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Editor’s note: This is a special edition of Matt Hinton’s “Monday Down South” column and part of his continuing 2021 college football preview.

The Big 12: It’s still here.

As mission statements go, it ain’t much. But for now, amid the latest round of speculation over the league’s pending demise – or, at minimum, its likely demotion in the national food chain – it’ll have to do. According to the contracts, the current membership is locked in until 2025, when Oklahoma and Texas are officially bound for the SEC. In reality, the notion the Sooners and Longhorns will still be playing under the Big 12 banner in a year, two at most, is a fantasy only the lawyers are obligated to recognize. In the meantime, whatever happens on the field is a mere footnote to the high legal, financial and fraternal drama unfolding off it.

And yes, sorry to say we’re still very much on the front end of all that. At this point, it’s still hard to imagine what a constellation of schools with very little in the way of shared history or success will look like without the gravitational pull of its two undisputed heavyweights at the center, or whether it will manage to hold together at all. Right from the start, the Big 12 was conceived and executed as a made-for-TV marriage of convenience formed in response to evolving economic realities in the mid-1990s, and much like the old Southwest Conference then, as the landscape continues to shift it looks more and more like a quaint regional anachronism in an increasingly national enterprise. As far as TV is concerned, Oklahoma and Texas are the only brands that matter.

Unlike the SWC, the rump Big 12 minus OU and UT (not to mention Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M, which saw the writing on the wall a decade ago) doesn’t have simple geography or eight decades of tradition working in its favor. It has 25 years of mistrust and upheaval.

But there’s all kinds of time over the coming months and (ugh) years to make sense of the ongoing chaos and angst. Right now, the Big 12 is playing actual football this fall, and the product on the field ought to be more than compelling enough to justify its existence.

Oklahoma, owner of the past 6 conference championships, has just barely managed to extend the streak the past 2 years by razor-thin margins, hinting at the Sooners’ vulnerability; it also returns more talent in 2021 than any OU team of the Playoff era, hinting at potentially their most serious national run in more than a decade. Iowa State, a perennial also-ran more than a century removed from its last conference title, is essentially the exact same team that pushed Oklahoma to the brink in 2020 en route to a top-10 finish. Texas, having largely given up on acquiring the technology to reverse the earth’s orbit in an effort to reset the calendar to 2005, will move forward with one of the game’s most respected offensive minds and its usual stable of young talent.

TCU and Oklahoma State remain steady, reliable winners with latent dark horse potential under two of the nation’s longest-tenured head coaches. Kansas State is still an endearingly old-school outfit delivering on its quota of exactly one notable upset per year. Baylor’s roller-coaster trajectory is back on the upswing. Even Kansas, a bastion of futility, has a kind of rubbernecking appeal as one of the most fascinating trainwrecks in all of sports.

Does any part of that point toward long-term cohesion or viability of the league as a whole? Is this specific assortment of schools taking the field for the last time under the same banner? Is the season destined to unfold in the face of a looming cloud of doom? We’ll find out soon enough. None of that, though, has any bearing on the players striving to seize their moment, or the shape of the conference race, or the games themselves. And it’s certainly no excuse to appreciate them any less.

The front-runner: Oklahoma

I realize how tempting it is to dismiss Oklahoma’s national championship ambitions out of hand. The Sooners 0-4 in the Playoff, the most recent losses coming in especially grisly fashion at the hands of Alabama and LSU – games in which they trailed at the half 31-10 and 49-14, respectively, and hardly looked like they belonged on the same field. Under Lincoln Riley, they’ve taken a step in the wrong direction each of the past 3 seasons. Last year, they were bounced from the Playoff discussion almost immediately courtesy of early, back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State. Although they plugged the leaks in time to reclaim the Big 12 title in the end, it was the first time since Riley was promoted to head coach that defending the conference crown felt like the highest rung on the ladder.

