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FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW, PART 2: UT, OU bolt for SEC, leaving rest of Big 12 wondering what’s next

Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won their first 11 games of the season, but lost four of their last five, including an embarrassing 48-37 home playoff loss to the Brown. Ben Rothlisberger (3,803 yards, 33 TDs) should have another big year, but if the Steelers are to be a serious threat in the AFC, their running game must improve. That’s why they drafted Alabama’s Najee Harris (1,466 rushing yards, 26 TDs/43 receptions, 423 yards, 4 TDs) to get things done on the ground.

Baltimore will once again by led by dual threat QB Lamar Jackson (2,757 passing yards, 26 TDs/1,005 rushing yards, 7 TDs). If Jackson improves as a passer, the Ravens could make a lot of noise in 2021.

Tennessee should battle Indianapolis for the AFC South title. The Titans are led by quarterback Ryan Tannehill (3,817 yards, 33 TDs) and running back Derrick Henry (2,127 yards, 17 TDs). The Titans added former Atlanta All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones (51 receptions, 771 yards, 3 TDs in 9 games) to pair with speed wideout A.J. Brown (70 receptions, 1,075 yards, 11 TDs). The Titans could be scary good on offense, and if they shore up the defense, they could contend for the AFC title.

Buffalo should be the team to beat in the AFC East. The Bills finished 13-3 a year ago and have a rising star in QB Josh Allen (4,544 yards, 37 TDs) and a big-play WR in Stefon Diggs (127 receptions, 1,535 yards, 8 TDs). Buffalo needs to improve its running game, but it has a solid defense and should hold off Miami and New England to win the AFC East.

Now we turn our attention to the 2021 college football season, where before a game has even been played Texas and OU made huge news with their announcement to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. The plan is for the league’s two major programs to join the SEC in July of 2025, but many believe both schools will depart well before that date and each pay the $80 million fee to depart early.

UT and OU’s move will make the SEC the first super conference with 16 teams. The SEC has not announced how it will restructure the league (four 4-pod teams or 2 divisions with 8 teams each). Texas’s joining the SEC will rekindle the UT-Texas / A&M rivalry and could move Alabama out of the Western Division to the Eastern Division (I’m sure the rest of the SEC East is excited about that prospect!).

So where does that leave the remaining Big 12 schools? I guess the Big 12 could extend invitations to the University of Houston, Central Florida, Cincinnati and perhaps Brigham Young to keep the conference alive, but losing its two biggest programs and moneymakers might make it difficult to keep the league alive. I expect Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU to join UH in the AAC, Iowa State and Kansas move to the Big 10, Oklahoma State moves to the Pac 12 and Kansas State to the Mountain West. West Virginia can go pound sand.

Until the two Big 12 teams officially move, they will play at least one or two more years in the Big 12. Oklahoma should be the team to beat once again this year (they’ve won six straight Big 12 titles) and UT fans are hoping new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the former offensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, is the latest savior for a program that has fallen into mediocrity.

Sarkisian replaces former golden boy Tom Herman whose act wore think with the UT brass and he was given his walking papers after UT’s 55-24 Alamo Bowl win over Colorado.

He inherits a team that finished 7-3 a year ago and needs to find a new starting quarterback now that three-year starter Sam Ehlinger has moved onto the NFL. Junior Casey Thompson filled in for Ehlinger when the latter was injured in the Alamo Bowl and sparked the 55- 24 win by going 8-10 for 170 yards and four TDs. Thompson and Hudson Card are battling for the job.

While UT is uncertain who their starting QB will be, that’s not the case with the running game. Look for sophomore Bijan Robinson (703 yards, 4 TDs) to get plenty of work this season and prove he is one of the best runners in the country. In the bowl win over Colorado, Robinson picked up 183 yards on just 10 carries and scored a TD.

OU is still the team to beat in the Big 12. This could be Lincoln Riley’s best team ever and there is plenty of excitement in Norman as quarterback Spencer Rattler (3,031 yards, 28 TDs) leads a loaded offense. The defense also has Sooner fans pumped up as eight starters return to a unit that steadily improved as the season went on last year.

Iowa State should contend with OU for the league title. Quarterback Brock Purdy (2,750 yards, 19 TDs) and running back Breece Hall (1,572 yards, 21 TDs) return to lead Matt Campbell’s team.

Texas A&M fans are also stoked for the upcoming season after Jimbo Fisher led the Aggies to a 9-1 season and No. 4 national ranking in his third year in College Station. The Aggies success will revolve around a rebuilt offensive line that lost four of five starters and a new quarterback after four-year starter Kellen Mond moved onto the NFL. Fisher says he has two good ones in redshirt sophomore Hanes King (who led Longview to the Class 6A Division II state title in 2018) and Zach Calzada to choose from. Until either settles into the job, look for running backs Isaiah Spiller (1,036 yards, 9 TDs) and speedy Devon Achane (43 receptions, 364 yards, 4 TDs/140 yards rushing, 2 TDs in A&M Orange Bowl victory over North Carolina) to be counted on to carry the offensive load.

Defensively, the Aggies are loaded with eight starters returning. Some Aggie faithful believe this year’s defense could be the Wrecking Crew II, which was so dominate in the late ‘80s and 90’s under former head coach R.C. Slocum.

Aggie fans are circling Oct. 9 on their calendars because that’s when defending national champion Alabama pays them a visit in College Station, which will probably be a prime time game on CBS.

The Aggies’ problem is they still play in the SEC West, where defending national champion Alabama still resides, along with a LSU team that won it all in 2019. The Tigers return 19 starters and want to make up for last year’s lackluster 5-5 season.

In Tuscaloosa, Saban lead the Crimson Tide to a 13-0 season and a sixth national title to tie him with ‘Bama legend Bear Bryant (Saban has 7 national titles as he won one with LSU). Saban is breaking in a new quarterback in Bryce Young who has yet to throw a pass in a college, let alone SEC, game. He’s talented, but the key will be how they handles the pressure of the SEC. The Crimson Tide also lost big-play wide receivers DeVonta Smith (last year’s Heisman Trophy winner) and Jaylen Waddle, but believe me, there’s plenty of talent ready to step up and make names for themselves.

The defense returns a load of starters and remember, Alabama never rebuilds, it just reloads!

All teams will be playing for the four College Football Playoff (CFP) berths. The Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will host the national semifinal games on Dec. 31, while the CFP title game will be played on Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

So, there’s a preview of things to come in the NFL and college football in 2021 and now, here is one man’s picks for the upcoming season.

NFL

NFC East – Dallas

NFC North – Green Bay

NFC West – Los Angeles Rams

NFC South – Tampa Bay

NFC Wild Cards – Seattle, San Francisco, Minnesota

NFC Title Game – Green Bay over Tampa Bay

AFC East – Buffalo

AFC North – Cleveland

AFC West – Kansas City

AFC South – Tennessee

AFC Wild Cards – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami

AFC Title Game – Kansas City over Cleveland

Super Bowl 55 – Green Bay over Kansas City (Aaron Rodgers exits Green Bay with his second Lombardi Trophy)

NCAA

ACC Atlantic – Clemson

Coastal – North Carolina

ACC Champ – Clemson

BIG 12

Oklahoma over Iowa State

PAC 12

North – Oregon

South – USC

PAC 12 Champ – Oregon

SEC

East – Georgia

West – Alabama

SEC Champ – Alabama

CFL SEMIFINALS

Cotton Bowl – OU over Clemson

Orange Bowl – Alabama over Georgia

CFP National Title Game – OU over Alabama