I’d like to set realignment aside to focus on the newborn football season, the way a grandpa sets the pain in his joints aside to stoop over and tickle his new grandbaby. We can’t forget that the pains of realignment are there, but we can ignore them in order to enjoy what’s still right in the world.
The Big 12 Will Be Better
The league as a whole will be improved on the field this year. Just about every team will be clearly improved in at least one phase of the game. Those that may not be clearly improved in at least one phase of the game – Texas and Kansas – should benefit overall from better coaching.
A lot of talent returns to the Big 12 this season, and the Big 12 has acquired an admirable collection of head coaches to guide that talent. Defenses are becoming more dominant thanks to some of these coaches, and the league is loaded with running backs.
With so much parity and strength in the Big 12 this season, most of the teams in the league are potential dark horses, especially Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, and West Virginia. I envision a season of carnivorous dark horses, like horrors of Greek mythology, battling it out on the gridiron, and everyone is going to spill some blood.
As many as nine Big 12 teams could make a bowl game this season, and with Baylor, K-State, and Texas Tech all improved, certainly no fewer than seven teams qualify for the post-season. From top to bottom, the Big 12 will be better, and while that means no team will have smooth sailing, we, the fans, will be the beneficiaries.
I expect a lot of close games all season long that will provide both ecstasy and agony for fans. If there was ever a season to watch every Big 12 game you can, this is it.
Thoughts on the Teams
What follows is how I would rank the Big 12 teams entering the season along with a few words about each team. Obviously, this could all change very quickly, and most teams appear so close to one another in potential that the order could be put just about any configuration without argument from me. In fact, “ranking” probably isn’t the best term. Let’s say I’ve organized the teams according to what I perceive as their relative potential as well as how much I feel is known about each team – the bigger the question marks, the lower the team appears on the totem pole.
- Oklahoma – The Sooners should field their best team of the Lincoln Riley era and possibly their best of the Big 12 era. This is a national championship caliber team. A few questions persist, however. First, Spencer Rattler has yet to play in front of a capacity Big 12 crowd on the road. With the Sooners departing for the SEC, those crowds are likely to be even more hostile than in a normal season. Rattler and Oklahoma carry the burden of tremendous expectations and will face the anger of the rest of the conference this season – can they hold up? Will the expectations of Sooners fans and the negative energy from opposing fans galvanize Oklahoma to stubbornly not be denied, or will OU wear down over a Big 12 season that is sure to be a serious grind?
- Iowa State – The Cyclones return just about everybody from last year’s breakthrough season. They appear to be the only team that can legitimately threaten the Sooners’ stranglehold on the league. But how will Iowa State handle the psychology of no longer being the underdog but the team with the target on its back week in and week out? The experience and talent on the team suggests they can deal with this role reversal, but the stress of taking everyone’s best shot all season long shouldn’t simply be dismissed. However, a related question might help see the Cyclones through. That question, fair or not, is how real was last season? For example, while Iowa State routed Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, that Oregon team didn’t even win the Pac-12 North and was blessed a spot in the Pac-12 title game because of Washington’s Covid-19 issues. Ultimately, Iowa State still has a lot to prove, and knowing this, the Cyclones should still have a chip on their shoulder.
- TCU – This is a big year for the Horned Frogs. If the offensive line can pass-block better and the defense can generate more turnovers, they have all the pieces to be in the mix for a Big 12 title. The defense will again be one of the league’s best, and Max Dugan could be in for career-high season with TCU’s dynamic receivers. Moreover, running back Zach Evans has the potential for a breakthrough season. All in all, TCU should be a very complete team. Beyond concerns about pass-blocking and generating turnovers, the biggest question facing TCU is whether the play-calling will improve under new offensive coordinator, Doug Meacham, and special assistant to the head coach, Jerry Kill. TCU’s offense the past few seasons has suffered from inconsistent, anemic play-calling, and that must change for the Horned Frogs to reach their potential this season.
- Oklahoma State – The Cowboys enter the season trying to replace some dynamic contributors at running back and wide receiver. However, the biggest question facing Oklahoma State is likely regards quarterback Spencer Sanders’ evolution and maturity. If Sanders can be a better game manager and avoid forcing throws into tight windows, the concerns at wide receiver are far fewer. Losing Chuba Hubbard isn’t great for the running game, but Oklahoma State has plenty of talented, experienced options there. Then there’s the question of how much the defense can improve this season. If the Cowboys defense is stronger than it was last season, Oklahoma State has a team that could very well be in the mix for the Big 12 Championship game.
