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Big 12 Football 2021 Predictions

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma Sooners Football

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma Sooners Football

The 2021 Big 12 predictions feature a familiar program atop the standings. Oklahoma has claimed six conference titles in a row, and coach Lincoln Riley’s team is favored to once again hoist the championship hardware in December. The Sooners always have an explosive offense but an improving defense will help this team contend for the national title. Iowa State is Athlon’s pick to be the biggest competition to Oklahoma, with Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia headlining the next tier. Kansas State should rebound after a losing mark last year, while Baylor and Texas Tech have the pieces in place to push for a bowl. Kansas is in rebuild mode under new coach Lance Leipold.

Big 12 2021 Predictions

1. Oklahoma

The Sooners have claimed six Big 12 titles in a row, and coach Lincoln Riley’s team is a heavy favorite to win the league crown once again in 2021. Oklahoma is led by an explosive offense but an improving defense gives the program a better chance to win a playoff game – or perhaps something bigger – this postseason.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Sooners have averaged over 40 points a game for six consecutive years and will once again have one of the nation’s top offenses with quarterback Spencer Rattler directing the attack. Transfers Eric Gray (RB) and Mike Woods (WR), along with the return of running back Kennedy Brooks, adds to a deep collection of talent at the skill positions.

Concern: You have to squint to find a major concern here. Oklahoma does have an unsettled offensive line, but it’s also hard to doubt assistant Bill Bedenbaugh. Center Creed Humphrey will be missed.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Mario Williams

Incoming Transfers: RB Eric Gray; WR Mike Woods; QB Micah Bowens; OL Wanya Morris; OL Robert Congel

Breakout Player: RB Eric Gray

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Coordinator Alex Grinch has brought marked improvement to this group over the last two seasons. After Oklahoma gave up 6.1 yards per play in 2018, the Sooners held teams to 5.19 a snap in ’20. Also, this defense limited offenses to 21.7 points a game last year – down from 33.3 in ’18. All three levels of this group are in good shape, including a defensive line that ranks among the best in college football. Linebacker Nik Bonitto should push for double-digit sacks.

Concern: Will the improvement trend carry into 2021? The depth chart is deeper than in recent years, and there’s little reason to doubt Grinch after his work the last two seasons. It’s a small concern, but in four games against ranked teams, Oklahoma’s per-play average allowed dipped to 6.04.

True Freshman to Watch: DB Billy Bowman

Incoming Transfers: S Key Lawrence

Breakout Player: CB D.J. Graham

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Iowa State

The Cyclones are coming off arguably the best season in school history. Coach Matt Campbell’s team finished No. 9 in the final ranking – the highest ever by the program – and won more than eight games for just the third time in the Iowa State history. A run at the CFB Playoff is within reach for 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Nearly everyone from last year’s group that averaged 32.9 points a game is back, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar and receiver Xavier Hutchinson. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. A healthy Tarique Milton at receiver adds another weapon for Purdy on the outside. In conference-only games, Iowa State led the Big 12 by averaging 6.8 yards per snap.

Concern: Not much. The Cyclones could use a few more big plays this year. Purdy’s yards per attempt declined to 7.5 last fall after finishing at 10.2 in 2018. The offense needs a backup to emerge to help take some of the workload off Hall.

True Freshman to Watch: RB Deon Silas/Eli Sanders

Incoming Transfers: K Andrew Mevis

Breakout Player: OL Jake Remsburg

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Similar to the offense, Iowa State’s defense is loaded with talent, depth and experience. Linebacker Mike Rose should rank among the top defensive players in college football, while end Will McDonald (10.5 sacks) is an emerging star off the edge. Having a proven trio of cornerbacks like Anthony Johnson, Datrone Young and Tayvonn Kyle is a big plus in the offensive-minded Big 12. Iowa State limited teams to just 21.4 points a game last fall.

