Big 12 Football: Preview and Predictions for 2020 Season
Oklahoma has played in the College Football Playoff in four of the past five seasons, and the Sooners are hoping to continue their Big 12 dominance to get another chance to play for a national championship—provided there is a national championship...or a 2020 football season.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already "opted out" of fall football, postponing until the spring in hopes the U.S. will have contained the COVID-19 by then. But the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are still planning on a semi-regular season beginning in late September.
While we aren't certain it'll happen, we'll continue to assume there will be a fall college football season until there officially isn't one.
And with that train of thought, let's dive into a full preview of Big 12 football, featuring noteworthy players, storylines, superlatives, new faces in new places and predicted standings.
Spoiler alert: We don't foresee Kansas winning the league.
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas: Despite missing a good chunk of his freshman year, Ehlinger has accumulated 8,870 passing yards, 1,526 rushing yards and a combined 93 touchdowns during his time with Texas. The shorter season might keep him from getting there, but Ehlinger entered the offseason on pace to join Dan LeFevour as the only quarterback in FBS history with at least 12,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards. If Texas wants to be "back," it needs one more big year from this leader.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State: Hubbard racked up 21 rushing touchdowns and an FBS-best 2,094 rushing yards as a redshirt sophomore. He barely saw action in an early game against FCS school McNeese State, but he had at least 100 rushing yards in every game he played against an FBS foe. He either outright led or tied for the lead in runs of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 yards last year. The point I'm trying to make here is he's a pretty good running back.
Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU: They do occasionally play defense in the Big 12, and Moehrig might be the best at that craft. TCU's star safety had four interceptions and broke up 11 other passes last year. He also ranked second on the team in tackles, so he was a busy man.
Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State: Purdy unexpectedly became Iowa State's starter in October 2018 because of injuries suffered by both Kyle Kempt and Zeb Noland. He performed admirably. And if you were expecting a sophomore slump, you couldn't have been more wrong. Purdy threw for just under 4,000 yards last season and averaged more passing yards per game (306.3) than anyone else with eligibility remaining in 2020. Iowa State doesn't get much national acclaim, but make sure to keep an eye out for this Cyclone.
Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma: He's not a star yet, but he should be soon. Rattler was the No. 11 overall recruit last year, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, but he only attempted 11 passes as a freshman with Jalen Hurts running the show. It'll now be Rattler's job in 2020, and "Oklahoma Starting QB" has finished top-four in the Heisman vote in each of the past five years.
Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State: Wallace missed the final five games of last season because of a torn ACL, and yet he still led the Cowboys in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Two years ago, he was one of the most exciting breakout players in the nation. Provided he's healthy, he and Hubbard give Oklahoma State arguably the best one-two RB-WR punch in college football—with Alabama's Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith the only other legitimate option in that debate.
Can Anyone Stop Oklahoma?
The Sooners have ruled the Big 12 with an iron fist for the past half-decade, compiling a 41-4 record (plus a 3-0 record in Big 12 championship games) since the beginning of the 2015 season. Baylor, Texas and TCU have made a push for that throne in recent years but to no avail.
Mike Gundy's Relationship with His Players
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy came under a ton of fire back in June for wearing a One America News T-shirt. The far-right news network has had nothing nice to say about the Black Lives Matter movement, to say the least.
Many had strong negative reactions to the photograph of Gundy in the shirt, but the most noteworthy was that of star running back Chuba Hubbard, who said he was done with Oklahoma State until things changed.
Gundy and Hubbard posted an "I'm sorry; I forgive you" video within 48 hours, but we'll see if bygones are actually bygones by whether the players seem to respect Gundy. OSU has the talent to win this conference if everyone works together to that common goal.
Tom Herman's Spot on the Hot Seat
Herman has been a permanent fixture near the top of hot-seat rankings since losing that season opener to Maryland three years ago. Things have been going better for Texas than they were under Charlie Strong, but 25-15 over the course of three seasons isn't good enough for Longhorns fans.
They want to get back to those 2001-09 Mack Brown glory days, when 10 wins was the bare minimum and finishing the season ranked in the Top 10 was almost a given.
If the Longhorns sputter to another 5-4 or 6-3 type of year in which they don't ever seem to reach their ceiling, it'll probably be time to find out if a different head coach can do a better job with all the great recruits who come through Austin.
Will Kansas' Ascent Finally Begin?
