When the Big 12 trimmed down to 10 teams before the 2011 season and eliminated the league title game, the more cynical folks around the league hung a cloud over the eight teams in the Big 12 that don't reside in Austin, Texas, or Norman, Okla.
It had been almost a decade since anyone other than Texas or Oklahoma won the Big 12. Now, there would be no path through the easier Big 12 North that would provide one game to dethrone the Sooners or Longhorns, one of which would surely be waiting on a neutral field.
"Nobody from the league can beat them in the Big 12 championship, so how in the world is anyone supposed to be better than both Texas and Oklahoma for an entire season?" was the familiar line of thought.
Nobody other than Texas or Oklahoma had even represented the Big 12 South since 1998, and it had happened only twice in the 15-year life of the division.
Shows what we know in the two years since the league did away with divisions. Texas has been down, sure, but Oklahoma State won the outright title in the first year by beating Oklahoma soundly in the finale with the title on the line.
This year, Kansas State did the same against Texas, with Oklahoma also claiming a share of the league.
Still, both teams beat Texas and Oklahoma en route to their titles, doing further damage to the perception that the Big 12 is a shallow, two-team league.
More depth means more intrigue, which means more folks tuning in and more relevant games. It also means more hope for the rest of the league and more enthusiastic fans optimistic about their team's chance to one day hoist the crystal trophy.
Oklahoma State and Kansas State did it. Why can't TCU? Or West Virginia? Don't rule out Art Briles doing it in the new stadium at Baylor soon enough, and Oklahoma State might offer an encore to its Big 12 title next year, assuming it hangs on to coach Mike Gundy.
The Big 12 isn't what we thought it would become after eliminating divisions and a championship game. It's better, thanks again to the continued resurgence of what we thought was the Big 12's middle class.
Let's pass out a few awards for a memorable Big 12 season:
Offensive MVP: Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Klein is the Big 12's only player who booked a ticket to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, and for good reason. He carried Kansas State to a Big 12 title, and no single player in the league is more important to his team. He completed 180 of 272 passes (66.2 percent) for 2,485 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions for Kansas State, adding 895 rushing yards and a league-high 22 touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU. Fields edged out a pair of other big-time pass-rushers -- Texas' Alex Okafor and Kansas State's Meshak Williams -- to win this award. His nine sacks were second most in the Big 12, and the true freshman added 17.5 tackles for loss for the Frogs' defense, which led the Big 12 in total defense in its first year in the league. That was 2.5 TFLs more than any player in the league, and four more than Williams. Fields also was the first Big 12 player to intercept Klein, adding two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He finished with 49 tackles (32 solo).
Newcomer of the year: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU. What more needs to be said about Fields? He didn't even enroll at TCU early, and the 240-pound fresh face will be even scarier next season after a year going through TCU's offseason strength and conditioning program. Don't buy Fields' big first year? Talk to a few of the Big 12's tackles. They'll tell you. Fields had a quiet day last week, but even Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard, one of the league's best linemen, raved about him, calling him probably the best pass-rusher they played all season.
Biggest surprise: TCU's resurgence. I wasn't the only one prepared to bury TCU's first season in the Big 12 after losing star quarterback Casey Pachall and three days later, a home game to Iowa State by 14 points. The personnel losses were too much, we thought. Nope. The Frogs rallied, despite losing 20-plus players and fielding a team that was 70 percent freshmen and sophomores. They led the league in total defense, rolled over Baylor, beat West Virginia with a pair of gutsy calls in overtime and beat Texas solidly on Thanksgiving night. The Frogs also hung tough with Big 12 co-champions Oklahoma and K-State. These Frogs belong, and will only get better. Honorable mention: Iowa State reaching a bowl, Kansas State winning the Big 12.
Biggest disappointment: West Virginia. Dana Holgorsen warned that his team might have been overrated after drubbing Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and in hindsight it was. But even still, a five-game losing streak with the offensive talent residing in Morgantown was inexcusable. The defense received weekly wake-up calls against high-flying Big 12 offenses, but Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin couldn't keep up after racing to a top-five ranking and a 5-0 start. Dishonorable mention: Texas Tech's second half.
Best game: Oklahoma 51, Oklahoma State 48 (OT). We thought there was a BCS bowl on the line in this one, and even though Northern Illinois (with an assist from the sorry Big Ten and Big East) changed that, it didn't change this classic in Norman laced with tons of emotion and a rivalry that's gaining fast on Red River as the Big 12's most compelling annual series. Oklahoma rallied from an 11-point, second-half deficit, tying the game on an 81-yard punt return by Jalen Saunders. Blake Bell rushed for a touchdown on fourth down in the final seconds to send the game into overtime, where Brennan Clay's beastly 18-yard touchdown run won the game and set off one of the biggest celebrations at Owen Field in a long, long time. Honorable mention: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63; TCU 39, West Virginia 38.