Concern: Safety Lawrence White and end JaQuan Bailey are key losses for coordinator Jon Heacock. The Cyclones could do a better job at limiting big plays after allowing nine completions of 40-plus yards in 2020.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Howard Brown

Incoming Transfers: DB Jaquan Amos

Breakout Player: S Isheem Young

3. Texas

It’s a new era in Austin. Tom Herman was dismissed after a 32-18 record from 2017-20, with former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepping into the top spot. Sarkisian is one of the top offensive minds in college football, but he will have to do a better job of recruiting and maximizing talent than the previous staff did in order to close the gap to Oklahoma.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The strength of Sarkisian’s first team should be the backfield. Bijan Robinson is primed for a monster year after running for 355 yards over Texas’ last two games of 2020. Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson and Roschon Johnson provide depth. The two quarterbacks – Casey Thompson and Hudson Card – vying for the starting job are talented. The Longhorns return four starters up front. Texas averaged 42.7 points a game and 6.65 yards per play last season. This isn’t a rebuilding effort for Sarkisian.

Concern: The offensive line has room to improve and will miss standout left tackle Sam Cosmi. How fast can Sarkisian settle the quarterback battle? Texas needs more playmakers to emerge at receiver. Troy Omeire is one name to watch there.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Xavier Worthy

Incoming Transfers: RB Keilan Robinson

Breakout Player: RB Bijan Robinson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Sarkisian’s hire of Pete Kwiatkowski to coordinate the defense was one of the best moves of the offseason. Texas isn’t hurting for talent on this side of the ball, while the transfer portal added needed depth and talent to the linebacker room. The line should rank among the best in the Big 12. Cornerback D’Shawn Jamison is one of the top defensive backs in the conference.

Concern: This unit has room to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play and 32.4 points a game (conference-only games) last year. Losing linebacker Joseph Ossai (five sacks) is a big blow to a pass rush that managed only 17 sacks in 2020.

True Freshman to Watch: S JD Coffey III

Incoming Transfers: LB Devin Richardson; LB Ben Davis; LB Ray Thornton; LB Ovie Oghoufo; DB Darion Dunn

Breakout Player: DL Alfred Collins

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. TCU

The Horned Frogs finished 2020 on a high note by winning five out of their last six contests. Coach Gary Patterson’s team hopes to carry that momentum into ’21 and record the program’s first top-25 finish since ’17.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Max Duggan is primed for a breakout year. The Horned Frogs should have one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12, and an improving group of receivers – led by rising star Quentin Johnston – is back on the outside. The addition of Memphis transfer Obinna Eze should help an offensive line that allowed 23 sacks last year.

Concern: How far will Duggan progress in 2021? The offensive line also has room to improve.

Freshman to Watch: TE D’Andre Rogers

Incoming Transfers: WR/LB Shadrach Banks; OL Obinna Eze; QB Chandler Morris

Breakout Player: QB Max Duggan

Previewing the Defense

Strength: A standout defense is usually one of the hallmarks of TCU under Patterson. While a few key players must be replaced, it’s hard to see this defense (24.2 ppg allowed) taking a big step back. The line ranks among the best in the conference, and the Horned Frogs return a standout cornerback tandem in Noah Daniels and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.

Concern: Replacing linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington isn’t going to be easy. TCU also allowed 19 plays of 40-plus yards last season.

Redshirt to Watch: LB Jamoi Hodge

Incoming Transfers: DB T.J. Carter; DL Kenny Turnier

Breakout Player: CB Noah Daniels

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

5. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys finished 8-3 last season but was just a few plays away from double-digit victories with losses to Texas (overtime) and TCU coming each by a touchdown.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Scoring points usually isn’t a problem in Stillwater, and the pieces are in place for another standout offense in 2021. Quarterback Spencer Sanders enters his third year as the starter and better depth and health should translate into improved play in the trenches. New faces need to emerge at receiver, but Oklahoma State usually does a good job of finding the next standouts. Dezmon Jackson, LD Brown and Dominic Richardson are a strong trio at running back.

