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Who Is the Big 12's Biggest Dark Horse Contender?

Garrett Greene

The Big 12 Conference should be packed to the brim with competition this year, as multiple teams have been mentioned among the top contenders for the conference title and College Football Playoff berth. Teams like the Utah Utes, Kansas State Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, Oklahoma State Cowboys and Arizona Wildcats have all been widely considered as the top 5 most viable contenders, but who are the Big 12 dark horses of this conference?

Who could shock the college football world and steal away the conference title and playoff berth from one of these five teams? Let's explore three different options, with the team with the best case saved for last.

No. 3 Big 12 Dark Horse: Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State has the third most returning starters in college football, trailing just Oklahoma State for the conference lead. They're young and inexperienced, but fielding the youngest roster in the Big 12 last year, a 7-6 finish with a 6-3 conference record certainly isn't a bad season. This also means that in all likelihood, this team will be better this year, given they return this young roster that will have more experience.

Sophomore quarterback Rocco Becht showed a lot of potential last year, and with a stacked offense of Jaylin Noel, Jayden Higgins, Abu Sama III and Benjamin Brahmer as his supporting cast, the possibilities for an offense mainly filled with underclassmen that finished with 364.9 yards per game and put up 42 points in Manhattan, Kan., against Kansas State are plentiful.

Defensively, the Cyclones return just as many players and will be a very strong unit once again. The Cyclone defense allowed 363.2 yards per game, making them top 50 in the country, and they will only go up from there. This was against strong Big 12 offenses, offenses this defense that once again, was filled with underclassmen last year, played very well.

There are questions regarding a talent gap that coach Matt Campbell and company will have to answer, but if they can improve on last year's numbers and show that even with their youth that they belong, they'll be right in the thick of the conference race once again.

No. 2 Big 12 Dark Horse: UCF Knights

Last year was rough for Central Florida, who finished with a 3-6 conference record and a 6-7 record overall. John Rhys Plumlee getting injured was the straw that broke the camel's back and the Knights had a lackluster debut in the Big 12. This year, however, the Knights have retooled, re-upped and rearmed. While they don't return as many as Iowa State, they do bring in the second-best transfer class in the Big 12 behind the Colorado Buffaloes and will have a very strong case for a top-3 conference finish.

Offensively, Arkansas Razorback transfer KJ Jefferson will be one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country. Peny Boone will be a great compliment to RJ Harvey making for one of the strongest backfields, with each rushing for more than 1,400 yards last season. The receiving corps picked up four strong transfers to help bolster a position group that saw a lot of departures as well.

Finally, the offensive line might have some transfers as well but looks to be a strong unit with good chemistry that will have a great backfield to work with. Overall, an offense that finished No.8 in total offensive production is poised to be just as strong coming into this year and could be very scary for Big 12 defenses.

Defensively though is where the real differences are being made by the portal. UCF's defense finished No. 81 in the country in total defense, allowing 391 yards a game. While not the worst in the Big 12, it was a big reason UCF fell to teams like Kansas, Kansas State and West Virginia, who each put up 40-plus points against the Knights. With this new transfer class, however, the major holes in this defense seem to be filled. Eight transfers, none being below 0.85 on 247Sports's ratings system, fill secondary holes left by multiple departures at the position.

The defensive line got an upgrade as well, landing top EDGE transfer prospect Nyjalik Kelly. With new defensive coordinator Ted Roof at the helm, the defense looks to be more aggressive and attacking, which comes as a major reprieve from a defense that struggled at the point of attack and struggled to make their tackles.

Overall, the Knights are a consistently above-average to really good program. The way things are heading with the transfer portal additions as well as the leadership of coach Gus Malzahn, having a favorable schedule and having a lot of experience even with all the departures, UCF looks to be a strong contender that may fly under a lot of people's radars. Time will tell especially with the amount of transfers, but if those transfers work out well, watch out for the Knights to be a very strong team that will make a run.

No. 1 Big 12 Dark Horse: West Virginia Mountaineers

The only reason the Mountaineers aren't being regularly talked about as being a top Big 12 contender is because of how low they flew under the radar last year. The Mountaineers quietly worked their way to a 9-4 record, going 6-3 in the Big 12, with many pundits having their attention on the race between Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Kansas. Much like Iowa State, the Mountaineers snuck their way into that top 5 in the conference conversation, eventually finishing No. 25 in the final AP Poll.

This year, things aren't as quiet, but many pundits still don't give the proper attention to this team that by all accounts, will also be right in the thick of the Big 12 race. Offensively, the Mountaineers are led by dual-threat quarterback Garrett Greene. Greene ran for 772 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, along with passing for 2406 yards and 16 touchdowns. While guys like Noah Fifita, Jalon Daniels, Shadeur Sanders, Cam Rising and Avery Johnson are all getting their flowers, Greene has made his way into that conversation as well and has a big chance to stand out above the rest.

With an offense that returns one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, a strong group of receivers in Hudson Clement, Traylon Ray, Rodney Gallagher III and Preston Fox, and a backfield that ranked No.4 nationally and No. 1 in the conference, this offense will be an absolute force to be reckoned with.

The major question for West Virginia is their defense though. Depth proved to be a major issue last year, as the Mountaineers dealt with a lot of injuries, especially with their linebacking corps. The Mountaineer coaching staff hit the transfer portal to combat this and returned with a decent haul. The secondary got four new additions in Garnett Hollis Jr., Jaheem Joseph, Ayden Garnes and TJ Crandall, while the linebacking corps got a veteran presence in former Ohio State Buckeye Reid Carrico. The defensive line did its job leading the Big 12 with 33 sacks, but even they saw dividends from the transfer portal with Ty French.

The depth issue is seemingly solved, but can this unit be cohesive? If they can, this Mountaineer defense could be the best in the conference. Combine that with an offensive unit that will also be very, very strong and West Virginia could definitely make a title run and make their presence known. They're one of the more complete squads in the conference with hardly any visible weaknesses, something that more people should account for.

The Country's Most Competitive Conference?

As one can see, the Big 12 is wide open this year, with contenders both being talked about and not being talked about. It's anyone's game frankly and we could see some major fireworks coming out of this conference. Much like its basketball, the Big 12 will be an absolute dogfight in football this year as well.

There isn't a single team that sticks its head out above the rest, but there are competitors lurking in the shadows, waiting at their chance to strike. For the Big 12, these three teams are the three sneakiest contenders, don't be shocked if you see one of them lift up the conference championship trophy in December.


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