The Big 12's not so simple anymore.
Maybe it's unfair, but conferences are most often judged by their top teams. Glance at Oklahoma and Texas, the two teams that won every Big 12 title since 2003, and you'll see a combined eight losses in 2011.
The Longhorns improved from 5-7 to 7-5. Oklahoma? A 2010 Big 12 title bled into a national title chase in 2011 that ended with a third loss in its regular season finale, and a particularly embarrassing one, too.
Outright Big 12 champion stomped the Sooners in Stillwater, ending the Longhorns and Sooners' Red River Reign over the league. This year's second-place finisher, Kansas State, had been the last team not the Longhorns or Sooners to win the Big 12. Since that title in 2003, it's been all Texas and Oklahoma.
The league ain't what it used to be, in lots of good and bad ways. The newfound parity is a good sign.
Texas A&M and Missouri leaving for the SEC? A profoundly bad sign.
Texas A&M and Missouri's combined 0-6 record against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State? Another good sign.
TCU and West Virginia (probably) join the Big 12 next season, and will find a league that looks much different than it did even two years ago.
Texas' ascent still looks in-progress, and until the Longhorns find a quarterback, can't reasonably count on having any real shot at a Big 12 title. Oklahoma will be strapped for experience next season without Ryan Broyles and three of its best defenders. It will only get more difficult if Landry Jones, projected as a top-10 pick, leaves early for the NFL.
Oklahoma State broke the proverbial glass ceiling this year in resounding fashion, challenging the idea that 2011 was a "down year" in the Big 12. Oklahoma was a disappointment. Texas A&M tanked. The Longhorns were still too young and lacked enough offense.
But there's a reason why, even without a team in the national championship game for the second consecutive year, this was far from a down year for the Big 12. You just have to look a little harder.
Oklahoma State surpassed last year's 10-win regular season with 11 this year, the most in school history. Kansas State is one of the nation's biggest surprises, and was robbed of a spot in the BCS by the Hokie-loving Sugar Bowl. Baylor? All the Bears did was win more Big 12 games (5) than any year before, and put themselves in position for the program's first Heisman winner ever.
Injuries morphed Oklahoma from great to just good, but this year, the Big 12's identity was much deeper than "How did Texas and Oklahoma do?"
The league went 27-3 in nonconference play, winning the eternal love of the BCS computers and landing eight teams in bowl games, despite switching to a nine-game conference schedule. In other words, every team replaced a likely nonconference win with a Big 12 opponent. The league, top to bottom, still put together an outstanding season. That .900 percentage was the best nonconference winning percentage of any league since the SEC in 1997.
Two of those losses, by the way, came from Texas A&M and Missouri, who will be gone to the SEC after this season.
The Big 12 missed out on the national title race, but it wasn't down this year. It was way, way up. You just had to look a little harder to tell.
Time to look back on the season that was:
Offensive MVP: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Griffin might be the nation's offensive MVP, so why would it be any different here? The Heisman finalist (and likely favorite) helped carry the Bears to a 9-3 season and broke the NCAA record for pass-efficiency rating, at 192.31. He racked up 3,998 yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions on 267-of-369 passing.
Defensive MVP: Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma
Alexander played through a painful shoulder injury in Bedlam, and suffered a knee injury in the game, but he was outstanding throughout the season as the biggest wrecking ball on defense of anyone in the Big 12. He's got all the physical measurables, using his speed, flexibility and quickness at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds to lead the Big 12 with 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
Newcomer(s) of the year: Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State and Nigel Malone, CB, Kansas State
I couldn't decide between these two. Both helped completely revitalize a K-State defense that struggled last year. Brown transferred to K-State from Miami and Malone arrived via the City College of San Francisco. Brown was arguably the Big 12's surest tackler, ranking ninth in the league with 95 stops, including 7.5 for loss, two sacks and his first pick was a game-changer against Baylor to help K-State get the victory. He was the first player all season to intercept RG3, and one of just six all season. Malone, meanwhile, snatched seven picks, two more than any player in the Big 12. He also broke up nine passes and made 57 tackles (46 solo).
Coach of the Year: Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Easy pick here. The numbers say it all. Kansas State was loaded with unknowns. Lots of first-year players, especially on defense (see above), and one of his most hyped players, running back Bryce Brown, left the team at midseason. He also had a former receiver at quarterback, Collin Klein, who became one of the nation's most valuable players. The big man took a beating, but ran for 1,099 yards and a Big 12-best 26 touchdowns. The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12, and don't exude talent as much as most other Big 12 teams do. They nearly won the Big 12, though, and finished eighth in the BCS standings.
Biggest Surprise: Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 in 2OT on Nov. 18.
This one had the biggest impact, too. The Cowboys were 28-point favorites and raced to a 24-7 third-quarter lead. They didn't score again until overtime. Iowa State rallied to tie the game, and the usually reliable Quinn Sharp missed what could have been a game-winning 37-yard field goal with just over a minute to play. After Brandon Weeden threw an interception in the second overtime, Iowa State pounded the running game and Jeff Woody crossed the goal line to win the game, put Iowa State into a second bowl game in three years, and knocked Oklahoma State out of the national title chase. The morning of the game, Oklahoma State learned that women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna had been killed in a plane crash. After the gam, the Cowboys were left trying to stomach a painful, shocking loss on the field, where the stands at Jack Trice Stadium had emptied for an epic field rush.
Biggest Disappointment: Texas A&M
No question about this one. Texas A&M was a Big 12 contender and had the talent to possibly win a national title. The mental makeup, though, didn't exactly reek of toughness. The Aggies were favored in 11 games and led by double digits in all 11 of those games. They lost six, including five losses with double-digit halftime leads. They saved the most painful loss for last. Hated rival Texas, a catalyst for the move to the SEC, erased a 10-0 and 16-7 halftime lead to beat the Aggies 27-25 on a last-second field goal after a late two-minute drill. Less than a week later, Texas A&M fired coach Mike Sherman and is looking for his replacement before moving to the SEC next season.
This might be the best game in Big 12 history. With just 6:38 to play, Kansas State trailed, 31-21. Klein hit Chris Harper for a 53-yard score to get the Wildcats within reach, and K-State forced overtime on a 44-yard kick by Anthony Cantele with just 2:12 to play. The two teams traded touchdowns in the first and third overtimes, sandwiched around field goals in the second overtime. In the third, though? Texas A&M elected to kick a 20-yard field goal on 4th-and-1 at the K-State 3-yard line. Kansas State answered with all running plays and drew a pass-interference penalty before Klein pushed the pile for a 1-yard touchdown to win the game.