Over the past 11 seasons, Kansas has a Big 12 win-loss record of 7-90, and it was either zero or one conference victory in each of those seasons. The Jayhawks have been just plain deplorable, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone projecting them to finish in anything other than 10th place. It's like the New England Patriots in the AFC East, only the exact opposite.
But could Les Miles at least get a fire kindling for the first time in more than a decade by winning two league games in his second season at the helm? If they go 3-6, I would hope that man at least gets a few Coach of the Year votes.
As previously mentioned, Oklahoma has owned this league for a while, losing just four Big 12 games in the past five seasons. The Sooners have also boasted one of the most unstoppable offenses in college football in each of those campaigns, and there's no compelling reason to believe that will change in 2020.
They did lose quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receivers CeeDee Lamb and Lee Morris, but it's not like they're lacking for options at either position.
Spencer Rattler was the top quarterback in last year's recruiting class. Wide receivers Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease were both 5-star recruits in 2019. Wide receiver Trejan Bridges and tight end Austin Stogner were both high 4-star recruits. They still have Charleston Rambo (743 receiving yards last year).
And, you know, just in case that's not enough, they also snagged graduate transfers Obi Obialo and Theo Howard, who boast a combined 2,258 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns since the start of the 2017 season.
Running back is a pretty big question mark with Kennedy Brooks opting out. Trey Sermon transferred to Ohio State this offseason, and it's still unclear how many more games Rhamondre Stevenson will be suspended for a failed drug test prior to last year's Peach Bowl. The Sooners have almost no choice but to turn to T.J. Pledger. But at least he was a top-100 recruit in 2018, and at least they have a likely first-round pick at center in Creed Humphrey.
Per usual, the defense may leave something to be desired, particularly after losing linebacker Kenneth Murray and cornerback Parnell Motley, but Oklahoma is well-equipped to average more than 40 points per game yet again.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Even before the COVID-19 concerns started, Oklahoma State felt like a sneaky College Football Playoff contender. The Pokes are bringing back 10 of 11 starters on defense, as well as the vast majority of their offense.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders should improve upon what was a respectable redshirt freshman campaign, wide receiver Tylan Wallace is returning from injury and running back Chuba Hubbard is hands down one of the best in the country.
The team only went 8-5 last season, but that cohesion on defense and the reasonable expectation for improvement on offense landed the Cowboys in the Nos. 12-18 range of the vast majority of way-too-early top 25 rankings.
But then the pandemic truncated/eliminated spring camp for most teams before severely compromising summer and fall plans across the nation. Suddenly, minimal attrition seems to be even more of an advantage than usual, as the Cowboys didn't particularly need those offseason camps and practices to figure out their best options for starting jobs.
Whether it will pay dividends remains to be seen, but that familiarity should be a good thing.
A lot of people kind of wrote off Baylor as soon as Matt Rhule left to become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, but there's a lot of potential in Waco. The Bears still have quarterback Charlie Brewer, who has accounted for 69 total touchdowns over the past three years. Replacing wide receiver Denzel Mims won't be easy, but they didn't lose much else from the offense.
The defense is the colossal question mark, with nine of last year's starters no longer on the roster. At least they still have leading tackler Terrel Bernard. And new head coach Dave Aranda put together some remarkable defenses at Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU in recent years.
Iowa State Cyclones
On paper, Iowa State doesn't seem like much of a contender. The Cyclones lost four starters along the offensive line as well as their top two wide receivers. Linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. and safety Braxton Lewis are also substantial departures for a team that only went 7-6 last season.
But the Cyclones didn't look great on paper three years ago when they upset both No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 TCU in the span of one month. Matt Campbell has done an outstanding job of getting this program onto the precipice of finally landing in the year-end AP Top 20 for the first time in more than four decades. With QB Brock Purdy still running the offense, maybe this is the year Iowa State breaks through.
Might Texas be more of a ground-and-pound team in 2020? The Longhorns have three returning players (QB Sam Ehlinger, RB Keaontay Ingram and ATH Roschon Johnson) who each rushed for more than 600 yards last season, and they're adding one of the best true freshmen in the nation in RB Bijan Robinson.
Meanwhile, they lost leading receivers Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson, which makes leaning on the running game even more enticing.