Concern: Last season’s scoring average (30.2) was the lowest by Oklahoma State since the offense averaged 27.6 in 2014. Also, the per-play average dipped from 6.4 in ’19 to 5.5 last year. Injuries and attrition had an impact on pass protection (26 sacks allowed), and the offense lost 16 turnovers. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has to play with more consistency and cut down on the interceptions for Oklahoma State’s offense to improve. The Cowboys need a couple of receivers to step up.

True Freshmen to Watch: WR Bryson Green/Blaine Green

Incoming Transfers: OL Danny Godlevske; RB Jaylen Warren

Breakout Player: WR Brennan Presley

Previewing the Defense

Strength: After giving up 6.04 yards per play in 2018, Oklahoma State cut that total to 5.3 last season. Coordinator Jim Knowles has made a significant impact on this unit, helping the Cowboys hold opponents to 23.5 points a game in ’20. This group could be even better in ’21, especially if end Trace Ford recovers from a knee injury suffered late last year. Linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and four starters return in the secondary.

Concern: This group gave up too many big plays and finished sixth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Cornerback Rodarius Williams will be tough to replace.

True Freshman to Watch: S Kendal Daniels

Incoming Transfers: S Trey Rucker

Breakout Player: DL Trace Ford

6. West Virginia

Last year’s 6-4 mark showed the Mountaineers are headed in the right direction under coach Neal Brown. Contending for a spot in the Big 12 title game will hinge on how well the defense can replace a couple of key cogs and how far the quarterback position develops.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: West Virginia increased its scoring average to 26.5 (up from 20.6) and its per-play production to 5.4 (up from 4.9) last season. The offensive line look a step forward last season and should continue to progress in 2021. Running back Leddie Brown returns after rushing for 1,010 yards last fall. More consistency is needed at receiver, but Brown won’t lack for options.

Concern: The Mountaineers’ hopes of finishing in the top 25 and inside the top four of the Big 12 standings hinge on the play of quarterback Jarret Doege. The Texas native tossed 14 touchdowns to only four picks but was benched in the bowl game due to inconsistent play. Doege has to be better in 2021. The offense has to find a way to generate more big plays after recording only four of 40-plus yards last fall.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Kaden Prather

Incoming Transfers: OL Doug Nester

Breakout Player: OL Zach Frazier

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This side of the ball was the strength of West Virginia’s 2020 team. The Mountaineers topped the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed (4.65) and scoring defense (20.5). Also, this unit finished second in the conference in pass efficiency defense

Concern: West Virginia still has a good foundation here, but linebacker Tony Fields, safety Tykee Smith, cornerback Dreshun Miller and defensive linemen Darius Stills and Jeffery Pooler will be missed. The Mountaineers need to improve on their third-down package (seventh in the conference) and generate more of a pass rush (22 sacks last year). With five key players departing, can West Virginia maintain its 2020 production?

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: LB Jairo Faverus

Incoming Transfers: DB Charles Woods; LB Lance Dixon

Breakout Player: DL Akheem Mesidor

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

7. Kansas State

An upset over Oklahoma on Sept. 26 spurred a 4-1start, but the Wildcats collapsed down the stretch to a 4-6 finish. Assuming there’s a little better luck in the health department, along with improvement on defense, coach Chris Klieman’s squad should return to a bowl in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Getting quarterback Skylar Thompson back in the lineup from injury is certainly a huge boost to an offense that averaged only 26.6 points a game last year. Running back Deuce Vaughn is one of the top playmakers in the Big 12. The Wildcats return all five starters along a solid offensive line.

Concern: The Wildcats averaged just 5.6 yards a snap over nine conference games last fall. Tight end Briley Moore will be missed, but Illinois transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe should provide help right away. More help or playmakers need to emerge at receiver.

