As the Big 12 enters a half-decade of uncertainty with Texas and Oklahoma on the way out, the 2021 season may just provide the conference's best chance to win a national championship since its last ... in 2005. The Sooners look to be more than simply an offensive-powered juggernaut, and Iowa State enters the season with the highest expectations for the Cyclones program in its history.
Despite Oklahoma's improving proficiency on defense, some things never change. Lincoln Riley opens the campaign as the 2021 CBS Sports Preseason Coach of the Year with his quarterback, Spencer Rattler, taking our Preseason Player of the Year honors. As such, it should come as no surprise that the Sooners are -180 favorites to win the Big 12, according to Caesars Sportsbook. This while Iowa State is clearly ahead of the rest of the league at +260 with Texas (+450) under new coach Steve Sarkisian giving oddsmakers renewed optimism in its potential to make some noise.
Our CBS Sports college football experts are here to provide their picks and predictions for the Big 12 ahead of the 2021 season. Check them all out below.
Most overrated team
Texas: I nearly spit out my herbal tea the other day when I saw my colleagues on CBS Sports HQ list Texas as an underrated team. Remember, this is a program that's won more than seven regular-season games just once since Mack Brown's departure. Will the new crop of receivers step up? Who's going to be the new quarterback? With so many difficult games early, will Steve Sarkisian have this team running smoothly out of the gate? There's always potential with the Longhorns, but there are too many question marks for me to place them third in the preseason Big 12 poll. -- Ben Kercheval (also Dennis Dodd, Jerry Palm)
TCU: You don't know how, and you don't know why, but sometimes you wake up one morning and find out you're a TCU hater. I've seen the Horned Frogs ranked in the top 30 a lot this offseason, and I'm not as sold as many others in the industry. When I look at TCU, I see a program that's gone 18-17 the last three seasons and 12-15 in conference play. It's entirely possible the Frogs take a jump forward this season, but until I see it, I'll remain skeptical. -- Tom Fornelli (also Barrett Sallee)
Iowa State: While the Cyclones are one of the most solid programs in the country -- with loads of returning production and a track record of high-level competition against the powers of the Big 12 -- it still feels like a leap to declare them the seventh- or eighth-best team in the country. I just don't think it's as certain that Iowa State is on a different level than some of the teams in that 10-20 range in the preseason polls. (Wisconsin and Florida come to mind for me.) Is Iowa State the second-best team in the Big 12? Yes, but big picture, the hype exceeds where I think they stack up against the pack. -- Chip Patterson
Oklahoma State: The assumption that Oklahoma State will again be a top-tier Big 12 team appears centered on the Cowboys defense, and that's concerning for a program that has long been an offensive juggernaut. While Oklahoma State allowed an average of just 12 points per game during its 4-0 start in 2020, it also gave up 40-plus points against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech only to then allow 512 total yards against Miami in the bowl game despite a first-half injury to Miami star quarterback D'Eriq King. The Cowboys also had the benefit of playing Kansas State when Skylar Thompson was injured. Veteran coach Mike Gundy can get this program to a bowl in his sleep, but it's a stretch to consider the Cowboys a threat in the Big 12 as they replace their leading rusher, three of their top four receivers and their top offensive lineman. -- David Cobb
Most underrated team
TCU: We're not watching the slow decline of TCU under Gary Patterson. We're watching a reset. Max Duggan was the first TCU quarterback in 70 years to lead the team in rushing. Obviously, G.P. would like to take some of that burden away. For the first time in four years, the Frogs did not lead the Big 12 in defense but that could change. Defensive end Ochaun Mathis (nine sacks) is the spear on the defense. The Frogs don't play a winning team from 2020 on the road until Oct. 16 at Oklahoma. They could be 5-0 by then. -- Dodd (also Patterson)
Oklahoma State: No small part of the reason the Cowboys are underrated is that they seem to only get attention when Gundy says or does something outrageous. That serves in part to hide the fact that Oklahoma State has been the second-best program in the Big 12 during his tenure and it's not particularly close. Since 2008, when Gundy was able to get things turned around at OSU, only Oklahoma has more wins (138) that the Cowboys (129). Texas has almost been all hat and no cattle since then, coming in a distant third at 103. The main thing missing from Gundy's resume at OSU is getting into a New Year's Six game. The last time Oklahoma State appeared in one of those six games was in the 2013 Cotton Bowl, the year before the College Football Playoff and New Year's Six were created. -- Palm (also Kercheval)
