Dark horses are college football’s antidote to order, predictability, and boredom. A Big 12 dark horse is a team that is not a favorite to make the championship game before the season begins but that rises throughout the season to at least challenge for a spot in the championship game.
Dark horses are the chaos that makes college football interesting. Dark horses thunder through the season creating carnage – elating some fans and breaking the hearts of others.
Before the season began, I looked at four teams as possible dark horses to make it to the Big 12 championship game: Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, and West Virginia. Now, I want to take a look at how these teams are doing and consider a few other possible contenders.
Oklahoma State (5-0, 2-0)
Before the season began, I said that Spencer Sanders was the key to any Oklahoma State bid to crash the party in Arlington at the end of the Big 12 season. If he could make better decisions with the football, I theorized, the Cowboys had the defense to carry them through.
The results have been mixed. The Cowboys’ defense has stood taller than I expected and is the main reason why Oklahoma State is undefeated on the season and in a first-place tie with Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) and Texas (4-1, 2-0) in the Big 12.
Sanders, however, has been a bit up and down. After one of the best games of his career against #25 K-State (3-2, 0-2) in Week 4, he threw three interceptions against #21 Baylor (4-1, 2-1) in Week 5.
The Cowboys’ defense and running back Jaylen Warren did enough, however, to overcome those mistakes and get the win over the Bears. Now, entering their bye week with wins over two ranked conference foes, the Cowboys are certainly looking the part of Big 12 title contenders as they have climbed to #12 in both the AP and Coaches polls.
Statistically, the Cowboys started slow. The defense missed a lot of tackles through the non-conference slate, and the offense struggled to run the ball until Warren broke out against Boise State.
The tackling has improved significantly. Through the first three games of the season, the Cowboys led the Big 12 in missed tackles with 47, 15.666 per game. Over the Cowboys’ first two Big 12 conference games, they have missed just 18 tackles, 9 per game, which is not only a significant improvement, but among the best in league play.
The Cowboys’ leading rusher before the Boise State game was Sanders with 62 yards on 10 carries, and they were the only team in the league without a rusher who had reached 100 yards on the season. Three weeks later, Warren is the Big 12’s third-leading rusher with 512 yards and six touchdowns on 115 carries – a night and day difference.
Without doubt, the Cowboys are a legitimate dark horse contender with seven conference games to go.
TCU (2-2, 0-1)
The Horned Frogs got a lot of attention in the offseason as a potential dark horse contender. On the HCS podcast, Josh Pate told Pete Mundo that TCU was his dark horse pick in the Big 12, and Pate was far from alone.
It was a somewhat familiar offseason story: head coach Gary Patterson’s team has been down for a few seasons, but they’re due for a bounce back. Much was said about the talent on the roster, particularly RB Zach Evans and the defense.
Defense, after all, has long been Patterson’s calling card.
Evans has lived up to the hype thus far with 443 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 57 carries. Clearly, the Horned Frogs need to get him the ball more often as he had just 15 carries in last week’s loss to Texas.
TCU’s defense, however, has been surprisingly porous in every game this season except the season-opening thrashing of FCS Duquesne. Against Cal, SMU, and Texas, the Horned Frog defense has surrendered a total of 1,451 yards (483.6 per game) while TCU’s FBS opponents have scored 106 points (35.3 per game).
Granted all three of those opponents are “offensive teams,” but 483+ yards per game is not good defense, especially not by Patterson’s standards.
Moreover, TCU has just one win against an FBS team, which came at home versus Cal by two points, 34-32. Cal is a Power 5 team from the Pac-12, of course, but the Bears are 1-4 with their only win coming against FCS Sacramento State.
In other words, TCU’s only win against an FBS team so far came against a team that has yet to beat an FBS team in four tries with losses to Nevada (3-1), TCU (2-2), Washington (2-3), and Washington State (2-3).
The Frogs’ two wins are against Duquesne and the clear-cut worst team in the Pac-12 North.
There’s still time for TCU to turn things around and make some noise in the Big 12 title hunt, but as things stand, and with the way the defense has looked, the Horned Frogs appear more like a team fighting for a bowl berth than a team with a chance at crashing the party in Arlington.
When has Texas ever entered a season without a lot of hype that is usually unjustified by anything other than recruiting rankings and a couple of standouts from the season before?
I had doubts about Texas, however, because of the turnover in the coaching staff, at quarterback, and at wide receiver. Nonetheless, I knew they very well could make a run at a Big 12 title.
Texas started the season ranked #21 and quickly knocked off #18 Louisiana (4-1) to amplify the hype, and the inevitable, “Is Texas back?” speculation, as the Longhorns moved up to #15. Then the Longhorns went on the road to play Arkansas (4-1).
The Razorbacks bludgeoned the Texas defense with 333 rushing yards while the Longhorn attack could only muster 256 yards of total offense. As a result, Texas fell from the polls, and new head coach Steve Sarkisian made the move at quarterback from Hudson Card to Casey Thompson, and the Longhorns have not lost since.
However, while the Longhorns have not lost since falling to Arkansas, and while the offense has looked fantastic in the last three games, the defense is still suspect.
After shutting out Rice (2-3), 58-0, following the Arkansas game, the Longhorns have given up 62 points to Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1) and TCU, 31 points per game. Against three Power 5 opponents this season, Texas has surrendered 1,342 yards, 447.3 per game.
