The biggest development from the last Super Bowl was not that Brady's legacy was cemented as the Xth greatest QB, or that Tom and the Patriots were established as history's biggest cheats, but rather that a spread passing game relying on quick reads and passes to the flats successfully took down the NFL's best defense.
Efficiency in the passing game is reaching a point where new heights are possible and the ramifications for the game have still yet to be fully felt.
One thing that has become clear enough in a spread passing college football league like the Big 12 is that teams that lack depth at defensive back get blasted. Teams really need good or at least solid coverage players at at least three positions on their defense, the two corner positions and then generally either a safety spot or at nickel.
When a defense can field three good coverage players at a single time then a spread offense, which generally works by finding a favorable match-up to isolate in space and picking it like a scab, faces marginal decreases in efficiency that lead to punts or field goals rather than touchdowns.
In 2014 the Oklahoma Sooners had the best lines in the league, a bruising running game, and a defense with athletes across the defensive front, but they were seriously limited by their play in the passing game. Knight was incapable of hurting opponents if they took away WR Sterling Shephard while the Sooners lacked three good coverage players to properly support their athletic front.
Meanwhile the three teams that finished ahead of them, Baylor, TCU, and Kansas State, all had deeper secondaries that could usually hold their own or at least avoid catastrophe against an opponent's top receivers regardless of where they lined up.
When a defense can hope to survive by having solid coverage players lined up across from the offense's top three receiving threats, it allows them to play tacklers and blitzers in the box and prevent spread teams from running the ball by sheer numerical advantage. There are a few Big 12 rosters that stand out as being well equipped to observe the rule of three in 2015 and have a chance to compete for the league crown as a result.
The Baylor Bears
The Bears finished 35th in the nation in passing S&P in 2014 and 24th on passing downs. Their aggressive, press-quarters defense tends to have an "all or nothing" result in terms of coverage results so fans typically only notice their coverage when they're giving up long passes.
The fact that they don't yield much in the way of the quick passing game doesn't stand out, but it's true, and the Bears had a reasonably decent pass defense in 2014 as a result. In 2015 they return their entire secondary save for walk-on nickel Collin Brence, who is to be replaced with the more athletic Travon Blanchard.
As it happens, the Bears play more of a space-backer at nickel anyways and rely on their "cover safety," who aligns to the offensive passing strength, to be the 3rd good coverage player on the field. They return 5'10" 185 pound senior Terrell Burt in this role, a solid three year starter.
On the outside the Bears return their lockdown corner Xavien Howard who it is hoped will do more locking down in year two as a starter and under the new direction of former All-pro corner and new DB coach Chris Dishman.
Ryan Reid, who broke up 12 passes opposite Howard last season, also returns as does the strong safety Orion Stewart. With all that experience back, and likely some better coaching out wide, the Bears are in pretty good shape with no major weak spots to attack in coverage.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys weren't excellent on defense in 2014 after losing about a dozen contributors from their very good 2013 crew that nearly ruined Bryce Petty and the Bears' 2013 campaign.
They had to simplify on defense and relied on several young players in the secondary, which can now pay dividends with their three best corners back along with several safeties who saw serious action in 2014. Kevin Peterson is the big name at corner who had a solid season as the number one guy after thriving in 2013 playing opposite Justin Gilbert and now enters his senior year. On the inside, Jordan Sterns had a strong season at safety in 2014 with a team-leading 103 tackles and is a player that can do serious work in the middle of the field if freed up by being surrounded by good coverage players.
What has led to success for DC Glenn Spencer in the past at Oklahoma State and stands to be a big strength in 2015 is their ability to play a variety of sub-packages designed to thwart different opponents.
If the 'Pokes determine that they need to get a ton of coverage ability on the field they can play Peterson with fellow corners Ashton Lampkin and Ramon Richards and erase an opponent's top three receivers. If they want to play tougher run defense they can go nickel with space-backer Jordan Burton in the slot and supported over the top by coverage safety Tre Flowers, now a redshirt sophomore.
Spencer has a variety of lineup options for the coming year that can get more coverage or more tackling on the field and play situational packages or squeeze the life out of opposing team's strengths if they lack balance.
The Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners keep yo-yoing back and forth between different styles and approaches as the Stoops brothers keep trying to rediscover the magic that led to their defensive dominance a decade ago.
