With controversy regarding their two most prominent brands dominating the headlines this offseason, can the BIG XII get their own house in order, or will the changing landscape of College Football spell the end of the league as we’ve come to know it?
While most conferences are spending the bulk of their time dealing with the return of populated stadiums this Fall, the BIG XII has suddenly found themselves embroiled in a high-profile exodus, with their two most prominent brands looking to flee the league in search of greener pastures. That’s right, folks; Oklahoma and Texas, who together are two of the most recognizable programs in the country, have chosen to part ways with the conference that they’ve called home since both joined the league upon it’s inception back in 1996. Together they’ve combined to win SEVENTEEN conference championships, with the Sooners laying claim to each of the last six league titles, and each school earning a National Championship along the way. Reports point to both schools leaving by 2025, having already applied to join the mighty Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has already prompted BIG XII Chief, Bob Bowlsby, to lambast their decision, file lawsuits against anyone and everyone (ahem, ESPN), and searching for solutions with talks of a potential merger with the PAC-12. With that said, there is still plenty of football to be played until that happens, with Oklahoma coming into the campaign as the slight favorite, with formidable Iowa State breathing down the Sooners’ necks. Oh, and Texas is starting over again, with the Longhorns bracing themselves for their third revolution in the last eight years. So let’s take a moment to take a look at the league as a whole, with it’s movers and shakers, and who (if anyone) can wrest the conference championship from Oklahoma’s hands…
The Favorite: Oklahoma
When you win six consecutive league crowns, you’re in all likelihood going to be penciled in as the favorite to repeat once again, no matter the circumstances, with this year’s incarnation of Oklahoma certainly fitting that bill. Even though they missed out on the College Football Playoff for the first time in three years, the Sooners have plenty of things working in their favor heading into 2021, the least of which being a packed house in Norman on Saturdays. First and foremost, (Sophomore Quarterback) Spencer Rattler is now in his second season within (Head Coach) Lincoln Riley’s system, and is currently enjoying his first full offseason with the coaching staff IN PERSON. The young signal-caller suffered through some pitfalls early in his freshman campaign, only to improve exponentially as he became more comfortable within his surroundings. Over the last seven games, Rattler threw for fifteen touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions, as Oklahoma finished off the most unpredictable of seasons with eight consecutive victories, including another BIG XII title and a 55-20 drubbing of Florida in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Riley’s sterling track record with Quarterbacks (I.E. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts) raises the bar considerably for the Sophomore, who will be on many early Heisman watch lists this Fall. Meanwhile, the Defense looks to continue it’s growth under (former Ohio State Defensive Coordinator) Alex Grinch, who looks to keep his charges moving in the opposite direction from the defensive stereotypes that have plagued the league for the past decade. Seven starters return on this side of the football for a unit that ranked fourteenth in the country in Stop Rate, holding their opponents scoreless on 73.15% of their possessions. Furthermore, the schedule is hardly daunting, with only a reunion with former BIG XII denizen, Nebraska, serving as their lone standout matchup before eventually hosting their chief contender, Iowa State (more on them shortly), on November 20th in Norman. If Rattler continues to develop and the Defense takes another step, then Oklahoma could very well be hoisting not only their fifteenth league title since 2000, but may find themselves back in the good graces of the Playoff with eyes on that elusive national championship.
The Contender: Iowa State
If there is one school that looks capable of breaking Oklahoma’s stranglehold on the BIG XII, all signs point to Iowa State being that program. Simply put, everything seems to be lining up for the Cyclones to peak in 2021, with the gap between them and the Sooners being far smaller than the national media would lead you to believe. (Head Coach) Matt Campbell has done a remarkable job over the course of his six years in Ames, taking a 3-9 team and putting together a stellar 32-19 record following his inaugural campaign en route to earning three BIG XII Coach of the Year awards. Furthermore, his charges have earned nine victories over ranked opponents during that period, which is tied for third-most in the country, including a 37-30 triumph over Oklahoma last season (though the Sooners got some payback in the BIG XII Title Game). Nineteen of twenty-two starters return from that roster, including (All-BIG XII Quarterback) Brock Purdy and (First Team All-America Tailback) Breece Hall, with the former spurning the National Football League in an attempt to add to his twenty-five school records, while the latter led the nation with a staggering NINE 100-yard rushing performances and ranked second overall in rushing touchdowns (21). Defensively, they’re as solid as they come in a league where yards and points are given away wholesale, ranking eleventh in the country in Red Zone Defense, yielding a touchdown on just 48.6% of their opponents’ drives. This success has created a sense of urgency within the program though, for even the most blindly faithful Cyclones’ fan must admit that Campbell is likely to move on to the NFL or a bigger program in the near future; the 41-year old has turned down multiple overtures from the professional level in recent years, and a league title (which would be the first in the school’s history) would almost certainly spell his departure. That November 20th date in Norman is going to be one helluva night, folks, which could set up a rematch in the conference championship game.
