Six-time defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma is set to welcome a former conference rival to Norman this fall
Once all the necessary schedule shuffling decisions were made late in the offseason, Big 12 football teams were each allowed to play one non-conference opponent at home during the 2020 campaign. It didn't go well, at least for those that scheduled Sun Belt teams. League schools will square off with SBC teams once again in 2021 — Coastal Carolina (aiming for a third consecutive victory over Kansas), Louisiana (in Steve Sarkisian's Texas debut), and Texas State (a potentially tricky opener for Baylor) — two of the three being Big 12 killers last year.
However, with the return to three non-conference matchups next season, we have a wider range of games to look forward to. In addition to annual series renewing following an unexpected off-year, there are several instances in which longstanding, but recently dormant, on-field rivalries will be renewed — at least temporarily — in 2021. Sprinkle in a few tough Group of 5 conference teams aiming to repeat the success of the Sun Belt, and each Big 12 team will have at least one out-of-league matchup worthy of national attention. Here we take a look at the 10 most intriguing non-conference games of 2021:
10. Texas Tech vs. Houston (NRG Stadium), Sept. 4
Texas Tech finished 4-6 last season, and though it could have been worse (all four victories were decided by a touchdown or less), it also could have been better. (The Red Raiders played Texas and Oklahoma State tough in one-possession losses.) Matt Wells' squad will have a lot of new faces, most notably at quarterback, with Alan Bowman leaving via transfer and Tyler Shough joining from Oregon to compete with Henry Colombi. Despite a 7-13 record under Dana Holgorsen since 2019, Houston has the talent to compete for the AAC title. Unfortunately for the Cougars, it won't be a true home game in the Texans' NRG Stadium.
9. Nevada at Kansas State, Sept. 18
Kansas State was upset in its season opener by Arkansas State last year but rebounded to knock off Oklahoma the next week. Might the Wildcats suffer another loss to a Group of Five conference opponent the week before conference play kicks off in 2021? K-State opens against Stanford in Arlington, which is also an intriguing matchup on its own, but Nevada could have one of the most explosive offenses in the country next season. Quarterback Carson Strong is a rising star (and draft prospect) and has plenty of weapons to work with, giving the Wolf Pack legitimate Mountain West championship hopes.
8. SMU at TCU, Sept. 25
TCU also hosts Cal two weeks earlier, but the 100th meeting with SMU carries a little more weight with the Horned Frogs, especially since fans have waited two years for victory. The Mustangs won 41-38 in 2019 and last year's game was canceled. Led by Max Duggan, Zach Evans, and Quentin Johnston returning and the addition of Obinna Eze from Memphis, the Frogs have a lot to be excited about on offense in addition to the usual strength defensively. Both units will be tested by an SMU squad that has increased its talent level significantly through the transfer portal since Sonny Dykes took over as head coach.
7. Oklahoma State at Boise State, Sept. 18
After opening the regular season against FCS Missouri State, Oklahoma State plays a pair of 2020 G5 title contenders in Tulsa and Boise State, respectively. The Cowboys survived a 16-7 scare last year, but because of a few key personnel losses, the Golden Hurricane could take a step back this season. The Broncos, however, return the experience and production necessary to challenge for a New Year's Six bowl. With the Broncos returning 18 starters (or thereabouts), and the Pokes forced to replace several All-Big 12 performers, it's possible Boise State may even be favored by kickoff.
6. BYU at Baylor, Oct. 16
The last scheduled regular-season non-conference game for any Big 12 team in 2021, Baylor's game against BYU won't feature Cougars star quarterback Zach Wilson, but it will feature his most recent play-caller Jeff Grimes. The former BYU offensive coordinator has returned to his home state to remake a Baylor offense that ranked 100th nationally in scoring (23.3 points per game) and 125th in yards per play (4.44) in 2020.
5. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia, Sept. 18
The theme of the 2021 Big 12 non-conference game slate is renewed rivalries, and West Virginia has two of them booked. The Mountaineers open on the road against Maryland (playing for the first time since 2015 after the series ran uninterrupted for 36 years prior), and host Virginia Tech two weeks later. West Virginia has played the Hokies just once since 2005 and hasn't brought the Black Diamond Trophy back to Morgantown since 2003.
4. Texas at Arkansas, Sept. 11
All three of Texas' 2021 non-conference opponents will offer a challenge, including former Southwest Conference rivals Rice (seriously, the Owls are stingy defensively) and Arkansas. The Razorbacks took an unexpected step forward under first-year head coach Sam Pittman last season and could be poised for bigger and better things in 2021 and beyond with budding stars Treylon Burks, Jalen Catalon, and one of the top linebacker duos in the SEC, Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan, all returning.
3. Louisiana at Texas, Sept. 4
The Steve Sarkisian era of Texas football officially kicks off against a Louisiana squad that beat Iowa State 31-14, finished 10-1, was named co-champions of the Sun Belt, and ended the year ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll. The Ragin' Cajuns have won 21 games over the last two seasons, and despite all that success, have held on to head coach Billy Napier (who overlapped briefly with Sark at Alabama in 2016).
2. Nebraska at Oklahoma, Sept. 18
College football fans of a certain age remember when the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was the premier event of the season, but the longtime Big Eight and Big 12 rivals haven't met since 2010. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost could use a marquee victory, and an upset over the Sooners, who should be 2-0 and ranked in the top five of the polls, would provide a big boost to the Huskers rebuild. It seems unlikely now, but OU was susceptible to two September losses last year.
1. Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 11
It's not hyperbole to say the 2021 game against Iowa could be the biggest in Iowa State football history. There's an extra level of excitement after the game was canceled last season, as well as the fact the Cyclones haven't won the Cy-Hawk Trophy since 2014. But on top of that, Iowa State will likely come in with its highest ranking ever in the AP Top 25, and the Hawkeyes, who finished No. 19 in the poll last year, could make it the first matchup of ranked teams ever in the series.