season, but more could be on the table.