But sell the 2021 edition short at your own risk. The 8-game winning streak to close the season pointed toward a young team finding itself: Decisive wins over OU’s chief rivals, Texas and Oklahoma State; redemption vs. ISU in the Big 12 Championship Game; an outright humiliation of Florida in the Cotton Bowl. More importantly, virtually everyone who mattered in that run is back, including face-of-the-program QB Spencer Rattler (see below), rising stars Marvin Mims and Theo Wease at wideout, and the vast majority of the two-deep from the best defense of Riley’s tenure, by far.

Given its well-earned reputation for bursting into flames on a regular basis, that last point is worth emphasizing: Oklahoma has a defense. Entering his third year on staff, coordinator Alex Grinch has done the job he was hired to do, elevating a notoriously sketchy unit into the top 30 nationally last year in total defense (29th), scoring defense (28th), rushing defense (9th), pass efficiency defense (9th), yards per play allowed (26th), first downs allowed (25th), takeaways (18th), 3rd-down conversions (4th) and tackles for loss (10th). The d-line, arguably the most glaring deficiency under Grinch’s maligned predecessor, Mike Stoops, suddenly looks like the kind of bona fide strength the other national heavies take for granted.

Combine that with a standard-issue Lincoln Riley offense, and you’ve got – on paper, anyway – close to a perfect storm. Oklahoma’s much too consistent to pull the old “if not now, when?” routine. So let’s just say however many opportunities await in the future, not many of them figure to be better than this one.

The challenger: Iowa State

Future as a “power” program notwithstanding, these are high times for Iowa State. The 2020 Cyclones tied a school record for wins (9) and posted the best conference record (8-2) in the 123-year history of the program. They played in their first Big 12 Championship Game (a close loss to Oklahoma) and their first major bowl game (a win over Oregon in the Fiesta). They spent 3 weeks inside the AP Top 10, more than all previous ISU teams combined, and earned their highest poll finish by far — No. 9, 10 spots better than the previous high in 1976. Head coach Matt Campbell, who wasn’t even born in 1976, ended his fifth season in Ames with the best overall winning percentage (.556) of anyone who’s held the job.

So, in that context, it’s not just your standard bit of blue-sky preseason patter when we tell you that their best may still be ahead of them. Almost everyone who mattered last year is back, beginning with Campbell, who spurned NFL overtures in favor of a contract extension, as well as longtime coordinators Tom Manning (offense) and Jon Heacock (defense). The lineup is essentially intact, including 9 players who were voted first-team All-Big 12 by league coaches representing every position group on both sides of the ball. Among them: The most decorated quarterback in ISU history (senior Brock Purdy), the nation’s leading rusher (All-American Breece Hall), and the conference leaders in receptions (WR Xavier Hutchinson), tackles (LB Mike Rose), and sacks (DE Will McDonald IV). For the first time since... well, ever, the Cyclones must be taken seriously as Big 12 contenders.

Will it be the last time? Another big season will send Campbell’s stock into the stratosphere, and the exodus of core talent at year’s end could be the perfect moment to declare “mission accomplished” and make the leap, whether it’s to the next level or to a more traditional power with a fresh vacancy. (Michigan, hello.) If he’s in it for the long haul at Iowa State, he can’t count on having another team that checks as many boxes as this one again anytime soon. Either way, at a place that hasn’t claimed so much as a share of a conference title since 1912, the window to win big right now is much too rare to take for granted.

The dark horse: Texas

Let’s go ahead and get this out the way: Texas is Not Back, folks.

Not yet, anyway. The Longhorns are nobody’s favorite in the Big 12 and barely cracked the Top 25 in the preseason AP poll. (At No. 21, they’re actually starting out a couple of spots below where they finished last year.) Tom Herman left the program better than he found it — not saying much there — but never threatened Oklahoma at the top of the conference and lost ground relative to Texas A&M and out-of-state powers making successful inroads in Texas recruiting. In the past 3 recruiting classes, Texas signed just 2 of the state’s top 10 prospects in 2019, 3 of the top 10 in 2020, and only 1 of the top 25 in-state prospects in 2021. The most highly touted Texas high school quarterback since Vince Young decided he’d rather begin his career as a backup at Ohio State than compete for a wide-open starting job in Austin, which should tell you all you need to know about UT’s place in the world right now.