Of course, with the offense going to town on Texas Tech and TCU, the yards and points allowed don’t matter all that much, but neither Tech nor TCU has a defense that will make opponents tremble in fear. Much stronger competition awaits the Longhorns and will begin this weekend in the Red River
Bijan Robinson leads the Big 12 in rushing with 652 yards and 7 TDs on 105 carries, and Texas is 2-0 in conference play, so Texas does look like a contender for the Big 12 title.
However, Texas’ defense must improve, or the story will change dramatically in the weeks to come.
West Virginia (2-3, 0-2)
I might have been the only non-Mountaineers fan to consider West Virginia a potential dark horse before the season began, but I liked what Neal Brown had accomplished through two seasons, and I am a fan of good defense, which WVU definitely played in 2020.
This season has been a disappointment so far for WVU fans, but overall, the team has not done poorly. All three losses have been close and two came on the road.
Moreover, WVU has not lost to a bad team with losses coming at Maryland (4-1), 30-24, at Oklahoma, 16-13, and vs. Texas Tech, 23-20. All told, WVU has lost three games by an average of 4 points per game to teams that have a combined two losses.
The only real concern is the home loss to Texas Tech as the Red Raiders were coming off a 70-35 shellacking in Austin. People see those 70 points hung by Texas and their minds race to two conclusions: 1) Texas must be AWESOME! 2) Texas Tech must be TERRIBLE!
I’m here to tell, those two conclusions are not grounded in reality. If Texas is so awesome and Texas Tech is so terrible, why did Tech, which lost its starting quarterback, Tyler Shough, early in the game against UT, hang 520 yards of total offense on the Longhorns?
Moreover, I knew that following the humiliation of allowing 70 points, Tech was likely to fight like the devil himself had come on life and death business to West Virginia. Often the most dangerous team in any given week is one that got embarrassed the week before.
The onus was on West Virginia to protect its home field against Tech’s fury and prove it was a Big 12 dark horse title contender. But West Virginia failed that test and now it sits at the bottom of the Big 12 standings with K-State and Kansas (1-4, 0-2).
Like TCU, however, there is time yet to turn things around. There’s no shame in losing to Oklahoma in Norman by three points. And while the loss to Tech was a failure of a critical test, all is not lost.
To turn things around, West Virginia must get the run game going. Through the first five weeks, WVU is dead last in the Big 12 in rushing offense with just 560 yards and 10 touchdowns. Running Back Leddie Brown has just 378 yards and six TDs on 83 carries.
West Virginia has the fewest missed tackles in the conference: 40, just 8 missed tackles per game, and opponents have averaged just 17.8 points per game against the Mountaineers. WVU has the defense to contend for the Big 12.
It just needs to start rushing the ball a lot better.
Oklahoma State and Texas appear to be on course to be dark horse contenders for the Big 12 title, especially since one of the two favorites for the Big 12 title game, Iowa State, has started the season 3-2, 1-1. Of those two, I think Oklahoma State has the better chance due to its good defensive play and Texas’ shaky defensive play.
TCU and West Virginia look more like teams that will fight for a bowl berth than dark horses this season, but they still have time to get back into contention for the Big 12 title game. Of those two, I like West Virginia’s chances the best for the same reason that I like Oklahoma State’s more than Texas’: WVU’s defense is playing well, and TCU’s defense is not.
Baylor’s offense has looked good with Gerry Bohanon at quarterback and a revamped offensive line. And while Tech lost Shough in the Texas game, QB2 Henry Colombi has filled in admirably. However, both teams’ defenses are questionable. While their season numbers on defense look good, both defenses’ numbers are inflated by poor competition in the non-conference schedule (and Baylor has a win against Kansas, the worst team in the league by a large margin).
Nonetheless, keep your eye on Baylor and Texas Tech as they may yet have a say in the Big 12 title race.
Finally, another team I pegged as one that would fight for a bowl berth this season, Kansas State, may yet have some cards to play in the title race. While the Cats are 0-2 in Big 12 play, the losses are to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, and they’ve only had QB1 Skylar Thompson back for one game.
The K-State defense may not be a killer, but it is greatly improved this season despite dealing with a rash of injuries. The offense with Thompson at the helm has the potential to be really good. If you’re a K-State fan, you have to wonder what the season would look like right now if Thompson was able to play against Oklahoma State and was at 100% against Oklahoma.
K-State has arguably played the toughest schedule in the Big 12 to date. The Sagarin Rankings list K-State’s strength of schedule through the first five weeks as the 4th in the nation and 1st in the Big 12 by a large margin.
For reference here’s how each Big 12 team’s schedule is currently ranked according to Sagarin:
1. K-State – 4th nationally
2. Kansas – 14th nationally
3. West Virginia – 15th nationally
4. Texas – 26th nationally
5. Oklahoma State – 40th nationally
6. Texas Tech – 57th nationally
7. TCU – 59th nationally
8. Iowa State – 60th nationally
9. Oklahoma – 72nd nationally
10. Baylor – 105th nationally
I wouldn’t call K-State a dark horse at this point, but KSU has fought both a tough schedule and a slew of early injuries. So, while K-State is not currently positioned to make a run at the league title game, I do think the Cats have the potential to play spoiler to several teams with dark horse aspirations before all is said and done and perhaps get in the conversation for a Big 12 Championship appearance.