The Big 12 has developed a reputation over the years for struggling to play quality defense. So what is the perception of the conference from coaches and players within the league? They counter there's a reason defense in the Big 12 is so difficult to play -- the quality offenses.
"The Big 12 offenses are the best to go against," Texas defensive end Adrian Phillips said. "The most challenging. You never know what to expect."
The Big 12 has transformed over the past decade. In the late 1990s, all but a couple Big 12 offenses were still operating out of the predictable I-formation. When Bob Stoops brought Mike Leach to coordinate the Oklahoma offense in 1999, he unintentionally ignited a revamping of the conference's identity. Leach left his spread attack in Norman while also bringing it to Texas Tech. Before long, Oklahoma State and Baylor adopted similar schemes via Leach disciples. Today, the majority of teams in the league have attacks derived from Leach's "air raid" offense.
"In the Big 12, there's guys on offense trying to score every snap," said Baylor coach Art Briles, one of those disciples who brought the Leach system to Waco, Texas.
As a result, the Big 12 has become an attractive destination for quarterbacks and offensive skill players. That has made defending in the Big 12 all the more challenging.
"The quarterbacks, the offenses, the tempo -- those are challenging in this league," Stoops said. "The NFL has a whole bunch of guys who have been through this league who are quarterbacks. And you look at the way people spread it out, and the tempo they use, it's tough to deal with."
As a result, Big 12 defensive numbers have been on the decline. Last season, TCU was the only Big 12 member to rank in the top 30 nationally in total defense, at 16th. But does that tell the entire story?
"I think the style of play dictates a lot of times how one side of the ball is [viewed]," Briles said.
Briles might have a valid argument. At least, a closer analysis of the numbers suggests so. When applying ESPN's new college football statistical metric (expected points added, or EPA) -- which accounts for the strength of an offensive unit a defense is facing -- the Big 12 defenses fare much better statistically.
TCU, for example, actually had the fourth-best defense in the country, according to EPA. Most of the other Big 12 defenses enjoyed a similar bump, all the way down to Briles' Bears, who go from having the second-worst defense nationally to 87th.
"People don't realize how high-powered the offenses are in the Big 12," Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey said. "When you're actually in the conference and at these games as a coach or player, you actually see how high-powered these offenses are. You see how fast the wide receivers are, how fast the running backs are, how fast [the offenses] get back to the line of scrimmage. You don't realize that until you're on the sideline."
Big 12 defenses sure have had more success matching up against offenses from other conferences than their own. Against Big 12 offenses, the league surrendered an average of 33.3 points per game last season, but in nine bowl games, the Big 12 defenses allowed just 28.8.
"The offenses in the Big 12 are the most difficult to defend in the country," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We've studied it very, very hard, and I think we have the best offensive teams in America in this league."
Ultimately, though, perception in college football is reality. Especially under the coming four-team format of the College Football Playoff. And the opinion of many people outside the Big 12 seems to be that the defenses are inferior. The only way to change that is to win, and to win with defense.
"A lot of people seem to have a bitter taste about what Big 12 defenses have to offer," Lackey said. "When people say stuff like that, you use it as motivation.
"We want to prove people wrong."