It’s an overused opinion to suggest that the Big 12 has a lot at stake in 2017. It’s also true.
We’re less than six months from Thanksgiving as the league’s spring meetings commence this week in Dallas, and there's no doubt about the importance of the next 180 days for the Big 12. If the conference enters championship week without a viable contender for the College Football Playoff, well, has hope been lost for the Big 12 to remain in step with its Power 5 brethren?
The Big 12 can’t afford to miss the playoff for the fourth time in five years. More notably, it can’t afford to go missing during the season-long chase that drives daily conversation.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five regular-season games this fall with the most at stake for the Big 12:
5. Texas at USC, Sept. 16
What’s at stake: This is really just a matter of pride for the Big 12. The memories of last September still sting as the league lost game after game on the big stage. The Longhorns will head to Los Angeles in Week 3 without much outside expectation of victory, no matter their success at home against Maryland and San Jose State. But don’t underestimate the persuasive power of coach Tom Herman, who in 2015 led his first team at Houston to four wins in four games against ranked foes. Texas has the talent to compete under Herman against a potential juggernaut such as USC. The Big 12 without the Longhorns near the top is a compromised league, so here’s an early opportunity for UT to carry its own substantial weight.
4. TCU at Oklahoma, Nov. 11
What’s at stake: Kansas State’s Nov. 18 visit to Oklahoma State is in the same category. These are games that the Sooners and Cowboys ought to win at home. But in November, as injuries take a toll and league foes know each other best, contenders are ripe for title-derailing upsets. These ingredients exist in every conference, but a top-five team in the SEC or Big Ten, evidence shows, can withstand an untimely loss more easily than a playoff contender in the Big 12. TCU will be no pushover in 2017. The Horned Frogs under coach Gary Patterson have shown a propensity to bounce back from rare disappointing seasons. And by this stage, you can expect that TCU’s shaky quarterback situation will be resolved, whether the Horned Frogs go with Kenny Hill’s experience or Shawn Robinson's youth.
3. Oklahoma State at West Virginia, Oct. 28
What’s at stake: More than the games listed above, this appears to be a trap for the Cowboys. Or perhaps more accurately stated, it appears to be a legitimate opportunity for the Cowboys to watch their dreams go down in flames. WVU possesses the offensive firepower behind QB Will Grier and the league’s best group of running backs to torment Oklahoma State’s defense, which lacks depth up front and experience in the back. The Cowboys have the Big 12’s most complete offense, but West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson knows how to win a chess match. The Mountaineers have beaten Oklahoma State twice in the past four years. They could do it again.
2. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 4
What’s at stake: Enough with all that could go wrong. What if it all goes so right for the two most complete teams in the Big 12? If the Sooners head to Stillwater and somehow both teams remain unbeaten, we’ll be in for a Bedlam spectacle that will allow the league -- and force pundits nationally, for one Saturday -- to forget all the flaws of the Big 12. When Oklahoma and Oklahoma State get it right, they can provide a matchup on the level of Michigan-Ohio State or Auburn-Alabama. The players, coaches and fans know each other so well that records rarely matter. But when the records do matter nationally -- beyond the Big 12 race -- this rivalry is truly special. It may happen twice in 2017, starting in Week 10.
1. Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9
What’s at stake: Everything’s at stake for Oklahoma after the Buckeyes trounced the Sooners 45-24 last year in Norman. Think that score will make the rounds as Oklahoma players endure the drudgery of summer workouts? Besides the other fanfare, Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett are two of the nation's most seasoned and successful quarterbacks, and their duel is enough to capture attention. But with Oklahoma’s FBS-best winning streak on the line at 11 games after a Week 1 tuneup against UTEP, national implications abound. Ohio State is young again. The Sooners are unproven at running back and receiver. Here arrives an enormous opportunity for the Sooners and the Big 12 to stamp themselves as legitimate.