We inevitably overreact to what we see in bowl season. It is the last real thing we see from teams for about eight months, and it’s really easy to get sucked into believing that whatever we saw then is what we’ll see for months on end when the next season begins. They are traps, and they can sometimes lead us to some poor preseason assessments.
They can also sometimes verify what we were already beginning to think. The Big 12 went 5-0 in last year’s odd, cancellation-heavy bowl season. Oklahoma pummeled an admittedly limited Florida. Iowa State and Texas beat two of the Pac-12’s more successful teams, Oregon and Colorado, by a combined score of 89-40. Oklahoma State’s offensive skeleton crew outlasted Miami 37-34. WVU’s defense-dominant squad solved Army.
This was affirmation of what numbers like SP+ had been telling us all season: The conference was pretty deep, and it had learned to defend. Five Big 12 teams boasted defenses that ranked 18th or better in SP+, and six were 23rd or better in February’s initial 2021 projections.
Oklahoma, winner of six straight conference titles, is a solid favorite to stretch that streak in 2021, but Iowa State has the pieces to put together another top-10 campaign, Texas just hired 2020’s best playcaller (former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) as its new head coach, and the conference is loaded with landmines and tricky defenses. Can the Sooners survive a long Big 12 grind with national title hopes intact? Does ISU have one more gear? Will people realize how strong and balanced the Big 12 has become? Let’s preview the Big 12’s top half!
Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, the top and bottom half of the AAC, the seven Independents, the ACC Atlantic and Coastal and the Pac-12 North and South, and the bottom half of the Big 12.
After a hard restart in Neal Brown’s first year, WVU began to look the part in 2020. Well, one side of the ball did, at least. It’s the offense’s turn to improve now.
Projected SP+ rank: 34th
Average projected wins: 6.8 (4.8 in the Big 12)
Likely wins*: Long Island (99.9% win probability), at Kansas (91%), Texas Tech (78%), at Kansas State (66%)
Relative toss-ups: at Baylor (59%), Virginia Tech (58%), Oklahoma State (51%), at TCU (44%), at Maryland (44%), Texas (43%)
Likely losses: Iowa State (31%), at Oklahoma (14%)
* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.
No one in the Big 12 has more toss-up games and more possibilities, good and bad, in 2021.
What we learned about West Virginia in 2020
Building a strong culture takes a while. Brown’s second season bore fruit: His Mountaineers jumped from a lucky 5-7 to an unlucky 6-4 and from 98th to 38th in SP+. The February SP+ projections had them improving further, but then three key defensive starters transferred, among others.
In all, 22 guys have entered the portal since last August. Is that a sign of the last remnants of a poor team culture leaving? A sign that Brown’s culture-building attempts are failing? Neither? Both? It’s impossible to know in real time. But WVU will likely end up in the mid-40s in August’s updated SP+ projections.
There’s still a lot of defensive potential. Coordinator Vic Koenning left the program last summer after accusations of mistreatment, and basically every defensive assistant turned into a co-coordinator, but the WVU defense still surged to 17th in defensive SP+. They were good against the run and great against the pass, and despite attrition the lineup will still have all-conference contenders in tackle Dante Stills, linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo and safeties Alonzo Addae and Kerry Martin Jr., who opted out last season. Depth is an obvious concern, but the first string will still be strong.
What we didn’t learn about West Virginia in 2020
Where’s the offense? The Mountaineers have ranked just 100th and 72nd in offensive SP+ in two seasons under Brown. Their pass efficiency improved in 2020, but the run game was all-or-nothing.
Quarterback Jarret Doege has a high-level efficiency target in slot man Winston Wright Jr., and RB Leddie Brown and wideout Bryce Ford-Wheaton are explosive players. But the line needs to get far more of a push, and the WR corps outside of Wright has a drops issue. Eight starters return, but the ceiling might still be a little low.
West Virginia’s history in one chart
Seemingly every program had a great run in the 1950s. WVU’s came under Art Lewis: 24-5 from 1953-55 with three ranked finishes and a Sugar Bowl trip.
After four straight losing seasons, WVU hired Michigan QBs coach Don Nehlen in 1980. He would take them to 13 bowls in 20 years, with two top-10 finishes.
With Heisman finalist Major Harris at QB, WVU started 11-0 in 1988, with every win by double digits, but a Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame denied them a national title.
Under Nehlen’s replacement Rich Rodriguez, WVU went 33-5 from 2005 to ’07 and came within a devastating rivalry loss to Pitt of the BCS title game in 2007.
Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, results have been … middling: three ranked finishes and a 10-win 2016, but a .559 overall win percentage.
Mike Gundy had OSU back in the top 20 last season. He could have his best defense yet this fall, but can the offense generate consistency for the first time since 2018?
Projected SP+ rank: 29th
Average projected wins: 7.5 (5.2 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Missouri State (99.9%), Kansas (96%), Kansas State (79%), Tulsa (75%), Baylor (73%), at Texas Tech (73%)
Relative toss-ups: TCU (60%), at Boise State (55%), at WVU (49%), at Texas (37%)
Likely losses: Oklahoma (25%), at Iowa State (25%)
Trips to Austin and Ames could tamp down Big 12 title hopes, but there are enough likely wins to assure another solid season in Stillwater.
What we learned about Oklahoma State in 2020
Hiring Jim Knowles has worked out. Gundy brought Knowles, an aggressive defensive coordinator, in from Duke in 2018. Knowles wants to play man defense and play as physically as the refs will allow, and he’s willing to risk some big plays in the name of three-and-outs and turnovers. After middling results in his first two years, Knowles had what he needed in 2020, and the Cowboys leaped from 58th to 18th in defensive SP+.
OSU returns 14 of the 18 defenders with 200+ snaps, including a trio of good pass-rushing ends (led by Trace Ford), an all-around playmaker in linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and, most importantly, the most physical safety corps in the nation in Tanner McCalister, Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel. This is a seasoned defense that could get even nastier this fall.
What we didn’t learn about Oklahoma State in 2020
When will the offense reach fifth gear again? After three straight years ranked seventh or better in offensive SP+, coordinator Mike Yurcich left for Ohio State. OSU fell first to 26th, then to 41st last year. Quarterback Spencer Sanders remained up-and-down in 2020 — his good moments were great, but his sack rate (7%) and INT rate (3%) were too high — and star RB Chuba Hubbard was slowed by injuries. Outside of Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner, the WR corps was inconsistent.
Hubbard, Wallace and Stoner are gone, and OSU will be hoping for power in small samples. Dezmon Jackson and Dominic Richardson both had huge games late in the season — Jackson rushed for 235 against Texas Tech and 118 against TCU, and Richardson had 169 against Baylor — and when Wallace opted out as planned early in the Cheez-It Bowl, freshman Brennan Presley came out of nowhere to catch six balls for 118 yards and three scores. If they’re stars, then combined with a strong O-line and a more mature Sanders, this should be the best post-Yurcich offense. But if they aren’t, then the skill corps becomes a giant question mark.
Oklahoma State’s history in one chart
Hang the banner! OSU — sorry, Oklahoma A&M — went 9-0 and finished fifth in the AP poll in 1945, but an AFCA committee awarded them the national title in 2016.
After a long run in the Missouri Valley, OSU officially joined the Big 8 in 1960. The Pokes’ first winning season wouldn’t come until 1972.
In 1987-88, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders rushed for 4,844 combined yards, and OSU went 20-4 — 0-4 against OU and Nebraska, 20-0 against everyone else.
NCAA sanctions meant frustration in the 1990s, but Les Miles kick-started a rebound with three straight bowl seasons. He left for LSU, and Gundy took over in 2005.
OSU has been to 15 straight bowls, but Gundy’s peak came in 2011 with Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, a 12-1 finish and nearly a BCS title game appearance.
Texas improved significantly in 2020, but it wasn’t enough to save Tom Herman’s job. Now Steve Sarkisian takes over a gig that is anything but an overhaul.
Projected SP+ rank: 20th
Average projected wins: 8.0 (5.8 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Kansas (98%), Rice (96%), Texas Tech (86%), Kansas State (84%), at Baylor (70%)
Relative toss-ups: at Arkansas (64%), Oklahoma State (64%), Louisiana (61%), at WVU (57%), at TCU (57%)
Likely losses: at Iowa State (32%), vs. Oklahoma (27%)
Texas went 7-3 with one loss by two points, one by three and one in four OTs. With few guaranteed wins and no out-of-reach losses, close games will tell the tale again in 2021.
What we learned about Texas in 2020
Sarkisian earned another chance. Five years after substance abuse issues led to his dismissal as USC’s head coach in 2016, Sarkisian earned another shot at a top job following stints as offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and Alabama. His 2020 Bama offense combined nearly perfect offensive talent with brilliant spacing and all the bells and whistles — RPO action, lots of motion — of the modern offense.
