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Big 12 roundtable: Judging the defenses

With seven starters returning, Bob Stoops' defense could climb up the Big 12 rankings this fall. Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

In this week’s Big 12 roundtable, we’re taking a closer look at the defenses around the conference this spring and making a few predictions about which units are going to be trending up and down in 2017. In case you missed it, we took a similar look at the Big 12's offenses last week.

Which Big 12 defense is set for a jump in 2017?

Max Olson: I’ll say Texas simply because the Longhorns bring back 17 defenders who earned starts last season. You don’t see that too often. That group came nowhere close to playing up to its potential in 2016 and finished No. 8 in the Big 12 in scoring defense. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando did an unbelievable job at Houston, and it’s hard to see him failing with all that talent at his disposal.

Jake Trotter: Statistically, Oklahoma had one of its worst seasons defensively under Bob Stoops, as the Sooners surrendered 40 or more points in four of their first seven games. OU, however, quietly improved down the stretch and closed out the year, shutting down Oklahoma State and Auburn. With seven starters back, including All-Big 12 cornerback Jordan Thomas and linebacker Obo Okoronkwo, the Sooners could make a return to having the best defense in the Big 12.

Mitch Sherman: All of the offseason attention at Oklahoma State revolves around the Cowboys’ explosive offensive pieces -- well, that and coach Mike Gundy’s rattlesnake hunts and flowing mullet. The defense deserves a look. OSU lost All-Big 12 tackle Vincent Taylor but returns a deep front four that should serve as the catalyst for Glenn Spencer’s group in 2017. Nice pieces exist at the second and third levels to allow the Cowboys to improve several notches on their sixth-place finish in total defense last year.

Which Big 12 defense is heading for a decline in 2017?

Trotter: Under Matt Rhule, Temple had the No. 1 defense in the American Athletic Conference. But with so much turnover and a dearth of proven commodities, I wonder if Baylor’s defense could endure a decline in 2017 after finishing fourth in the Big 12 last year in total defense. Taylor Young is a good linebacker and K.J. Smith can get after the passer. But after those two, there’s a lot more questions than answers.

Sherman: Doubt West Virginia at your own risk, I know. The Mountaineers replaced big losses last year in the secondary and at linebacker, hardly missing a beat from 2015 as its replacement grew into playmakers. This year, the whole defensive front from 2016 is gone. Noble Nwachukwu, Christian Brown and Darrien Howard may prove even more difficult to replace than the guys from a year earlier. Throw in the loss of top cornerback Rasul Douglas, and WVU may slip a bit after ranking second in the league to Kansas State in scoring defense.

Olson: I think it’s reasonable to wonder whether Kansas State can match what it accomplished last year as the Big 12’s No. 1 scoring defense. I realize the Wildcats’ defense is usually greater than the sum of its parts, but Jordan Willis and Elijah Lee are two significant parts that must be replaced. They’ll break in a new group of linebackers and have two seniors to replace in the secondary as well. I’m not expecting much of a decline, of course, but let’s not underestimate the impact Willis and Lee made last year.

Which Big 12 defense is the biggest wild card?

Sherman: I’ll say Oklahoma, citing the factors that Jake mentioned. The Sooners didn’t have a great reason for the struggles of last season. Yeah, they’ve tinkered with the scheme. And it’s a new year. But the Stoops system is not about to change dramatically. Can OU shake free of whatever has ailed it? It ought to happen. I won’t be convinced, though, until I see that talented group step up to a big challenge --- preferably on Sept. 9 at Ohio State.

Olson: West Virginia is the wild card to me. The way DC Tony Gibson was able to reload on defense last season was truly impressive. Facing a similar challenge this offseason, what does he have up his sleeve? I really like the weapons he’s working with at safety with Dravon Askew-Henry and Kyzir White, and the linebackers are good. Let’s see how the Mountaineers reset on the defensive line and at cornerback before we decide how good they’ll be on D.

Trotter: West Virginia with Gibson is a good answer here. But I’ll go with TCU. Though the Horned Frogs finished third in the league in total defense, they didn’t have a vintage Gary Patterson defensive season. With linebackers Travin Howard and Ty Summers back to anchor the defense, TCU has the upside and depth in the secondary to field a Big 12 championship-caliber unit.