25 years ago, the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was changed forever when the Big XII conference split the two schools into separate divisions. Oklahoma was struggling at football at the time, and the rivalry with a Nebraska program that was dominating nationally just wasn’t a priority. It’s somewhat ironic that in 2021, Nebraska was the struggling football program whose administration felt that the rivalry with Oklahoma, who’s been to the playoff three out of the last four years, wasn’t a priority. Unlike 25 years ago, though, cooler minds prevailed in the end, and the games remained scheduled.
The Sooners didn’t make the playoff in 2020, but did smash Florida 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl last season. Two early season losses to Kansas State and Iowa State proved too much to overcome in a playoff system with only four spots. But in a 12-team playoff, there should be little doubt that the Sooners would have made some noise at the end of the season.
Lincoln Riley’s quarterback machine doesn’t rebuild, it reloads. In 2021, though, Oklahoma has a returning starting quarterback for the first time since Baker Mayfield in 2015-17. Spencer Rattler (6’1” 210 lbs.) was a third-team all-Big XII honoree last season as a true freshman, completing over 67% of his passes for 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Five of those interceptions were in the first four games of the season, however. Rattler won’t kill you with his legs, but did rush for 160 yards net last season with six touchdowns. With backup Tanner Mordecai transferring to SMU, Penn State transfer Micha Bowens (5’11” 192 lbs.) and true freshman Caleb Williams (6’2” 210 lbs.) will be backing up Rattler this fall.
At running back, Kennedy Brooks (5’11” 220 lbs.) returns after opting out of the 2020 COVID-19 season. In Oklahoma’s running back by committee approach, Brooks led the Sooners with 1,056 and 1,011 seasons in 2018 and 2019, averaging 7.5 yards per carry despite only starting ten games. Tennessee transfer Eric Gray (5’10” 206 lbs.) rushed for 1,311 yards in 2019 for the Vols. Arguably despite sending Rhamondre Stevenson to the NFL (4th round pick by New England), the Sooners might be even better at running back in 2021.
The Sooners return five of their top six receivers from last year, led by Marvin Mims (5’11” 176 lbs.), a second team all-Big XII honoree last season after catching 37 passes for 610 yards and nine touchdowns. Theo Wease (6’3” 205 lbs.) also caught 37 passes for 530 yards and four touchdowns, earning third team all-Big XII honors. Tight end Austin Stogner (6’6” 255 lbs.) missed four games due to injury by still catching 26 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
The Sooners return three starters up front on the offensive line, Guards Tyrese Robinson (6’3” 326 lbs.) and Marquis Hayes (6’5” 335 lbs.) are two year starters while right tackle Erik Swenson (6’5” 329 lbs.) started 11 games last season. Joining the mix as transfers are guard Robert Congel (6’4” 319 lbs.), who started 24 games at Arizona, and tackle Wanya Morris (6’5” 313 lbs.), with 19 starts in two years at Tennessee.
Defensively, the Sooners return eight starters from what was a Top-30 defense nationally; they should be even better in 2021. Up front, three starters return, all with postseason honors led by rush end Nik Bonitto (6’3” 234 lbs.), who earned second team All-American honors with 32 tackles, 8.5 sacks and ten quarterback hurries last season. Defensive end Isaiah Thomas (6’5” 262 lbs.) earned second team All-Big XII honors with 31 tackles and eight sacks last season, while nose guard Perrion Winfrey (6’3” 290 lbs.) was also a second team All-Big XII player with 18 tackles, six for a loss last season.
At linebacker, the Sooners need to replace nickel back Brendan Radley-Hiles, who transferred to Washington during the offseason. They do return middle linebacker Brian Asamoah (6’1” 230 lbs.), an honorable mention all-conference pick who led Oklahoma with 66 tackles last season. If Caleb Kelly (6’2” 238 lbs.) returns to form after missing most of the last two seasons due to injury, the Sooners might be even better. Kelly has started 24 games in his OU career and earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2017.
In the secondary, Oklahoma loses two defensive backs in the NFL draft but return three starters, starting with a couple of honorable mention all-conference players Cornerback Woodi Washington (5’11” 193 lbs.) was the #4 tackler for the Sooners with 44 last season and also defended six passes. Safety Delarrin Turner-Yell (5’10” 198 lbs.) was the #2 tackler last season with 52; he’s started 21 games in his Oklahoma career so far. Adding some size is 6’1” 207 lbs. transfer Key Lawrence from Tennessee, which should mean the Sooner secondary should be solid in 2021.
No doubt in my mind that Oklahoma should be the odds-on favorite to win what looks like their final Big XII championship, now that the Sooners look to be on the verge of exiting the conference. It doesn’t surprise me that Texas is looking to blow up the Big XII; it’s something that we’ve all known for nearly a dozen years now. It’s why Nebraska made it’s escape to the stability of the Big Ten conference, a decision that some short-sightedly doubted in 2020 but has now been reaffirmed in 2021.
Nebraska to rest of Big 12 after this morning’s news pic.twitter.com/L3WyqXWQOO— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) July 26, 2021
I am a bit sad and disappointed, though, that the Sooners are going to follow Texas out of the Big XII. Not surprised, because Oklahoma has followed Texas’ lead for the last thirty years despite being the superior athletic program. Selfishly, I would love to see Oklahoma joining the Big Ten, if only to reestablish one of college football’s greatest rivalries with the Huskers on a regular basis, though I do suspect that the Sooners’ academic rankings might have tempered any interest the Big Ten might have had.
And if Oklahoma does change conferences, it’ll happen much sooner than the current contract currently allows, because no conference wants the awkward situation to linger more than a year, especially when the SEC is able to write a huge check to the Big XII to close the deal sooner rather than later. So yeah, next year’s game against the Sooners will likely “just mean more.”
What happens in the 50th anniversary rematch of the Game of the Century.
This poll is closed
Sadly, Oklahoma hits the half-century mark on the scoreboard as well.
Improving Huskers make it interesting, but Sooner Magic wins out in the end.
The Sooners get overconfident with visions of the SEC and believing the Huskers are scared of them... and the Big Red wins 35-31 once again in Norman.