Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer 394d

The potentially great, maybe disastrous final month of the Big 12 season

College Football, Oklahoma Sooners, Oklahoma State Cowboys, TCU Horned Frogs, Texas Longhorns

Three legitimate College Football Playoff contenders.

Four QBs on the ESPN Heisman Watch.

Five teams tied for second in the standings.

And one title game sure to deliver a compelling clash on championship weekend.

No other league offers all that, so buckle up for what figures to be a fascinating finish in the wild and wacky Big 12 -- now not just the only Power 5 conference that ensures nobody is ducked with a round-robin format, but exclusively the only league that guarantees a rematch in its championship game.

"Nobody knows how it's going to play out," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.

That's one reason why the Big 12, of any league, just might have the most compelling final month and a half to this season.

In the SEC, an Alabama-Georgia SEC title game on Dec. 2 feels like mere formality at this point (and for that matter, so does a Crimson Tide victory in Atlanta, regardless of how much rat poison Nick Saban's team ingests).

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin has predictably locked up the feeble West Division in three games.

And out west, after the Washingtons nosedived last weekend, the Pac-12's playoff aspirations appear to be hanging by a thread, which Notre Dame could snap altogether Saturday in South Bend, Indiana.

Who knows where the Big 12 stacks up against those conferences or the ACC, where the preseason favorite, Florida State, is down to its second QB and third loss, and the reigning champ, Clemson, just lost in a stunning upset by Syracuse. Regardless, the Big 12 is the best it's been in several years. And it's loaded with star power, depth and a series of big-time matchups that still lie ahead.

"How the committee sees our league this year will be different," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, "than it has in the last few years."

Following two devastating rounds of conference realignment, the Big 12 was strapped to the child's seat, as college football transitioned to the playoff era.

Three years ago in the inaugural playoff, TCU and Baylor both went 11-1, yet were snubbed in favor of Ohio State, prompting the Big 12's eventual installation of this year's title game.

Last season, the league fell out of the playoff picture by October following a disastrous out-of-conference showing in September.

This year, however, the Big 12 has been up in the front seat with the big boys.

Oklahoma, in fact, delivered the most impressive nonconference victory of any team in the country when it shut down now sixth-ranked Ohio State in Week 2.

And while the Sooners have suffered their own huge upset, unbeaten TCU and explosive Oklahoma State join OU in the top 10 of the AP poll -- and in the thick of the playoff race -- the first time the Big 12 has boasted three bona fide playoff contenders this late in a season.

"It's not going to be the same conversation that they've had in the past," said Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. "This is a strong conference."

With the best still yet to come.

That includes a Nov. 4 Stillwater, Oklahoma, showdown pitting the quarterbacks who rank first and second nationally in Total QBR, Mayfield and Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph. Having decided four out of the past six Big 12 titles, few rivalry games in the country have carried more weight in recent years than Bedlam. The next weekend, one of the Big 12's most closely contested contests will follow, as Gary Patterson will take his tenacious TCU defense to Norman, Oklahoma. Since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12, every meeting against the Sooners has been decided by no more than a touchdown.

"Everybody probably wishes they'd paid more attention to the tiebreaker," joked Patterson, "when we were at conference meetings."

Of course, while Bedlam and Oklahoma-TCU are the Big 12's biggest remaining bouts, they might not be the only ones that could hold Big 12 title-game implications down the stretch.

While out of the playoff, West Virginia and Texas remain very much alive in the Big 12 race, tied for second with the Oklahoma schools, alongside upstart Iowa State.

The odds suggest that two of TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will meet for a second time in Arlington, Texas, where a playoff berth could be on the line. But the high-powered Mountaineers, who took TCU to the wire in Fort Worth, Texas, this month, host Oklahoma State next weekend and could go to Norman on the final weekend of the regular season still holding a shot of punching a ticket to AT&T Stadium instead.

"The league is good," said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. "Lot of quality teams playing good ball right now."

The biggest reason why has been its QBs.

Headlined by Sam Darnold, Jake Browning, Luke Falk and Josh Rosen, the Pac-12 came into the season with the most hype behind center.

But since Mayfield bested J.T. Barrett in Columbus, Ohio, the Big 12's QBs have risen to the top.

Through Week 7, Mayfield leads the country in completion percentage with a rate of 72.7. Oklahoma State's Rudolph leads in passing yards with 395 per game. And West Virginia's Will Grier leads in touchdown passes with 21.

"You see some of the best quarterbacks in college football live and up close, and I think that's probably the thing that's stood out to me," said first-year Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who has faced Mayfield and Rudolph and will see Grier this weekend. "Really significantly impressed with the quarterbacks."

Mayfield, Rudolph and Grier all made the ESPN Heisman Watch this week, along with Texas Tech's Nic Shimonek, who is one of only two QBs nationally with more than 2,000 yards passing and a completion rate of better than 70 percent.

All told, five of the top 11 players nationally in QBR hail from the Big 12, including TCU's Kenny Hill, who might be the most improved overall player in the league, and possibly the most improved QB in college football. And within the remaining Big 12 regular-season slate, Mayfield, Rudolph, Grier, Shimonek and Hill will face off against one another a half-dozen times, which is certain to produce several thrilling shootouts.

Perhaps even some unforeseen conference drama, too.

"There's way more parity in this league than there's ever been before," Gundy said. "The quarterback play ... has created it."

Parity, though, could be the Big 12's undoing when it comes to the playoff.

While Georgia avoids Alabama during the regular season, Miami dodges Clemson, Washington evades USC, and Wisconsin skirts, well, pretty much everyone, the Big 12's top trio has no such divisional-scheduling good fortune.

Of course, if the round robin doesn't knock the Big 12 out of the playoff mix, the championship game still could.

Last summer, the Big 12 considered adding divisions along with the title game. But league officials wanted to create the toughest path possible, to protect another deserving team from being left out. So, they agreed to become the only conference to guarantee that its top two teams would play again.

That has boosted the playoff hopes for the Cowboys and Sooners, who, with a loss each, will need a challenging 13th game to bolster their résumés.

But should TCU get through the regular season unscathed?

The Big 12 title game -- as it did in the BCS era with Nebraska in 1996, Kansas State in 1998, Texas in 2001 and Missouri in 2007 -- could take the Horned Frogs from in to out.

"It's a competitive league," Holgorsen said. "Who knows whether (TCU) can [stay undefeated] for the next half of the year. I don't know. There's a lot of good teams out there."

A lot of good teams. With several great quarterbacks. And a host of must-see games.

Which is why the Big 12 will finally be the league to watch, from now all the way to December.

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