Rising middle class lowers title stakes

When the season began, a Nebraska conference title was a worst-case scenario for the Big 12 when it came to both bragging rights and national perception.

It still is.

There's little quite like a team leaving the rest of the league trophy-less, shining it up, tossing it in the trophy case and saying, "Adios!"

But when the season began, the Big 12 needed someone to step up and challenge Oklahoma and Texas, making the conference more than a two-team, one-game league.

This time last year, Texas was No. 3 in the AP poll. The Longhorns closest non-Nebraska contemporary? Oklahoma State, at No. 22, who Texas beat in Stillwater by 27.

When Oklahoma's injuries healed, and its youth and inexperience faded, the Sooners would return to prominence. The rest of the league? Who knew?

A Nebraska-less Big 12 would look like a "Red River and who else?" conference from a national perspective. Though a Nebraska championship is the last thing anyone in the Big 12 offices would like to see, 2010 has been the year of the rising middle class in the Big 12, and it looks like it might last.

Thanks to a handful of teams that never could quite get over the hump, you won't hear any criticisms of the Big 12 as top-heavy, at least not this year. Excluding the Huskers, four teams in the Big 12 rank in the top 20, and Texas isn't one of them.

That means the stakes of Saturday's Big 12 Championship aren't quite as high as they could be.

Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri couldn't quite get over the hump this year, and have never been able to in Big 12 play, but they're a heck of a lot closer to the summit.

Is there anyone who thinks any of those three teams couldn't beat anyone in the Big 12?

Texas is down, way down, but they'll be back eventually -- I think, probably ... right?

Oklahoma State and Missouri have built solid foundations, racking up big win totals for the past four seasons -- 40 for the Tigers and 35 for the Cowboys -- and are teetering on becoming annual top 25 mainstays. Texas A&M may have turned a corner in 2010 under Mike Sherman, knocking off Nebraska and Oklahoma on the way to a nine-win season.

Texas Tech suffered through its worst season in conference play (3-5) since Mike Leach's first season in 2000. They'll still head to a bowl game at 7-5, and it's hard to imagine the Red Raiders getting worse under proven winner Tommy Tuberville, even while they break in a new quarterback in 2011.

Baylor is shaking off its doormat status in the beginning stages of its hopeful climb to contention. They made an appearance in the polls this year for the first time since 1993. Kansas State is back in a bowl game for the first time since 2006.

That's good for the entire league.

Nebraska may win on Saturday; it's a pretty even toss-up.

But if it does, thanks to the Big 12's rising middle class, it won't be the crushing blow to the league's reputation it could have been.