Expectations are sky high in Norman entering the 2021 football season.
Returning Spencer Rattler with a year under his belt, Lincoln Riley’s Sooners are expected to not only return to the College Football Playoff, but to win a semifinal game for the first time in program history and earn OU’s first berth in the National Championship game since the 2008 season.
With Thursday’s Big 12 Conference schedule release, the road is set for Oklahoma.
Here is every game the Sooners will play in the regular season, ranked from the easiest matchup to the hardest games for OU.
12: Western Carolina
The Western Carolina Catamounts will head to Norman to pick up a $625,000 check on Sept. 11. Not only are they FCS competition, they are bad FCS competition at that. Western Carolina went 0-3 in 2020 action, and are scheduled to play eight games this spring. Oklahoma would likely get more out of an intrasquad scrimmage, but somebody has to make the trip for OU’s yearly pay-per-view matchup. At least Oklahoma fans shouldn’t have to wait too long to see Caleb Williams and Micah Bowens take the field for the Sooners, and the talent brought in the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes should be on full display. Anything but a repeat of the 66-3 drubbing the Alabama Crimson Tide handed the Catamounts in 2019 would be considered a major red flag to Oklahoma’s contender status.
The bi-yearly trip to the library in Lawrence has rarely been an issue for any team in the Big 12 over the past few seasons, as the Jayhawks have fallen off the map in the past decade. Last season, Kansas didn’t cross the goal line until the final play of the game, scoring as time expired to cap off a 53-point beatdown handed down by Riley’s crew. Les Miles tried his best to break in an incredibly young roster in 2020, but the growth should not be enough to hang around with the Sooners for more than a quarter. Sandwiched between matchups against TCU and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks won’t even get the good fortune of catching OU looking ahead or coming down off a big game, spelling sure disaster for Kansas.
The last time the Battle of the Big Reds was waged, a 2010 Big 12 title was on the line. Down 17, Landry Jones and the OU defense woke up to engineer the comeback and give Oklahoma its 45th win in the series. The meeting in 2021 will no doubt be special as far as rekindling the rivalry goes, but the product on the field should lack the punch. Since their departure to the Big 10, the Nebraska program has been a shell of even its Big 12 self, much less the glory days. Scott Frost has had the same struggles as Mike Riley, Bo Pelini and Bill Callahan — a lack of natural recruiting grounds and every year passing adding to the stigma of irrelevancy in upcoming recruits’ minds. The gravity of the game will mean it will have Oklahoma’s full attention, who should easily dispatch the Cornhuskers, who went 3-5 last season in Big 10 play.
While Nebraska will certainly have the full attention of the Sooners, the Tulane Green Wave may benefit from a matchup lacking the emotion. Additionally, opening up the season on the road hasn’t been smooth sailing for OU. In 2016, Baker Mayfield fell to Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars 33-22 in NRG Stadium, and in 2012 the Sooners struggled to get anything going in their 24-7 win at UTEP. Road struggles, paired with the Green Wave being a formidable opponent in their own right, means the season opener could be a tad closer than most would expect. Tulane finished 2020 6-6, nearly beating Tulsa in overtime and pushing SMU to the brink, falling 37-34.
The Texas Tech Red Raiders visit Norman just ahead of Oklahoma’s bye week, finishing off a stretch of games including TCU and Kansas. With no real reason for the Sooners to overlook Matt Wells’ Red Raiders, it’s hard to see any outcome other than a repeat of OU’s dominant 62-28 shellacking of Texas Tech in 2020. Sonny Cumbie offenses have rarely perplexed the Sooners during his stint at TCU, so it’s hard to expect Cumbie’s fortunes will change with his move to Lubbock.