All of that said, to the extent the Longhorns are optimistic about Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian, it’s not hard to understand why. First, there’s Sarkisian himself, whose exemplary tour in the Nick Saban Career Rehabilitation Program restored his reputation as an elite play-caller and a straight arrow following a sordid exit from his last head-coaching gig at USC. He was the hottest name on the offseason market and probably the only realistic candidate who could have justified turning the page from Herman coming off a 25-12 record over the past 3 years. (Although in the end there was clearly much more to Herman’s departure than just wins and losses.) Sark also inherited the kind of blue-chip skill talent on offense that he has a track record exploiting to great effect. Sophomore RB Bijan Robinson was the No. 1 back in the 2020 class, broke out in a big way late in his freshman campaign, and may be the closest equivalent in college football this season to recent Alabama great Najee Harris.

As ever, nothing is easier this time of year than falling into the “Texas is just a quarterback away” trap, because, well, it’s usually the truth. Between junior Casey Thompson and sophomore Hudson Card, a drop-off from 4-year starter Sam Ehlinger — a Hall-of-Fame example of a solid, productive college QB who’s so overexposed throughout his career he winds up being weirdly underrated — is not a given. (More on that competition below.) But then, this was already an offense that averaged 42.7 points per game last year and topped 30 in 2 of its 3 losses. Just matching that number will be an achievement, and it won’t necessarily show up in the win column unless there’s a great leap forward on the other side of the ball.

The upstart: Baylor

The Bears were undeniably awful in Dave Aranda’s first season as head coach, limping to a 2-7 record while failing to top 23 points in 6 of 9 games. Not great. But Baylor, more than any other major program over the decade, is accustomed to the boom-and-bust cycle that follows a coaching change. In 2017, Aranda’s predecessor, Matt Rhule, took over an operation barely removed from its Briles-era heyday but still reeling from the scandal that cost Briles his job. He proceeded to hit bottom, nose-diving to a 1-11 finish in his first season; in Year 2, the Bears made the leap to 7-6, and by Year 3 brought the project full circle by turning in an 11-1 regular season. The crash in Aranda’s debut may have been even steeper, but in many ways, it was recognizable as the same awkward first step in the process.

Of course, the team Aranda inherited wasn’t decimated by sanctions or a scandal that wiped out half the roster. It was, however, hit hard by attrition from the 2019 Sugar Bowl team, a classic “get out while the gettin’s good” scenario. And it was competitive, playing 6 of their 7 losses within 14 points and 3 of them within a touchdown, the mark of a team that wasn’t as bad as its record and doesn’t have far to go to make a few dents in the win column. To that end, the Bears have settled on a quarterback, redshirt junior Gerry Bohanon, who — along with most of the two-deep — has been a part of both the rise under Rhule and the subsequent plunge as he enters his fourth year in the program.

Mulligan or not, the jury remains out on Aranda as a head coach as he makes the move from widely respected coordinator to the top job. Still, he took the Baylor job over other opportunities for a reason, and nothing that happened in Year Zero should have any bearing on what it looks like from here on out.

The doormat: Kansas

Kansas is well-established by now as the most perennially hopeless Power 5 program. Even by Kansas standards, though, 2020 was a disaster: The Jayhawks limped to an 0-9 record in Les Miles’ second season as head coach with 7 losses by 21 points or more. Against all odds, the offseason was worse.

In March, Miles was abruptly fired over reports of misconduct during his tenure at LSU, a controversy that also claimed the job of his boss, athletic director Jeff Long. Rather some instilling some semblance of stability to a bad situation, they somehow managed to leave an even deeper hole than they found. The team was left to go through spring drills under an interim head coach with no sense of direction for the fall and no coherent vision for climbing out of the crater.

