Even though last season looked and felt different, the end result in the Big 12 was the same — with Oklahoma on top. The Sooners won their sixth straight conference title, although that wasn't enough to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time in four seasons.
All Lincoln Riley has done since taking over for Bob Stoops is win, a lot. Over his first four seasons, Riley is 45-8 overall, 34-5 against Big 12 teams with four conference titles and three playoff appearances. He's yet to win a playoff game, but that's nitpicking.
The outlook for 2021 isn't any different either, as Oklahoma will enter the season as the presumptive favorite in the Big 12. Iowa State will definitely be a threat but as the Cyclones found out last season, sometimes it's not if you beat the Sooners but when.
Riley not only welcomes back 13 starters from his latest championship team, but he also should get a couple of key guys back who either opted out or missed 2020 because of injury, has added a few new faces via transfer, and is bringing in another top-15 recruiting class. The offense should remain potent and could produce another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Spencer Rattler, while the defense appears in good shape under coordinator Alex Grinch.
Besides the usual round-robin Big 12 slate, the Sooners are set to renew acquaintances with another former conference rival this fall and play nine straight weekends before getting a breather. Here's how Oklahoma's schedule shapes up.
Bye: Week 10
Week 1 – Sept. 4 at Tulane (New Orleans)
Oklahoma's last loss to a Group of 5 team came in the 2016 season opener against No. 15 Houston in NRG Stadium. Even though Tulane comes from the same conference (AAC) the Green Wave won't be ranked, so the Sooners should be able to avoid the upset bug. The only other time these teams played each other was in 2017, a 56-14 OU rout in Norman.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Western Carolina (Norman, Okla.)
Western Carolina was one of the few FCS teams that played in the fall and the Catamounts also were on the field this spring. Regardless of the season, things didn't go well for them, going 1-8 before their last two scheduled games in April were canceled. Included in this span was a 49-9 loss to North Carolina on Dec. 5. Oklahoma also has outscored its last two FCS opponents by 104 points.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Nebraska (Norman, Okla.)
The last time these former conference rivals played was in the 2010 Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma won 23-20, sending Nebraska off to the Big Ten with a loss. It hasn't gone well for the Cornhuskers since either, as they are just 12-20 in three seasons under Scott Frost. Even though Nebraska is clearly down (and reportedly tried to get out of this game), the Sooners shouldn't have much trouble getting fired up for the Huskers' visit.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. West Virginia (Norman, Okla.)
West Virginia is headed in the right direction under Neal Brown and the Mountaineers could certainly surprise a team or two this fall. But Oklahoma has dominated this series since WVU joined the Big 12 with last year's cancellation (not once, but twice) leaving the tally at 8-0 and five of those victories of the double-digit variety.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at Kansas State (Manhattan, Kan.)
The Red River Showdown may loom but there will be no look-ahead issue here. Kansas State has befuddled the Sooners in each of the past two seasons, beating them by seven points in Manhattan in 2019 and winning by three in Norman. Wildcats head coach Chris Klieman is just 12-11 in his first two seasons as Bill Snyder's successor but he's also responsible for 40 percent of Lincoln Riley's Big 12 losses. You know Riley would love nothing more than to bring his team to the Little Apple and take a big bite out of K-State.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. Texas (Dallas)
Last year's Red River Showdown was an instant classic with Oklahoma surviving Texas 53-45 in four overtimes. A third straight loss to the Sooners helped put an end to Tom Herman's tenure in Austin. Whether new head Longhorn Steve Sarkisian can (finally) bring the program back to national prominence remains to be seen, but Oklahoma would love nothing more than to provide a sobering dash of reality in the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners have won five of the past six meetings, including the 2018 Big 12 Championship Game.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. TCU (Norman, Okla.)
Coming off of the showdown with Texas, Oklahoma's matchup against TCU would appear to have the makings of a trap game. However, this one is in Norman, not Fort Worth, and there's the matter of the Sooners winning seven in a row against the Horned Frogs. Gary Patterson's team has been stuck in neutral lately; going 12-15 in Big 12 play the last three seasons, and just doesn't appear to be much of a threat vs. Oklahoma. However, the potential toll, both physically and emotionally, from the previous week can't be completely ignored either.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.)
If Kansas' situation wasn't depressing enough already given the unceremonious end to Les Miles' brief coaching tenure, there's also the prolonged period of putrid on-field results. The Jayhawks haven't won more than three games in a season since going 5-7 in 2009 and are 7-98 in Big 12 play over the last 12 years. Not surprisingly, Oklahoma has beaten Kansas 16 straight times. Stranger things have happened, but don't bet on that changing this fall.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Texas Tech (Norman, Okla.)
This being Oklahoma's ninth straight game without a break would seem like another opportunity for a potential letdown, but that's negated considerably since this Texas Tech is preceded by Kansas. And like most of the other Big 12 foes, the Sooners have dominated the Red Raiders recently, winning nine in a row with the last two victories coming by a combined 73 points. It may not be a vintage performance with OU looking forward to a break, but this doesn't seem like an upset alert special either.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Baylor (Waco, Texas)
It was a rough debut for new Baylor head coach Dave Aranda as the Bears dealt with the pandemic throughout the 2020 campaign. They did put up a fight on the road against Oklahoma, losing 27-14 in early December but among the changes Aranda will be dealing with this season is a new quarterback following the transfer of Charlie Brewer to Utah. The Sooners figure to be rested after their bye and as long as they aren't caught looking too much ahead, should be able to make it eight in a row over Baylor.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Iowa State (Norman, Okla.)
Now it's time to get serious. Iowa State comes to Norman, where the Cyclones have won fairly recently (2017). Iowa State also took the first matchup last season, beating the Sooners in Ames, before OU returned the favor in the Big 12 title game. The Sooners' defense will be put to the test against a Cyclones offense that returns every starter, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, and tight end Charlie Kolar. ISU's defense brings back nine starters and is no slouch either. No question this is shaping up to be Oklahoma's toughest game (sorry Texas fans) in the regular season, and it's entirely possible we'll see these two teams run it back a few weeks later in AT&T Stadium.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 at Oklahoma State (Stillwater, Okla.)
Bedlam has gotten rather quiet lately with Oklahoma rattling off six straight wins over Oklahoma State. Last season was a difficult one for Mike Gundy's Cowboys, both on the field and off of it, so it's hard to get a read on this team right now. There will be some roster turnover with only 12 projected starters slated to return, with the losses including their top offensive weapons — running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace. This is still a rivalry game and it will take place in Stillwater but focus shouldn't be an issue for the Sooners, even if they have secured a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Riley and company know all too well that there's little margin for error when it comes to building a case for a College Football Playoff berth.
(Top photo by Joshua R. Gateley, courtesy of soonersports.com)