Space force-casting the Big 12
Who does space force theory suggest will win the Big 12 in 2022?
Since embracing round robin scheduling and a 10-team format, the Big 12 has become notorious for being hard to project in the preseason.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Picking Oklahoma to win has been pretty easy money. They had longstanding continuity under Bob Stoops and are one of only two teams in the league with nationally competitive resources. The other was Texas, who’s repeatedly fallen on their face during this period, leaving slot #2 in the hunt for a Big 12 title WIDE open nearly every season.
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So what does Ian’s space force theory have to say? Can that paradigm help predict which teams will emerge from a league where most teams have comparable advantages?
In hindsight, Baylor won in 2021 due to space force principles. They had a deep threat receiver who ran a 4.28 at the following combine clearing space for their new “RVO” (reliably violent offense) system, which was just an Alex Gibbs-style wide zone attack. They had a former blue chip left tackle in Connor Galvin who played well, some NFL athletes in the secondary including sporadic cornerback Kalon Barnes, and at times they had a legit Edge rushing the passer and at other times manufactured one by blitzing nickel Jalen Pitre or Mike linebacker Terrel Bernard (both NFL draft picks).
But as any Baylor fans who follow my work can tell you, I didn’t believe in Baylor nor their space force at any point until Oklahoma State’s 4th down rushing attempt at the goal line came up inches short.
I also thought Texas would be more competitive, but their space force profile in the preseason was BLEAK. No proven outside receiver, let alone true deep threat, a bad left tackle, no Edge left on campus, and some solid but unspectacular cornerbacks. I thought they could develop some guys and get enough from running back Bijan Robinson to get 8-9 wins…they found a deep threat but only went 5-7.
Finally, I really liked TCU due to space force theory. Quentin Johnston at receiver? Trevius Hodges-Tomlinson and Noah Daniels at cornerback? Khari Coleman and Ochaun Mathis off the edges? Didn’t work out, turns out Gary Patterson’s whole program was completely crumbling and they couldn’t leverage having those athletes. The space force variable couldn’t overcome program-wide disrepair.
So can space force theory help clear the picture in a league with as much parity as the Big 12? Absolutely. But it’s hard to project who will actually be good in the space force before the season. Requires projection, player evaluation, and a close ear to the ground from what’s happening within a program in their offseason. It’s much trickier than guessing which teams will have good quarterback play or sound defense. Space force athletes can not play one year and then be emergent stars the next, because it’s about speed and athleticism.
I get it wrong all the time, obviously.
Let’s give it a try anyways.
We’ll go by the Big 12 preseason media poll’s order, starting from the bottom.
No. 10? Kansas Jayhawks
We’re not going to spend forever on these, especially where we don’t need to.
Kansas does not have a particularly good left tackle, they do not have a deep threat receiver, this is not a Big 12 Championship offense.
Defensively could be more interesting. They were not great at cornerback last year while taking some Ls getting young guys experience, now they bring them back and add former blue chip and Michigan State transfer Kalon Gervin. He’s transferring to Kansas for a reason, but he at least has some old recruiting pedigree. They also have Miami of OH Edge Lonnie Phelps coming in, who had 8.5 sacks last year.
Can they field a good defensive space force? That’s a definite maybe. Offensively, no chance.
No. 9? Texas Tech
Tech has an awful lot of unknowns. Receiver Erik Ezukanma was their guy in recent seasons and is now gone. Does Myles Price count as a deep threat? I’m not sure. He can get up the field but at what volume I’m uncertain and last year he was in the slot. They also have a number of big up and comers, particularly 6-foot-5 Jerand Bradley, who could potentially emerge.
Left tackle is a question mark, they added USC transfer Ty Buchanan there and return Caleb Rogers and Ethan Carde. None of them have much recruiting pedigree to suggest they will offer quarterback-saving athleticism on the perimeter, nor were they great a year ago.
They do have A&M transfer Tyree Wilson at Edge fresh off a fantastic 2021 season and have some veteran cornerbacks in Adrian Frye and Rayshad Williams. I’m not sure if they’ll be dreadful in the space force but they would be a long shot to have game changers at multiple spots. It’s tough for a new staff to make the most of young talent out of the gate.
No. 8? West Virginia
The Mountaineers are one of the few teams in the Big 12 with a former blue chip at left tackle. Sophomore Wyatt Milum was brought along last season at right tackle and now switches sides. Other than this shift, the Mountaineers return all five starting offensive linemen, which has to be attractive to new quarterback JT Daniels.
I believe he’ll have a deep threat too in receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton, a 6-foot-3, 220 pound monster who’s been underutilized in recent years as part of their limited passing attack. They like sophomore Kaden Prather as well, another big target outside, I don’t know that Prather has “kill you over the top” speed though.
There are signs of possible cultural decay in Morgantown, such as many of their top players transferring out on defense and another getting literally stabbed (not by another player, fortunately he’s okay), but the space force indicators are positive on offense.