To its credit, the university made what may have been the best possible hire in April when it entrusted the project to veteran rebuilder Lance Leipold. In his last job, Leipold quietly transformed the University of Buffalo from a bottom dweller into a solid contender in the MAC, coming in 14 games over .500 over the past 3 seasons. Prior to that, he chalked up an absurd 109-6 record as head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, becoming the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 100 career wins in the course of leading the Warhawks to 6 Division III national championships in 8 years. Leipold’s entire coaching staff followed him from Buffalo to Lawrence, as well as a half-dozen transfers.

For the right coach — which Leipold may very well be — the nowhere-to-go-but-up outlook might have a certain appeal. Kansas hasn’t always been a doormat and won’t be one forever. Eventually, the Jayhawks will crawl their way back to respectability, and whoever is in charge when they do will be justifiably hailed for his efforts. But for 2021, they’re every bit as entrenched on the bottom as the Oklahomas, Alabamas, and Clemsons are at the top.

Projected order of finish

1. Oklahoma: If the Sooners live up to the hype, it might be time to start recognizing Alex Grinch as OU’s answer to Brent Venables at Clemson. 2. Iowa State: In the Big 12 era, the Cyclones have a combined 6 wins over Oklahoma and Texas, 3 of which have come in the past 2 years. 3. Texas: Whatever happens with the quarterbacks, the real gap between Texas and the Playoff tier is along the line of scrimmage. 4. TCU: Feels like we’re past due for the Horned Frogs to make a random run at the conference title. 5. Oklahoma State: Unusually, the Cowboys don’t have an above-the-fold star on offense (yet), but they’re as balanced in all phases as any point in Mike Gundy’s tenure. 6. West Virginia: The Mountaineers quietly ranked 4th nationally in total defense in 2020 but then watched their two best players in the secondary transfer to Auburn and Georgia, respectively. 7. Baylor: Splitting the difference between an overachieving team in 2019 and last year’s underachievers seems about right. 8. Kansas State: The Wildcats missed senior QB Skylar Thompson following a season-ending injury last October and ought to benefit enormously from his return. 9. Texas Tech: Coach Matt Wells is in just his 3rd season in Lubbock, but the marriage is already feeling a little stale. 10. Kansas: It can’t get any worse. I mean, can it?

Offensive Player of the Year: Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma)

Expectations for Rattler’s first season as a starter were so high that anything short of a sustained Heisman Trophy and Playoff run would have been considered a disappointment, and OU’s 0-2 start in conference play put both out of reach before midseason. As the season wore on, though, it was obvious that Rattler is who he was supposed to be, easily leading the Big 12 in yards per attempt (9.6), touchdowns (28), and overall efficiency (172.6) at the head of an attack that averaged 43.0 points per game. He posted the top PFF grade (92.5) of any returning FBS quarterback. The Sooners’ blowout win over Florida in the Cotton Bowl set the stage for a prolific 2021.

Again, the bar for Rattler’s redshirt sophomore season — most likely his last at OU — is set at Heisman and national championship contention. In his case, those goals are so intertwined they’re effectively one and the same. Rattler is a special talent, but even more so than for his predecessors, the Playoff busts loom larger for him than any statistical benchmarks he might be chasing. At this point, the numbers are baked into expectations. When the same can no longer be said for a perfunctory exit in the semis, it will qualify as a genuine breakthrough.

Defensive Player of the Year: Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma)

Oklahoma’s former reputation as a pipeline for elite d-linemen has had a rough decade: The once-vaunted front four hasn’t produced an All-American since Gerald McCoy in 2009, who was also the last DL or outside linebacker drafted higher than the third round. In Bonitto, though, the Sooners have a legitimate candidate to break both droughts. As a redshirt sophomore, PFF credited him with the nation’s best individual pressure rate (25.7%) and the top pass-rushing grade of any FBS player (93.6). If OU has any chance of leveling up against elite opponents in January, that’s the kind of juice they’ll need to do it.

Breakout Player of the Year: Zach Evans (TCU)

As a recruit, Evans made headlines for his extravagant talent and his mercurial recruitment, a saga that (among many other twists) involved him getting booted from his high school team just ahead of the state championship game and later backing out of a signed letter of intent to Georgia. Eventually, he landed at TCU, one of the few schools to which he hadn’t been seriously linked at some point in the process, thereby becoming the first 5-star signee in school history. And once he managed to break into the backfield rotation over the second half of the season, he didn’t disappoint.

