For Oklahoma, winning Big 12 college football titles is becoming as predictable as Sooners quarterbacks ending up in New York as Heisman Trophy finalists.
Yes, Oklahoma needs to get better on defense after the Sooners were waxed 63-28 by LSU in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season.
But that doesn’t really matter in the Big 12, where hardly anyone else plays defense, and Lincoln Riley’s teams just continue to outscore everyone else while winning five straight league titles.
Will anyone close the gap this coming season?
Here are some things to watch during spring practice in the Big 12:
1. Is Texas, you know, back?
The Longhorns proclaimed they were back after a 10-4 finish in 2018, which included a 28-21 victory over Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. But they went 8-5 last season, and all of a sudden coach Tom Herman, with a 25-15 record in his first three seasons, seems to be on the hot seat.
With 16 starters returning on offense and defense, including quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns might finally be poised to overtake Oklahoma in the Big 12. They’ll use the spring to become acquainted with seven new coaches, including both coordinators, and they’ll need to identify replacements for departed receivers Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson.
2. Is Spencer Rattler ready to lead Oklahoma’s offense?
There’s a reason Riley didn’t dip back into the transfer portal to find another starting quarterback. After having much success with transfers Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, Riley passed on another one-year fix for 2020.
The Sooners really like Spencer Rattler, who was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2019, according to ESPN Recruiting. Rattler, from Phoenix, played in three games last season (preserving a redshirt season) and completed 7 of 11 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Tanner Mordecai stuck around to compete for the starting job, but it’s Rattler’s job to lose.
3. Are the Sooners even the best team in Oklahoma?
Oklahoma State has gone 15-10 over the past two seasons and hasn’t defeated the Sooners since 2014 (and only twice in the previous 17 seasons). But the Pokes might be poised for a big bounce-back year.
With star tailback Chuba Hubbard bypassing the NFL draft to return for his junior season and receiver Tylan Wallace sticking around after suffering a knee injury in November, the Pokes might actually be a College Football Playoff dark horse this season. Quarterback Spencer Sanders should be better in his second year as a starter, and 10 starters are coming back from an improved defense.
The Cowboys might have to beat the Sooners in Norman, where they’ve won just once since 2002, to be a serious contender in the Big 12.
Team on the rise: Iowa State
The Cyclones went 7-6 in 2019, but they were probably much better than their record suggests. They dropped their first four games by a combined 11 points, falling to Iowa by one, Baylor by two, Oklahoma State by seven and Oklahoma by one.
The 33-9 loss to Notre Dame in the Camping World Bowl was uninspiring, but coach Matt Campbell is confident he’ll turn things around. Maybe that’s why he declined interest in vacancies at Florida State and Michigan State. It won’t be the last time another school tries to pry him away from Iowa State.
The Cyclones have myriad skill players coming back on offense, but they’ll have to start rebuilding their offensive line this spring.
Team on the decline: Baylor
The Bears knew the day was coming when an NFL franchise would hire away Matt Rhule, and the Carolina Panthers reportedly signed him to a seven-year, $62 million contract in January.
In three seasons, Rhule completed one of the most remarkable rebuilding jobs in FBS history at Baylor, which went from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 this past season.
The Bears won’t fall off the cliff without him, but there’s probably going to be a slight step back under first-year coach Dave Aranda.
Head coach under spotlight: Tom Herman, Texas
The eyes of Texas will be watching to see what Herman does with his mulligan. After three so-so seasons, he completely overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in former Rutgers coach Chris Ash to direct his defense and former Ohio State quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich to call the offense.
Herman also spent time consulting Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who overhauled his staff after the 2016 season when he realized things were getting stale.
First-year coach under spotlight: Dave Aranda, Baylor
Aranda was one of the sport’s best defensive coordinators at Wisconsin and LSU, and he’ll have his work cut out for him in his first season as a head coach.
Nine starters are gone from Baylor’s defense, which led the Big 12 in scoring defense in 2019, including star defensive lineman James Lynch.
Aranda hired former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora to lead his offense. The Bears were a physical offense under Rhule; Fedora likes to use tempo and spread concepts. He’ll have to figure out a way to protect quarterback Charlie Brewer, who took too many hits and dealt with concussions last season.
Coordinator under spotlight: Chris Ash, Texas
Ash, a former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State, inherits a Texas defense that allowed 431.5 yards per game in 2019. The Longhorns had only 27 sacks and allowed 154 completions of at least 10 yards, which was the most in the FBS. Obviously, Ash has plenty of work to do.
Herman and Ash worked together as coordinators at Ohio State in 2014, when the Buckeyes won a national championship.
Transfer to watch: Josh Sills, offensive lineman, Oklahoma State
Sills, a 6-foot-6, 338-pound transfer from West Virginia, missed most of the 2019 season after shoulder surgery. He decided to transfer to Oklahoma State, where he could step in for departed left guard Marcus Keyes.
Before his injury, Sills started 22 games for the Mountaineers and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection after the 2018 season. The senior also has a glorious mullet that might make OSU coach Mike Gundy envious.
Newcomer to watch (defense): Krishon Merriweather, linebacker, Texas Tech
After surrendering 35.9 points per game in Big 12 play in 2019, Red Raiders coach Matt Wells revamped his defensive staff, bringing in former LSU lead defensive analyst Kevin Cosgrove as linebackers coach and Duke’s Derek Jones as co-defensive coordinator.
The Red Raiders will have to replace All-Big 12 linebacker Jordyn Brooks, and Merriweather will have a chance to do it after enrolling early. Ranked the No. 3 juco inside linebacker at Garden City Community College, Merriweather had 153 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.
Newcomer to watch (offense): Dawson Delforge, guard, Kansas State
The Wildcats overachieved during coach Chris Kleinman’s first season, going 8-5 and knocking off Oklahoma 48-41 in one of the biggest upsets of 2019.
Now Kansas State has to replace each of its five starting offensive linemen, who had a combined 159 career starts. ESPN Recruiting ranked Delforge, an early enrollee from Butler Community College, as the fifth-best juco guard. At 6-5, 326 pounds, he certainly has the size to help right away.