2021 CFB: Storylines to follow in the Big-12

It’s not very often that the pre-season rankings have a Big-12 team as the top overall team in College Football (CFB), but ESPN’s preseason top-25 has the Oklahoma Sooners as exactly that. Whether or not Lincoln Riley’s men deserve that status is discussed below, but one thing is for sure going into 2021 – the Big 12 is going to be fun to watch this year.

With Iowa State being coached by one of the hottest names in CFB in Matt Campbell, Lance Leipold bringing his run-heavy scheme to Kansas and Steve Sarkisian taking the reins at Texas, there’s a whole lot of intrigue in the division heading into the new season. 

Heisman hopefuls Breece Hall and Spencer Rattler return for one more season before probably entering the NFL draft, and there’s a whole host of other draftable talent across the conference. 

So what are some of the key storylines to look out for in the Big-12 in 2021?

What does season two hold for Dave Aranda and Baylor?

Taking the Baylor job was a risk for Dave Aranda, a 25 year career in which he’d never held a Head Coaching position demonstrated his desire to be a guy that focussed on the Xs and Os. However, after LSU’s record breaking 2019 season, Aranda couldn’t resist when the Bears came knocking.

He inherited a team that had just finished the 2019 season ranked seventh in the nation, but one that had also lost a lot of top talent to the draft. Expectations were therefore fairly low, and in a pandemic riddled season, perhaps the end outcome was inevitable. The Bears went 2-7, picking up wins against Kansas State and Kansas but falling short against other conference rivals. Offensive Coordinator, Larry Fedora, and Passing Game Coordinator, Jorge Munoz, were dismissed as a result, and with last year’s starting QB, Charlie Brewer, transferring to Utah – a new dawn is rising in Waco this season.

There’s going to be a lot of teams entering their second season with coaches in 2021 thinking that their fortunes will surely take a huge upturn with the benefit of a full pre-season and little to no COVID related red-tape. Some of those teams will be in for a nasty surprise when things don’t get better, but the quality that Aranda brings and with the new team around him, Baylor don’t look likely to continue as they finished 2020.

Incoming Offensive Coordinator, Jeff Grimes, was a man in demand after his BYU offense finished third in the nation in scoring offense and first in yards per play. He’ll bring his preferred wide zone scheme to the Bears, meaning we’ll see a lot of pre-snap trickery, play-action and RPO based play calling in a bid to ignite a Baylor team that often struggled to move the chains in 2020.

The Quarterback position is open at the moment and there are seemingly four guys who could win the job, with three-year backup Gerry Bohanon the current favourite. Four-star freshman, Kyron Drones, will be lurking on the sidelines if the starter falters in 2021, with Sims already stating that the Texas native is a very exciting prospect.

There are returning starters at the offensive skill positions, with RJ Sneed the pick of the bunch. The senior Wide Receiver has a whole highlight reel of incredible plays, but Aranda and Grimes will be looking for him to become a more consistent player in order to see him smash his season best 497 receiving yards from 2020. At Running Back, Aranda has asked converted Linebacker Abram Smith to flip back to his original position and the Bears return last year’s leading rusher, Craig Williams.

Throughout his career, Aranda has built his reputation on a 3-4 defense that can lock even the best offense down. He’ll be happy that ten defensive starters return in 2021, including standout Linebacker Terrel Bernard and Safeties Christian Morgan and JT Woods. That consistency will only help, and an already highly rated pass defense (29th in 2020) will seek to clamp down on the run after ranking 82nd in the FBS and allowing 180 yards per game on the ground.

To improve the run defense, Aranda has secured the transfer of Ika Siaka from LSU, who at 6’4” and 372lb is a man mountain on the defensive line. A player like Siaka was arguably the biggest need at the heart of the Bears defense, and the former LSU coach returned to the Tigers to get his man. He’ll slot in straight away, drawing double teams from opposition offensive lines and freeing up space for Josh Landry and TJ Franklin to get to the QB.

