Steve Sarkisian has yet to make his debut in the Big 12, but the new Texas coach was asked to ponder life in the Southeastern Conference. So was Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley, who — like Sarkisian — would much prefer to look ahead to this season.
Texas and Oklahoma will move to the SEC no later than July 2025. For now, the Longhorns begin practice Friday, and Sarkisian has more imminent concerns, among them choosing a starting quarterback and making sure his talented running back, Bijan Robinson, receives enough work.
Not that Sarkisian won't face SEC-related issues. Players, coaches, fans and administrators of the eight other Big 12 schools face uncertainty with the eventual loss of Texas and Oklahoma. People are angry. Some no doubt will let the Longhorns hear about it during games.
“You’ve got to recognize the elephant in the room,” Sarkisian told reporters in Austin, Texas. “We can’t be naive to that. But we also can’t put so much emphasis into it that we don’t focus on ourselves and do what’s necessary for us to have success. Whether it’s loud crowd noise, yelling at us on the bench, a ‘horns down’ signal, all those things are really irrelevant to our ability to execute and succeed at a really high level.”
In Norman, Oklahoma, Riley knew the questions about the SEC would come and he patiently answered them before saying he wants to focus on leading his team to a seventh straight Big 12 title.
“Right now, we’re a member of the Big 12 and I think we’ve represented the conference well in these previous years and we intend to do so throughout the duration of our agreement," Riley said. "That starts with this year for us. That’s going to be our focus. Any excitement or personal feelings I have are really overshadowed by that.”
Riley said he was somewhat aware that a potential Oklahoma move to the SEC was in the works, but didn’t know details before last week.
“I think it’s going to be a positive thing for this university, a positive thing for our athletic department, our athletes, our coaches, everybody," he said.
Oklahoma running back Eric Gray, who spent the last two seasons playing for Tennessee, said the Sooners certainly will be able to compete in the SEC.
“Being in the SEC before, OU definitely fits that bill,” Gray said. “This is a great school, a great program, a great team, so it definitely fits in that league. This team is a SEC team. The program is one of the greatest programs ever built. The SEC is just a league. There is a great chance for (Oklahoma) to join that league and be a powerhouse in that league.”
Riley said while he had sentimental feelings about the Big 12 — he also spent time coaching at Texas Tech — he won’t be concerned about that as he prepares the Sooners for this season. He’s also not concerned about how the Sooners will be received on the road around the Big 12.
“I can’t speak to other schools and their fan bases,” he said. “Road games are always fun and always hostile. … We will try to be great members of this league as long as we’re a part of it. This year will be no different.”
A big topic in Oklahoma has been whether the Bedlam series with Oklahoma State will continue after the Sooners leave for the SEC. Oklahoma State’s new president, Kayse Shrum, has had harsh words concerning Oklahoma, and earlier this week, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said he’d defer to campus leaders on that decision.
“I have to make enough decisions on game day where everybody doubts what I do,” Gundy said. “I’m a traditionalist. So you can take that for what it’s worth.”
Oklahoma President Joe Harroz and athletic director Joe Castiglione have said they want to see the series continue “in every sport” and Riley echoed that sentiment.
Sarkisian is familiar with the SEC, of course, having been offensive coordinator when Alabama won the national championship last season.
“Definitely big people, talented people, good coaches,” Sarkisian said. “That’s something, when we get to that point, we’ll worry about.”
His men’s basketball counterpart, new Texas coach Chris Beard, said much the same this week. The coaching staffs at Oklahoma and Texas can’t think about the SEC — yet.
“I really haven’t spent a minute thinking about it,” Beard said. “We talked about it one time with our team. And it was really an example I made with our team about how we’re going to live where our feet are, and we’re going to control what we can control.”
As for the football itself, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, a starter for 43 of his 46 games over four seasons, is now in the NFL. His replacement will be either junior Casey Thompson or redshirt freshman Hudson Card, who has yet to take a snap for the Longhorns.
Thompson appeared in three games last season, eliciting raves for his second-half performance after replacing an injured Ehlinger in a win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.
Sarkisian said 15 spring practices were not enough for him to make a decision.
“At some point I’m gonna have to do what I think is best for the team,” Sarkisian said. “But I do believe we’re going to need both these guys this fall.”
Robinson, a freshman last season, also had a big game against Colorado: 10 carries for 183 yards and a touchdown; two receptions for 37 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged only 11 touches per game last season but the workload is likely to increase.
“There's going to be games when he touches the ball upwards to 30," Sarkisian said. "And there's gonna games when maybe it's closer to 13 to 15. Every game takes on a life of its own. We can put a ballpark in that 18 to 22 range. That puts us in a good position, I think, as a team, as an offense.”