Evans was limited to 54 carries on the year, almost all of them in the last 6 games, and did enough with that audition — 7.7 yards a pop with 4 touchdowns and 5 runs of 20+ yards — to make you wonder what took so long to get him involved and why he didn’t get more opportunities when he was. As a sophomore, he projects as a feature back and one of the fastest rising stars at any position. If Frogs fans are still asking those kinds of questions this time around, something has gone very wrong.

Most Exciting Player: Deuce Vaughn (Kansas State)

Possibly no player has ever captured the whole Kansas State gestalt more perfectly than Vaughn, a 5-foot-nothing, hundred-and-nothing back who wasted absolutely no time setting a pace toward one of the most productive careers in school history.

Officially, K-State lists Vaughn at 5-6, 173 pounds, which, let’s be real, is generous on both fronts. As a true freshman, though, he was a true all-purpose weapon, accounting for 1,076 scrimmage yards (642 rushing, 434 receiving) with 16 plays of 20+ yards — tied for the Big 12 lead with Breece Hall on fewer than half as many touches. Any concerns about his size were easily overshadowed by his strengths: He’s a smooth, naturally shifty runner with terrific vision and a nose for the end zone; a matchup nightmare as a receiver with the ability to create separation from the slot or out of the backfield; and generally a threat to go the distance every time the ball is in his hands.

Maybe he’s not the guy you want, say, squaring up against blitzing linebacker in pass pro. Otherwise, there’s no reason his role in the offense shouldn’t expand in Year 2.

Fat Guy of the Year: Dante Stills (West Virginia)

Prior to this season, Stills has been more or less inseparable from his older brother, Darius, who’s battling for a roster spot with the Las Vegas Raiders after going undrafted. This year, his last at West Virginia, is all about Dante making a name for himself and maximizing his own value, which he’s already well on his way to doing over his first 3 seasons at campus. At 6-4/280, he’s more of an all-purpose, inside-outside kind of d-lineman than a true Fat Guy in the middle of the line, but in addition to the requisite burst off the snap, he also possesses the rare power to abuse offensive linemen on a deeply personal level. The Mountaineers led the Big 12 in scoring defense in 2020 and no member of that unit played a bigger role.

Most Valuable Transfer: Mike Novitsky (Kansas)

An offensive line transfer from the MAC isn’t about to singlehandedly elevate Kansas to respectability, but Novitsky adds value in other ways, too. At Buffalo, where he started every game the past 2 years at center, Novitsky was a leader in all phases, anchoring a front that paved the way for the nation’s leading rusher, Jaret Patterson, and for a ground game as a whole that averaged an FBS-best 6.7 yards per carry. Novitsky himself earned a stellar 88.3 grade from PFF and a first-team All-MAC nod from conference coaches. In Lawrence, he’s an instant upgrade on the field and, off it, an ambassador for the culture Lance Leipold hopes to instill at a place where the only existing culture is losing.

Biggest X-factor: Texas’ quarterback situation

As of this writing, Steve Sarkisian has offered no clarity on the ongoing competition between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card, the biggest unresolved quarterback question this side of the New Orleans Saints. Thompson, a redshirt junior and son of former Oklahoma QB Charles Thompson, has yet to start a college game but has flashed in a reserve role behind Sam Ehlinger, especially in the second half of last year’s Alamo Bowl romp over Colorado.

Thompson stole the show against the Buffaloes, going 8-of-10 for 170 yards and 4 TDs in the most extended action of his career. But Card, a redshirt freshman, was the higher-rated recruit out of nearby Lake Travis High (a pipeline program that cranks out college-ready quarterbacks, most notably Baker Mayfield) and has fared marginally better in the local rumor mill through the first couple weeks of camp. For what it’s worth, he’s also the more conventional pocket passer, which is in Sarkisian’s wheelhouse.

