This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands now. Order online today!
Baker Mayfield doesn't exactly have to look over his shoulder at Oklahoma. And Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson should feel pretty safe about his spot on the field in Austin.
But not everybody in the Big 12 has that kind of job security.
Here's a look at the conference's biggest position battles at each school, in order of predicted finish for 2016.
Dakota Austin and P.J. Mbanasor are both vying to replace All-Big 12 cornerback Zack Sanchez, who declared early for the NFL draft. The Sooners return the rest of a secondary that helped them lead the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and tie for fifth nationally with 40 sacks. If either Austin or Mbanasor can play at the level of standout juniors Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas, OU will feature one of the nation's most dangerous defensive backfields.
The Cowboys have a tradition of quality running backs, but the well has run dry -- they haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012. Last year's leader, junior college transfer Chris Carson, rushed for 517 yards and four touchdowns but averaged just 3.95 yards per carry. Now the Cowboys hope to restore their legacy: Barry Sanders Jr. (yes, son of the OSU legend) arrives as a graduate transfer from Stanford, where he averaged 5.84 yards per carry as a reserve. He'll compete with Carson and as many as six other running backs, including two freshmen, for a spot in the lineup.
Andrew Billings became the Big 12's most disruptive defensive force and headed to the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. Baylor is counting on juco transfer Jeremy Faulk to step up in the interior, but frankly, the Bears will need multiple players to replace Billings. Defensive end K.J. Smith and defensive tackle Byron Bonds already have combined for 19 starts when filling in due to injuries, and Bonds has played in 33 games. Junior DE Brian Nance had two sacks off the bench last season.
The Mountaineers will have to replace one of the Big 12's top cornerback duos in Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut, key parts of a defense that grabbed 23 interceptions last season, tied for second in the country. But they have three experienced seniors competing for the two vacancies: Antonio Crawford played in 38 games for Miami and sat out last season after transferring, Nana Kyeremeh has appeared in 30 games, and 6-2, 208-pound Rasul Douglas played in 11 games last season after transferring from Nassau CC.
No surprise here. The Longhorns have endured quarterback turmoil dating all the way back to Colt McCoy's graduation seven years ago, which is the biggest reason Texas hasn't reached double-digit wins since making the 2009 national title game. Last season, Texas juggled Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes with little success. That means the Longhorns will stage yet another quarterback derby with Heard, Swoopes and highly touted incoming freshman Shane Buechele. Despite Swoopes' struggles, his edge in experience could make him the favorite to open as the starter.
Replacing TCU's go-to receiver, Josh Doctson, goes hand in hand with breaking in a new quarterback. The Frogs signed coveted junior college transfer Taj Williams and will feature junior Emanuel Porter and dynamic sophomore slot receiver KaVontae Turpin (45 catches, 649 yards, eight touchdowns), but there is no proven No. 1 target on the roster.
With record-breaking wideout Jakeem Grant gone, quarterback Patrick Mahomes is looking for his next go-to receiver. The Red Raiders have intriguing options, including Derrick Willies, the No. 1 juco receiver in the country, who chose Tech over Oklahoma. But keep an eye on Dylan Cantrell, who is healthy after missing last year with a back injury. Cantrell and Mahomes starred together in high school in Whitehouse, Texas.
Injuries ravaged the Wildcats at quarterback last season, as both Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton were lost for the year with knee injuries before the start of conference play. Ertz initially won the job coming out of fall camp, and coach Bill Snyder once compared Delton with former K-State great Ell Roberson. Ertz and Delton are healthy again and will challenge former walk-on Joe Hubener, who completed just 47.6 percent of his passes after being forced into the lineup last season. Freshman Skylar Thompson, a four-star recruit, is a wild card in the four-way battle.
Up front, the Cyclones return left tackle Jake Campos, who has made 23 career starts. But elsewhere on the offensive line, Iowa State will be starting from scratch. Standout guard Daniel Burton left the program because of injuries, and Rhode Island graduate transfer Tyler Catalina backed out of his Iowa State commitment to enroll at Georgia instead. Those twists could open the door for the gem of Campbell's first recruiting class, Sean Foster, a 6-foot-8, 285-pound four-star recruit at offensive tackle, to challenge for the spot opposite Campos immediately.
Ryan Willis flashed some promise, throwing for a Kansas freshman record 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns. But he also threw 10 picks, was sacked 3.1 times per game (most in the Big 12) and completed just 52.1 percent of his passes. Redshirt freshman Carter Stanley also will get a shot at the job, and senior Montell Cozart returns with 11 career starts, including last year's first four games before a shoulder injury ended his season.
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