Texas doesn’t have Alabama’s level of talent, but the Longhorns have ranked in the offensive SP+ top 10 for each of the past two years. They’ll probably score lots of points in 2021.
Bijan Robinson‘s recruiting ranking was accurate. ESPN’s No. 21 prospect in 2020, Robinson caught fire late in his freshman year. In wins over WVU, Kansas State and Colorado, he needed just 38 rushes and receptions to gain 594 yards and score six times.
With QB Sam Ehlinger and four of his top six targets gone, we don’t know enough about UT’s passing personnel. Either Alamo Bowl hero Casey Thompson or blue-chip redshirt freshman Hudson Card will start at QB, and veteran Joshua Moore and slot Jordan Whittington will have to carry heavy weight out wide. But with Robinson and four starting linemen returning, the ceiling is high.
What we didn’t learn about Texas in 2020
Where’d the pass defense go? The UT defense rebounded from 68th to 35th in defensive SP+ in 2020, and now successful Washington coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski takes over a unit that was strong against the run (and should be again with the return of key linemen like Moro Ojomo and 348-pound Keondre Coburn) but terribly shaky against the pass. Needless to say, that’s a bad thing to be in the Big 12.
Kwiatkowski has to bring life to a pass rush that ranked 115th in sack rate — Sarkisian brought in four linebacker transfers to help with that — and a secondary that was constantly shuffled and unsteady last season. Safety Chris Adimora is a keeper, and lord knows there are plenty of former star recruits to choose from, but stability is necessary.
Texas’ history in one chart
Following its worst season (1-9 in 1956), Texas responded with its best hire: Darrell K Royal, who would engineer 10 AP top-six finishes and two national titles in 20 seasons.
After going 20-12 from 1965-67, Royal tasked assistant Emory Bellard with revamping the offense. His solution — the wishbone — would dominate college football in the 1970s.
The two decades after Royal’s retirement saw a slow-motion slide, but after a 4-7 season in 1997, UT brought in Mack Brown, its second-best hire ever.
Brown’s heyday: 101 wins and six top-six finishes from 2001 to ’09, highlighted by Vince Young’s Rose Bowl touchdown and the 2005 national title.
The 2010s saw 25% of UT’s all-time losing seasons (four of 16), but Sarkisian inherits a program a few years removed from that darkness.
Iowa State began 2020 with a loss to Louisiana, then ripped off its first ever top-10 campaign. Most of the Cyclones’ key pieces return; do they have one more gear in them?
Projected SP+ rank: seventh
Average projected wins: 9.4 (6.8 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: at UNLV (99%), Northern Iowa (99%), Kansas (99%), at Texas Tech (87%), at Kansas State (85%), at Baylor (80%), TCU (78%), Oklahoma State (75%), at WVU (69%), Texas (68%)
Relative toss-ups: None
Likely losses: at Oklahoma (33%)
When Matt Campbell took over in 2016, ISU had won seven of its past 38 Big 12 games. The Cyclones are projected favorites in eight of nine this fall, and all by at least eight points.
What we learned about Iowa State in 2020
The key pieces are in place. Few in college football have ever evaluated and developed talent like Campbell and his staff have of late. They have turned mid-three-star recruits, such as QB Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and defensive end Will McDonald IV, into All-American candidates. They have stocked the two-deep with worthy role players in a creative system catered specifically to the talent you can attract to Ames. They are converting top-50 recruiting classes into a genuine top-10 product.
We’ll see if they can continue to do it when this batch of stars is gone, but that’s a concern for another year. ISU is stocked in 2021.
What we didn’t learn about Iowa State in 2020
What’s the ceiling here? Improvement is not supposed to be linear. Progress comes in fits and starts, in two steps forward and one back. But after ranking 77th in SP+ the year before Campbell’s arrival, ISU has improved to 66th, 44th, 38th, 24th and 11th, respectively. And now they have one of the better returning production averages in the country.
At some point, you hit your head on some sort of ceiling, right? Or is Campbell going to keep defying college football physics and generate a top-five level of play?
Can the Cyclones flip the big-play battle? As mentioned in June’s If List piece, ISU won despite big plays, not because of them.
