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2021 Season

Ranking Big 12 Non-Conference Schedules

Who has the toughest out-of-conference slate?

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Fall camps are starting in earnest around the country, meaning actual college football is only a few weeks away. Teams in the Big 12 will start conference play on September 3rd, and many squads will look to find out what kind of team they have after making it through their non-conference slate. Below is a ranking of all the non-conference schedules in the Big 12 according to perceived difficulty.

These schedules are not ranked according to how likely these individual teams are expected to perform (i.e. how likely it is that Oklahoma will beat Nebraska), but according to how an average FBS team (think 5-6 win squad here) would perform against a given lineup. If a team has a Top 25 opponent on their schedule, for example, but then has two “cupcake” games against one or more FCS squads, they might not finish very high here. Any .500 football team should like their chances to go at least 2-1 there. If they were to play three mid-level Power Five squads, though, 0-3 would be a real possibility, and so that would be a tougher slate. 

1. Texas

The Longhorns get top billing here, and they probably have a tougher out-of-conference schedule than most teams in college football. For one, they are the only Big 12 team to play three FBS squads. Texas also is one of the few teams on this list to play another Power Five opponent on the road. New head coach Steve Sarkisian will welcome what is likely to be a Top 25 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns squad to Austin. The line on that one currently has Texas favored by 9.5 points, but it wouldn’t be surprising for this to be a one possession game. As a likely fringe Top 25 team themselves, the Longhorns are on upset alert there.

Texas renews an old Southwest Conference rivalry by playing the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetville. Arkansas was 3-7 last year, but they return almost everyone from that team, and probably have a decent shot at bowl game this year. In-state foe Rice University rounds out the non-conference slate for the Longhorns. This is a Rice Owls team that upset No. 15 Marshall last year 20-0, and could be one of the more improved squads Texas has faced in this series. Still, the Owls might not quite be a bowl team in 2021 and the Longhorns will probably be favored by more than 20 points in this one.

2. Oklahoma State

It’s conceivable that the Pokes could have one of the rockier starts to the season that they’ve had in the past few seasons. There’s not a ton of flash on their schedule, but they do play a couple of Group of Five schools on the upswing. In-state foe Tulsa went 6-3 in 2020 and notched two Top 25 wins. They’ve got to find another quarterback for Phil Montgomery’s offense, but the Golden Hurricane have enough coming back on both sides to make them a strong opponent. An AAC title berth looks to be on the table for Tulsa, who the Pokes edged out by nine points last season.

Oklahoma State has to go on the road against Boise State, a game that represents the most likely loss on the schedule. The Broncos are a perennial power in the Mountain West, and regularly finish in the Top 25. They might just land outside of that group this year, but Boise State will once again be favored to win their conference. FCS Missouri State is the lone cupcake on the schedule, and the Pokes are probably going to be favored by more than 30 or even 40 points in that one.

3. West Virginia

The lineup for the Mountaineers is one of the least talked about this offseason, mainly because there’s not a ton flash there. West Virginia gets Virginia Tech at home in Week 3 in a game that could very well be a one possession contest. The COVID-ravaged Hokies went 5-6 in 2020 and opted out of their bowl streak after 27 straight years of postseason play. Virginia Tech has plenty of starters returning this year, though, and could be in for a bounce back.

Traveling to Maryland will certainly present a bit of a test, as the Terrapins could become bowl eligible in 2021. West Virginia will almost certainly be favored to win against the Terps, but this might still be a dangerous team, with 17 returnings starters and Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa at quarterback. On the other hand, Long Island, an FCS squad, will likely be a significant underdog in Morgantown.

4. Kansas State

There are no Top 25 teams in the lineup for the Wildcats, but they’ve got to get past two FBS squads who could both have winning records this season. Kansas State travels to Arlington to play the Stanford Cardinal in their season opener. After going 4-8 in 2019, Stanford posted a 4-2 record last season and finished second in the Pac-12 North.

Most likely because they played a truncated schedule last fall, Stanford has been one of the more difficult teams to project by national media. They could feasibly be anywhere from a six win football team to a fringe member of the Top 25, making this a difficult early test for Kansas State. Nevada, meanwhile, will come to Manhattan as a team that could legitimately challenge for the Mountain West Conference title in 2021. The Wildcats will probably field the strongest non-FBS opponent in the Big 12, as Southern Illinois is projected as a Top 10 contender in FCS.

5. Oklahoma

As a team in the conversation for the national title in 2021, Oklahoma has a schedule that won’t pose much of a challenge to them. There are plenty of teams in FBS that would find this lineup formidable, though, with two FBS squads that are likely to compete for a bowl berth this year. The Nebraska Cornhuskers have struggled to post a .500 record in head coach Scott Frost’s tenure there, but they had multiple close losses in 2020, and only lose five starters off last year’s team.

