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21 for 2021: OU in the CFP, Tech with a D and Bijan features — our early predictions for the Big 12

USA Today Network
Texas running back Bijan Robinson breaks out for a big run during the Longhorns' 55-23 win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. Robinson should be the featured back in new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian's offense in 2021.

It's never too early to look ahead to next season in college football. 

With the Big 12 riding high off a rare 5-0 run in the bowl season — including two wins in New Year's Six games — there's plenty of reason to start dreaming about the 2021 season.

Oklahoma and Iowa State are set to bring back many key starters off of teams that played for the conference title and will finish ranked among the top 10 teams in the country.

Texas will have a new coach in Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Tom Herman.

OU's Spencer Rattler and ISU's Breece Hall will try to capture the Heisman Trophy while leading their team to the playoff.

With so many storylines to tackle, writers from across the USA Today Network have teamed up to deliver 21 predictions, two per team and one for the title game, for the Big 12 in 2021:

Baylor (Cedric Golden, Austin American-Statesman)

Baylor will be better in 2021 but won’t make a bowl game. Expect Dave Aranda’s Bears to improve from that 2-7 finish even without Brewer at the helm. Hopefully the ravages of COVID-19 will subside in time for spring football. The defense received some great news when linebacker Terrel Bernard announced he would be returning for his senior season after season-ending shoulder surgery after the fifth game. They will take a step forward but finish 5-7 and miss out on a bowl game.

The Bears will sign a graduate transfer at quarterback. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes comes over from BYU with a huge task on his hands. Longtime starter Charlie Brewer has transferred to Utah, leaving Gerry Bohanon, Jacob Zeno and incoming freshman Kyron Drones from Shadow Creek to compete for the starting job. Since Bohanon and Zeno combined to throw only nine passes last season, Grimes will take a peek around the country to see if he can find a more experienced signal caller.

Kansas (Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman)

Kansas ends its Sunflower State losing streak. The Jayhawks haven’t defeated K-State since 2008, but Les Miles is building slowly and year three could show improvement. The Sunflower showdown is in Lawrence in 2021.

Kansas tailback Daniel Hishaw Jr. will become the Jayhawks’ primary offensive threat. In KU’s final two games of 2020, Hishaw rushed for 73 yards on 10 carries against Oklahoma and 87 yards on 22 rushes against Texas Tech.

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn looks for room to run against Texas defensive back Chris Brown during the teams' game in 2020. The freshman Cedar Ridge graduate rushed for 652 yards on 123 carries in his first year with the Wildcats.

Kansas State (Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman)

Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson, back for a sixth season on campus and a fifth year of playing, will beat Texas Tech for the fifth time. Thompson is 4-0 against the Red Raiders, including a rally in relief to reach overtime way back in 2017.

Five-foot-5 Wildcat tailback Deuce Vaughn will lead the Big 12 in rushing. As a freshman in 2020, the Cedar Ridge product rushed for 652 yards on 123 carries, including back-to-back games of more than 100 yards to finish the season.

Iowa State (Randy Peterson, Des Moines Register)

Big 12 title game or bust. Matt Campbell’s team set a high bar by reaching the program’s first conference championship game. With nearly everyone returning — yes, everyone — there’s no reason the Cyclones can’t at least get that far in 2021. Quarterback Brock Purdy, better the second half last season than the first, will be good from the start, considering the array of veteran receivers. A second New Year’s Six bowl should be in the cards.

Breece Hall is a load, again. The nation’s Power Five rushing leader with 1,572 yards, should become Iowa State’s first three-time 1,000-yard rusher. For that reason, the Big 12’s offensive MVP should be a shoo-in to be the Big 12’s preseason offensive pick, too. The junior should be even better, considering the return of the offensive line’s entire depth chart.

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler hunts for a receiver during the Sooners'  55-20 Cotton Bowl win over Florida on Dec. 30. Rattler will be a top Heisman Trophy candidate in 2021.

Oklahoma (Ryan Aber, The Oklahoman)

With a returning quarterback for the first time since 2017 and the bulk of its defense returning, Oklahoma will be a heavy favorite to win a seventh consecutive Big 12 title. The Sooners do that and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

It’s easy to forget just how good Kennedy Brooks was the previous two seasons before opting out in 2020. Brooks had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and he will again in 2021, possibly much more if Rhamondre Stevenson declares for the NFL Draft.