Heading into 2015 it appears they have given up on the 3-4 they tinkered with as a way to feature the special but challengingly unique Eric Striker. They're also mixing back in the cover 3 buzz scheme that they relied on back in 2012 when Mike Stoops returned to Norman and elevated their pass defense to number two in the nation at the expense of the run D, which ranked 58th.
Initially Mike Stoops went a tad overboard back in 2012, insisting on matching four-wide offenses with dime personnel that left a single linebacker on the field while asking the safeties to help stop the run. Then they tweaked the defense in 2013 to a better balance in which they played mostly nickel personnel and asked the safeties to do more in coverage rather than protecting them with dime. In 2014 they swung even further by playing four true linebackers most of the time and leaving their corners and safety on islands they weren't equipped to govern.
In 2015 they're looking to play more nickel again with talented coverage safety Steven Parker filling that spot and freeing up their big safeties Ahmad Thomas (6'0" 218) and Hatari Byrd (6'1" 206) to help in the middle like their safeties did in 2012.
The linebackers (weakside and strongside/nickel) are responsible for forcing the edge and taking away the quick routes to the slot receivers while one safeties drops into the box to help the middle backer against the run and the other plays on top of the slot receivers in the deep middle.
Many teams will ask a safety to cover the slot receiver opposite the nickel but Oklahoma will use a linebacker there instead which brings some extra size on the edge and makes it easier to control the stem of the route but requires that the safeties dropping into the box have some size on them.
Oklahoma should be stronger on the outside with converted safety Julian Wilson graduating and their better corner, Zach Sanchez, returning for his 3rd consecutive year as a starter. Their success will depend on Parker and Sanchez matching expectations and new corner Jordan Thomas proving capable of playing good coverage on the sideline.
The TCU Horned Frogs
Most of the questions about the Frogs heading into 2015 have circled around linebacker where they have to replace the top three players on their depth chart, including Paul Dawson who was the AP Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2014.
However, the Frogs will also have to find some players in the secondary where the best coverage safety Chris Hackett, number one corner Kevin White, and strong safety Sam Carter all move on. That's basically two of the three players that TCU heavily relied on in coverage with run-stuffing free safety Derrick Kindred and corner Ranthony Texada remaining.
Like most every Big 12 defense, the Horned Frog unit simply doesn't work without good corner play on the outside that can allow the other nine players to focus their efforts inside the hash marks. Texada received a baptism by fire last season, the typical method for developing corners in Ft Worth, and will now be asked to lock things down while sophomore Torrance Mosley experiences that same baptism opposite him.
Gary Patterson has an eye for shorter burners at corner with the quickness to stay in a receiver's hip pocket and then perhaps a longer wingspan to help them out when the ball arrives. At 5'10" 170 (Texada) and 5'10" 160 (Mosley), these two are pretty much TCU archetypes at the position.
Assuming Texada gives TCU strong play at one corner spot and Mosley offers at least periodic strength at the other, this leaves new strong safety Denzel Johnson as the key for the Frogs in maintaining their effectiveness from the last two seasons. If he can stick slot receivers half as well as Sam Carter did and take away the quick easy passes that many spread offenses thrive on, TCU should have another strong season on defense.
Solid in coverage but not winning the title
West Virginia will often field four or five good coverage players at a time, which serves them well with all of the zero-blitzes they like to bring against spread teams, but their overall team doesn't appear strong enough to contend for the Big 12 championship after losing the best components of a 2014 offense that couldn't get them higher than 6th place last season.
Texas always has good athletes at defensive back and will likely break in a few youngsters in 2015 like Holton Hill or Kris Boyd that may well dominate the league in the future, but their losses on defense at linebacker and the mess that is their offense preclude them from benefitting in 2015.
Then there's Kansas State, who has one of the strongest secondaries in the league with both starting corners and the best safety returning from 2014 in Danzel McDaniel, Morgan Burns, and Dante Barnett. Unfortunately the Wildcats are losing the strength of last year's team, Jake Waters scrambling out of the pocket and throwing to Curry Sexton or Tyler Lockett.
Unless their offense finds a new identity that can allow them to keep pace with the Big 12's best, the Wildcats won't be competing for the league title.
All in all, the Bears are probably in the best position to leverage good DB play into title-winning defense while their rivals the Horned Frogs are devastated by the loss of 13 interceptions and 22 pass break-ups from their departing DBs. Even for plug'n'play Patterson that is a ton of production to replace.
If the state of Oklahoma is going to produce a challenger to these top two expect it to be the more versatile and passing game savvy Cowboys.