The Big 12 played a pivotal role in salvaging the 2020 college football season. However, it's difficult to imagine a worse start for the league on the field, as Iowa State, Kansas State, and Kansas were all upset at home by Sun Belt opponents in their season openers. Texas Tech also narrowly avoided an embarrassing loss to FCS Houston Baptist. Things didn't improve much in the weeks to follow, as Oklahoma lost back-to-back games to K-State and Iowa State, and Texas fell in two straight against TCU and Oklahoma.
By mid-afternoon on Oct. 10, the Big 12 was effectively tossed out of the College Football Playoff conversation. In some ways, the conference displayed how competitive it is, that even the five-time defending champion Sooners could lose twice early and still fight back to win a sixth straight title. And it's also worth pointing out the league finished with great strength.
The Cyclones bounced back in a big way, winning eight of their nine regular-season conference matchups before losing the rematch against Oklahoma and then beating Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl to secure a first-ever top-10 ranking in the final AP poll. Texas and Oklahoma State also won bowl games, which helped them both earn a top-20 finish, and West Virginia's win over Army in the Liberty Bowl secured a perfect 5-0 record in the postseason for Big 12 teams.
Such success has created positive momentum, and it is highly likely Oklahoma and Iowa State will retain their top-10 status to begin the 2021 season. There's also renewed hope in Austin, as Texas lured Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the architect of two of the greatest offenses in history while calling plays for the Crimson Tide, to be its new head coach.
Nevertheless, that on-field momentum did not carry over to the recruiting trail. No Big 12 team finished ranked in the top 10 of the national recruiting rankings, more than half brought in 2021 classes that ranked worse than their 2020 counterparts, and only one of those that gained ground (last-place Kansas) secured a new crop of talent that actually improved its five-year average ranking.
There is deserved optimism for Big 12 football in 2021, and many future stars signed with conference teams during the most recent cycle. But there are also some recruiting red flags worth monitoring as we attempt to extrapolate where the league will stand in the years to come.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Big 12 schools over the last five (2017-21) classes, according to 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings, and each team's record over the last five (2016-20) seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition, but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the Big 12's College Football Rosters in 2021
A new leader in the clubhouse
This time last year, Texas ranked No. 1 in talent accumulation across the Big 12. The Longhorns averaged a class ranking of 9.2 from 2016-20, with only the 2017 transition class from Charlie Strong to Tom Herman failing to lead the league or land outside the national top 10. Herman quickly emerged as one of the great recruiters in college football, posting a pair of classes that ranked No. 3 overall, but he didn't win enough and was fired. Another transition class, from Herman to Sarkisian, dropped the Longhorns out of the top spot again.
Oklahoma, which put together a small but star-studded crop of high school talent led by quarterback Caleb Williams, jumped to the top. The Sooners have also arguably increased their lead by picking up several high-profile transfers this cycle, including a talented trio from Tennessee. Lincoln Riley and his staff have been a dominant force in the Big 12 standings and Oklahoma is an annual playoff contender. The only complaint? The Sooners finished outside the top 10 in the country for the second straight cycle.
TCU loses ground
The Horned Frogs made a big jump in the 2020 recruiting rankings when five-star running back Zach Evans joined TCU well after National Signing Day. Evans and receiver Quentin Johnston, who also signed last year, are the No. 1 and No. 3 rated TCU recruits in the internet era. It would be difficult to improve upon that success in 2021, but to fall from 24th in the recruiting rankings last year to 61st — the lowest for the Frogs since 2008 and ninth in the 10-team conference — is troubling. TCU posted an average class ranking of 25.8 from 2016-20, which put some discernable distance between the Horned Frogs and top-40 rivals Oklahoma State and Baylor. Gary Patterson's squad even appeared capable of jumping into the top tier in the Big 12 alongside Texas and Oklahoma. There's still time to improve its standing in 2021 (Evans didn't join until May and the signing period runs through August this year), and TCU has added some key transfers that limited the number of high school signees, but the Frogs took a big step in the wrong direction and are now in danger of falling back into the middle of the pack in the conference.
Consistency in Stillwater
Simply put, Oklahoma State hasn't recruited well enough to make the Cowboys a perennial conference championship contender. The Pokes haven't signed a top-25 class nationally since 2011. However, Oklahoma State has only fallen outside of the top 40 once during that span, and thanks to a strong track record of scouting and player development, the Cowboys are competitive every year. Mike Gundy and his coaching staff also produce their fair share of NFL players. The Pokes signed the No. 39 class in the country in 2021, inching one spot higher than a year ago, though it's unclear whether the newcomers will be able to replace the production of NFL bound players like Chuba Hubbard, Tylan Wallace, and Amen Ogbongbemiga anytime soon.
What to make of Iowa State
The point is often repeated: Matt Campbell has done a remarkable job at Iowa State. The Cyclones have had exactly one top-40 class in program history, the 2002 haul that included eight junior college prospects among its 11 highest-rated signees and ranked No. 38 in the 247Sports Composite. Campbell has yet to sign a class ranked among the top 45 nationally, and most recently saw his program fall 13 spots despite a top-10 finish in the polls. Still, Iowa State is a legitimate Big 12 title contender with the potential to make a playoff push in 2021, relying on "five-star culture" instead of five-star players. It was Breece Hall, one of only four four-star signees since Campbell arrived and the highest returning vote-getter in the 2020 Heisman Trophy race, who publicly drew the comparison. And though there is a certain truth to it, it's also true no program has won the national championship with a "Blue Chip Ratio" lower than 50 percent in the past decade.
Which program can make a jump in 2022?
Much like the Big 12 standings themselves, there is room for upward mobility in the recruiting rankings across the league. Baylor was the biggest riser from 2020 to 2021, jumping six spots from No. 50 to No. 44 with Dave Aranda's first full class. The Bears last recruited a top 25 class in 2014, but with so much talent nearby, and with the potential of a Year 2 bump under Aranda on the field in 2021, there's hope the 2022 cycle could continue the trend. A top-25 class could be enough for Baylor to jump both Oklahoma State and TCU in terms of raw talent available on the roster next year.
West Virginia can't recruit the Lone Star State as well as its Big 12 rivals, but head coach Neal Brown and the Mountaineers have easier access to other talent-rich states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, have consistently scoured hotbeds like Florida and Georgia, and went out of the box — and out of the country — to sign a pair of European prospects in the most recent cycle. Brown has inked back-to-back top-40 classes since his arrival, potentially stabilizing the boom-and-bust, juco-heavy strategy of the Dana Holgorsen era. A top 25 ranking on the field, and a top 25 class on the trail, are both within reach.
Texas Tech fell the farthest in the recruiting rankings, dropping from 48th to 68th nationally and finishing last in the Big 12 for the first time since 2018. The Red Raiders have prioritized the transfer portal and brought in experienced players from programs like UCLA, TCU, Florida, and NC State, which softened the blow. Odds are, Tech will show improvement during the next cycle. If not, the Red Raiders, which ranked 12 spots behind Kansas State and 17 spots behind Kansas in the recruiting ranks in 2021, are in danger of becoming the least talented roster in the conference.
(Top photo by Joshua R. Gateley, courtesy of soonersports.com)