What was the toughest call?
Max Olson: I do think we’ve underrated what Kansas is bringing back on its defensive line. Dorance Armstrong racked up a Big 12-leading 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. He’s arguably the best pass-rusher in the conference, and Daniel Wise should be one of the Big 12’s top defensive tackles. Putting the Jayhawks at No. 5 in our D-line rankings feels too low, even if the teams above them did have a lot of depth.
Mitch Sherman: I struggled to place Baylor’s line among a group of defensive fronts that, honestly, don’t look great. Max, your critique of the Kansas pick makes sense, until an examination of the numbers shows that the Jayhawks allowed 5.2 yards per rush and 236.4 yards per game on the ground to rank 114th nationally. We ranked the Baylor D-line at No. 6, but I could make a case for a spot as high as third. The Bears were strong against the run last year, pressured quarterbacks, return top producer K.J. Smith and should receive a boost from the return of Brian Nance.
Jake Trotter: Linebacker wasn’t easy to figure out. TCU was the clear No. 1. But after the Horned Frogs, the next few groups were pretty tight. Oklahoma has tremendous potential off the edge, but there's a huge hole in the middle with Jordan Evans gone. Texas’ prowess hinges on the immediate impact of juco transfer gem Gary Johnson and a bounce-back season from Malik Jefferson. Oklahoma State and West Virginia, meanwhile, have several budding linebackers that will need to perform this season. There just seem to be more questions than answers at this position for the Big 12.
What was the biggest surprise?
Trotter: K-State having the No. 1 secondary and the No. 2 defensive line, despite graduating Dante Barnett and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis. Yes, linebacker is a big question mark. But the Wildcats have a chance to be very stout up front and at the back end.
Olson: I’ll be honest; I did not realize how big a question mark Kansas State has at the linebacker position until we worked on these rankings. As Jake said, the other levels of the Wildcats’ defense look stout on paper, but there’s definitely work to be done at linebacker. Junior college transfer Da’Quan Patton will need to live up to the hype and help solidify that situation this spring.
Sherman: TCU returns the No. 2 group of defensive backs in the league, the best linebackers, and, while seventh in the line rankings, it lost three solid starters up front. So how did Horned Frogs drop seven games in 2016? I forgot how good this defense appeared on paper last year. It led, of course, to calls for TCU to finish second in the Big 12. Instead, it allowed more than 40 points three times in five games to open and finished with underwhelming defensive numbers.
Where to expect the biggest mover?
Sherman: Iowa State showed signs last season of fixing the problems that plagued its defensive line in September. The loss of three starters led to a ranking of ninth. But with JaQuan Bailey back after a strong freshman season, look for the infusion of juco talent to push the Cyclones up this list in 2017.
Trotter: Given how many elite prospects they’ve signed there in recent years, it’s inconceivable how average the Longhorns’ secondary has been. Could that change under the new regime? Tom Herman inherits a load of potential in his defensive backfield, with Davante Davis, Holton Hill, John Bonney, Kris Boyd, Brandon Jones, DeShon Elliott, Jason Hall and P.J. Locke. With consistency and confidence, this could wind up being one of the better defensive units in the conference overall.
Olson: I agree that Texas’ talented secondary ought to make a leap, and I’ll throw West Virginia in there, too. After witnessing what defensive coordinator Tony Gibson accomplished last year without the help of Karl Joseph, Daryl Worley or Dravon Askew-Henry, I cannot doubt the man. I really like what the Mountaineers are working with at safety and will expect their corners to step up again in 2017.