Defensively they have former FCS All-American Charles Woods at cornerback, he played a lot last year and was good. I’m not sure there’s a good, pure Edge on the roster, but they may be able to get a 3-man pass-rush with Dante Stills and Tajh Alston. If so…this actually looks like a phenomenal “wow, who saw that coming???” Big 12 contender.
Honestly on paper, there’s a lot to like. A lot. If you’ve followed their storylines it looks really bad, how accurate is that impression?
Adding Graham Harrell (offensive coordinator), JT Daniels, and a maturing offensive line are massive factors assuming their defense hasn’t rotten out due to bad culture.
Defensive tackle Akheem Mesidor was the one transfer who raised an eyebrow for me, because unlike the others he was a bonafide star and surefire contributor. Mesidor released a statement mentioning their culture was bad and referencing the stabbing, but he was poached by Miami and Mario Cristobal (known as Crypto-ball) so to what extent should we allow his words to dominate how we think about West Virginia? Maybe some? I’m not ruling them out though.
No. 7? TCU
Sonny Dykes finally overturns Gary Patterson’s conservative approach to the spread for more of a true HUNH spread. Does he have the pieces to get it going fast?
Quentin Johnston is definitely a deep threat wideout who can lay the foundation for the offense. Left tackle…well, less solid. They have a few options.
Andrew Coker, a big former high 3-star who grew in 2021 and was solid at right tackle while they gave the tough assignments to left tackle Obinna Eze (who was crushed).
Marcus Williams, another really big former 3-star (lower rated) who’s been injured and hasn’t done anything yet. Coker at least has played a lot of tackle in games.
Michael Nichols, a good athlete who's a bit undersized and was punked in limited snaps in the past.
I think Dykes will figure some things out but I don't see a Championship-caliber tackle in the group.
Defensively, they have Noah Daniels and Trevius Hodges-Tomlinson back again at cornerback, that’s strong. In terms of pass-rush…nothing except blitzes unless Dylan Horton makes a sizable leap. Possible. Again, new coaching staff has a lot on their plate in order to maximize a new roster.
No. 6? Iowa State
Lack of space force is always the problem for Iowa State.
Right tackle Jake Remsburg is back healthy again and now he’s the de-facto left tackle for left-handed quarterback Hunter Dekkers. I like Remsburg a lot as a run blocker, as a championship protector, less so. He’s a big, former 3-star who has a lot of punch but not the plus athleticism.
Deep threat-wise, they look similar to 2020 and 2021 even though I expect they’ll play mostly 20 personnel rather than 12 and have more receivers on the field. Top guy Xavier Hutchinson is a great receiver but more of a possession target than one who can take the top off, unless he adds that to his game working with Dekkers and more play-action. Jaylin Noel is another good slot but also not a major deep threat. Freshman Greg Gaines is a promising player but probably in a similar mold. He ran an 11.76 100m as a sophomore in high school…not fast.
Cornerback has some promising up and comers but do they have a press-man corner? Typically no. Edge Will McDonald is the exception to this issue in Ames, IA. He’s the class of the league as a pure pass-rusher running the arc.
Looks like a good team but not a Championship team because, again, a lack of overpowering athleticism. Matt Campbell needs to find a Breece Hall at receiver to win this league.
No. 5? Kansas State
Offensively K-State has most everything except a space force, much like Iowa State. Do they have a deep threat wideout? Not really. They have Malik Knowles, who always seems promising but has yet to put together a big season, and then they have some really good possession targets like slot Phillip Brooks and running back Deuce Vaughn.
Left tackle they could have Cooper Beebe, who’s quite good, but he’s an NFL player at guard and they’d like to play him there if possible. So instead of Beebe at left tackle it may be redshirt freshman Andrew Leingang or veteran Kaitori Leveston.
Defensively is another story. Both cornerbacks return and Ekow Boye-Doe has the athleticism and experience now to potentially put something together. Better still, they have star pass-rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah back after his 11-sack season and add fellow Edges Khalid Duke and Nate Matlack. This pass defense is going to be serious trouble. The passing offense? They’ll probably be pretty good, points will tend to come on the ground. Farmageddon will be huge this year, this looks a lot like the 2020 Iowa State team who made it to the Big 12 title.
No. 4? Texas
The Longhorns blew a chance to put together a total space overhaul when they lost the recruitment of TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis after already missing on Alabama transfer Drew Sanders. Now their end positions are likely to be manned by some converted defensive tackles (Moro Ojomo in particular) and perhaps Ovie Oghoufo or even DeMarvion Overshown.
Cornerback is more solid thanks to growth from now-junior Jahdae Barron, the addition of Ohio State transfer Ryan Watts, and the recruitment of 5-star freshman Terrance Brooks.
