BIG 12

Oklahoma State – not Oklahoma – the real Big 12 team to beat in 2017

Oklahoma is the type of team that makes preseason polls swoon.

The Sooners will be two-time defending Big 12 champions when the season kicks off this fall. This season’s title and Sugar Bowl rout of Auburn came on the heels of a playoff appearance in 2015. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is back, ready for his fourth season in the Big 12 and third as a Sooner.

Since Sam Bradford in 2007, Baylor’s Bryce Petty (2013) is the only Big 12 quarterback to win a conference title as a first-year starter.

The Sooners will be a popular pick to three-peat in 2017, which would make them the first Big 12 team to complete the feat since … Oklahoma in 2008 – and just the second team to ever win three consecutive Big 12 titles.

Another team with a three-year starter at quarterback will prevent that from happening: Oklahoma State and Mason Rudolph.

RELATED: Early 2017 Big 12 Power Rankings

Blue bloods getting the benefit of the doubt in preseason polls isn’t a new concept. Coming off a 5-7 season in 2010, Texas was ranked 24th in the coaches’ poll.

Before Charlie Strong’s first season in 2014, the Longhorns were 24th in the coaches’ poll, 28th in the media poll and went 5-7.

The next season: They showed up again with votes in both the coaches’ and media polls. They completed the same drill in 2016, rising to No. 11 after beating a Notre Dame team that began the season ranked No. 10 and finished 4-8.

So, when the preseason polls roll in this summer and Oklahoma is ahead of its in-state rival, don’t be surprised. Just be warned.

Oklahoma is the team losing the program’s leading career rusher (Samaje Perine) and its two best offensive weapons: Dede Westbrook and Joe Mixon.

Mayfield gives the Sooners a high floor, but the Sooners are the same team that gave up at least 40 points in four of five games over the first half of the season. Pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo elected to return, but he’ll find it harder to reach opponents’ backfields without defensive tackle Jordan Wade hogging blockers at the line of scrimmage.

Cornerback Jordan Thomas returns, too, but he regressed in 2016 after a strong 2015 campaign.

The Sooners were fortunate to find a new transcendent receiving talent in Westbrook in 2016 to replace Sterling Shepard, who departed in 2015. Odds in 2017 are they confront the reality TCU faced in 2016: Westbrooks, Shepards, Josh Doctsons and James Washingtons don’t come around that often.

This fall, it’s Oklahoma State that will have the league’s best pass-catch duo – and often, that means a title in the Big 12. Running back Justice Hill is a budding star who could win the Big 12 rushing title in 2017. The Cowboys’ offense will overwhelm teams with options everywhere, just like Oklahoma did when it closed 2016 on a 10-game winning streak. The Sooners had the best set of triplets in the league. Next season, Oklahoma State runs away with that title thanks to Rudolph and Washington returning alongside Hill.

Having offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich back helps, too. Wednesday, he pulled his name out of contention to replace Rhett Lashlee as Gus Malzahn’s offensive coordinator at Auburn.

Oklahoma State has to replace defensive tackle Vincent Taylor and Jordan Sterns, but like Oklahoma showed in 2016, a high-powered offense can overcome a flawed defense in the Big 12, and Glenn Spencer’s defenses always have thrived on turnovers anyway. Seven starters return, including linebacker Chad Whitener and defensive back Tre Flowers, from a defense that tied for the Big 12 lead in takeaways in 2016 with 25. In 2013 and ’15, the Cowboys were in the top 10 nationally in the stat after leading the nation in 2011.

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