With Ehlinger at the helm, though, the offense should be in good shape no matter its philosophical approach this year. It's the defense that needs to improve if Texas is going to finally excel under Tom Herman. During the 2018 recruiting cycle, Herman signed eight defensive players ranked in the top 125 nationally, including 5-star safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster.
It's time for that group of juniors/redshirt sophomores to step up to the plate.
Key Scheduled Games
Red River Rivalry (Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas on Oct. 10)
This is one of the best games every year. Even though Oklahoma has been running rampant through the Big 12 lately, six of the last seven games in this rivalry were decided by seven points or fewer, including two wins by Texas. Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger has thrown for 1,151 yards, rushed for 211 more and totaled 13 touchdowns in four career games against the Sooners.
Don't be surprised if he has saved his best for last.
Bedlam (Oklahoma State at Oklahoma on Nov. 21)
Even though Oklahoma usually wins, you've got to love this annual race to 50 points. The Sooners and Cowboys combined for 50 points and 785 yards in last year's game, and that was the tamest affair of the past decade. Given the amount of talent on both offenses, we could be treated to something closer to the 62-52 bonanza that transpired during the 2017 campaign.
Texas at Oklahoma State (Oct. 31)
Might as well come full circle and point out the last of the three games are pitting the projected top three teams in the conference against one another. Historically, Texas has pretty well owned this series, going 25-9 against Oklahoma State. But the Longhorns held a 22-2 advantage one decade ago before the Cowboys began evening the score.
Oklahoma State has won seven of the last 10 meetings, including home games in both 2016 and 2018 in which the Longhorns were ranked and the Cowboys were not. Should be a pivotal Halloween clash.
Oklahoma at Iowa State (Oct. 3)
The Cyclones have given the Sooners fits in recent years. Iowa State won at Oklahoma in 2017, came a failed two-point conversion away from doing the same last year and only lost by 10 in both 2016 and 2018. Considering that this matchup is early in the season and just seven days prior to Oklahoma's battle with Texas at the Cotton Bowl, it wouldn't be too stunning if Iowa State pulls off the upset.
New Names to Know
Baylor Head Coach Dave Aranda
There's only one new coach in the Big 12 this year, and he is brand-new to the head coaching role. Aranda has been a defensive coordinator for the past decade, bouncing from Hawaii to Utah State to Wisconsin to LSU before taking Matt Rhule's spot as the head coach at Baylor.
The Bears went 11-3 last season and were oh-so-close to reaching the College Football Playoff, losing in overtime to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship. However, Aranda isn't entering a ready-made situation, as Baylor lost its star receiver (Denzel Mims), half of its running back tandem (JaMycal Hasty) and almost the entire starting defense.
A 5-4 league record in Year No. 1 would have to be considered a promising start for the man who helped lead LSU to last year's national championship.
Texas RB Bijan Robinson and TCU RB Zach Evans
The Big 12 only signed two of the top 50 players in the 2020 recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite rankings, and these two 5-star running backs will inevitably be compared to each other for the next three-plus years because of that.
Of the two, Evans is much more likely to thrive this season because of the roster situation. While Texas is bringing back all three of last year's leading rushers, the only returning Horned Frog who tallied more than 22 carries in 2019 was quarterback Max Duggan. But Robinson is plenty talented enough to be a factor as a true freshman too.
Oklahoma WR Theo Howard
Howard is probably the most noteworthy into-the-Big-12 transfer for this season, provided he can maintain a clean bill of health. He missed virtually all of last season with hand injuries and suffered a torn Achilles in late January, though the expectation at the time was that he would be ready for the start of the regular season. Postponing that start by nearly a month only improves his odds of making a full recovery.
While with UCLA, Howard made 107 receptions for 1,271 yards and eight touchdowns between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He could be a key contributor for a Sooners passing attack that needs to replace CeeDee Lamb, Lee Morris and Nick Basquine (combined 1,932 yards and 16 touchdowns last year).
Best Offense: Oklahoma State
It's a tough call between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the title of the best offense, but the Cowboys should wear that crown if they can stay healthy.
There's no question the Pokes have the best running back in the conference in Chuba Hubbard. In 2019, he had at least 1,000 more rushing yards and at least nine more touchdowns than any other returning player, putting up at least 100 yards against each Big 12 opponent. Even if he regresses a bit, his cushion is so large that it shouldn't matter.
Oklahoma State is in great shape at receiver too, with Tylan Wallace, Dillon Stoner and Braydon Johnson all returning.