With such a favourable opening to their 2021 season, Baylor could well be 3-0 before they run into Iowa State in week four. It feels like we’ll see just how much they’ve taken the next step in that game, with Sims and a new offensive staff looking to match up well against one of CFB’s best offenses in the Cyclones. If they can turn on the burners and find their signal caller early on, there’s nothing stopping this Bears team getting to eight, nine or ten wins in 2021.

Gerry Bohanon - Football - Baylor University Athletics
Gerry Bohanon – Image: Baylor Bears

The Steve Sarkisian Effect

The Texas Longhorns should be one of CFB’s powerhouses. They’re based in one of the best states for blue chip recruits, they’ve got a stadium that can hold 100,000+ raucous fans and have had some of the most entertaining teams in the history of the sport.

In recent years, it’s all been a bit bleak for the Longhorns however. With the exception of a 10-4 season in 2018, they’ve not won ten games in a season since 2009, and since 2010 they’ve had four losing seasons – something that’s pretty unforgivable for a team of Texas’ standing.

A brief period of optimism under Tom Herman culminated in the aforementioned 10-4 season, but things have been less than impressive since then and Herman was let go after four years in December.

Step forward Steve Sarkisian. As a former Washington and USC Head Coach, Sarkisian has experience of coaching two of the bigger names in CFB. However, it is his time as the Offensive Coordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide that has provided the platform for him to take the Longhorns’ job. In his two seasons as the OC in Tuscaloosa Sarkisian’s offense broke numerous records and produced two Quarterbacks that were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.

Sarkisian’s appointment is not only a strong move by the Longhorns as they look to reestablish themselves as an offensive powerhouse, but it’s also a nice comeback story for the man himself after his time at USC came to an unwanted end. By offering a six year, $34.2m contract to the former college QB, Texas are acknowledging that Rome might not be built in a day and it’ll perhaps be year three and four where they really expect to be competing. Nevertheless, the Longhorns’ fans will be expecting an immediate impact. So what has Sarkisian got to work with?

With long term starting Quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, leaving the programme for the NFL, there’s a battle for the signal calling position. Junior, Casey Thompson, and redshirt freshman, Hudson Card, have been going toe to toe for the starting job throughout Spring Practice, with Thompson seemingly the favourite at the time of writing. It’s often unusual for highly rated prospects to sit as a backup for three years in the modern CFB world, but Thompson has done just that, and it looks like it might be worth it in 2021. Sarkisian seemingly wants to add aggression to the Longhorns offense, with the deep ball being utilised far more often than it has been previously. This works to Thompson’s skill set as fans got to see in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado, with regular deep shots managing to draw pass interference penalties and more than one impressively accurate shot from the former four-star recruit.

If there’s a battle for the QB position, at Running Back there is most certainly not. In the last two games of Texas’ 2020 season, Bijan Robinson carried the ball 19 times for 355 yards and 4TDs, cementing his role as the lead back in Sarkisian’s offense. At Wide Receiver there are a few questions, Tarik Black and Brennan Eagles have gone and there’s no established lead guy on the roster. Those who watched the Orange & White Spring Game will have seen a lot of drops, and probably left with more questions than answers. Former four-star recruit, Troy Omeire, looks likely to feature as the X-receiver, with Joshua Moore lining up opposite him but incoming freshmen Xavier Worthy and Jaden Alexis have a good chance to make a splash in their debut seasons.

On defense Pete Kwiatkowski has wasted no time in strengthening at the Linebacker position, bringing in four transfers in what is surely a damning verdict on those who were already on campus. Defensive Tackle, Alfred Collins, is one of the more exciting returning Longhorns, and he should slot into a very productive rotation with Moro Ojomo who had three sacks in the Spring Game. Senior Cornerback, D’Shawn Jamison, is a future Sunday starter and will likely matchup against opposition lead receivers this season. 

