Spring practices in college football are pretty much fully under way as the calendar flips to April. With all the disruptions and difficulties of 2020 in the rearview mirror, programs around the Big 12 are hoping 2021 looks at least a little more like 2019 did. But now that we are getting to see these teams play in the spring for the first time in two years, the storylines and questions are back.
Big 12 teams didn’t face a lot of coaching turnover since last season, but when two programs did, they garnered the breaking news headlines. Replacing Tom Herman with Steve Sarkisian at Texas tops the list, but Kansas moving forward without Les Miles after a scathing investigation into his time at LSU and allegations of improper conduct was added to the mix.
Coaching changes, faces new and old and recalibrated expectations are the features of Big 12 spring football. Let’s get to the biggest questions.
What will Sarkisian’s fingerprints on Texas look like?
When you include all aspects of the Texas job — managing intense booster influence, the “Eyes of Texas” controversy, high expectations, etc. — I’m not sure how much of a long-term upgrade Steve Sarkisian is over Tom Herman. But it’s hard not to get jazzed up about what Sark could do with the Longhorns offense after seeing what he did at Alabama this past season. Should we expect Texas to have a Heisman-caliber wideout right away? No, because Texas doesn’t have someone like Devonta Smith right now. Alabama was the best offense in college football last year because it had the best players in the country at a handful of positions.
But, as is usually the case with Texas, there’s potential. The Alamo Bowl slaughter over Colorado was a sneak peek into what life may look like with quarterback Casey Thompson and running back Bijan Robinson. And while big-bodied wideout Brennan Eagles is gone, leading wideout Joshua Moore is back. There are pieces in place and Sark knows how to draw up Xs and Os to get playmakers the ball. It’s exciting to see what he has planned for the Longhorns to make them an exciting team to watch again.
There’s not much to complain about when, as a redshirt freshman in 2020, Rattler threw for more than 3,000 yards with 28 touchdowns to seven interceptions. But five of those picks came in the first four games, including three in a stunning upset by Kansas State. Rattler was a different player after benched, briefly, against Texas. He also received help around him. With more support from his offensive line, the return of running back Rhamondre Stevenson and an emerging Marvin Mims down the stretch, Rattler was a different player. By the end of the year, he was named CBS Sports’ Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American.
What does Year 2 bring not just for Rattler but Oklahoma’s offense as a whole? Running back Kennedy Brooks is back after opting out of the 2020 season. Practically the entire pass-catching group returns. Filling in a couple of holes along the offensive line will be key, especially at center after Creed Humphrey’s departure. But a more seasoned and comfortable Rattler, with a full offseason, should once again make the Sooners one of the toughest offenses to defend in college football. And Rattler should be able to hit 4,000 yards through the air.
Can Iowa State deliver on new expectations?
After spending the past couple of years as a trendy preseason dark-horse, Iowa State enters 2021 in a different spotlight. The Cyclones aren’t necessarily the favorite to win the Big 12, but they also shouldn’t be too far behind Oklahoma. A big reason why is because Matt Campbell’s team returns almost every significant piece of the field — including Campbell himself. Seriously, this team is loaded. Quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen, receiver Xavier Hutchinson, linebacker Mike Rose, defensive back Isheem Young and others are all back.
There really aren’t too many questions for this team. The biggest loss is defensive end JaQuan Bailey, but Iowa State still seems to be good along the defensive front with Will McDonald if Zach Petersen can have a breakout year. Clearly, the Cyclones are in a window to not just return to the Big 12 Championship Game but win it this time. That’s still a tall order, especially if Oklahoma is even better than it was a year ago, but it’s not an impossible ask anymore. Campbell has turned what was one of the toughest Power Five jobs in the country into a contender with, as they say, “five-star culture.” It’s a bit corny, but who’s to say it’s not true? This team has earned expectations. Now it’s time to see if they can deliver.
Is Mike Gundy able to reload again at Oklahoma State?
Gundy does a great job reloading the offensive skill positions annually. The Pokes always have a dude at wide receiver and/or running back — often at the same time. From Justin Blackmon to Josh Stewart to James Washington to Tylan Wallace, there’s almost always a 1,000-yard receiver with Biletnikoff Award potential. There’s been a solid line of running backs, too, with Chuba Hubbard, Justice Hill, Desmond Roland, Joseph Randle and Kendall Hunter all coming in the last 12 years. It’s a big reason why this program’s floor is seven wins and a bowl game.
So who’s next now that Wallace and Hubbard are gone? Running back seems more assured. LD Brown and Dezmon Jackson both had their moments with Hubbard ineffective or out for the second half of last season. Even Dominic Richardson had a 169-yard, three-score game against Baylor as a freshman. Any one of those three — or, more likely, a combination — could have a big 2021. Wide receiver is a bit murkier. Braydon Johnson and Tay Martin are coming back, but they had one touchdown between them. The new star could be Brennan Presley, who had 118 yards and three touchdowns in the CHEEZ-IT against Miami.
The offensive line isn’t reloading as much, but it does need to be better in 2021 after dealing with attrition and injuries. With Spencer Sanders back at quarterback, there are some really fun pieces in place. The Pokes’ defense also got a lot of boosts from returning starters. This team is going to be a Big 12 title game contender again in 2021 if they can answer the running back and wide receiver questions. Based on Gundy’s history — they will.
How does Kansas move forward from Les Miles?
Whether or not Miles was the coach in 2021, Kansas was probably bound for Big 12 basement status again. Still, being the conference’s worst program without a coach or athletic director — Miles was fired in March after allegations surfaced of misconduct while he was at LSU; Jeff Long was let go days later — is a tough spot. The team’s most explosive player, Pooka Williams, opted out during the 2020 season and is now NFL bound. One of its more productive players, receiver Andrew Parchment, transferred to Florida State.
Interim coach Emmett Jones takes over an almost impossible situation. This program hasn’t won more than three games in more than a decade, and the current roster isn’t built to change that. There are some stars, however. Defensive linemen Marcus Harris and DaJon Terry look like a capable duo to bolster the front. There’s a quarterback battle that includes North Texas transfer Jason Bean. But, overall, this is a team that, once again, is looking for players to step up in the spring. With Jones manning the helm, for now, will this team look any different to provide a shred of optimism?
Which dark-horse team can break through?
Baylor, Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia are a revolving door of teams vying for a breakout year. Kansas State may have been that team in 2020 if quarterback Skylar Thompson doesn’t get hurt. Thompson is back and running back/wide receiver/Swiss army knife Deuce Vaughn is a player. And coach Chris Klieman is 2-0 against Oklahoma.
TCU loses some real key players on defense, particularly at safety with Ar’Darius Washington and Trevon Moehrig. But quarterback Max Duggan returns as a fun dual-threat possibility, and Zach Evan came on late in the year at running back. West Virginia is one capable offense away from picking off one or two heavy favorites. Texas Tech has had a rough two years under Matt Wells, but maybe there’s a Year 3 jump that gets the Red Raiders back to a bowl game. Baylor is probably still in Year 1 with second-year coach Dave Aranda. Kansas State and TCU look like the more dark-horse ready teams, but West Virginia isn’t far behind if the passing game can get out of its own way.