The early Big 12 football predictions for 2021 feature a familiar name at the top. Oklahoma is the favorite once again in the Big 12, and coach Lincoln Riley's squad will be in the mix to win it all in '21. Iowa State returns quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall, which should be enough for coach Matt Campbell's team to return to the Big 12 title game. Little separates TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State after the top two, with West Virginia up next. Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas round out the rest of the very early picks.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2021 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2021:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2021
The Sooners have won six Big 12 titles in a row and should be heavily favored to claim No. 7. The offense is once again going to be a strength for coach Lincoln Riley, but Oklahoma’s improving defense will give this a team a chance to win it all in 2021. The Sooners held teams to 21.7 points a game (down from 27.3) in ’19) and limited offenses to 5.19 yards a snap (down from 5.63) last season. End Ronnie Perkins will be missed, but the bulk of this group returns, including Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas up front, along with linebackers Nik Bonitto and Brian Asamoah. Riley’s high-powered offense has scored more than 40 points a game for six consecutive seasons. Expect that streak to continue with quarterback Spencer Rattler primed for a huge year as a sophomore and plenty of weapons at the skill positions. Oklahoma’s toughest matchup next fall (Iowa State) takes place in Norman.
2. Iowa State
Matt Campbell has guided Iowa State to four consecutive winning seasons and a top-10 finish nationally should again be within reach next fall. Quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar are back to anchor an offense that averaged 32.9 points a game in 2020. Purdy will have plenty of protection from an offensive line that returns intact, and the receiving corps also is stocked with Xavier Hutchinson and Tarique Milton back on the outside. The Cyclones ranked as one of the Big 12’s top defenses last fall, and while end JaQuan Bailey will be missed, don’t expect this unit to suffer on the stat sheet. Iowa visits Jack Trice Stadium in a massive non-conference game, while Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas also pay a visit to Ames in 2021.
The Horned Frogs are 18-17 since the program’s 11-3 mark in 2017, but the ’21 team should be coach Gary Patterson’s best in a few years. Quarterback Max Duggan is primed for his best season in Fort Worth after leading the team in rushing (526) while also throwing for 1,795 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2020. Kendre Miller, Zach Evans and Darwin Barlow form a dynamic collection of running backs, with rising star Quentin Johnston anchoring a receiving corps returning its top four options. Memphis transfer Obinna Eze is a key addition for an offensive line looking to improve after giving up 23 sacks in ’20. Patterson has no trouble assembling good defenses, and while this unit returns the bulk of the two-deep, replacing linebacker Garret Wallow and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar’Darius Washington won’t be easy. Ends Ochaun Mathis and Khari Coleman, along with cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson should be three of the Big 12’s top defenders in ’21. TCU has five Big 12 road games next fall, including at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State.
New coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t stepping into a complete rebuild in Austin. The Longhorns finished 7-3 in the unusual 2020 season and lost by eight points or less to TCU, Oklahoma and Iowa State. Casey Thompson is expected to start at quarterback with Sam Ehlinger off to the NFL, and Sarkisian should find more ways to maximize Bijan Robinson’s talent after only 86 carries in 2020. Left tackle Sam Cosmi is a big loss up front, but there’s enough young talent for new line coach Kyle Flood to build around this spring. The Longhorns gave up nearly one yard less per play than they did in 2019 (6.1 to 5.2), and while most of the unit is back, replacing edge rusher Joseph Ossai won’t be easy. Sarkisian’s debut sees Texas open with Louisiana and then a trip to Arkansas in Week 2. In conference play, the Longhorns face tough road treks to Iowa State, TCU and Baylor.
5. Oklahoma State
It’s a close call in the middle of the Big 12, so while coach Mike Gundy’s team ranks fifth here, a finish in the top 25 or closer to the top two in the conference is within reach. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has to take a step forward as a junior and cut down on the mistakes (19 picks in two years) for the Cowboys to challenge for a trip to the conference title game. Running back Dezmon Jackson flashed potential late in the year, and the receiving corps needs Brennan Presley and Braydon Johnson to step up with Tylan Wallace and Dillon Stoner off to the NFL. Tackle Teven Jenkins and center Ry Schneider will be missed up front, but there should be some improvement here with the bulk of the two-deep returning. Oklahoma State’s defense has made steady gains under coordinator Jim Knowles and held teams to 23.5 points a game in 2020 – the lowest mark since ’13 (21.6). However, a few key players – linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, lineman Cameron Murray and cornerback Rodarius Williams – are off to the NFL. The home slate features games against TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State, but Gundy’s team hits the road for matchups versus Boise State, Texas and West Virginia.