7: West Virginia
The only conference foe the Sooners didn’t face in 2020, the Mountaineers’ trip to Norman comes at an interesting time. Split right between Nebraska’s return to Owen Field and the Sooners trip to play Kansas State, West Virginia might be the best candidates on the entire schedule for an OU letdown spot. Neal Brown’s Mountaineers have struggled on the road, but Brown always has his team playing hard and with plenty of energy to hang with the Sooners early. The Mountaineers will be losing the heartbeat of their defense in Darius Stills, who elected to head to the NFL Draft instead of utilizing his extra year of eligibility, but Brown will be another year closer to populating the West Virginia roster with players tailor-made for his system.
Just like in 2020, the TCU Horned Frogs got the coveted “Texas hangover” slot on OU’s schedule this year, as they will travel to Norman after the Sooners and Longhorns lock up in Dallas. While Gary Patterson will have standouts to replace in his secondary, the Horned Frogs will hope another year of development for Max Duggan (or perhaps a breakout year from Oklahoma transfer Chandler Morris) will add a spark to the offense TCU hasn’t seen since Trevon Boykin. The Sooners dispatched of TCU 33-14 last season, so there is still plenty of ground the Horned Frogs will have to make up if they hope to spring the upset in Norman.
For two straight seasons, Dave Aranda’s defense has held Riley’s offense to season-low outputs. Though it didn’t translate to wins last season, the Baylor Bears presented a physical battle in every outing in 2020 while Aranda adjusted to life as a head coach. The Bears will have to replace starting quarterback Charlie Brewer, who transferred to Utah, but staunch defense and physicality on the line of scrimmage have been Baylor’s calling cards since Matt Rhule resurrected the program. The Sooners will catch the Bears coming off their bye week, and the battles with Iowa State and Oklahoma State in the following weeks should OU enter Waco locked in and ready to close the season on a high.
4: Oklahoma State
Bedlam rivals once again await the Sooners in their regular season finale, but trips to Stillwater have rarely been much trouble for OU. Mike Gundy’s Cowboys will be solid as always, but the Sooners shut down the Oklahoma State offense in 2020, only allowing 13 points, and the Cowboys will have to fare without Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard. Riley will look to remain unbeaten against Gundy, and extend Oklahoma’s current win streak against their in-state rivals to seven.
3: Kansas State
No matter where this game lined up on the schedule, the Sooners were going to have it circled. Chris Klieman has yet to lose to Oklahoma, upsetting the Sooners in back-to-back years. Oklahoma will head to Manhattan to face essentially the same squad who engineered last year’s second half comeback, stunning the Sooners 38-35 in Norman. Skylar Thompson will look to continue to play unconscious against the Sooners, throwing for 334 yards and a touchdown while adding three more scores on the ground in 2020. Though the Wildcats will get the Sooners the week before they play Texas, they should have the full attention of OU having gotten the best of them two years running.
Herman will not await Riley in the Cotton Bowl this year, as Steve Sarkisian is now in charge of the Longhorns. No matter how his first year in Austin turns out, both teams rise to the occasion in the Red River Rivalry. Rattler’s return to the sidelines in Dallas could have mixed emotions, as he was benched after a pair of turnovers before leading the Sooners to a thrilling win in four overtimes against Texas a year ago. For the first time in five meetings, the Sooner defense will have to deal with a quarterback not named Sam Ehlinger, but Bijan Robinson’s emergence down the stretch of last season should take the pressure off of whoever is taking the snaps for Texas in October. OU’s current three game win streak in the series is their longest since Stoops dominated the ‘Horns from 2000-2004, meaning the Sooner should be very wary of the threat Texas will pose.
1: Iowa State
Outside of Klieman, Matt Campbell has been Riley’s most worthy adversary in the Big 12. Leading the Cyclones to the Big 12 Championship game last season, Iowa State will return almost every key contributor to try and finish the job this season. Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and Charlie Kolar will head to Norman in the Sooners’ penultimate regular season matchup with plenty of confidence and no fear, as they’ve hung with the Sooners just about every time they’ve matchup up with the titans of the Big 12 in their careers. Regardless of the outcome, the two teams could meet again just two weeks later in Arlington, marking the first matchup to be repeated in the Big 12 Championship game since its return in 2017.