You know the college football landscape is evolving when TCU and Baylor are the toast of the Big 12 and Oklahoma gets labeled as a sleeper Cinderella and Texas is rebuilding. Such is life in the Big 12 Conference these days.
As someone who has followed the Big Ten for as long as I have, I can sympathize with any Big 12 fan that gets turned off by the idea the conference is judged by its peers and the college football community largely based on the strength of two programs. In the Big Ten it has traditionally been Ohio State and Michigan that serve as the litmus test of the Big Ten’s overall strength. In the Big 12 it is Texas and Oklahoma. And that stinks for TCU and Baylor.
This is in no way meant to discredit the fantastic work being done at Baylor or TCU. It takes a lot of energy and commitment to build these programs the way we are watching them grow in recent years. Baylor has reshaped its image from a bottom feeder in the conference to one worthy of having a Heisman Trophy winner, back-to-back Big 12 titles and considered a legitimate playoff contender two years in a row. In Fort Worth we have seen the program rise through the ranks of the conference totem pole, from Conference USA to the Mountain West Conference
to the Big East and finally to the Big 12, reunited with some of its former Southwest Conference rivals. It has grown from BCS buster to playoff favorite, with its own Heisman Trophy candidate leading the offense this fall. Both programs have invested in upgrading facilities, with TCU renovating its stadium and Baylor constructing a brand new stadium. Times are good at Baylor and TCU, and the success experienced at each should not have to be dependent on anything that happens in Norman, Oklahoma or Austin, Texas.
But this is the harsh reality of the situation within the conference.
Baylor andTCU are not the traditional powers, and who knows if either ever will be. Oklahoma and Texas are. Last season saw Oklahoma stumble at times, ending the year with just eight wins after recording at least 10 wins each season over the previous four years. For a team that started the year with a No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press poll, to say Oklahoma’s season was disappointing would be an understatement. It ended with a 40-6 blowout loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, a far drop from preseason playoff expectations after dismantling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl the previous season. Injuries came into play, but Oklahoma lost all four games on its schedule against ranked opponents.
Texas welcomed in a new era with Charlie Strong coming over from Louisville. Strong established order and discipline early and often as he attempted to change the culture around the program, dismissing a good number of players for violating rules. While I feel optimistic about the future at Texas with Strong, the Longhorns ended the year with a losing record (6-7) after getting run over by Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. It was the second straight season ending with a postseason loss in the state of Texas and the fifth straight year without recording more than nine wins. For Texas, times are tough. Meanwhile, TCU and Baylor are thriving in the state.
Last season the Big 12 missed out on the first College Football Playoff. The message was clear from the selection committee. Conference championship games mattered, and neither TCU nor Baylor had the overall body of work necessary to overcome the lack of a 13th game on the schedule. The overall body of work by the conference did not help either. Would Texas and Oklahoma have missed out under similar circumstances? Who knows, but probably not. The Big 12 being left out caused many to call for the conference to rush into expansion mode, where we saw Cincinnati and UCF being deemed the potential cure for the Big 12, but that would be unwise given just one full season of the playoff model at work. Instead, Baylor should focus on improving its non-conference schedule. TCU could benefit from the same.
This season, TCU and Baylor continue to lead the Big 12 on the national scene. The preseason coaches poll ranked TCU No. 2 in the nation behind defending champion Ohio State. Baylor is ranked No. 4 by the coaches. Only one other Big 12 team appears in the preseason coaches poll, with Oklahoma coming in at No. 19. Preseason rankings may mean very little, and the coaches poll is even less meaningful, but it does suggest the strength in the Big 12 is not particularly deep. This could be a problem once again for the conference when December rolls around.
There are too many variables that are unknown at this point to suggest the Big 12 will be out (or in), but if last season was any indication, the margin for error in the Big 12 right now is razor thin. That can change though if programs like Oklahoma and Texas can show some upside potential and rebound this season in the Bizzaro World.