Oklahoma State (Scott Wright, The Oklahoman)

Over the first half of the 2020 season, the Oklahoma State defense stopped nearly everyone it faced. But from mid-November on, the defense’s cracks were revealed, and four of the last five opponents scored at least 29 points. Two scored 40-plus. The Cowboys had a veteran-led defense, but still return the bulk of their starting unit in 2021, led by players like Malcolm Rodriguez, Tre Sterling and Trace Ford. Despite a few key losses, the Cowboys could still be a better defense next season.

Inconsistency has haunted Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders in his first two seasons, but injuries have limited his game action as well. Late in the 2020 season, he began to limit his turnovers and find open receivers more quickly. The Cheez-It Bowl win over Miami was his best performance of the season, and the type of game OSU needs from him on a more consistent basis going forward. With the added benefit of spring practice — which he lost out on a year ago — Sanders should be able to move closer to becoming the consistent quarterback the Cowboys need. 

TCU cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson breaks up a pass intended for Oklahoma tight end Austin Stogner during the teams' matchup in 2020. Hodges-Tomlinson, an all-conference honoree, should be the latest in a long line of Horned Frog DBs that make the jump to the NFL in the future.

TCU (Danny Davis, Austin American-Statesman)

On my Big 12 preseason ballot last year, I predicted that running back Zach Evans would be the conference's top newcomer. And why not? The five-star freshman was going to be the top talent on an offense that needed to run the football. Evans started slow and only recorded four carries over TCU's first four games. But after he recorded two 100-yard efforts over his final three games, I am extending my prediction of a breakout campaign for Evans into 2021.

Two TCU defensive backs were taken in last year's draft, and safeties Trevon Moehrig and Ar'darius Washington will soon be in the league as well. Does that mean that Big 12 teams will start throwing at the Horned Frogs at will? Don't count on it. Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson was an all-conference cornerback in 2020, and he is poised to be known for more than just being LaDainian's nephew.

Texas (Brian Davis, Austin American-Statesman) 

Hopefully in 2021 the Longhorns realize what they have in running back Bijan Robinson. The freshman should get plenty of chances, if coach Steve Sarkisian’s history is any indication. Keep Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson in the fold, but Robinson should be the workhorse.

Let’s hope the Longhorns stick to a four-man defensive front with a new defensive staff. The upperclassman will be working under their third defensive coordinator in as many years. That’s incredible turnover at a key position. The switch to a four-man front worked wonders last season. Here’s hoping Texas keeps it.

Texas Tech's Colin Schooler tackles Baylor's Charlie Brewer on the goal line during the teams' 2020 matchup. In 2021, Schooler will anchor a Red Raiders defense that returns eight starters.

Texas Tech (Don Williams, A-J Media)

Texas Tech will finish in the top half of the Big 12 in total defense, something the Red Raiders haven't done since 2012, and-or scoring defense, which they haven't achieved since 2009. Tech made strides on defense this season and will return eight starters on that side of the ball, including five seniors taking advantage of the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.

TCU tended to use multiple running backs during the seven years new Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie was on the Horned Frogs' staff, and Tech deployed four running backs this past season. So keeping with that trend, Tech's SaRodorick Thompson and Xavier White both top 600 rushing yards in 2021. In the past decade, Tech last had two 600-yard rushers in 2017 and, before that, in 2010.

West Virginia (Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman)

Two four-star offensive line recruits, including two-year starter Doug Nester from Virginia Tech, will combine with the Big 12’s second-best tailback and 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown to give West Virginia one of the best running games in the league.

Jarret Doege must up his production at quarterback or give way to a freshman like Garrett Greene or Will Crowder, and wide receivers Winston Wright and Bryce Ford-Wheaton will reduce their drops to keep the Mountaineers’ resurgence going strong with 18 returning starters for an 8-4 season on top of the 6-4 record in 2020.

Big 12 championship

Oklahoma vs. Texas. Never, ever bet against the king until dethroned. Thus, you’ve got to stick with the Sooners. Brian Davis, Austin American-Statesman

The Sooners finally get some stale meat in the Big 12 Championship Game — they meet Iowa State for the second straight year, en route to a seventh straight conference title. Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman

Oklahoma proved this season it can slip up a couple of times and still win the Big 12 championship. And Iowa State will have a lot of pieces back, so the Cyclones' aren't done yet. Look for a rematch in the conference title game. Don Williams, A-J Media