Takeaways from Big 12 Media Days 2021: Expectations at Oklahoma, playoff expansion and COVID-19

Big 12 Media Days ahead of the 2021 season kicked off Wednesday with five teams making an appearance in Arlington, Texas. The conference’s top two teams in its own preseason poll, Oklahoma and Iowa State, were among those represented.

As storylines begin to take shape, coaches from half the Big 12’s programs took questions on everything from expectations to new name, image and likeness laws popping up throughout the country. With the two-day session in Arlington halfway over, let’s take a look back at what went down on the opening day of Big 12 Media Days. 

Oklahoma’s national title aspirations

Winners of the last six Big 12 championships, Oklahoma has yet to get past the semifinals in the College Football Playoff era. That could change in 2021 with the Sooners considered one of the preseason betting favorites to win the national title (15/2 at William Hill Sportsbook). Addressing his team’s high expectations this season, coach Lincoln Riley stressed the importance of building off of last year’s 9-2 season. After starting 1-2, the Sooners reeled off eight straight wins, including the Cotton Bowl over Florida. Showing what Riley called “championship DNA”, Oklahoma is back to basics this offseason.

“Our focus zeroes back in on getting to the best version of ourselves,” Riley said. “If we do that, things will happen the way they are supposed to happen. That’s been our focus since day one after beating Florida in this building.”

The question won’t be the offense. Quarterback Spencer Rattler is the preseason favorite to win the Heisman (11/2). Rather, the defense will need to keep making strides under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “We look different even walking into a team meeting than we did a few years ago,” Riley said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we have extremely high expectations for the season.”

Matt Campbell’s rising stock

The Iowa State coach has become a hot commodity in the coaching ranks lately with rumors connecting him to the Detroit Lions gig this offseason. Instead, Campbell enters his sixth year with the Cyclones and expectations have never been higher. With this team’s sights set on a Big 12 championship in 2021, Campbell’s star power will likely only get brighter.

When asked about the possibility of leaving for a bigger job, Campbell responded that it’s about the process, not the destination. 

“You’re either someone who’s trying to be somebody or you’re trying to do something. For me, I’ve always loved coaching and what I’m doing is trying to do something and make a difference,” Campbell said. “I think that’s one of the great joys that we’ve had over the last five years, now going into our sixth year at Iowa State, is how do you do something that a lot of people said you could never have sustained success at a place like that. It’s been a great challenge to put a program together and really work hard to create sustained success and a culture where kids want to come in everyday and be the best versions of themselves.” 

Coaches offer support for name, image and likeness

A college athlete’s new ability to monetize their name, image and likeness has been the story of the summer. Naturally, it was one of the focal points of the first day of Big 12 Media Days. But such drastic changes to college football’s traditional rules didn’t seem to weigh negatively on the conference’s coaches. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Kansas State coach Chris Klieman remarked that the Wildcats’ home in Manhattan is “a home run for name, image and likeness,” calling the town a “gold mine” for potential NIL deals. TCU coach Gary Patterson also gave a specific example of how NIL laws would help athletes, noting that former safety Ar’Darius Washington probably would have stayed with the Horned Frogs for another year if he had been allowed to monetize his NIL. Instead, he took a shot in the 2021 NFL Draft to help his family and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Baltimore Ravens. 

How much money a player in Manhattan, Kansas, or Fort Worth, Texas, could earn remains to be seen — to Klieman’s point, K-State is the only show in town — but these are considerations future athletes will have as they navigate through unprecedented times. 

Big 12 is bullish on the 12-team playoff

Another dominant offseason storyline has been the future expansion of the College Football Playoff. With a 12-team format on the table, it’s almost a guarantee that the Big 12 will be included every year. While inclusion hasn’t necessarily been an issue in the past — Oklahoma has four appearances — commissioner Bob Bowlsby did say the expanded field opens up the door for another non-champion to make the cut. 

“The motivation for expanding the playoff is not money. The motivation is the realization that the participation could be broader. The 12-team [layoff will be a tremendous asset for the regular season,” Bowlsby said. “We haven’t had a year in the Big 12 in the playoff era where our champion didn’t finish in the top six or eight positions in the poll. Our chances, while not automatic, of having our champion and one other are pretty good.” 

Bowlsby stresses importance of vaccines

Playing a football season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was a headache. Though the coronavirus is still around in 2021, particularly with the delta variant rearing its ugly head, many schools are proceeding as normal with plans for full stadiums in the fall. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be hiccups with player and coach availability if they test positive for COVID-19. While Bowlsby did not say there would be vaccine mandates for the schools this fall — he continued to defer to local health officials for all mandates related to COVID — he did say that testing will continue.

“It’s shortsighted to not get vaccinated. If indeed the variant is as infectious as it is reported to be, not getting vaccinated is rolling the dice,” Bowlsby said. “As a student-athletes, you’re also rolling the dice on whether you’re going to participate. You’ll be tested.”

The good news, though, is that most of the rosters in the Big 12 appear to be at high enough vaccination rates that postponements or cancellations shouldn’t be an issue. 


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