Week 3 is upon us, and while we’ve gotten to know a little bit about the 2021 edition of the Big 12 over the past two weeks, questions still abound. Week 3 won’t answer every question, hope, or doubt bouncing around in the heads of Big 12 fans as they lay their heads on their pillows Friday night, but some things are bound to become clearer.
TCU has a bye week ahead of its showdown with SMU, but every other Big 12 team has a game, and two teams, Baylor and Kansas, will play in the first Big 12 conference game of the season. Here are 12 Big Questions that might get some clarity this weekend:
1. Can Kansas simply compete?
The Jayhawks host Baylor for the first conference game of the Lance Leipold era. Baylor is certainly the superior team on paper, but this early in the season crazy things can still happen, and the Bears have yet to be tested. If you’re a KU fan, you would like to see the Jayhawks at least be competitive and test Baylor.
For KU to be the first team this season to test the Bears, it’s going to have to find a way to contain the Baylor run game, which leads the Big 12 in total yards through two games. Moreover, Jason Bean and the KU offense are going to have to find a way to sustain drives and get in the endzone more often than they’re accustomed.
It feels like a tall task, but the Jayhawks have shown improvement over two weeks. Can they do it, or will Baylor’s defense stand tall?
2. Can Baylor’s defense take a step forward?
Baylor’s defense has been far from bad. In fact, it leads the Big 12 in scoring defense and is second in the conference in total defense. But it hasn’t dominated against weak opponents the way many, myself included, expected.
The Bears are allowing 258 yards per game thus far, good for 16th in the nation, while Kansas is averaging 327.5 yards of offense per game. If you’re a Baylor fan, you’d like to see the defense hold KU to well below that average. It’d be nice if Baylor could get a couple of sacks as well, as the Bears only have one on the season.
KU has faced South Dakota and #17 Coastal Carolina, and while South Dakota is a good FCS team and Carolina is ranked, a top-tier Big 12 defense should be better than South Dakota and Coastal’s defenses. It’s Week 3 and time for Baylor’s defense to start playing up to its potential.
3. Was Oklahoma’s close call against Tulane a fluke or cause for concern?
The Sooners take the field against Nebraska, their old archrivals from up north, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Game of the (last) Century in a showcase of programs that have followed very different paths this century.
While the status of Nebraska’s pulse may be debatable, the last time Oklahoma played a team with a pulse, the Sooners got quite the scare from Tulane. While a dominant victory against Nebraska may not completely absolve Oklahoma for looking like a team that’s prone to losing focus with a big lead, it could give the College Football Playoff Committee a reason to award some style points.
More importantly, whether Tulane was a fluke is completely in Oklahoma’s hands: if they can prevent such a meltdown from happening again, it was a fluke. Covering the 22-point spread to beat Nebraska comfortably would not only bring the Sooners one step closer to proving Tulane was a fluke, but it would also give the Sooners valuable experience in finishing teams that won’t stop fighting.
Say what you will about the state of Nebraska’s football program, but you can bet the Huskers are going to fight for four quarters against the Sooners.
4. How far has former Big 12 member Nebraska fallen?
Many Big 12 fans have experienced plenty of schadenfreude watching the Cornhuskers’ descent into mediocrity. But this pleasure has long come with a nagging question: what would the Huskers look like if they were still lining up against their old Big 12 foes?
Fortunately, before Oklahoma goes off to join the SEC, we get to see how the Huskers do against the team that has dominated the Big 12 nearly as long as the Huskers have been a bottom-feeding in the Big 10. Big 12 teams will get to make an apples-to-apples comparison between themselves and Nebraska this season.
5. Is West Virginia down this season?
While one game can never tell the whole story about a season, WVU’s home showdown with rival #15 VA Tech is a swing game that will have a big impact on the Mountaineers’ season overall. Win, and WVU is 2-1 with a win over a ranked opponent heading into the Big 12 opener at Oklahoma. Lose, and WVU is 1-2 and will likely be 1-3 after facing Oklahoma in Norman with the lone win coming against Long Island.
Beating a ranked foe at home doesn’t necessarily ensure that WVU will have a season that meets expectations in Morgantown, but a loss would make a successful season very difficult.
It’s not just the win/loss column that would affect WVU’s season for good or bad, of course, it’s the team’s confidence. A win would be a huge confidence builder. A loss sets WVU up for a dismal start to the season.
Of course, a close loss to VA Tech would be much less devastating. WVU fans will want the win, and they may well get it, but even a close loss will leave the door cracked to a respectable season.
6. Is Oklahoma State’s offense really as bad as it has looked?
The Cowboys make a trip to the infamous Smurf Turf to take on Boise State Saturday night in an intriguing match between two teams that sport the color orange well. While Boise may not be the same program it was a few years ago, it still has a talented defense that would be a good test for any Power 5 offense.
The Cowboys’ offense, however, has been underwhelming this season. The primary problem seems to be the offensive line’s ability to complete blocks and clear running lanes.
Oklahoma State’s rushing offense is last in the Big 12 and stunningly ranks 112th nationally with 97 yards per game. Perhaps the signs were there last season as the offensive line struggled with injuries and Covid-19 issues while Chuba Hubbard had a disappointing season.
Boise State hasn’t exactly been phenomenal against the run, allowing 179.5 yards per game and 255 yards to UCF alone, but the Broncos should offer a much stiffer test for the Cowboys’ run game than Missouri State or Tulsa. In other words, Boise offers the Cowboys an opportunity to establish the run game against a defense that is respectable but not necessarily a killer against the run.