The Wild Card: Texas
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Texas is rebuilding again. That’s right, folks; for the third time since Mack Brown was ushered out the door in 2013, the Longhorns are starting over again, this time with (former Alabama Offensive Coordinator) Steve Sarkisian. Needless to say, this is one of the most FASCINATING hires of the year for a multitude of reasons. In regards to Sarkisian, the 47-year old has certainly suffered his share of setbacks throughout his career as a Head Coach, particularly at USC where he was terminated due to continued struggles with alcoholism. However, no assistant coach did more for himself than he did last year in guiding (National Champion) Alabama’s high-powered Offense, which shattered school records. With that said, many of Texas’ problems are off the field due to the culture around the program, and it remains to be seen if Sarkisian is indeed the right personality to be able to properly navigate through the plethora of pitfalls in Austin. How he recruits within the country’s largest hotbed of talent will go a long way towards dictating how his tenure will differ from that of his predecessors. And on that note, he’s immediately going to have to replace a wealth of talent, chief among them (four-year starter) Sam Ehlinger at Quarterback. Say what you will about Ehlinger, but he oftentimes willed the Longhorns to success, and his departure leaves a noticeable void in the Backfield. Expect an open competition between (Junior) Casey Thompson and (Freshman) Hudson Card, with the former shining in the second half of the Alamo Bowl in which he tossed four touchdowns in the 55-23 rout of Colorado. Thankfully, (Sophomore Tailback) Bijan Robinson is back to turn heads out of the backfield, where he broke a 59-year record at Texas averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry. On Defense, (Sophomore Defensive Tackle) Alfred Collins is a BEAST who figures to headline a unit that stopped their opponents behind the line of scrimmage on 15.5% of rushing plays, which was good for tenth-best in the country. Sarkisian has openly stated upon his arrival that “there’s talent to win a championship” and given his experience he would certainly be able to identify that, but then again this is Texas: there is always talent to be found, though properly utilizing it is another matter altogether.
In Trouble: Kansas
Was there ever a more obvious choice? Kansas has been nothing short of a train wreck for over a decade, failing to win more than three games in each of the last twelve years. However, the past twelve months has seen them descend to new depths, as both (Athletic Director) Jeff Long and (Head Coach) Les Miles parted ways with the school following sexual harassment allegations surfacing against the latter from his tenure at LSU, of which the former was effectively his boss. Simply put, these two guys were hired back in 2018 to fix arguably the worst program in the country, and somehow all they have done is make it exponentially worse. During his two years in Lawrence, Miles, who won a National Championship in Baton Rouge, managed a miserable 3-18 record with the Jayhawks, including an abysmal 0-9 campaign before his dismissal, which is a very far cry from the skipper who earned the favor of the national media due to his comical press conferences and curious love for blades of grass. With that said, he did a lot of work on the recruiting trail, cultivating back-to-back Top-25 classes, meaning that the cupboard isn’t necessarily barren at Kansas, though it remains to be seen if his successor, Emmett Jones, will be able to do anything with it. Needless to say, 2021 should be about one thing and one thing only: create stability at any cost, and try to keep as many of the talented players that Miles had recruited from entering the Transfer Portal. Unfortunately, the program is essentially operating without an Athletic Director who will confirm Jones as anything other than an Interim Coach, reeking of a clear lack of direction. This team has the smell of a six-year rebuild (at best), and at this stage the task at hand is nothing short of arduous. With that said, following a winless season there is nowhere to go but up, so smile Kansas fans, it can’t any worse than this…. right?