So what’s a realistic win total for the Longhorns? In Louisiana and Arkansas they open up against two good, not great out of conference opponents, but other than that the schedule only really throws up challenges in Oklahoma and Iowa State. Right now, both of those teams must be considered better than Texas, but with a full pre-season and some more of the lights out play we’ve seen from Robinson and to a lesser extent Thompson, the Longhorns should be competitive in both games… roll on the Red River Showdown and a new look Texas team.

Video: Steve Sarkisian media availability - University of Texas Athletics
Steve Sarkisian – Image: Texas Longhorns

Are Oklahoma really National Championship favourites?

There’s absolutely no doubt that the 2021 Oklahoma Sooners’ offense is up there with the most loaded in the game. Even so, it does feel slightly surprising to see prominent sites like ESPN with the Sooners’ ranked as the best team in the nation over Alabama and Clemson.

The Sooners have been the ‘nearly team’ for some time now, only failing to win ten games once since 2010, yet not winning a National Championship since 2000. With the hype going into overdrive this offseason, Lincoln Riley will be doing his utmost to ensure his team channels that energy into performances on the field.

Defensively Alex Grinch has some very good players at his disposal. Junior College transfer, Perrion Winfrey surprised a few people by not declaring for the NFL draft earlier this year, but his return is crucial for a defensive line that will look to bully opposition lineman from the get go. Winfrey is joined by Nik Bonnito in a dominant pass rush, with the Outside Linebacker picking up nine sacks in ten games in 2020. Overall the Sooners have shown marked improvement when getting to the Quarterback over the past two seasons, jumping from 59th in the nation in 2018 to 9th in 2020 – a clear sign that Grinch has worked his magic since joining in 2019.

The Secondary has a few more questions, with recent recruits and guys that have previously been backups coming to the fore in the Sooners’ Spring Game. Interestingly, 2020 enrollee, DJ Graham seems to be slowly climbing his way up the depth chart, taking an impressive start in last season’s Cotton Bowl and making plays this Spring – not bad for the 459th rated recruit in the country.

It’s clear that Grinch’s early success is helping the Sooners in the recruiting stakes as well, with no fewer than three highly rated Edge players either enrolled or set to enroll in the Summer – Clayton Smith being the headliner of the three. Riley and co have also been active in the transfer market, with Key Lawrence joining two other Tennessee Vols in making the leap to Norman – the former four-star Safety should be in the starting lineup come week one.

However strong the defense might be, everyone knows that Oklahoma’s strength is their lights out offense, and that certainly doesn’t look likely to change in 2021. In starting Quarterback, Spencer Rattler, the Sooners have a Heisman trophy candidate and something that their main Championship rivals, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State don’t, in a returning signal caller with a full season of experience under his belt. 

Rattler’s big arm and downfield accuracy combine to make him one of the most formidable QBs in CFB this year, and his gunslinging style will force teams to be aware of the long ball at all times. This will undoubtedly help in the run game where Eric Gray looks set to be the starter after transferring from Tennessee. Ranked the third best all-purpose back in the 2019 recruiting cycle, Gray only showed the tip of his potential playing for the Vols last year, producing 1026 all-purpose yards and 6TDs in nine games. He joins Kennedy Brooks and freshman Tre Henderson in an imposing RB room.

In the passing game, Oklahoma probably has the second best receiving core in the nation (after Ohio State), with Marvin Mims, Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease, Mike Woods and Mario Williams all good enough to start for any team across the Power Five Conferences. Mims and Wease both built good chemistry with Rattler last year, and Haselwood has flashed consistent potential when not being held out with injury issues. 

So the firepower and talent is all there, but can they go undefeated and make the playoffs. The answer is unequivocally yes, other than the Red River Showdown with Texas and the in-conference Iowa State matchup, the Sooners’ schedule looks incredibly simple. Combine that with the high level of returning talent and a Heisman candidate at Quarterback and the fans in Norman could be in for a special season.

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Like what you’ve read? Got any other key storylines for us to follow? Let us know at @Full10YardsCFB.

By Andy Moore – @ajmoore21

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