True Freshman to Watch: QB Jake Rubley

Incoming Transfers: WR Kade Warner; TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe

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Breakout Player: OL Cooper Beebe

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Wildcats return five starters and added potential help at every level through the transfer portal. Simply, the pieces are in place to improve after giving up 32.2 points a game.

Concern: Injuries and COVID-19 absences hurt this group last year. A rebound should be in order, but K-State is losing a couple of key pieces, including end Wyatt Hubert, linebackers Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan and defensive back AJ Parker. This unit also finished seventh in the Big 12 versus the run and ninth in pass efficiency defense. How far can the Wildcats improve in 2021?

True Freshman to Watch: LB DaVonte Pritchard

Incoming Transfers: LB Eric Munoz; DL Timmy Horne; DB Russ Yeast; DB Julius Brents

Breakout Player: DB Ekow Boye-Doe

8. Baylor

Baylor was one of the teams hit the hardest by the unusual offseason in 2020. A new staff, limited time to break in different schemes and roster turnover from ‘19 contributed to the 2-7 mark.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: New play-caller Jeff Grimes is one of the top coordinator hires of the offseason. The Bears have weapons at receiver, including R.J. Sneed, Tyquan Thornton and Gavin Holmes. While the backfield wasn’t productive last season, there are options, including all-around threat Trestan Ebner. Transfers Grant Miller and Jacob Gall should provide help to a suspect offensive line.

Concern: Who steps up at quarterback? The Bears averaged only 4.4 yards per play and 23.3 points a game last season. Also, this unit had just three plays of 40-plus yards and ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in third-down offense.

True Freshman to Watch: QB Kyron Drones

Incoming Transfers: OL Jacob Gall; WR Drew Estrada; OL Grant Miller

Breakout Player: OL Jacob Gall

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Don’t be surprised if this group shows marked improvement in 2021. Coach Dave Aranda and coordinator Ron Roberts have a track record of success on this side of the ball from previous stops, and with nine starters back, along with the addition of Siaki Ika from the transfer portal, Baylor will take a step forward on this side of the ball. A healthy year from linebacker Terrel Bernard is a huge plus for a group that ranked eighth in the Big 12 versus the run last fall.

Concern: How big of a jump in production can Aranda get out of this group in one offseason? Baylor allowed 29.2 points a game last year, so a big step forward on the stat sheet is needed to reach six victories. Bolstering a pass rush that only recorded 19 sacks last season is a must.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: DB Lorando Johnson

Incoming Transfers: DL Siaki Ika

Breakout Player: DL Siaki Ika

9. Texas Tech

The 2021 season might be a make-or-break year for coach Matt Wells. The Red Raiders are just 8-14 under Wells and another losing record might prompt a change in Lubbock. On the positive side, Texas Tech returns a veteran roster (15 starters) and has enough winnable games to get to a bowl.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Oregon transfer Tyler Shough is an intriguing addition at quarterback. As usual, the Red Raiders aren’t hurting for weapons at the skill positions with playmakers like running back SaRodorick Thompson and receivers Erik Ezukanma and Kaylon Geiger in the mix. The line returns four starters.

Concern: Last year’s scoring average (29.1) was the lowest over the last 12 years. How fast can new coordinator Sonny Cumbie and Shough get this offense on track? The Red Raiders lost the most turnovers (19) of any team in the Big 12 last year.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Jerand Bradley

Incoming Transfers: WR Kaylon Geiger; OL T.J. Storment; QB Tyler Shough

Breakout Player: QB Tyler Shough

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Red Raiders showed some slight improvement on this side of the ball last year by lowering their per-play average from 6.6 (2019) to 5.7. Coordinator Keith Patterson has extra help on the way from the transfer portal, which adds to a defense that already returned eight starters. This is a veteran group that would appear to have the pieces in place to improve.

Concern: The per-play number was a little better last year, but that was the extent of the good news. Texas Tech generated only 17 sacks, ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rush defense, eighth in pass efficiency defense and surrendered 36.7 points a contest.

