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Is this rock bottom for the Big 12?

AP Photo/LM Otero

Not even a decade ago, the Big 12 had reached its apex.

In 2008, the Big 12 South had emerged as the best division in college football, headlined by heavyweights Oklahoma and Texas trading blows for conference supremacy and the chance to play for national championships. The Big 12 had just signed one TV deal with ESPN, and was primed to ink another with Fox.

The conference appeared harmonious. And seemed stable.

Since that time, the Big 12 has been in a free fall, culminating with a new low point this year.

"I don't know if the conference has hit rock bottom yet," said one source familiar with Big 12 matters. "But we can see the bottom."

A Title IX scandal has come to define one of its members. Baylor, even several months after removing the school president, athletic director and head football coach, continues to be in the news almost weekly.

Nonconference foes collectively wiped out the Big 12, leaving it with a real chance to miss the College Football Playoff for the second time in the three years of the system.

In the boardroom, the Big 12 has never looked so indecisive about its expansion going into Monday's critical gathering of league presidents and chancellors.

This bottoming out has also manifested itself on the field.

Last month, the Big 12 went just 3-6 against Power 5 opponents. Oklahoma State and Kansas lost to MAC schools. Iowa State was defeated by an FCS team. And with Notre Dame cratering since losing at Texas, the conference's most appealing nonconference victory just might be the Cowboys' win over Pitt, which appears to be -- at best -- a middle-tier squad in the ACC Coastal Division.

Baylor and West Virginia, meanwhile, are the Big 12's last two remaining unbeatens. While still alive in the playoff hunt, they are still the lowest-ranked undefeated Power 5 conference teams in the AP poll. Despite playing another cupcake out-of-conference slate, and one team ranked in the FPI top 90, the Bears have struggled. Their last time out, the Bears needed a furious fourth quarter rally to topple 1-5 Iowa State. As a result, the Bears might have to go undefeated to reach the playoff.

West Virginia is better positioned, on paper, with the conference's only decent showing during nonconference play, but the Mountaineers have yet to play a true road game (they will stage their first this weekend at Texas Tech). Since joining the Big 12, they've never won more than five conference games.

Given where the Big 12 stands for the moment relative to other Power 5 leagues, the chances of the Big 12's 11-year title drought being snapped this season are slim.

"They need to get to a clear point on expansion -- either do it, or don't and cut it off. The intrigue, the politics, that needs to come to an end."

A source familiar with Big 12 matters

Yet as poorly as the Big 12 has fared on the field this season, it doesn't compare to the hits the conference has taken off the field.

Last summer, Big 12 board chair David Boren termed the league "psychologically disadvantaged," and that perception has turned to reality.

At the insistence of commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 has tried to be aggressive in recent months in an attempt to remain competitive with the other Power 5 conference, all of which have -- or will have -- their own networks. The Big 12 swiftly added a championship game in the spring, then unanimously -- and surprisingly -- voted in July to explore expansion.

Since that moment, Big 12 leaders have sent mixed signals. From Texas president Greg Fenves unexpectedly tweeting his support of Houston to Bowlsby interviewing 11 expansion candidates in Dallas to Boren seemingly cooling on the whole premise, nobody, including the presidents themselves, knows what to expect will come from Monday's meeting, when the conference originally was supposed to vote on expansion.

"It's been embarrassing," one industry insider said. "(Big 12 member athletic department officials) are embarrassed by the way this has been handled."

One way or the other, if the league fails to take any action or conduct a vote on Monday after devoting so much time, money and talk to the issue, it will reinforce the narrative of Big 12 instability.

Said the source familiar with Big 12 matters, "The conference champion (Baylor) two of the last three years is going through a scandal the regents still can't get the school out of. Texas still cannot get its footing. Oklahoma loses twice in the nonconference. And the complete indecisiveness in the board room -- all of that has really taken the league to a low point."

Can the Big 12 finally begin to reverse this downward trend that has encompassed the league since 2008?

"We have a strong leader in Bowlsby," one Big 12 official pointed out, noting that Bowlsby has the confidence of the league's coaches, athletic directors and even presidents. "That makes a huge difference."

Others within the league haven't lost faith and still think the Big 12 can thrive again.

"I still believe in the Big 12," said another Big 12 official. "I don't think it's rock bottom. We had a team (Oklahoma) in the playoff last year. We have teams in contention this year.

"I believe in the leadership of this league."

That leadership will be tested Monday, when big decisions will be on the table. And the future of the league is once again on the line.

"They need to get to a clear point on expansion -- either do it, or don't and cut it off," an official said. "The intrigue, the politics, that needs to come to an end.

"To be completely stable again, this conference needs to start acting like a conference."