6. West Virginia
The Mountaineers took a step forward in coach Neal Brown’s second year in Morgantown. After a 5-7 finish in 2019, West Virginia went 6-4 and defeated Army in the Liberty Bowl to secure the program’s first postseason win since 2015. For Brown’s team to continue to move up the standings, more improvement is needed offensively. The Mountaineers need quarterback Jarret Doege or freshman Garrett Greene to provide more consistency in the passing game. The rest of the offense returns largely intact, which includes 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown and four of the top five receivers. West Virginia’s defense quietly led the Big 12 in fewest points (20.5) and yards per play (4.65) allowed in 2020. Linebacker Tony Fields and lineman Darius Stills won’t be easy to replace, but a strong foundation remains, including safety Tykee Smith, linemen Dante Stills and Akeem Mesidor and linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo. A home slate featuring Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State is favorable. However, swing matchups versus Kansas State, Baylor and TCU take place on the road.
7. Kansas State
The return of quarterback Skylar Thompson from injury is a boost to a Kansas State team that finished on a five-game losing streak after a 4-1 start. The offense is going to miss tight end Briley Moore, but running back Deuce Vaughn is one of the Big 12’s most exciting players, and Chabastin Taylor, Malik Knowles and Phillip Brooks return to anchor the receiving corps. Center Noah Johnson is the lone senior starter in the trenches. The defense struggled in the second half of 2020 and ended the year by allowing 6.1 yards per snap. Key cogs end Wyatt Hubert, linebackers Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan, tackle Drew Wiley, cornerback Kiondre Thomas and defensive back AJ Parker won’t return, but coach Chris Klieman added some help via the transfer portal. Safety Jahron McPherson decided to return for 2021.
Dave Aranda isn’t sitting pat after a 2-7 debut in Waco. The coaching staff was adjusted, with BYU coordinator Jeff Grimes taking the same job with the Bears to call plays for an offense that averaged only 23.3 points a game in 2020. Grimes is a strong hire, but he will have his hands full at the quarterback position this offseason. Charlie Brewer is transferring to Utah, leaving Jacob Zeno, Gerry Bohanon or freshmen Kyron Drones (true) and Blake Shapen (redshirt) to compete for the job. More punch is needed on the ground after managing only 2.7 yards per carry and question marks remain in the trenches after yielding 31 sacks in 2020. With a full offseason to work with the defense and implement his scheme, Aranda and coordinator Ron Roberts should have a better group in ’21. Additionally, the personnel losses are small on this side of the ball, and linebacker Terrel Bernard is back after playing in just five games due to injury.
9. Texas Tech
The 2021 season is an important one for coach Matt Wells after an 8-14 start to his tenure in Lubbock. Both sides of the ball need work going into spring workouts. The offense averaged under 30 points a game for the first time since 2000, while the defense gave up 36.7. New offensive coordinator (and former Texas Tech QB) Sonny Cumbie has experience returning at quarterback with Alan Bowman and Henry Colombi, along with All-Big 12 receiver Erik Ezukanma and running back SaRodorick Thompson. Guard Jack Anderson departed early for the NFL and will be missed. The defense has been a long-running issue in Lubbock. Help is coming in the form of a couple of transfers, and linebackers Riko Jeffers and Colin Schooler passed on the NFL for one more season with the Red Raiders. However, all areas of the defense have to improve, and this unit must get better at forcing turnovers, generating sacks, and getting timely stops.
The Jayhawks are just 3-18 under Les Miles, and with eight of the team’s nine defeats in 2020 coming by 15 points or more, there’s a long way to go in order to escape the bottom of the Big 12. Kansas ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring (15.8 ppg) last season. Without improved play or more consistency from the quarterback position, this offense is likely to struggle again. The question marks extend to a defense that allowed 46 points a game in 2020. Miles does have a few promising pieces to build around, including end Marcus Harris, tackle DaJon Terry and cornerback Karon Prunty. Getting linebacker Kyron Johnson back for an extra year also helps.
Podcast: Early Top 25 and Conference Predictions for 2021