Ah, conference media days – that special time of year when college football coaches and players talk more than ever and yet manage to say very little.
The chances that Oklahoma Sooners head Lincoln Riley or player representatives Jeremiah Hall and Nik Bonitto will set off any fireworks with their comments at the Big 12’s annual shindig in Arlington this week are about nil. So instead of previewing a likely non-event for the Sooners, let’s talk about questions. Specifically, let’s delve into one question for every coach that we’d like to hear asked (and answered) when they’re talking to reporters this week.
Going in alphabetical order...
Baylor’s Dave Aranda: Have you faced any challenges at this job that were tougher than you expected?
Aranda is one of the more engaging thinkers in the sport, so inquiring minds may want to know the ex-LSU defensive coordinator’s thoughts on the current upheaval at his previous place of employment. He would never answer that. After more than a year on the job, however, Baylor’s head coach probably would give an interesting response to a question about the surprises that came with taking the gig in Waco.
Iowa State’s Matt Campbell: How does your team avoid penalties so well?
The Cyclones’ ascendance means someone will invariably ask some version of the “hunter-versus-hunted” question. Boring. Let’s amp up the excitement with a topic that is sure to get the juices flowing: penalties. Specifically, ISU’s lack thereof.
The Clones have averaged fewer penalty yards per game than any other team in the Big 12 in three of the last four years. That speaks to team discipline instilled by Campbell and his staff. What’s their secret?
Kansas’ Lance Leipold: Is it really that bad?
The Jayhawks have amassed a record of 18-99 in the last 10 years. The shocking part: That is even better than would be expected, given KU’s long-running futility.
Leipold now gets the chance to undo the damage caused by predecessor Les Miles, who somehow managed to put the program in an even deeper hole. A report over the weekend about a purported whistleblower painted a picture of a rudderless program plagued by infighting.
So... how would Leipold sum up the situation?
Kansas State’s Chris Klieman: Are you skittish about your quarterback room?
The Wildcats held together initially after veteran QB Skylar Thompson was lost for the year early on in 2020. They closed with five straight losses once teams caught up to the limitations of backup Will Howard, though the freshman was far from K-State’s only problem down the stretch.
Thompson will presumably reclaim the job in what seems like his eighth season in Manhattan. His injury history raises questions about his ability to finish out the year, however. If Klieman has to turn to the bench again to play substantial snaps behind center, are the Wildcats looking at another lost season?
Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley: How do you help your team hold a lead?
OU had leads in the fourth quarter of its two losses last year versus ISU and KSU. The Sooners blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Red River Shootout before beating Texas in overtime. OU barely held on when the Cyclones came storming back from a 17-point deficit in the Big 12 title game.
Nebulous platitudes about maturity and killer instinct doesn’t offer satisfying explanations for why the Sooners struggled to put teams away. So let’s hear what Riley thinks the issue is. More importantly, what can he do to fix it?
Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy: How strong is Spencer Sanders’ grip on the QB spot?
Sanders’ erratic career with the Cowboys has seen flashes of brilliance combined with backbreaking mistakes. Notably, he has tossed 19 interceptions in the 20 games in which he has played at OSU, and that’s despite the Pokes throwing about 10 fewer passes per game than usual in the last two seasons.
Shane Illingworth wasn’t dazzling when called upon to fill in for Sanders last year, but he did keep the Cowboys out of trouble. That reliability may eventually win out over Sanders’ athleticism if the upperclassman can’t clean up his mistakes.
TCU’s Gary Patterson: Is this the end of the line?
Patterson is an institution at TCU, but 2021 will be his 22nd season as head coach of the Horned Frogs. His team is 18-17 overall in the last three seasons. At some point, the end comes for us all. Has that time come for Patterson?
TCU again looks like a potential dark horse in the Big 12 race. A strong season would give the head coach a chance to leave on a high note.
Texas’ Steve Sarkisian: What makes you a better head coach now than at your previous stops?
If we were to judge this hire just on Sark’s record as a head coach, it would seem fair to ask Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte if he has lost control of his faculties. Sarkisian put together an unspectacular run of five seasons at Washington that ended with a 34-29 overall record. He coached just 18 games at USC before issues with substance abuse resulted in the loss of his job there.
Sark did get the benefit of a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at Nick Saban’s reform school for wayward coaches, which obviously played a major role in landing his new job. Did that opportunity to watch the master in action give him anything to build on for his new gig? And did he learn anything about mistakes he made in his two previous stops?
Texas Tech’s Matt Wells: If David Yost was the problem, are you sure Sonny Cumbie is the solution?
Wells received a reprieve from athletic director Kirby Hocutt after a disappointing 2020 campaign, but it required a blood sacrifice. The Red Raiders opted to can Yost, their offensive coordinator, in a bid to pump some new life into the program.
That makes sense, but replacing Yost with Cumbie is a questionable response. Sure, Cumbie is a hero around Tech from his playing days under Mike Leach. But did anyone in Lubbock see what happened at TCU when Cumbie was calling the shots?
West Virginia’s Neal Brown: There’s good attrition and bad – which kind is this?
The transfer bug hit WVU harder than any other team in the country this offseason. With key players on both sides of the ball departing from Morgantown via the portal, it raises questions about unrest around the program as Neal Brown enters his third year as head coach of the Mountaineers.
Of course, cutting loose of any dead weight holding the program back would be a plus. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Brown’s team is gaining by subtraction.