Tackle is likely to be solved with 5-star freshman Kelvin Banks but could also rely on former 4-stars Hayden Conner (sophomore) or Andrej Karic (redshirt sophomore). Christian Jones is banished back to right tackle where his run blocking will hopefully shine brighter than his long struggles to master the art of going backwards. Deep threat receiver was solved during the season by the emergence of freshman Xavier Worthy but they also added Wyoming deep threat Isaiah Neyor as a transfer and recruited track star freshman Brenen Thompson.
Texas has a young space force but there is major athleticism and potential at all four spots and some experience at receiver, cornerback, and maybe tackle or Edge as well depending on how things shake out with who wins jobs.
No. 3? Oklahoma State
The ‘Pokes under Mike Gundy are always overcoming other deficits with athleticism in space. The 2021 crew had one deep threat-ish target in Tay Martin, terrible tackle play, amazing Edge rushers, and solid cornerback play as well.
They can match a lot of it again with a few positive breaks. They have two main prospects at left tackle. First JUCO Caleb Etienne, a massive person who spent 2021 remaking his body and receiving instruction on the art of going backwards. He’s probably more of a natural right tackle but beggars can’t be choosers.
Secondly, USC transfer Casey Collier, a former low 3-star Graham Harrell believed in as a project who showed some potential before transferring to be closer to home. Probably OSU can do better at tackle than last year and still not be great, but these guys have more potential than the roster held a year ago.
Deep threat receiver likely improves, they have tons of talented youngsters and Jaden Bray in particular looks like a 1-on-1 nightmare outside. If not him, there are plenty of other options.
Edge rushing is a problem of too much. Trace Ford is back, Brock Martin is back, and phenom freshman Collin Oliver is back. They can’t even play all of them at the same time unless it’s 3rd-and-long. Behind them and outside at cornerback? OSU starts over with unblooded young athletes who won’t have multi-year starters at safety to help them.
OSU will solve some of these issues but they probably can’t connect on them all.
No. 2? Oklahoma
One reason the Sooners are routinely in good shape in this league is they never lack for high level athletes to develop and plug in.
Star Edge Nik Bonitto is gone, but Marcus Stripling will find Brent Venables to be an accommodating schemer in creating the right matchups and angles for him. Cornerbacks Woodi Washington and DJ Graham have not been good yet, but at least they are good athletes who will get some new coaching and help.
The Sooners are probably 50-50 on fielding a credible space force on defense. I tend to suspect Venables will succeed in bringing pressure but will need more time to shore up the back end in coverage behind them. Their disaster scenario is probably not too bad, there’s just too many athletes up front to throw at the quarterback.
Offensively it’s a similar situation. Anton Harrison has long been believed to be a potential NFL tackle, he’s yet to play like one. This could be the year, it’s his third. Theo Wease has never looked like a deep threat to me and Marvin Mims plays inside in the slot, but you wouldn’t bet on them being bad either.
Overall I think OU will have some strong features but they may lack any actual game changers at these positions. They need development at all four spots and batting 1.000 is tough. Again, first year coaching staff with so many unknowns paints a more worrisome picture than what’s on paper.
No. 1? Baylor
This is more grim than for Oklahoma.
Tyquan Thornton is gone, two of the three main corners are gone, and the third (AJ Walcott) might move to nickel. They didn’t have an Edge who could get to the quarterback in 2021 unless Matt Jones played Jack and he’s currently slotted to be an inside backer this season instead.
Left tackle Connor Galvin is back after a great 2021, otherwise the Bears are plugging in fresh talents at these positions. Technically Garmon Randolph is a returning starter at the Jack and Jones will surely blitz the edge regularly, so they might approach their effectiveness in rushing the edge from a year ago.
From last I heard, likely starting nickel Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson will actually end up at cornerback as potentially their top guy. Wide receiver is unclear but Auburn transfer Hal Pressley is surely near the top of the list to try and replace Thornton outside. Dave Aranda replaced some of Matt Rhule’s track star athletes in his own classes and now it’s time to see how they look.
If you look on paper at which teams have the highest caliber of athletes stepping into these space force roles, you can see the two teams who are often at the top of Vegas projections in Texas and Oklahoma standing out. Then you see Baylor, West Virginia, and Texas Tech as the next tier.
Tech’s inclusion here is interesting, but again you have a lot of unknowns, ditto Baylor. Oklahoma State is probably under valued here because if Jaden Bray isn’t a terrific outside receiver, someone else probably will be for the ‘Pokes.
The other team which stands out is West Virginia, who’s rating is helped by the fact Charles Wood wasn’t ranked coming out of high school, yet we’ve seen Woods in action and he’s unquestionably one of the better athletes at his position in the league.
No one wants to bet on them because of their histories, but is it possible we could see Texas and West Virginia in the Big 12 Championship game? They have more knowns in the space force than the rest of the league.
Space force theory would suggest it’s possible. Or it could just be Oklahoma and Baylor again.
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