Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy gives the Cyclones a chance to be a factor in the Big 12 in 2020. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

It may be hard to believe, but college football is just around the corner. The Big 12 will be among the first conferences to send teams out on the field in one of the most unique college football seasons we may ever witness. With COVID-19 continuing to impact the sports world, the Big 12 has opted to continue pushing forward with a college football season, although with a few modifications to the schedule.

The Big 12 will continue to play a full conference schedule, with each Big 12 school playing nine conference games and the top two teams at the end of the season playing in the Big 12 Championship Game. Big 12 schools are also permitted by the conference to play one additional non-conference game as long as it can be scheduled for September. So with the Big 12 ready to pull back the curtain on a brand new college football season, you may be wondering what you should be paying attention to within the conference. And that’s where we are here to help show you the way.

For now, we’ll put aside the obvious questions the Big 12 faces with regard to COVID-19 and what could potentially happen to the season if trends go the wrong way for the conference or what players may opt out (although that’s worth recognizing as well). Let’s instead just focus on the actual football storylines worth monitoring this season around the conference. And what better place to start than with the defending Big 12 champions, the Oklahoma Sooners?

Can Lincoln Riley keep his QB magic going at a Heisman level?

When former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops reached out to a rising offensive assistant from East Carolina in 2014, he knew that coach would be the guy to give Oklahoma’s offense a boost to take the next step in the new era of college football. That assistant was Lincoln Riley, a former Texas Tech quarterback under Mike Leach who started his coaching career under Leach in Lubbock. Riley’s impact on the Oklahoma offense was noticeable from the start, turning a walk-on who transferred from (you guessed it, Texas Tech) into a player who would toss 36 touchdowns and throw for 3,700 yards. That player would later go on to win a Heisman Trophy two seasons later. Not so coincidentally, that’s when Riley took over the reins as the head coach of the Sooners.

That quarterback, by the way? None other than Baker Mayfield. After Mayfield went on to become the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2018, Riley proved lightning could strike twice. Another transfer quarterback, Kyler Murray, rose to the occasion and turned himself into a Heisman Trophy winner in Riley’s second year as head coach. Two-for-two with Heisman Trophy winners, to go along with a pair of Big 12 titles and two spots in the College Football Playoff? Not too shabby of a way to start off a coaching career for Riley. Although Riley couldn’t manage a three-peat of Heisman winners last year, he did have Jalen Hurts from Alabama, who turned in a season worthy of being runner-up to the record-setting storybook season LSU’s Joe Burrow turned in. Even for Riley, that was nearly impossible to overcome.

But now the work begins to mold the next great Oklahoma quarterback. And that means all eyes are now locked don redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler.

Can Spencer Rattler continue Oklahoma's recent tradition of Heisman-caliber quarterback play? Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Can Spencer Rattler continue Oklahoma’s recent tradition of Heisman-caliber quarterback play? Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Rattler got a chance to get a taste of the football field last season by appearing in three games (thus allowing him to preserve a year of eligibility by staying under the four-game max before using a year). Rattler has yet to officially be labeled the starter by Sooners head coach Riley, although it’s largely expected that will be the case by the time Oklahoma is ready to kick off its season on Sept. 12 against Missouri State. And considering how he is already be compared to quarterbacks who came before him, that seems unlikely yo change.

And although Rattler’s place on the depth chart has yet to be cemented by the Sooners, Rattler is already moving his way up the Heisman odds. According to a batch of updated odds recently released by one sportsbook, the biggest beneficiary of the Big Ten and Pac-12 dropping out of the fall schedule may have been Rattler. The Oklahoma quarterback skyrocketed up to No. 2 on the board behind Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

History in Norman also pays dividends for Rattler’s preseason Heisman odds. With two Heisman winners and a runner-up already on Riley’s resume, Rattler will have big shoes to fill this fall. And he has just the right coach to help him do that.

Will Texas be Oklahoma’s biggest challenger to the Big 12 throne?

It’s easy to talk up the Texas Longhorns almost any given offseason. First, it’s Texas. All people do is talk up Texas. But second, it may kinda be actually, partially, somewhat legitimate this season!

The good news for Texas is they have Sam Ehlinger back at quarterback. It may have been easy to overlook given Texas finished the 2019 season with a mediocre 8-5 record, but Ehlinger turned in a very respectable season with 3,663 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. Ehlinger did have some ups and downs as the season played out, including one rather frustrating performance against TCU, but he put on a wild show against eventual national champion LSU (in a losing effort, of course), and ended the season with three touchdowns against a demoralized Utah team in the Alamo Bowl (Utah was a win away from a probable spot in the College Football Playoff, so feel free to use the “they didn’t really want to be there” excuse if you must).

Sam Ehlinger and Texas may be the easy pick to be the top threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12, but are they? Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Sam Ehlinger and Texas may be the easy pick to be the top threat to Oklahoma in the Big 12, but are they? Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Ehlinger returns as one of the top passers in the Big 12 (entertaining your Brock Purdy argument, Iowa State fans), and one of the top offensive lines in the conference. Texas also returns nine starters from its defense a year ago. The only problem is that is a defense that ranked eighth in the 10-team Big 12 in total defense, and you don’t get many points for coming in ahead of Kansas and Texas Tech in this category. But a new defensive scheme (4-3 now instead of 3-4) under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash (former Rutgers head coach and Ohio State assistant) could bode well for Texas. Expect significant improvement form the texas defense, which should put key players, like Joseph Osai, in better positions to thrive.

