NCAA Football: Utah at Southern California

The Big 12's identity has shifted dramatically over the past two years as the league's expanded from Orlando to Salt Lake City and from Houston to Cincinnati. But heading into its first season with the 16-team alignment, one factor stands above the rest: parity. 

Perhaps more than any other power league in America, the Big 12 stands alone as a wide-open race. Incoming contenders Utah and Arizona will have their say. Old reliables Kansas State and Oklahoma State will defend their territory. The battle for Texas between TCU, Houston, Baylor and Texas Tech is only just beginning. As many as 10 teams have a legitimate shot to make the conference title game. 

Between the Big 12 Championship Game's return in 2017 and 2022, there was a new participant every year. Texas and Oklahoma State both previously made the game prior to 2023, but neither had won it heading into AT&T Stadium. In fact, five of the eight legacy members have reached the title game in its seven years of existence. Adding four legacy Pac-12 teams to the "Freshman Four" additions of 2023 and the number of potentially new matchups explodes. 

But with parity comes complication, especially when your job is to rank the tightest grouping in the country. Here's how the Big 12 stacks up as spring comes to a close and rosters start getting finalized.  

Big 12 post-spring power rankings
When quarterback Cameron Rising is in the lineup, the Utes rank among the best teams in college football, posting a 19-6 record with two conference championships. Rising's knee will be the biggest question mark, but the Utes solidified the offense with three wide receiver transfers and two tight ends along with some quarterback depth in the form of former five-star Sam Huard. If the defense can come along, the Utes are the clear team to beat in the Big 12.
The Wildcats narrowly trail Utah for No. 1 in the Big 12, but the 2022 conference champs will have plenty of say in the race for the crown. Chris Klieman made a risky move by letting incumbent quarterback Will Howard walk to Ohio State, but sophomore Avery Johnson ranks among the most exciting prospects in program history. Johnson combines with running backs Dylan Edwards and DJ Giddens to pace the Big 12's most dynamic rushing offense. Klieman has built a consistent winner at Kansas State, and the Wildcats will be in the Big 12 conversation every year heading forward. 
The Jayhawks are the league's most ascendant program after winning nine games for the first time since 2007, and more success could be on the horizon. All eyes will be on quarterback Jalon Daniels, who missed all of Big 12 play with a back injury but was named Preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year before he got hurt. Lance Leipold has done an impressive job building a solid roster around him, headlined by retaining running back Devin Neal and cornerback Cobee Bryant, both of whom could have gone to the NFL. All the pieces are lining up for Kansas, including a schedule that dodges both Utah and Oklahoma State. 
The Cowboys pulled together one of Mike Gundy's best coaching jobs yet, overcoming a loss to South Alabama and surging to the Big 12 title game. The Pokes rank among the league leaders in returning production. However, Oklahoma State went 5-1 in one-score games during its run to 10 wins. The past several years are littered with Big 12 finalists that rode close game luck to Arlington, Texas, that disappointed in similar spots the next season, including 2021 Iowa State, 2022 Baylor and 2023 TCU. The Cowboys hope to avoid the same fate. 
The Wildcats were one of the most underrated stories in the country last season, jumping from 1-11 to 10 wins in just two seasons on the arm of quarterback Noah Fifita and receiver Tetairoa McMillan. If coach Jedd Fisch and the full roster returned in 2024, the Wildcats might rank No. 1 in the league. Still, even after a few key losses in the transfer portal, new coach Brent Brennan has Arizona sitting in a great spot to contend for the conference. 
Iowa State sits at No. 6, but the Cyclones might be the most underrated team in the country. Many turned on ISU after a 1-2 start, but the 'Clones went on to go 6-3 in Big 12 play and contend for the conference crown deep into November. Now, Iowa State ranks No. 2 nationally in returning production, and is the only program ranked top five in both offensive and defensive returning production. Running back Abu Sama III might be the X-factor after averaging 7.3 yards per carry as a freshman. If he can develop into a complete running back, Iowa State could easily find itself in the title game.
The vibes have never been better during the Neal Brown era in Morgantown after a last-place preseason pprediction ended with nine wins and a Mayo Bowl victory. The three-headed backfield of quarterback Garrett Greene and running backs Jaheim White and CJ Donaldson returns for another campaign, while the improving defense got another shot of talent. The ceiling for this team likely falls on both replacing NFL lineman Zach Frazier and whether Greene can be more productive as a passer. Regardless, the floor is higher than ever, and that's a good place to be. 