Wallace led the Big 12 in receiving yards in 2018 and had the most receiving yards per game in 2019, albeit in only eight games because of a knee injury. And Stoner has been an impressive second fiddle, accumulating more than 40 receptions and at least 575 yards in each of the past three seasons. Johnson's 2019 emergence as a deep threat—eight of his 23 receptions went for at least 30 yards—was the icing on the cake.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders is a bit more of a question mark than the likes of Sam Ehlinger, Brock Purdy and Charlie Brewer. However, at least he got much more experience last year than Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, and coach Mike Gundy has shown quite the ability to develop quarterbacks over the past 15 years. Sanders is an intriguing long-shot Heisman bet, provided you can find a sportsbook taking those bets right now.
Best Defense: Texas Longhorns
Picking a best defense in the Big 12 is on par with trying to find a colander which best holds water, and I suppose Texas has the fewest and smallest holes.
The Longhorns were a mess on defense last year, particularly in the secondary. They allowed 292.5 passing yards per game (fourth-most among 130 FBS teams), as well as 28 total passing touchdowns. In both of those categories, they ranked in the bottom 10 percent nationally.
But it was largely an inexperienced group that also dealt with an unusual number of injuries. Both Jalen Green and D'Shawn Jamison barely saw the field in 2018, but those 4-star recruits made a combined 16 starts last year.
Meanwhile, 5-stars Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster each missed four games because of injury and went more than two months (Sept. 7 to Nov. 9) between games played together, which left the Longhorns in a relatively constant state of flux at safety.
There's no denying the talent in this secondary, though. As previously mentioned, head coach Tom Herman cleaned up on DBs during the 2018 recruiting cycle, snagging six of the top 24 defensive backs. That group should be a strength instead of a liability in Year 3 on the roster.
Elsewhere, Joseph Ossai should be one of the best front seven guys in the Big 12. Texas' hybrid DE/LB led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks last year, and he even picked off two passes for good measure. His NFL draft stock isn't anywhere near as high as Penn State's Micah Parsons, but Ossai has emerged as something of a Big 12 version of that future top-10 pick.
If senior Ta'Quon Graham can serve as a team leader along the defensive line, the Longhorns should have the best overall defense in this conference. Shutting down Utah in the Alamo Bowl may have just been the beginning of a breakthrough year.
T-1. Oklahoma Sooners 9-1 (8-1)
T-1. Oklahoma State Cowboys 9-1 (8-1)
T-1. Texas Longhorns 9-1 (8-1)
4. Baylor Bears 6-4 (5-4)
5. TCU Horned Frogs 5-5 (5-4)
6. Iowa State Cyclones 5-5 (4-5)
T-7. Kansas State Wildcats 3-7 (2-7)
T-7. Texas Tech Red Raiders 3-7 (2-7)
T-7. West Virginia Mountaineers 3-7 (2-7)
10. Kansas Jayhawks 2-8 (1-8)
Projected Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State
To get the three-way tie for first place in the standings, we have Texas defeating Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, Oklahoma beating Oklahoma State in Norman, Oklahoma State besting Texas in Stillwater and all three teams going 7-0 against the rest of the league.
In that scenario, it appears that point differential in the three head-to-head games would be the tiebreaker. And because Texas-Oklahoma is the neutral-site game most likely to be decided by some last-second drama, Texas is the unfortunate odd-man out of this conference championship.
With that settled, who's ready for a second round of Bedlam to determine the Big 12's representative in the College Football Playoff?
The history of this rivalry does not bode well for Oklahoma State. Oklahoma is 16-1 all-time in games in which both teams are ranked. And recent history isn't much more promising, as the Sooners have won the last five games against the Cowboys by an average margin of 16.4 points.
But this one should be a classic chess match between two offensive masterminds who both have a ton of talented chess pieces. It's tempting to pick the Cowboys to win, but much like Clemson in the ACC and Ohio State in the Big Ten, the Sooners have reached the point of sustained conference dominance where you better have a compelling reason for picking anyone other than them to win the league.
We'll say this, though: The Big 12 championship ought to be the most intriguing. The ACC title game should be Clemson over Notre Dame, and the SEC championship will probably be something like Alabama vs. Georgia to determine which team wears the home threads in the No. 1 vs. No. 4 CFP semifinal. The Big 12 title game figures to be a barnburner.
Projection: Oklahoma 45, Oklahoma State 42