The 2021 Big 12 season figures to be an unusual one for the conference. After all, it could be one of the last seasons for the league, at least in its current form, with strong rumblings that Texas and Oklahoma could leave for the SEC.
Alas, the show goes on for the 10 teams that currently make up the Big 12. While it’s tough to argue that the Big 12 is the best conference in the country, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most exciting to watch given all of the points that are typically scored and how any team can be beaten on any given Saturday.
Let’s try to make sense of things by taking a closer look at the Big 12 heading into the 2021 season.
**Betting odds via FanDuel as of Aug. 6
Favorite: Oklahoma Sooners
We know the Big 12 still exists because Oklahoma is still the betting favorite to win the league. The Sooners have won the Big 12 championship six years in a row and are -170 to win it again in 2021 while also -550 just to play in the conference championship game.
Lincoln Riley has somehow been able to raise the profile of the program even further from when he took over. Oklahoma has been in the College Football Playoff in three of the last four seasons. Early-season losses to Kansas State and Iowa State cost the Sooners last season, but a blowout of Florida in the Cotton Bowl was a sign that they’ll be a threat to return to the CFP this season.
Those losses last year were partially a consequence of Spencer Rattler’s inexperience. But he came on strong late in the season and will be a bonafide Heisman contender this year. The transfer portal was good to the Sooners over the summer, adding playmakers like Eric Gray and Mike Woods while also reinforcing the offensive line. Defensively, the Sooners made positive strides last year and are in good shape this year, especially with a dominant defensive line that is a big reason why Oklahoma is the Big 12 favorite and a CFP contender.
Top Competitor: Iowa State Cyclones
Matt Campbell keeps taking the Cyclones places that they’ve never been before. Iowa State finished 2020 as a top-10 team and played in the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time in program history. While the loss to Oklahoma in the title game was a disappointment, the Cyclones will be back in 2021.
The Cyclones have +250 odds to win the Big 12 and are -155 to play in the conference championship game, so they are head and shoulders above everyone in the Big 12 other than Oklahoma.
The key to the operation is senior quarterback Brock Purdy, who is entering his fourth season as the starter. Of course, Iowa State has plenty of help around him with running back Breece Hall and one of the offensive lines in the league.
At the same time, Campbell’s defense is usually one of the best in the conference, and that will once again be the case in 2021. The Cyclones have plenty of experience at cornerback and one of the best front-sevens in the country, which should allow them to create trouble for opposing quarterbacks and avoid getting into classic Big 12 shootouts.
Dark Horse: TCU Horned Frogs
It’s been three years since TCU finished a season ranked, but the Horned Frogs have the potential to change that in 2021. Keep in mind that TCU won five of six to end the 2020 season, including an upset of a ranked Oklahoma State team. They also beat a top-10 Texas team early in the season and lost two games by seven points or less. It’ll just take a little more consistency from Gary Patterson’s team, which is being overlooked at +1200 to win the Big 12.
The biggest key for TCU this year is the offensive line, which needs to take a step forward. But if that happens, quarterback Max Duggan has the tools to have a breakout season. He made clear progress from 2019 to 2020 and now has the experience under his belt to take things to the next level, especially after a normal offseason.
Also, remember that Patterson usually puts together a solid defense. A strong defensive line and a promising set of cornerbacks should help the Horned Frogs limit the big plays they give up, allowing TCU to challenge the top teams in the Big 12.
Deep Sleeper: Texas Tech Red Raiders
This is undoubtedly a make-or-break season for Matt Wells at Texas Tech. He’s just 8-14 in his first two seasons, which is why the Red Raiders have some of the longest odds to win the conference at +10000. Obviously, Texas Tech faced a long road to winning the conference, but +2000 to reach the Big 12 Championship Game isn’t out of the question because there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic
For starters, the Red Raiders have four starters on the offensive line returning, creating a stable foundation. Also, Oregon transfer Tyler Shough has a chance to solve the question at quarterback and have a big year given the talent at the skill positions around him. While Shough isn’t perfect, he did lead Oregon to the Pac-12 Championship Game last year. Meanwhile, the Texas Tech defense will return eight starters while also adding five players via the transfer portal.
If the Red Raiders can take a step forward on that side of the ball, they’ll have a chance to make some noise in 2021.
Overrated: Oklahoma State Cowboys
After one of the best seasons in recent memory, Oklahoma State is +1200 to win the Big 12 with the Cowboys being considered a sleeper to win the conference. But given the history of this program, will Mike Gundy be able to surpass expectations in back-to-back years? Quarterback Spencer Sanders has a lot of great tools, but he’s yet to show the consistency or the ball security he needs to lead Oklahoma State to the Big 12 Championship Game. The Cowboys also have to find replacements for top playmakers Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard, which means the OSU offense could take a step back.
On the other side of the ball, the Oklahoma State defense is always a concern. For what it’s worth, the Cowboys have made some progress on that side of the ball over the last couple of seasons. This will also be a senior-laden defense in 2021. However, if the offense takes even a small step back, the Cowboys will have to have one of the best defenses in the Big 12 to compete for the conference title. There’s still enough of a talent gap to make that difficult to foresee.
Basement Dweller: Kansas Jayhawks
Other than Oklahoma always winning the conference title, the other thing that never changes about the Big 12 is Kansas finishing last. Even the great Les Miles went just 3-18 in his two seasons with the Jayhawks before he was dismissed for inappropriate behavior away from the field. Lance Leipold wasn’t hired as the new Kansas coach until the end of April, which isn’t going to make it any easier for the Jayhawks in 2021.
Consider that Kansas is +25000 to reach the Big 12 Championship Game while the second-longest odds in the league belong to Baylor at +2500. That’s all you need to know about the Jayhawks heading into the season. Leipold might have a fighting chance to turn things around long-term because he’s a great coach. But putting together a team that looks anything close to a Big 12 team will be a monumental task for the new coach. Even non-conference games against Coastal Carolina and Duke will be tough for Kansas to win.
Player to Watch: Brock Purdy, Iowa State
Iowa State is the team that’s most likely to unseat Oklahoma as reigning Big 12 champions. If that happens, it’ll be because Brock Purdy has a great season. The Cyclones have a lot going for them, but they need Purdy to play his best and perform like an elite quarterback and a legitimate Heisman candidate. He’s got the talent to do it, but he needs to bring everything together and use his three years of experience to his advantage.
Unfortunately for Purdy, his play dropped off a little last year. He matched his interception total from the previous season despite playing fewer games. He also averaged just 7.5 yards per pass, which was down from 10.2 as a freshman and 8.4 as a sophomore in 2019. There’s no question that he’s better than last year’s numbers and will have plenty of help around him. If Purdy finds a way to play up to his potential, the Big 12 race could be a virtual toss-up between Oklahoma and Iowa State.
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