True Freshman to Watch: DL E’maurion Banks

Incoming Transfers: S Reggie Pearson; CB Rayshad Williams; LB Jesiah Pierre; DB Marquis Waters; CB Malik Dunlap

Breakout Player: DL Tony Bradford Jr.

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

10. Kansas

Kansas is starting over once again, but the hire of Lance Leipold is a big step in the right direction. The Jayhawks haven’t recorded a winning season since 2008 and have only nine victories since ’15.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Jayhawks have two interesting options – Jalon Daniels and North Texas transfer Jason Bean – to rely on at quarterback. The backfield features a couple of promising backs, while the addition of center Mike Novitsky is a huge boost to the offensive line.

Concern: Kansas has not finished higher than eighth in the Big 12 in scoring since 2010. The Jayhawks averaged only 15.8 points a game and 3.7 yards a snap last year. The offensive line allowed a whopping 47 sacks in nine games in 2020. Can Daniels or Bean deliver consistent play under center? Also, the late arrival of the new staff adds to the difficulty of a transition period.

True Freshman to Watch: RB Evan Neal

Incoming Transfers: OL Michael Ford; WR Trevor Wilson; OL Mike Novitsky; QB Jason Bean; OL Colin Grunhard

Breakout Player: RB Velton Gardner

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Gavin Potter and Kyron Johnson form a solid duo at linebacker, while safeties Kenny Logan and Ricky Thomas bring experience to the secondary. New coordinator Brian Borland had a good track record of success at Buffalo.

Concern: The Jayhawks allowed at least 38 points in eight of nine contests and finished the season giving up 46 points per game. This defense surrendered 6.6 yards per play in 2020 and has not allowed under the six-yard mark since ’13. Kansas also ranked last in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and versus the run, while also generating the fewest sacks (nine) of any team in the conference. Also, three key players – tackle DaJon Terry, end Marcus Harris and cornerback Karon Prunty – transferred this offseason.

True Freshman to Watch: LB D’Marion Alexander

Incoming Transfers: DL Ronald McGee; LB Rich Miller; DL Eddie Wilson; DL Zion DeBose

Breakout Player: DB Jacobee Bryant

Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma over Iowa State


Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Pick by Mark Ross: Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Mike Rose, LB, Iowa State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Ochaun Mathis, DL, TCU

Pick by Mark Ross: Nik Bonitto, LB, Oklahoma

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Pick by Mark Ross: Steve Sarkisian, Texas

Coach on the Hot Seat

Pick by Steven Lassan: Matt Wells, Texas Tech

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Matt Wells, Texas Tech

Pick by Mark Ross: Matt Wells, Texas Tech

Top Freshman

Pick by Steven Lassan: Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Cody Jackson, WR, Oklahoma

Pick by Mark Ross: Clayton Smith, LB, Oklahoma

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Wanya Morris, LT, Oklahoma

Pick by Mark Ross: Tyler Shough, QB, Texas Tech

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: West Virginia

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kansas State

Pick by Mark Ross: West Virginia

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Oklahoma OL

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Texas QBs

Pick by Mark Ross: Oklahoma OL

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Pete Kwiatkowski, DC, Texas

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Pete Kwiatkowski, DC, Texas

Pick by Mark Ross: Pete Kwiatkowski, DC, Texas

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: Texas

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Baylor

Pick by Mark Ross: Kansas

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Alex Grinch, DC, Oklahoma

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Alex Grinch, DC, Oklahoma

Pick by Mark Ross: Alex Grinch, DC, Oklahoma

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Iowa State at Oklahoma 

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Iowa State at Oklahoma 

Pick by Mark Ross: Iowa State at Oklahoma

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Pick by Mark Ross: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Terrel Bernard, LB, Baylor

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kennedy Brooks, RB, Oklahoma

Pick by Mark Ross: Terrel Bernard, LB, Baylor

Podcast: Big 12 Preview and Predictions