Two weeks ago, David Boren didn’t rant and rave, but he certainly languished and lamented about the state of the Big 12.
“How many years can this go on?” the Oklahoma president asked rhetorically after a regents meeting, before suggesting that the conference had become “debilitating.” And just to show he wasn’t merely speaking off the cuff, Boren later the same evening issued a statement to Oklahoma's student newspaper, adding the Big 12 had become “psychologically disadvantaged” because of its smaller size, relative to the other conferences.
Boren had a solid point. As the Big 12 has shrunk, the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 have ballooned at its expense, creating a sense of vulnerability that has permeated inside and outside the conference.
But in his soliloquy, Boren conveniently omitted the other preeminent reason for why the Big 12 has become, as he put it, so psychologically disadvantaged.
Sure, the exits of Missouri and Colorado and Nebraska and Texas A&M have played a major part.
But so too have the declines of Oklahoma and Texas.
Over the past five years, no conference has seen its two foremost flagships collectively struggle the way the Big 12’s has.
In the Big Ten, Michigan has been scuffling; but Ohio State just won the national title.
In the ACC, Miami remains down; Florida State, however, has been way up.
In the Pac -12, USC has been slogging through probation; still Oregon has never been so good.
And in the SEC, as Florida has fallen, Alabama has risen to the top.
Yet in the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma are still mired in hard times not seen since the 1990s. Combined, the Sooners and Longhorns piled up 12 losses last year, the most games the two have dropped in the same season since 1997. This isn't just a one-year aberration, either. Not since 2008 has Oklahoma been a serious national title contender. Not since 2009 has Texas.
Still, it wasn’t all that long ago that the Big 12 boasted the top conference in college football, thanks to a six-team division that would rival even the most prolific years of the SEC West. Going into the first week of November 2008, the Big 12 South had four schools ranked in the top 10 of the polls. By the way, those four schools — Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State — all remain part of the Big 12.
Keeping in mind the dramatic emergences of Baylor and TCU to national prominence, imagine a Big 12 in which Texas and Oklahoma were anything close to their 2008 selves.
Forget psychologically disadvantaged. Even at 10, the Big 12 would lay claim to owning football's best conference, the mighty SEC included. Boren surely wouldn’t be calling the Big 12 “debilitating.” And few would be wondering aloud whether the conference could survive long-term.
Of course, such a hypothetical wouldn’t completely mask the challenges the league still faces, or the many mistakes it has made leading up to this point. Like leaving tier 3 television rights to the individual school, instead of pooling them together to create a Big 12 network. Like chasing away Missouri when the Tigers still seemed committed to making the Big 12 work. Like snubbing Louisville during the second round of realignment, when the Cardinals were clearly viable to the Big 12 and the best non-Power 5 free agent available. Like invoking “One True Champion” over and over, setting the league up to become a national punchline when it would ultimately crown two champs.
All of this has contributed to the Big 12 becoming psychologically disadvantaged. Yet, all of it would be more palatable if Oklahoma were still Oklahoma; and Texas, still Texas.
The Big 12 will have some difficult decisions to make in the coming years, before the granting of TV rights that have been holding the league together expire, or at least get closer to expiring to the point they can be negotiated out of. As Boren pointed out, expansion down the line could, and likely would, add value to the conference. At the very least, it would help negate the growing notion that the Big 12 is degenerating or ripe for the stripping for whenever the other conferences decide they’re ready to grow again.
That alone, however, isn’t the Big 12’s lone recourse for breaking out from underneath its malaise.
The Longhorns finally ending their slump would help a bunch; Boren's Sooners getting back to winning big again would, too.