If variety is the proverbial spice of life, the Big 12 is finally putting some seasoning in its meat-and-potatoes diet.
For most of the league’s 18-year existence, Oklahoma has been the meat and Texas has been the potatoes. Until recently, everyone else was just garnish.
The only national titles won by Big 12 teams in the BCS Era were Oklahoma in 2000 and Texas in 2005. Of the conference’s seven appearances in the late BCS Championship Game, six were by the Sooners or Longhorns (the lone outlier was a wholly undeserving Nebraska team in 2001). Even when the league was bigger – numbering an actual 12 teams – Oklahoma and Texas were the dominant powers.
But the conference has at last jazzed up its menu. The last three Big 12 schools to receive automatic BCS bids: Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor. The Cowboys and Bears won outright league titles, and K-State got the nod over Oklahoma in 2012 by virtue of beating the Sooners head-to-head.
Last time this conference went three straight seasons without Oklahoma or Texas on top: 1997-99.
Oklahoma has lost six conference games in the last three years – five of them to teams other than Texas. That includes a 29-point pasting at Baylor last year and a 34-point humiliation at Oklahoma State in 2011. Between those was the home loss to Kansas State in 2012 as a 16-point favorite.
Texas has been diminished further. Since playing for the national title in the 2009 season, the Horns have gone 18-17 in league play – which explains why Mack Brown is now a television analyst.
The most shocking revelation about the shift in recruiting power and player development in the state of Texas came in April. The NFL selected five Baylor Bears, most of any team in the Big 12. Oklahoma had four players picked. Former league member Texas A&M had three picked – all in the first round. And mighty Texas, with its massive football budget and its own TV network, didn’t have a single player selected.
For the record, that’s one fewer draft selection than Lindenwood, McGill, Saginaw Valley State, Bloomsburg and Concordia-St. Paul.
Now we’ll see whether the Big 12’s palate cleansing period has maxed out. We may be swinging back from the habaneros of Waco and jalapenos of Stillwater to the sirloin of Norman and russets of Austin.
To be sure, Baylor is by no means retreating. The Bears open a new stadium this season and are tearing it up in recruiting, with Art Briles’ electrifying offense a strong draw for in-state talent. But Oklahoma is the preseason pick to win the league.
That may be partially due to habit (it’s still hard for anyone to write “Baylor” on the top line of a ballot when “Oklahoma” is returning nine defensive starters). But it’s also because the Sooners ended last season with a pair of statement victories: an upset win at Oklahoma State and then a defrocking of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
“I think [the Sugar Bowl victory] really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting,” Bob Stoops said at Big 12 media days. “And then it also, I think, as much as anything, it inspired our players to really build on it in the winter in the way we trained, the way we went into spring, and we had a fabulous summer. One of the best. I've never seen my strength coach, Coach [Jerry] Schmidt, so happy because he can be hard to please and he's really elated at the way the guys have worked. So I think it's just really maybe our guys have built on it in a positive way, just the chemistry and their willingness to work when they see the benefits of it like that.”
At Texas, there is no such bowl bounce into 2014. But there is a new coach with a new culture. Charlie Strong has swept a scythe through the locker room, dismissing seven players from the program and suspending three others, trying to eliminate a perceived attitude of entitlement.
“It's all about putting a T back into Texas,” Strong said. “We talk about putting a T back into Texas, you talk about toughness, you talk about trust, talk about togetherness, and you talk about just becoming a team. You can never become a team until you have toughness to you, and then you look at guys. You can't trust one another until you can trust yourself. And it's all just about coming together, just becoming a team that is exciting to watch.”
How exciting Texas will be in 2014 remains to be seen – a lot will depend on senior quarterback David Ash, who has been injured or pedestrian most of his college career. New offensive coordinator Shawn Watson certainly has never played at Baylor’s pace, operating deliberately at Louisville even last year with future NFL first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Given where the Longhorns’ strengths lie, this could be a ball-control, defense-first season in Austin, even if that runs counter to recent Big 12 culture.
One month into Strong’s first season at Texas, the Longhorns will meet the new boss (Baylor) and then a week later meet the old boss (Oklahoma). And on Nov. 8, the Bears visit Norman – a place where they’ve never won.
By that point, we should know whether the Big 12 still has an appetite for alternative foods. Or whether the league is getting back to basics.
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