A decade after the Big 12 was altered dramatically from the turning gears of conference realignment, the 2021 season began with realignment's specter again looming over the league.
News of Oklahoma and Texas heading to the SEC shook the nation and cast uncertainty over the Big 12. But that wasn't the only change shaping the conference in 2021.
Synonymous with high-scoring offense, perhaps more so than any other league, defense began to redefine the Big 12. It's not entirely evident from the Big 12's best games of 2021, which feature a variety of shootouts in the conference's tradition. However, an instant classic Big 12 Championship Game between two teams with some of the nation's best defenses marked an end to the season and the beginning of a new era.
10 Best Big 12 Games of 2021
10. Texas 32, TCU 27 – Oct. 2
Bijan Robinson was utterly electric for much of 2021, and one of his finest performances came in the win over TCU. Robinson rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries, but his most important contributions may have come on a series of runs that went four, six and 13 yards.
That sequence answered a 99-yard touchdown drive that pulled TCU to within five points with more than four minutes to play. A stop would give the Horned Frogs an opportunity for the win, but Robinson's three straight gains converted two first downs to effectively seal the victory.
9. Kansas State 25, Texas Tech 24 – Oct. 23
K-State faced two-touchdown deficits on three occasions in the first half of its visit to Lubbock, the last of which came on a field goal that sent the teams into halftime. That field goal provided Tech's last points of the game.
The Kansas State defense locked up Texas Tech in the second half, setting the tone with a safety coming out of the intermission that led directly to one of Deuce Vaughn's three touchdowns. His last score came with 6:09 remaining to give K-State its first and only lead of the game. Felix Anudike-Uzomah's third-down sack on the Red Raiders' subsequent possession provided a fitting punctuation mark.
8. Oklahoma State 32, Texas 24 – Oct. 16
Oklahoma State's road to the Big 12 Championship Game was paved with assorted nail-biters and comebacks. Few were as wild as the furious rally from down 24-13 in the third quarter in Austin when Bijan Robinson scored on a 38-yard run that seemingly signaled a Longhorns route.
But as good as Robinson was that day, the Cowboys' Jaylen Warren was better. Important chunks of his 193 yards on this day set up two second-half Spencer Sanders touchdowns (one pass, one run) that were vital to putting OSU ahead.
7. Baylor 31, Iowa State 29 – Sept. 25
Breece Hall's heroics on a 190-yard, three-touchdown day included a receiving score with 24 seconds remaining. After trailing by as many as 12 points in the late third quarter — a deficit which Hall cut into on a goal-line carry — the Cyclones were just a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime.
Fittingly, the eventual Big 12 champions that imposed their will on conference opponents through defense all season, staved off overtime with an interception on the game-tying attempt.
6. Oklahoma 37, Kansas State 31 – Oct. 2
Oklahoma has largely dominated the Big 12 since the dawn of the millennium, but if any opponent has been the most consistent thorn in the Sooners' side, it's Kansas State. Even after both Bob Stoops and his former mentor Bill Snyder left OU and K-State, the same dynamic remained between Lincoln Riley and Chris Klieman.
But after the Wildcats scored a shocker last season in Norman, OU came out in this year's edition and built a three-score lead. But Skylar Thompson helped K-State battle back on his 320-yard, three-touchdown day and the final moments came down to special teams.
First, Gabe Brkic nailed a long field goal to extend Oklahoma's led to 13. Then on the ensuing kickoff, Malik Knowles went 93 yards to pull the Wildcats within a touchdown.
The Sooners sealed it on special teams, however, recovering the ensuing onside kick. At least, that's how it officially went down. The initial play was a K-State recovery, but video review revealed an apparent double-kick.
5. Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State 37, Notre Dame 35 – Jan. 1, 2022
Given how its season unfolded much of the way, it was only right that Oklahoma State capped it with an exciting comeback win in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Fiesta Bowl functioned as something of a College Football Playoff consolation, as both the Cowboys and Fighting Irish were on the cusp of the final four going into Championship Week.
Despite not playing for the national championship, both teams played like it was on the line on New Year's Day. Spencer Sanders and Jack Coan both erupted, passing for 371 yards and four touchdowns vs. 509 yards with five scores.
Notre Dame's aerial attack was a response to stifling Oklahoma State rush defense, and caught the Cowboys off-guard as the Irish built a three-touchdown lead.
But timely takeaways setting up Oklahoma State on short fields produced three straight critical scores on a 30-0 Cowboys scoring run.
4. Kansas 57, Texas 56 (OT) – Nov. 13
Kansas football boasts four wins over Texas. The first two were in 1901 and 1938. The second two? 2016 and 2021.
The Jayhawks built a lead over Oklahoma a few weeks earlier but saw it slip away down the stretch. Not the case against the Longhorns, despite Kansas having a three-touchdown lead slip away in regulation.
In overtime, Texas scored first but after Devin Neal's goal-line touchdown carry, Jayhawks head coach Lance Leipold made the decision to play for the win in overtime, setting the stage for walk-on Jared Casey.
The game-winning, two-point conversion, which also was Casey's first catch of the season, provided one of the best moments of the 2021 campaign — and showed the impact of the new NIL rules in college sports. Casey starred in a commercial for Applebee's, getting cash and gift cards from the restaurant for his on-field heroics.
3. Oklahoma 55, Texas 48 – Oct. 9
An unforgettable Saturday opened with a fitting early game, as the Red River Rivalry set the tone for one of college football's best single days ever. Texas pounced on Oklahoma with a pair of touchdowns not two minutes into the game, then pulled ahead by three touchdowns before the end of the first quarter.
But this being the Red River Rivalry, of course things took a turn for the wild.
Lincoln Riley's decision to pull Spencer Rattler for Caleb Williams shook up both the game, and the football landscape. Williams was electrifying, leading the Sooners on a raucous comeback that featured some of the most jaw-dropping plays of the season — not the least of which was Kennedy Brooks' game-winning touchdown run.
The SEC is getting a good rivalry.
2. Oklahoma State 37, Oklahoma 33 – Nov. 27
Bedlam more than delivered on its name in 2021. With a Big 12 Championship Game berth at stake, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State went back-and-forth in what was arguably the best game of this past season's Rivalry Week.
This game had it all, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Brennan Presley.
Oklahoma gave the aggressive Oklahoma State defense fits in a way not many opponents could. Caleb Williams passed for three touchdowns, Kennedy Brooks rushed for 139 yards, and then the Sooners' defense came through with big plays to build a two-possession lead going in the fourth quarter.
Special teams ultimately won the day between Presley's touchdown return and later, the decision to punt with the Cowboys at midfield and trailing by two points. An easy call to lament on social media, the punt was game-changing as the Cowboys forced a fumble at the Oklahoma 5-yard line. Jaylen Warren's goal-line touchdown run on the change of possession won a thriller and sent Oklahoma State to the Big 12 Championship Game.
1. Big 12 Championship Game: Baylor 21, Oklahoma State 16 – Dec. 4
The transformation of the Big 12 mentioned in the intro to his countdown notes how two great defenses earned their way to the Big 12 Championship Game. Fittingly, it was defense that defined this intense showdown.
Oklahoma State's defense played an excellent second half after a lackluster start, as the Cowboys began chipping away at a 21-3 deficit. Despite Spencer Sanders' four interceptions, Oklahoma State battled back and went on a clutch drive in the late fourth quarter.
The final play is the kind of moment guaranteed to live on in college football lore for generations. With a possible spot in the College Football Playoff at stake, Oklahoma State came up literal inches short.