Efficiency is the most important and sustainable aspect of football, and the Cyclones tend to win that battle. But explosive plays win individual games, and ISU’s less than elite when it comes to either making or preventing them. Can a reliable big-play talent — Joe Scates, perhaps? — emerge alongside Hall and wideout Xavier Hutchinson? Can the zone that defense coordinator Jon Heacock so heavily relies on tighten up a bit more despite the loss of safety Lawrence White IV?
Iowa State’s history in one chart
ISU was at an all-time low when Johnny Majors arrived in 1968. He had them in their first bowl just three years later.
When Majors left for Pitt (where he’d win a national title), Earle Bruce took things even further, producing three eight-win seasons and ISU’s first ranked finish.
ISU wasn’t very memorable in the 1980s and 1990s, but the Davis brothers were. Troy rushed for 4,195 yards in 1995-96, then Darren rushed for 3,559 from 1997 to ’99.
After winning 13 games in his first five years, Dan McCarney engineered a 9-3 season in 2000, then nearly won Big 12 North titles in 2004-05. Then everything collapsed again.
The Cyclones’ current trajectory is almost unprecedented. ISU hasn’t won a conference title since 1912, and there might never be a better chance to end that incredible streak.
The stars are aligning, part one: Quarterback Spencer Rattler and his top two WRs are back, the defense has surged for two straight years, and last year’s CFP teams all have big pieces to replace.
Projected SP+ rank: third
Average projected wins: 10.3 (7.6 in the Big 12)
Likely wins: Duquesne (99.8% win probability), Kansas (95%), SMU (76%), Cal (71%), Baylor (69%), at Texas Tech (69%), at Kansas State (66%)
Relative toss-ups: WVU (56%), Texas (43%), at Oklahoma State (40%)
Likely losses: at Iowa State (22%), at Oklahoma (14%)
Road trips to OU, ISU and OSU might preclude a conference title run, but if the offense rebounds as planned, a friendly home slate could create a friendly win total.
What we learned about Oklahoma in 2020
Alex Grinch was a good hire. In Riley’s first two seasons as head coach, his offense was so good that the Sooners made two CFP appearances despite defensive deficiencies. But it was clear that to win a CFP, the defense had to be addressed. Ranking 84th in defensive SP+ in 2018 wasn’t going to get it done.
Riley brought Grinch and his ultra-aggressive 3-3-5 defense to town in 2019, and it has paid off. OU jumped to 48th in 2019, then 15th last season. Once you’re behind schedule, you’re toast: The Sooners were 41st in success rate allowed on standard downs but first on passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more).
Losing end Ronnie Perkins certainly hurts, but the Sooners still return tackle Isaiah Thomas and rush end Nik Bonitto (combined: 16.5 sacks in 11 games). Linebacker Brian Asamoah is strong against the run, and sophomore corner Woodi Washington is a star in the making. If star tackle Jalen Redmond returns to form after a 2020 opt-out, further improvement is conceivable.
What we didn’t learn about Oklahoma in 2020
Does a remodeled skill corps have stability? The return of receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease might be all that the sophomore Rattler, likely a top 2022 draft pick, needs to post big numbers. But there is otherwise quite a bit of shuffling in the skill corps: Four of last year’s top five RBs are gone, as are secondary receivers Charleston Rambo and Theo Howard.
The upside is massive, as always. RB Kennedy Brooks, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, returns after an opt-out, explosive WR Mike Woods arrives from Arkansas, WR Jadon Haselwood is healthy after an ACL tear and RB Eric Gray arrives from tumultuous Tennessee. Add in freshman receivers Mario Williams Jr. and Billy Bowman Jr., and the ceiling is limitless. It’s hard to worry about an OU offense. But continuity’s good, and this is a lot of change.
Oklahoma’s history in one chart
OU’s first run of dominance was still its most impressive: Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners won 47 straight from 1954 to ’57 and went 107-8-2 with 10 top-five finishes from 1948 to ’58.
Armed with the fancy new wishbone offense, OU went rampant again in the 1970s, going 105-11-2 with eight top-three finishes and two more national titles from 1971 to ’80.
After one more explosion (33-3 with another title from 1985 to ’87), Barry Switzer resigned in 1989 with sanctions on the horizon. What followed was OU’s only true dark period.
After 17 wins in four years, OU hired Bob Stoops in 1999. Dark period: over. He’d lead the Sooners to the 2000 national title and nine other top-six finishes over 18 years.
Stoops handed the reins to Riley in summer 2017, and the transition has been seamless. The next time OU doesn’t win the Big 12 will be the first since 2014.