The Knights were positioned as a potential dark horse contender in their first Big 12 season, but UCF struggled to deal with the strength and bulk of Big 12 opponents, going 1-7 against legacy Power Five teams. UCF hit the portal hard and got some big hitters, including quarterback KJ Jefferson, EDGE Nyjalik Kelly and linebacker Jesiah Pierre. Jefferson should add some physicality to Gus Malzahn's power rushing offense and keep the pressure off a developing defense. That said, it's hard to be confident in UCF's physicality reaching contention level until we see it. 
The Red Raiders failed to meet lofty expectations in Joey McGuire's second season, but Texas Tech quietly finished with a winning Big 12 record in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Mike Leach was fired in 2009. The return of running back Tahj Brooks spurs what should be fun offense, electrified by the addition of five-star receiver Micah Hudson, the top recruit in program history. Defensively, the Red Raiders have been solid under Tim DeRuyter. Close-game luck flipped in 2023 but could flip again and get Texas Tech back into the Big 12 title conversation. 
Frogs fans have been treated for whiplash over the past three years after sandwiching a trip to the national title game with two 5-7 seasons. TCU never seemed to recover from falling to Colorado in one of the most watched games of the season and went 0-4 in one-score games. Sonny Dykes brought in another transfer class stacked with former blue-chips, including Notre Dame DL Nana Osafo-Mensah and Texas CB Austin Jordan. However, missing quarterback Josh Hoover this spring adds a slight bit of nervous energy as TCU enters a defining season. 
Colorado's mess of contradictions makes them perhaps the toughest team nationally to project. The Buffs finished last place in the Pac-12 in 2023 but featured two of the best players in the nation in corner Travis Hunter and quarterback Shedeur Sanders. Colorado posted perhaps the worst running game in America, but every offensive lineman and running back are gone. On paper, they appear to have upgraded the OL position, but that was true last year, too, before the historically bad results. The defensive line transfer talent is off the charts, but defensive back is a little shakier. From a depth perspective, there's almost no way to tell what Colorado has with all the turnover, not even counting turning over half their coaching staff and both playcallers. Ultimately, the unpredictability lands them right around the middle tier of the conference. 
Baylor hasn't spent much time in the cellar, but a 3-9 campaign was the worst by a returning coach since 2007. Instead of making a change, Baylor's athletic department is making a costly gamble that Dave Aranda can right the ship for the second time in four years. There are some reasons for optimism. The Bears nabbed offensive coordinator Jake Spavital (Cal) and running backs coach Khenon Hall (SMU) from ACC schools to transition towards a spread offense, and they took a big swing by adding MAC Player of the Year QB DeQuan Finn from Toledo. Anything short of a bowl game and Aranda is likely out. Is Baylor up for the challenge?
BYU's defense took a modest step forward in its first year under respected defensive coordinator Jay Hill, but the offense was a total mess. The Cougars ranked last in the Big 12 in essentially every offensive category, including both passing and running the ball. As opposed to last season, BYU opted to limit its transfers, but three of its seven additions are quarterbacks. Former Baylor starter Gerry Bohanon and former No. 1 JUCO quarterback Jake Retzlaff are favorites for the job, but the position doesn't matter much if BYU can't protect and run better. 
The vibes around Scott Satterfield's program have been decidedly muted since he arrived, and not much changed over the offseason. Quarterback transfer Brendan Sorsby has injected some life into the offense next to running back Corey Kiner and should be more consistent than the departed Emory Jones. However, the normally reliable defense might be the bigger concern after allowing the most yards per play in the Big 12. Despite fielding future NFL defensive lineman Dontay Corleone, the Bearcats allowed an astonishing 5.4 yards per carry, worst in the league by a mile. 
Former Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen had a massive contract, but leaders at the school were so disturbed by his recruiting failures -- including zero top-50 classes despite selling the Big 12 -- that they decided to make a change. Willie Fritz is a miracle worker and should eventually win games at Houston, but the roster is nowhere near ready. A 4-8 initial campaign when he arrived at Tulane could be instructive as Fritz installs a new approach. 
Kenny Dillingham has brought immense energy and excitement to the program, but results were wildly inconsistent as the Sun Devils slogged through injuries. Adding more complication, three of the four quarterbacks who started games last season transferred, leaving only returner Trenton Bourguet and inconsistent transfers Jeff Sims and Sam Leavitt on the roster. Dillingham is steadily increasing the talent level, but if none of the quarterbacks hit, it could be another long year in Tempe.