In some ways, it feels like just yesterday we were bragging about the Big 12 going 5-0 during the bowl season. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago, as many of us in Big 12 country are still thawing out from a record-setting cold snap that has left millions in Texas without power and driven up electricity bills around the rest of the Midwest.
But it looks like the worst is over. We are entering March, recruiting classes are in the books, the NCAA Tournament is a couple of weeks away, and for those of us who are football junkies, spring football starts across the Big 12 Conference in the days ahead.
Here are five thoughts I have heading into spring ball for the Big 12 Conference.
How normal will it feel?
It was this time last year that COVID-19 was a thing, but we were more or less planning to live with it. Then, the Big 12 Tournament shut down on Thursday morning as Texas Tech and Texas were getting set to tip off at 11:00 a.m. And spring practices across the Big 12 were getting postponed and eventually cancelled. We’ve come a long way since then, for better or for worse. Many believed we couldn’t get through a college football season. We did. And now, as cases continue to drop and the vaccines get rolled out, we can hopefully get back to normal sooner than later. I don’t expect a “normal” spring. But there is something to be said for the cliche, “hope springs eternal”. As we continue to turn the page from the horrible year that was 2020, the start of spring football for the 2021 season is another step towards a feeling of “normalcy” once again, which I know we all welcome with open arms.
What team is built to challenge Oklahoma?
The Oklahoma Sooners have won six-straight Big 12 Titles. And while Iowa State is likely to be a Top 10 team in the preseason Top 25, there is still a gap between the Sooners and the rest of this conference. The 2020 season was the year to pick off OU and knock them off their perch. They were working in a freshman QB in Spencer Rattler and lost a lot of key pieces. Yet, it didn’t happen. We know that the Cyclones return a ton of talent, and of course the Texas Longhorns have talent and a new head coach in Steve Sarkisian, but there is more I want to learn about both teams’ depth and maybe some guys we aren’t talking enough about yet, or don’t know yet, before I can talk about this being anyone else’s conference to lose.
Steve Sarkisian’s style
Speaking of Steve Sarkisian, the early returns on the staff and recruiting are impressive. However we are still in the honeymoon phase. Last time we saw Sarkisian as a head coach, he was blowing up his career at USC. While there’s plenty of evidence that he is a different guy who is in a much better place, this is still our first chance to see how his personality and style has changed as a head coach. How much did he learn from his time in the NFL and under Nick Saban at Alabama? How does Texas “feel” different this spring? What’s his media interaction like and how does he run the facility compared to Tom Herman? There hasn’t been much we’ve learned about this yet, but at least during spring practice we will have a better idea of what all that looks like.
Who is the third best quarterback?
Brock Purdy and Spencer Rattler are the clear 1-2 in the Big 12 at the position. Or you could say Rattler-Purdy. Either way, they’re the best two QBs in the Big 12. Who is next? There appears to be a big drop off, but spring practice is a chance to get an idea of who is going to make the biggest offseason jump. The quarterback that does it can completely change the expectations and fortunes for his team. The names that come to mind are Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders, TCU’s Max Duggan and West Virginia’s Jarret Doege. If any of those guys going from being inconsistent and mediocre, with flashes, to a top-tier quarterback in the conference, each of these teams can make an argument as the dark horse in the Big 12 Conference. Then there are the new faces like Texas’ Casey Thompson (or Hudson Card), Baylor’s Jacob Zeno or Texas Tech’s incoming transfer Tyler Shough from Oregon. There are lots of options to pick from and this will be a fun offseason storyline to watch.
Who can take the biggest step forward?
In this question, I don’t mean who will challenge Oklahoma. But which team can improve the most. Naturally, for that conversation, you have to look to the bottom of the conference. Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas finished at the bottom of the Big 12. Each fan base will want to make its case, but for now it’s Baylor with the most talent of the three, who had itself the toughest transition in 2020 under a new head coach in Dave Aranda, who had no spring camp and limited summer practice to implement his system, then dealt with some key injuries during the season. But Aranda will need to show this spring that he’s learned a thing or two in Year 1 about running a program as well, because considering the blank checkbook and resources he’s been given, another 2-7 conference record should not be tolerated.
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