- West Virginia – The Mountaineers are looking to take another step forward under head coach Neal Brown. WVU begins the season with two challenging but winnable nonconference games, and if things go right, it will have a strong case for being ranked in the Top 25 heading into Big 12 play. The offense should be more consistent and explosive this season, but some questions persist about quarterback Jared Doege’s ability to stretch the field with his arm and extend plays with his legs. However, the biggest question facing WVU as the season opens is whether the defense can be as good as it was last season. The Mountaineers’ defense will miss some key playmakers, especially along the line and in the secondary. With the offense primed to take a step forward, can the defense avoid taking too much of a step backward?
- Texas – Before UT fans start cussing me for putting the Longhorns so far down in the rankings, let me explain that this is based on Texas having a lot of unknowns. When a team is replacing an entire coaching staff and the starting quarterback, I feel like a wait-and-see approach is best. Texas certainly has the talent to be ranked much higher, but then again, Texas has had the talent to finish much higher in the standings than it has year after year. I’m of the opinion that Texas needs to prove it on the field before they get ranked according to their talent. As new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said, “Recruiting rankings don’t win championships.” Thus, questions about the Longhorns abound, and their schedule is difficult. We’ll know a lot more about Texas after week one. That said, win or lose, week one certainly isn’t going to tell the whole story, and like Oklahoma, Texas will face some uber-hostile crowds on the road in the Big 12. It will be interesting to watch how the Longhorns evolve over the season. Texas could win as many as ten games or as few as six.
- K-State – The Wildcats are another wild card in the Big 12 this season. Under head coach Chris Klieman, K-State has been a team capable of both jaw-dropping upsets and mind-boggling letdowns. K-State looks like it might be greatly improved this season, and while it remains thin at some positions, it has considerable depth at others. There are several big questions facing the Wildcats as the season begins. First, can the Cats weather the storm of their first six games that include tilts against Stanford, Nevada, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State? Second, can the receivers take a step forward after going missing during the 2020 season. Third, is the linebacking corps good enough and deep enough to not be an Achilles heel? K-State could finish in the top half of the league or miss a bowl game.
- Baylor – The Bears had a rough go of it in Dave Aranda’s first season as head coach, especially on offense. As bad as things looked in the win/loss columns for Baylor in 2020, it managed to keep many of its losses close, and the defense showed the potential to be elite in the future. Nearly all of Baylor’s biggest questions heading into 2021 revolve around the offense under new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. The mobile Gerry Bohanon has been named the starting quarterback for week one, and given Grimes’ offense at BYU, this makes a lot of sense to me. Jacob Zeno brings a lot to the table at quarterback as well, however, including a laser gun arm, so the quarterback position may not be settled unless Bohanon does a better job of getting the ball out on time and on target than he has shown in the past. That said, the offense will only be as good as the O-line allows it to be, so how that unit develops is the biggest question. Baylor has a stout defense and just enough at the offensive skill positions to reach a bowl (and maybe more) if the O-line can take big step forward.
- Texas Tech – This feels like a do or die season for Red Raiders’ head coach Matt Wells. Texas Tech has the ability to reach a bowl game this season, which would surely buy Wells more time, but questions abound for the Red Raiders. Is Oregon transfer quarterback Tyler Shough the real deal? How fast can running back SaRoderick Thompson get back to form after nursing an injury this offseason? Can the defense continue to improve? Who besides wide receiver Erik Ezukanma steps up to threaten defenses? The Red Raiders have the team speed to take a big step forward on offense, but is the offensive line deep enough to weather the Big 12 gauntlet? Texas Tech could take a big step up toward the middle of the Big 12 pack, or it could miss a bowl game and find itself looking for a new coach.
- Kansas – The Jayhawks finally made a grown-up decision when hiring new head coach Lance Leipold. Instead of trying to make another splashy hire or elevate some coordinator thought to be on the rise, KU found a solid head coach with a track record of success. Leipold may need as many as six seasons, however, to undo all the damage his predecessors have done to the program. There isn’t much about Kansas entering this season that isn’t a question mark. From a macro perspective, the biggest question is whether Kansas can find a way to get to two or even three wins this season. This would require beating South Dakota in the season-opener, beating Duke on the road, and/or notching a win in the Big 12. If KU can accomplish that much, its season will be a stunning success.