DALLAS -- During this era of realignment, a sense of unfamiliarity has become common. Yet that doesn’t make the getting-to-know-you phase any easier.
In 2012, every Big 12 team faced the challenge of preparing for a conference game against an unfamiliar opponent. As teams prepped for TCU and West Virginia during their first season in the league, there was plenty of uncertainty about the different challenges the newcomers would bring to the table.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Texas Tech defensive tackle Kerry Hyder said.
Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat added, “It’s kind of like those first three games against teams not in your conference. When I first saw West Virginia on film I was like ‘Wow, we’re really playing them.’ Everybody talked about playing them but to actually play them was cool, it made it real.”
TCU brought solid defense, West Virginia brought explosive offense and nobody in the Big 12 had a great feel for their new conference rivals.
“You had to do more studying than usual,” Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said. “You may have seen that scheme but you haven’t seen their personnel. If I’ve played a guy at Texas three times, you kind of know a little about them, but I hadn’t played against any of them.”
It wasn’t a major issue that decided games, but it was a noticeable change from the weekly routine of preparing for a well-known conference opponent.
“Every year is different,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “We knew less about TCU and West Virginia a year ago, but this year’s teams [at TCU and WVU] are going to be different than those teams. I don’t know if we have a leg up this year but it’s good to have a library of thoughts and film.”
For the first time since 2010, the Big 12 will enter this football season with the same members as it had the previous season, giving teams a better idea of what it is going to take to win a conference title in 2013.
“This year we’ll have a better game plan for them, we’ll be more prepared for them,” Hyder said of the newest conference members. “Experience helps in every aspect of life.”
On the flip side, TCU and West Virginia will have a much better understanding of what it takes to have success in the Big 12. TCU coach Gary Patterson and WVU coach Dana Holgorsen did their best to prepare their teams with their words, but actually experiencing a Big 12 schedule was a better teacher than anything Patterson or Holgorsen could have said.
After one season in the Big 12, TCU safety Sam Carter came away with a much better idea of what success in the new conference requires.
“One mistake can cost you a game,” Carter said. “Not just on defense, our offense understands that mistakes can kill you in this conference. Our first Big 12 loss [to Iowa State], we gave up a few big plays, and coaches had been telling us the whole summer that one mistake can cost you in the Big 12. And it came up and really cost us in a few games.”
The Mountaineers had a slight advantage with Holgorsen at the helm. He had an extensive Big 12 background with coaching experience at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech before taking over at WVU in 2011. However, Holgorsen believes it will take at least two seasons before the Mountaineers really feel at home in the conference.
“I did my best of explaining what it’s going to be like at the different places,” Holgorsen said. “After a couple years, you start getting some familiarity with it, the fan base understands it, the administration understands it and your players understand it, and they can talk about it with the other guys.”
While the Mountaineers have more experience after one season in the conference, Holgorsen said he’ll still have some teaching do to. For example, since the Mountaineers hosted the Sooners in 2012, the players still don't know what it’s like to play OU in Norman, Okla. Once they have played in stadiums across the Big 12, then he’ll be more confident that his team has a complete understanding of what Big 12 football is all about.
“It’s going to take time for half of our team to understand what it’s like in Lubbock, Texas,” he said. “And be able to relay that to the other kids in the locker room."
All these variables add to what could be one of the most entertaining Big 12 seasons in recent memory.
“It’s the first year with everybody knowing what everybody is going to do,” said OSU receiver Josh Stewart, a junior who has never experienced playing a conference schedule that featured the exact same teams he played the previous year. “It’s going to be some exciting football in the Big 12.”