The season opener for Oklahoma is a trip to Tulane, a team out of the AAC that will hope to go bowling for a fourth straight time under head coach Willie Fritz. They’ve got a good shot to do that, as the Green Wave lose only one starter on offense. Western Carolina represents the Sooners’ lone FCS school on their schedule, and Oklahoma will be an extremely heavy home favorite there.

6. TCU

If there were different “tiers” to this ranking, the Horned Frogs and Sooners would probably be grouped together. The strength of their relative opponents is similar, but TCU hosts all of their non-conference foes at home. Their two FBS opponents are projected to have a winning record, although neither is looking like they’re close to Top 25 quality. The Battle for the Iron Skillet might be TCU’s toughest test. SMU was 7-3 last season, and will probably contend for their conference title despite losing a starting quarterback. The Mustangs beat the Horned Frogs last time out in Dallas, but the Horned Frogs will be favored in this one as they come off a bye week.

The California Golden Bears will also be a solid opponent for TCU to take on in Forth Worth. Cal went 1-3 in a COVID-shortened season, but, outside of 2020, they’re averaging just over six wins per year under head coach Justin Fuente. That could conceivably be an interesting game, but anticipate TCU being favored by a couple of possessions. Duquesne represents TCU’s lone FCS opponent, and the Horned Frogs will be favored heavily in that one.

7. Kansas

Kansas has a schedule that features one game against a Top 25 opponent, but most average FBS teams would be favored against their two other foes. FCS South Dakota is probably the Jayhawks’ best chance to pick up a win. The Coyotes went 1-3 in the shortened spring season, and they normally finish in the middle or toward the bottom of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Jayhawks travel to play two games away from home in September, the only Big 12 team to do so in out-of-conference play. One of those is Duke, against who Kansas could be competitive. The Blue Devils suffered some significant losses from a team that went 2-9 in 2020, but they will likely still be around a touchdown favorite. Outside of those two is Kansas’ most likely loss in their game against Coastal Carolina, a team that went 11-1 in 2020 and will be a preseason Top 25 squad. The Chanticleers only lost a few players off that squad, and as the home team in this 2021 matchup, are probably going to be favored by a couple of possessions at least.

8. Iowa State

The Cylcones might have the single toughest opponent on their schedule, as in-state rival Iowa is likely to be a Top 25 team going into this annual rival game. The Hawkeyes lost two games on an eight game schedule last year by a total of four points. They should have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and the play of sophomore Spencer Petras could be the only thing between them a shot at the league title game.

Despite that staunch challenge, Iowa State’s remaining non-conference slate will likely have them as heavy favorites. UNLV went 0-6 last year, and despite returning most of their starters on both sides of the ball, the Rebels are expected to finish last their division in the Mountain West. The Cyclones have a history of struggling with FCS Northern Iowa, but the Panthers will justifiably be 20-plus underdogs going into Iowa State’s home opener.

9. Baylor

Even if the Bears only improve marginally on last year’s 2-7 conference record, they have a decent shot to go undefeated in non-conference. Their mid-October game against offensive coordinator Jeff Grime’s former employer, the BYU Cougars, is going to be Baylor’s toughest test outside the Big 12. The Cougars managed an amazing 11-1 record last year to finish as a Top 15 team, but it’s anticipated that BYU will experience some significant drop-off, and be in rebuild mode this year.

They lost NFL-caliber talent on offense, including the 2021 second overall pick in the Draft, and their defense only brings back four starters. They should still have a winning record at season’s end, but it could be a potential upset in Waco if things go right for Baylor.

FCS Texas Southern and Texas State from the Sun Belt Conference round out the rest of this slate. Since 2018, Texas Southern has only won three games against fellow FCS squads. The Bobcats of Texas State have become more competitive under head coach Jake Spavital, but they are still only 5-19 in his short tenure.

10. Texas Tech

On average, the Red Raiders are thought to be around a .500 team going into 2021, and lucky for them the schedule sets up to give Matt Wells’ team a great shot to go undefeated in non-conference play. FCS Stephen F. Austin comes to Lubbock for Texas Tech’s first home game, and it’ll be Lumberjacks team that averaged 11.25 points against FBS opponents last season. Third year coach Colby Carthel has been working to rebuild that program, but they’ll be a multiple possession underdog.

When Florida International University (FIU) faces off against Texas Tech, Wells’ team is also likely to be a heavy favorite. FIU went 0-5 in a shortened season last year under head coach Butch Davis, who’s 23-21 in his tenure with the Panthers. The only team that should test the Red Raiders on this slate are the Houston Cougars. who are really looking to make a leap as a top team in the AAC. They went 3-5 last year, but bring back enough talent on both sides of the ball to compete for bowl eligibility in 2021. The Cougars are probably a comparable team to the Red Raiders, and this could end up being a game that determines who qualifies for postseason play.

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