Texas: I'm trying to imagine myself going back in time to tell me from any year in the previous decade that Texas is beginning a season underrated and wondering what the response would be. It'd likely be a lot of laughing and probably a "you've put on weight," but here we are, and I think Texas is being overlooked. Oh, and I'm working on the weight. Anyway, there were many off-field distractions for this Texas squad last season, and I think a new voice in charge could be the refresher the program needs. Aside from Oklahoma, there isn't an obvious threat to the Sooners' throne, which makes me look toward the team with a lot more talent than everyone else. If Sarkisian can have the same kind of impact on the Texas offense that he had on Mac Jones and Alabama, this is a Longhorns team ready to surprise a lot of people. -- Fornelli
West Virginia: Neal Brown inherited a mess when Dana Holgorsen bailed, so don't hold the 11-11 record in two years against him. He has his program set up for a very surprising year with nine of their top 10 receivers returning, along with 1,000-yard back Leddie Brown toting the rock and a defense that has eight starters back off the best defense in the Big 12 last year. There is plenty to suggest that the offense will take a leap forward, which should give Brown all that he needs to push for a decent bowl game in 2021. -- Sallee
Kansas State: There is plenty of reason to believe this team is capable of clearing the modest seventh place prediction bestowed upon it by Big 12 media. For one thing, last year's collapse following a 4-1 start can largely be attributed to the absence of Thompson. But with Thompson back for a sixth season in the program along with ultra-talented all-purpose back Deuce Vaughn and four of last year's top five receivers, this offense should be among the best in the league. Thompson has already beaten Oklahoma twice in his career and also knocked off Iowa State in 2019, so don't be surprised if he's got another upset or two in the tank and leads K-State to a winning record in league play. -- Cobb
- Dennis Dodd: This will be the final season in the Big 12 for Texas and Oklahoma. And not necessarily for money reasons. This has a chance to be an extremely uncomfortable year for both schools after leaving the conference for the SEC.
- Tom Fornelli: Iowa State will beat Texas during the regular season thanks in large part to a questionable call from the officials that the entire world will say is part of a Big 12 conspiracy against Texas, and that win will ultimately be what serves as the tiebreaker between the Cyclones and Longhorns, sending Iowa State to the Big 12 Championship Game.
- Chip Patterson: Bijan Robinson will be the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Spencer Rattler may be the Heisman Trophy favorite, but he won't need to put up the kind of production we saw from previous star quarterbacks in Norman, Oklahoma. Robinson has already shown the ceiling of being the most explosive player in all of college football.
- Barrett Sallee: This will not be the Oklahoma of old. The Sooners, led by a stifling defense and explosive offense, won't suffer an inexplicable loss and cruise to the Big 12 title. In fact, they'll shed the "pretender" status mid-season and enter the College Football Playoff as the No. 1 team in the CFP Rankings.
- Ben Kercheval: Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler will live up to the hype and win the Heisman Trophy ... as the Sooners make it past the College Football Playoff semifinals for the first time.
- David Cobb: The winner of the game between Iowa State and TCU on Nov. 27 will face Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game the following week.
- Jerry Palm: Oklahoma will not finish the conference season undefeated, but it will still be good enough to make the CFP.
Big 12 predicted order of finish
Big 12 champion
Oklahoma: Who else, right? The Sooners have been the dominant Big 12 program basically since Riley arrived in Norman. With a Heisman-caliber quarterback (Rattler), plenty of offense weapons and an ever-improving defense, it's going to be even harder for another team -- say, Iowa State -- to capture a title in Arlington, Texas. Sure, someone might get the Sooners in the regular season, but Riley has been excellent at putting together a much better team in December. -- Kercheval (unanimous)