Power 5 preview: 5 questions for the Big 12
In the fourth installment of a five-part preview series looking at the Power 5 conferences heading into the season, theScore answers five questions for the Big 12.
Can Oklahoma get over the hump?
The presence of a solid defense makes it a real possibility this season. Oklahoma has qualified for the College Football Playoff in four of the seven years since its inception but has never won a semifinal and advanced to the title game. The main reason for its shortcomings has been a struggling defense, but there's hope in Norman on that side of the football entering 2021. Coordinator Alex Grinch led the Sooners to the 29th-ranked defensive unit in the country last season - the best showing since Lincoln Riley took over as head coach. Oklahoma could have the best defense in the Big 12 with nine starters returning. Combine that with the usual explosive offense led by Spencer Rattler, and it's easy to see why the Sooners are among the top-five favorites to win the national title.
Will Steve Sarkisian shine in Texas?
The Texas administrators better hope so after handing him a six-year, $34.2-million deal. For the third time since Mack Brown departed in 2013, there's a new man tasked with bringing Texas football back - whatever that means this time around. Sarkisian takes over from Tom Herman after guiding the record-breaking Alabama offense to the national title.
While he doesn't get to bring Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Najee Harris with him, there's plenty of talent in Austin to put numbers on the scoreboard. Bijan Robinson should be the focal point of Sarkisian's attack after the sophomore running back finished last season with a bang by posting 355 rushing yards on just 19 carries over his final two games.
Can Iowa State finally win the conference?
There's never been a better chance for Iowa State heading into a season. The Cyclones return 19 starters from a team that came six points shy of their first conference championship since 1912 after a narrow loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Star quarterback Brock Purdy is among the returnees, and a trio of skill position players flank him in running back Breece Hall, receiver Xavier Hutchinson, and tight end Charlie Kolar. All five starters are also back on an offensive line that cleared the way for Hall to lead the nation in rushing.
The Cyclones are far from a one-sided team, as tackling machine Mike Rose is also among the returnees on the Big 12's second-best defensive unit. A visit to Oklahoma on Nov. 20 could be the deciding factor as to whether Matt Campbell can finally bring a conference title to Ames after more than 100 years of waiting.
Who will step up for Oklahoma State's offense?
A stable of talented running backs ready to explode onto the scene. Chuba Hubbard might be gone to the NFL, but Oklahoma State's running back cupboard is far from bare. Dezmon Jackson, L.D. Brown, Dominic Richardson, and transfer Jaylen Warren are poised to establish one of the nation's best running attacks. Jackson showed his potential when Hubbard was on the shelf last year, piling up a whopping 235 rushing yards and three touchdowns against Texas Tech. That emergence should allow coach Mike Gundy to scale back the passing attack and limit quarterback Spencer Sanders' turnovers. While he's shown moments of brilliance, Sanders has committed a whopping 27 turnovers in his first 18 collegiate starts. A dominant running game should allow Gundy to control matchups and make noise as a plucky underdog in the Big 12 race.
Can TCU turn a strong finish into a red-hot start?
Provided quarterback Max Duggan stays healthy, TCU should keep things rolling through September. The Horned Frogs went 5-1 over their last six games to end the 2020 campaign, averaging 35.5 points in the process. Duggan is back for his junior season with 19 starts under his belt. He's flanked by talented running backs Zach Evans and Kendre Miller for what could be one of the conference's top backfields. Coach Gary Patterson's defense returns six starters from a unit that performed very well in the latter half of the schedule. TCU opens the season against Duquesne before hosting Cal and SMU to close out the opening month. That puts the Horned Frogs in a good spot to be 3-0 heading into a home game on Oct. 2 against Texas - a team TCU has beaten in six of the last seven meetings.