Texas is an easy pick to be the top threat to Oklahoma, but the’re far from the only candidate worth considering. Iowa State is a trendy pick for good reason. Brock Purdy is a quarterback that NFL scouts are already breaking down, and the Cyclones defense should once again be nasty and difficult to score on. But Oklahoma’s biggest threat may be within the state boundary. Oklahoma State could be dangerous with the best running back in the Big 12 (more on him in a bit), some terrific wide receivers, and one of the only offensive lines that may be better than what Texas has. It just so happens one of Oklahoma State’s biggest question marks is at the quarterback position, and this may be an area where the Longhorns can ride their way back to the Big 12 championship game.

Which second-year coach makes the most progress in Year 2?

Les Miles and Chris Klieman are each building their programs their own way as the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry continues. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Les Miles and Chris Klieman are each building their programs their own way as the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry continues. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Forget about first-year coaches (well, actually, don’t; I’ll get to one after this!), because this year’s Big 12 storyline should be focused on the second-year head coaches. The 2018-2019 coaching carousel was a pretty busy one around the Big 12. Kansas parted with David Beaty and welcomed back Les Miles to the world of college football coaching. Kansas State icon Bill Snyder stepped into retirement and the keys to the program were handed to North Dakota State’s own legend, Chris Klieman. Texas Tech fired Kliff Kingsbury, who somehow managed to fail upward to a head coaching job in the NFL in one of the weirdest offseason coaching stories I have ever seen. The Red Raiders went in a completely new direction with Matt Wells from Utah State. And West Virginia saw Dana Holgorsen leave the job in Morgantown for a chance to be the head coach at Houston, a rather against-the-grain lateral move from a power conference to a non-power conference, but seemingly a better fit, anyway. West Virginia hired Neal Brown, who had success as head coach at Troy.

Klieman was the only Big 12 newcomer to put together a winning record, with Kansas State going 8-5 and finishing in third in the Big 12, although not exactly close to playing for the Big 12 title either. To be fair, Brown, Campbell, and Miles all had some rebuilding to get started with, and the bar for success at each program is different. So which of these coaches will be ready to start raising those bars this fall?

As far as wins go, this could be a particularly tough year for all four of the second-year coaches. Kansas State’s offense will be very young and raw this season, and the defense also is not without room to improve. Les Miles seems to have brought some renewed energy to the Kansas program through recruiting, but the grass Miles will undoubtedly consume is still being planted in Lawrence. Brown may have a defense to work with at West Virginia, but the offense is still too much of a work in progress and was not at all efficient last season. The same might be said of Texas Tech, as Campbell continues to change the way we think of the Red Raiders.

So just how good of a head coach will Dave Aranda be at Baylor?

The time has finally come to see what Dave Aranda can do in charge of his own college football program. He just so happens to be walking into a pretty decent spot at Baylor. Aranda comes to Baylor with a national championship ring as LSU’s defensive coordinator, and takes over a program that is in far better condition now than when his predecessor (Matt Rhule, who is now the head coach of the Carolina Panthers) inherited it. That doesn’t mean Baylor is ready to roll their way right back to the Big 12 Championship Game this season, though. Far from it.

Baylor does have some key offensive pieces back from last year’s surprise team. But Aranda will get to flex his muscle where he has made a living to this point by coaching the defense. Baylor returns just two starters from last year’s team, and this may not be the best year for a rebuilding defense. Even with Aranda as head coach and Ron Roberts as defensive coordinator, Baylor’s defense could actually be the weak spot in Waco this season. Don’t expect that to be the norm, however. Baylor’s defense may get better as the season progresses, which should be expected for any team with a new coaching staff that did not get to go through spring practices.

Good things could be coming to Baylor with Aranda as the head coach, but expect to hit a few potholes and speed bumps in 2020. We all can probably relate to that.

How much mileage can Chuba Hubbard rack up in a shortened season?

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard looks to set the pace on the ground once again for the Cowboys in 2020. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard looks to set the pace on the ground once again for the Cowboys in 2020. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

One of the Big 12’s biggest stars is coming off a season in which he rushed for a nation-leading 2,094 yards. Chuba Hubbard was an absolute workhorse for the Pokes in 2019, carrying the football on average of 25 times per game. And he wasn’t picking up simple short gains. He was going full beast mode for an average of 6.38 yards per rushing attempt, stringing together an average of over 160 yards per game on the ground. In a conference known for its high-flying offenses, Hubbard was a true throwback to one of Oklahoma State’s own icons, Barry Sanders. Sanders was a much more finesse back, while Hubbard was more of an immovable object. This is proven by the fact Hubbard ranked first in the nation in yards after contact (1,191!). If you can’t make the tackle when you first lay hands on Hubbard, odds are you just aren’t going to be able to do so.

Four players rushed for 2,000 or more yards in Hubbard. Two of them, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, had the benefit of hitting the 2,000-yard mark in 14 games played (The Big Ten Championship Game gave each back a 14th game on their respective schedule). The third was Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, who rushed for 2,017 yards in 13 games. Hubbard had more rushing yards than all of them, did so in 13 games, and without being a player touching the ball on every offensive snap. He also had more rushing attempts than any of the other three. So yes, the Cowboys have their stallion in the stable.

But the big question now becomes just what kind of damage Hubbard will do in a shortened season. Oklahoma State has a 10-game regular-season schedule lined up, and the chance to play in the Big 12 Championship Game is not an unrealistic possibility. Throw in a possible bowl game, and all of a sudden, a 2,000-yard season could still be in play. And putting together a 2,000-yard season in 2020 with the schedules as they are, would be a worthy feat. Enough to get him to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist? It certainly wouldn’t hurt the campaign.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to NBCSports.com. Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.