Sooner or later, the old guard almost always resurfaces to the top in college football’s preeminent conferences. The traditional powers like Ohio State of the Big Ten. The bluebloods like Alabama of the SEC.
Yet after several turbulent, realignment-charged years, no conference has been turned on its head the way the Big 12 has, where the nouveau riche now reign supreme like never seen before.
Perpetual cellar dweller Baylor has now captured two straight league titles. And only through an improbable fourth-quarter comeback did Baylor stop former mid-major TCU from challenging the Buckeyes for college football’s very first playoff championship.
The Bears and Horned Frogs seem to have a staying power too that rivals any new money program of the last half century this side of Eugene. They’re ranked in the top five of the preseason polls. They’re thriving on the recruiting trail. They boast pristine facilities, new stadiums and cornerstone coaches in Art Briles and Gary Patterson. And they both ranked in the top 15 of ESPN’s College Football Future Power Rankings.
But sooner or later, history suggests Oklahoma and Texas will eventually return. And through that confluence of old and new money, with conference prestige and perception as paramount as ever, the Big 12 has a path to relevancy — and maybe even more — in the playoff era. For this season, and beyond.
“We don’t want to just be in the playoff,” commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “Our league has always been about aspiring to win national championships.”
In recent years, the Big 12 has fallen short of that aspiration, suffering self-inflicted wounds while tumbling into punchline status. Two rounds of realignment devastated the league, and then nearly destroyed it. The Big 12 couldn’t crown one true champion. And on top of being the only Power 5 conference to whiff on the inaugural playoff, the so-called flagships from Norman and Austin suffered humiliating bowl losses.
Yet, it wasn’t so long ago the Big 12 was the envy of college football. Midway through the 2008 season, the conference claimed six of the top 16 ranked teams in the BCS. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State hovered in the top 10, as Oklahoma and Texas battled for a spot in the national championship.
Like then, the Big 12 was the lone conference last season with two squads worthy of championship consideration. From such a foundation, the league could rise back from the smolders.
Oklahoma underwent an offseason makeover that has rekindled optimism in Sooner Nation. Bob Stoops tabbed Lincoln Riley to bring the Air Raid attack back to Norman, which is brimming over with capable playmakers. Samaje Perine rushed for more than 1,700 last season as a true freshman. Receiver Sterling Shepard is a four-year starter. And Joe Mixon has generated more buzz than any Oklahoma redshirt freshman since DeMarco Murray.
The Sooners still have questions, notably at quarterback, where Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield has taken over. But Oklahoma is beginning to cultivate believers, most recently Kirk Herbstreit, who last week picked the Sooners to make the playoff.
Texas might not be as far along as its Red River counterpart, coming off just its third losing season since 1991. But in Year 2, Charlie Strong appears to have the Longhorns headed in the right direction. In February, Strong inked a class loaded with potential defensive difference-makers, notably linebacker Malik Jefferson, who has already won a starting job.
Like Oklahoma, Texas' recent downturn stems comes back to quarterback woes. But Strong has a track record of finding and developing quarterbacks. Just ask Teddy Bridgewater.
“If we mess around and have a really good year this year, it’ll really be on,” “I’m missing one year of recruiting,” Strong told USA TODAY. “I need to have a good class with 2016 to match this class I just had. If I can do that, I’ll have me something. Because. … this class, it’s hungry. They’re really hungry.”
As long as Mike Gundy sticks in Stillwater and Bill Snyder continues to man Manhattan, Oklahoma State and Kansas State figure to remain well positioned, too.
The Cowboys have one of the budding quarterbacks in all of college football in Mason Rudolph, who dazzled in three starts as a true freshman last year. With 15 other starters back, Oklahoma State could have its best team since 2011, when it won the Big 12 and came within a hundredth of a BCS point of playing for the national championship.
“I'm as excited about our football team,” Gundy said, “as I’ve been since I've been here.”
Snyder has some retooling to see through after graduating the bulk of last year’s nine-win team. But the sport's ranking miracle worker has also met or exceeded K-State’s slot in the preseason Big 12 poll in every year since 2011.
During that span, the Bears and Horned Frogs have surged at the expense of the Sooners and Longhorns. But as 2008 proved, there’s more than enough recruiting talent in the Big 12 footprint to go around.
Baylor and TCU don’t seem to be going anywhere. And sooner or later, Texas and Oklahoma will be back.
The Big 12 has been to the brink. But after being turned upside down, it could reemerge in the playoff era better than ever.