Thursday, July 25, 2024

Big 12 Media Days 2024: What to watch as Deion Sanders debuts, Utah faces big expectations in Year 1

College football’s talking season is upon us. With the 2024 season right around the corner, various Big 12 coaches and athletes are set to descend upon Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium from July 9-10 to kick off this year’s conference media days slate. The conference already released its preseason all-conference team as well as its projected order of finish

For a second consecutive season, a robust set of newcomers will take center stage. The Big 12 benefited from the Pac-12’s dissolution by welcoming Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado to its ranks. Preseason favorite Utah highlights the schools speaking on Tuesday, while Deion Sanders will make his much-anticipated first official appearance as a Big 12 coach to open up the proceedings on Wednesday. 

The Big 12 does have to contend with its own notable departures as this will be the first media days slate without Texas or Oklahoma since the conference’s inception. There are several schools in contention to fill the power vacuum left by those two programs, who combined to win seven of the last nine conference titles. 

Adding extra heat to the conference race — aside from the record, 120-degree temps hitting Sin City this week — is the fact that whoever emerges as the eventual winner locks down an automatic spot in the new 12-team College Football Playoff. Suffice to say, there are plenty of storylines to keep an eye on this week as the Big 12 Media Days unfold. 

Deion makes his debut 

Colorado’s return to the Big 12 comes with much fanfare thanks to the presence of coach Deion Sanders, one of college football’s most electric — and enigmatic — personalities. He thrives in a media setting and certainly isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, but what’s interesting about this week is it’s Sanders’ first power-conference media days. Sanders missed the 2023 Pac-12 Media Days recovering from surgery and the year before was at Jackson State. Sanders figures to be swarmed by reporters and how he commands the room during the more raucous breakout sessions — where national media will be trying their best to get the quote of the week — will be good for a social clip or two. 

The Buffaloes certainly have plenty to tout amid their conference move. Two-way star Travis Hunter is perhaps the best player in college football. He can excel as both a wide receiver and defensive back, was named the preseason Defensive Player of the Year while quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son, earned a spot on the All-Big 12 team. 

In total, the Buffaloes had three players on the All-Big 12 team, an impressive mark for a conference newcomer. Whether that lends itself to improvement on 2023’s 4-8 record remains to be seen. 

Utah facing big expectations 

Utah is expected to hit the ground running once the 2024 season begins. In fact, the Utes are the outright favorite to win the Big 12 in their first year with the conference. 

They received 20 first-place votes in the Big 12 media poll and took the top spot with 906 total points. It’s not hard to see why voters would have so much faith in Utah. Coach Kyle Whittingham led his team to two Pac-12 titles in the past three years and posted an eight-win season in 2023 despite missing quarterback Cam Rising for the entire year. 

Rising is back for another season and profiles as one of the Big 12’s top signal callers. He has an underrated group of skill talent players surrounding him, including All-Big 12 tight end Brant Kuithe, and an offensive line that returns three starters. The defense has a ton of production back as well and looks particularly stacked in the front seven. 

The pieces are certainly there to make a run, but the Big 12 seems wide open and it’s always among the nation’s most chaotic conferences. 

The most tantalizing news piece that could come out of Whittingham’s media session, however, would be whether he offers a timeline to Utah’s announced succession plan that positions defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley as the head coach-in-waiting

Kansas State a quiet favorite 

Kansas State wasn’t too far behind Utah in the preseason poll, receiving 19 first-place votes and falling just 17 points short of supplanting the Utes at the top. Yet it doesn’t seem like the Wildcats have generated that much hype in the preseason. 

They were one of just five teams without a player on the preseason All-Big 12 team. They’ve been included in multiple top-25 projections but have rarely appeared in any conversations surrounding the College Football Playoff, though a Big 12 Championship Game berth would put them one win away. 

A lot of Kansas State’s hopes hinge on the development of new starting quarterback Avery Johnson, one of the most ballyhooed signings in program history. His outlook is positive but his experience to this point is still relatively thin. Regardless, it’s hard to doubt against Chris Klieman given his 19 wins over the past two years and the fact that he won the Big 12 as recently as 2022. 

What to do with Ollie Gordon II

Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II is the preseason Offensive Player of the Year and was the only unanimous All-Big 12 selection. It makes sense, given the fact that he won the 2023 Doak Walker Award and finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting. 

He is one of college football’s preeminent stars. His outlook has also become considerably more cloudy following his recent arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence and driving over the speed limit. 

Gordon will still represent the Cowboys at Big 12 Media Days, but how he and coach Mike Gundy field the questions that are sure to follow will provide insight into his status for the 2024 season, though his presence in Las Vegas suggests that the situation won’t have a huge impact. 

Is there a second-year leap in store? 

The 2023 campaign was not kind to conference newcomers. Out of the four former Group of Five powers to make the jump in competition, UCF fared the best with its 3-6 showing in conference play. Houston and BYU won two games apiece, while Cincinnati limped to a 3-9 overall record with one Big 12 win. 

The Big 12 media poll doesn’t envision a major sophomore leap for any of those four programs, either. UCF was picked to finish eighth, while BYU, Cincinnati and Houston occupied the 13-15 spots, respectively. 

Team Votes (first-place)
Utah 906 (20)
Kansas State 889 (19)
Oklahoma State  829 (14)
Kansas 772 (5)
Arizona 762 (3)
lowa State 661
West Virginia 581
UCF 551
Texas Tech 532
TCU 436
Colorado 400
Baylor 268
BYU 215
Cincinnati 196
Houston 157
Arizona State 141

Houston tried to spark major change by moving on from Dana Holgorsen and hiring Willie Fritz as his successor. Fritz had a 23-4 record in his last two years at Tulane, but it took him a while to get to that point. Media days will allow Fritz, and the incumbent coaches among second-year Big 12 schools, to lay out their vision for 2024 with the hope for improvement at the forefront. 

Keep an eye on Kansas 

It could be a prolific year in the Sunflower State, if the Big 12 media poll is any indication. Kansas nabbed the No. 4 spot, behind Utah, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Jayhawks even received five votes for first place. 

It’s their highest preseason ranking since the Big 12 went to a non-divisional format in 2011. The optimism is well-founded after back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in well over a decade. The Jayhawks went 9-4 last year, their best record since 2007, and have steadily built on their win total in each of their three years under coach Lance Leipold. 

Now the core of that roster that has achieved so much over the last two years is back for another go around. If quarterback Jalon Daniels can stay healthy, the Jayhawks are legit competitors in the Big 12 — and maybe even more. 

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