If Oklahoma State can move the ball effectively on the ground against Boise, it’s likely to win the game, and perhaps more importantly, it will give the offense a bit more swagger before opening Big 12 play against a solid K-State defense next week. Speaking of K-State’s defense. . .
7. How good is K-State’s defense?
Kansas State hosts Nevada and quarterback Carson Strong, who may well be the number one pick in next year’s NFL draft. It’s a tough test for a Wildcat defense that has appeared vastly improved from last season.
Kansas State opened the season with a dominating 24-7 win over Stanford, a team known for its ability to rush the ball. The Cardinal cycled through two quarterbacks throughout the game against K-State, but went with just one, Tanner McKee, in its upset of #14 USC in Week 2.
Meanwhile, in Week 2, K-State was tested by SIU, a Top 10 FCS team, but an FCS team, nonetheless. While SIU managed to put points on the board against K-State, the lion’s share came off turnovers, including a pick-six thrown by K-State’s QB2 Will Howard (more on that in a minute).
Now K-State’s defense faces one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, and we will get to see how the Cats hold up against an explosive FBS offense. K-State’s corners, Ekow Boye-Doe and Julius Brents, have been exceptional, and K-State’s pass rush leads the Big 12 with nine sacks, but this is where the rubber starts to really hit the road.
K-State’s biggest question against Nevada isn’t about the defense, however. . .
8. Can K-State win without Skylar Thompson?
After Skylar Thompson went down last season against Texas Tech, Will Howard led the Cats to two more straight victories over TCU and Kansas, but KSU lost every single game after. Now, with Thompson out and a Nevada team that should be able to score some points coming to town, K-State offense must find a way to be reasonably balanced.
The Cats are going to be able to run the ball against Nevada, and running back Deuce Vaughn will break free for at least one big run, but for the run game to truly work and for K-State to win the game, there is going to have to be some production from the vertical passing game.
I’ve no doubt K-State will use the horizontal passing game, but at some point, they’re going to have to have success throwing down the field. Whether they can have success doing this will tell us a lot about Howard and K-State’s chances without Thompson.
9. Is Casey Thompson the answer for Texas?
We’ve seen what Hudson Card can do as the starter. Now, when Texas hosts Rice, we get to see what Casey Thompson can do.
The trouble is that a game against Rice, in which Texas should pound the ball on the ground, isn’t likely to provide any definitive answers. Nonetheless, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian made the move to start Thompson, and the results will be notable because Sarkisian has to settle on one quarterback or another sooner than later, and Rice offers Sarkisian his last experiment in the nonconference laboratory before starting Big 12 play.
While the quarterback position is a big question, and one Texas must find an answer for, there’s an even bigger question for Texas. . .
10. Can Texas stop the run?
A week after giving up 333 yards on the ground to Arkansas, a definitive answer to Texas’ rushing defense isn’t going to be found against Rice. However, as with the quarterback situation, the results will be of great interest.
Rice is averaging 106.5 yards per game, good for 106th in the nation, but the sample size includes games against Arkansas and Houston. For comparison, Texas and Bijan Robinson gained 138 yards on 41 carries (3.4 yards per) against Arkansas, and Rice gained 81 yards on 31 carries (2.1 on average).
This apples-to-apples comparison shows that Rice’s running game isn’t as good as Texas’, but can Texas hold Rice below its 2.84 average yards per carry this season? Can Texas’ rushing defense be as good as the average of Arkansas and Houston’s against Rice?
Again, this isn’t going to tell us a whole lot about Texas’ ability to stop the run because Rice isn’t a great running team, but it will probably provide some clues.
11. Can Brock Purdy bounce back from his slow start?
The Cyclones travel to Vegas to take on UNLV in what should be an easy win to close out the non-conference slate for ISU. The only intrigue in this matchup comes in how Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy responds after being benched in a miserable outing for the Cyclone offense against Iowa.
We could say, hey, it’s UNLV, so how much can we learn? However, the way Purdy and ISU’s offense overall has played thus far, we might be able to learn a lot.
If ISU’s offense starts clicking and runs up the score against UNLV, we know there’s hope. If the offense has another underwhelming game, it may be time to hit the panic button.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Purdy is replaced as ISU’s signal-caller long term, but Cyclones fans will feel a lot better if Purdy can shake off the bad start and put a hurt on UNLV.
12. Can Texas Tech put together a solid first half?
The Red Raiders take on Florida International this weekend, and while another Tech win is a foregone conclusion, it will be interesting to see how the first half of the game shapes up.
Texas Tech has been miserable in the first half of games thus far. The slow start was somewhat excusable in the highly strange way the first half against Houston unfolded, but after starting the game against Stephen F. Austin with a long touchdown strike, Tech fell asleep until the second half.
For the Red Raiders to reach a bowl game this season, they are going to have to find a way to get going in the first half. The strong second-half performances are great, and something Tech fans want to see continue, but the Red Raiders have yet to put together a strong first-half performance.
There’s no reason Tech shouldn’t dominate FIU from the first quarter on. Now is the time for Tech to play four full quarters before traveling to Austin to take on the Longhorns to open Big 12 play.
The Big 12 has some great games on tap this weekend, and every single one has a storyline worth following. Fire up your ESPN+ and tune-in, Big 12 fans. Things are starting to get interesting.