In a typical rebuilding situation, especially if it’s a close call, the conventional wisdom favors the younger, arguably more talented candidate with more room to grow into his potential. But “rebuilding” is one of those concepts that, at places like Texas, is rapidly becoming obsolete. The Longhorns are desperate to win as big as possible as soon as possible, and they’ve watched too many other top programs hit the jackpot with young quarterbacks who seem to have never contemplated the idea of a learning curve. QB decisions these days also tend to have long afterlives as the effects ripple out through the transfer portal and into other programs. It would be going too far to suggest this first big decision stands to make or break Sarkisian’s tenure, but as UT’s third new coach in 8 years, he shouldn’t be under any illusions that time is on his side.

Preseason All-Big 12 team

Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for the coming season, based strictly on my own projections for the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the projections or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play running back — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.


Quarterback: Spencer Rattler • Oklahoma Running back: Breece Hall • Iowa State Running back: Bijan Robinson • Texas All-Purpose: Deuce Vaughn • Kansas State Wide receiver: Marvin Mims • Oklahoma Wide receiver: Erik Ezukanma • Texas Tech Tight end: Charlie Kolar • Iowa State Tackle: Obinna Eze • TCU Tackle: Derek Kerstetter • Texas Guard: Marquis Hayes • Oklahoma Guard: Josh Sills • Oklahoma State Center: Dawson Deaton • Texas Tech – – – Honorable Mention ... Quarterback: Brock Purdy (Iowa State) ... Skylar Thompson (Kansas State). Running Back: Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma) ... Eric Gray (Oklahoma) ... Leddie Brown (West Virginia) ... Zachary Evans (TCU) ... Trestan Ebner (Baylor). Wide Receiver: Theo Wease (Oklahoma) ... Xavier Hutchinson (Iowa State) ... Quentin Johnston (TCU). Tight End: Austin Stogner (Oklahoma) ... Chase Allen (Iowa State) ... Jeremiah Hall (FB – Oklahoma). O-Line: Colin Newell (Iowa State) ... Tyrese Robinson (Oklahoma) ... Junior Angilau (Oklahoma) ... Connor Galvin (Baylor).


Line (DE): Isaiah Thomas • Oklahoma Line (DT): Perrion Winfrey • Oklahoma Line (DT): Dante Stills • West Virginia Edge (OLB): Nik Bonitto • Oklahoma Linebacker: Mike Rose • Iowa State Linebacker: Colin Schooler • Texas Tech Linebacker: Terrel Bernard • Baylor Cornerback: Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson • TCU Cornerback: D’Shawn Jamison • Texas Safety/Nickel: Jalen Pitre • Baylor Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel • Oklahoma State Safety: Greg Eisworth II • Iowa State – – – Honorable Mention ... D-Line: Jalen Redmond (Oklahoma) ... Will McDonald IV (Iowa State) ... Keondre Coburn (Texas) ... Alfred Collins (Texas) ... Eyioma Uwazurike (Iowa State) ... Akheem Mesidor (West Virginia) ... Ochaun Mathis (TCU). Linebacker: Malcolm Rodriguez (Oklahoma State) ... Jake Hummel (Iowa State) ... DeMarvion Overshown (Texas). Defensive Backs: Raleigh Texada (Baylor) ... Anthony Johnson Jr. (Iowa State) ... Alonzo Addae (West Virginia) ... Tre Sterling (Oklahoma State) ... BJ Foster (Texas) ... Isheem Young (Iowa State) ... DaMarcus Fields (Texas Tech).


Kicker: Gabe Brkic • Oklahoma Punter: Austin McNamara • Texas Tech Returner/All-Purpose: Trestan Ebner • Baylor – – – Honorable Mention ... Kicker: Alex Hale (Oklahoma State) ... Cameron Dicker (Texas). Punter: Tom Hutton (Oklahoma State) ... Jordy Sandy (TCU). Returner/All-Purpose: D’Shawn Jamison (Texas) ... Phillip Brooks (Kansas State).


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