Big 12 takes step forward in 2015, but bowl season shows work still ahead

Bob Stoops' Sooners finished the regular season strong, but they proved to be no match for Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Bill Frakes for ESPN

Oklahoma advanced to the College Football Playoff.

TCU completed the biggest comeback in bowl history.

Baylor annihilated the ACC Coastal champs without bothering to use a quarterback.

The 2015 season in the Big 12 officially was put to bed late Saturday night after West Virginia rallied to topple Arizona State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, giving the conference a respectable 3-4 bowl record.

In many ways, the Big 12 took a much-needed step forward this year. Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor all finished with double-digit win totals. The Sooners also showed that a Big 12 team could in fact make the playoff, even in a disadvantaged format.

But as it finished on a high with the TCU and West Virginia wins, this bowl season also revealed that the Big 12 still has a ways to go before becoming a premier conference again.

That begins with Oklahoma’s outcome in the playoff.

The Sooners stormed through the Big 12’s backloaded November by taking down Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks to clinch the conference title and secure a spot in the second playoff.

But though they entered the Capital One Orange Bowl as the betting favorite to defeat Clemson after averaging 300 rushing yards the final two months of the season, the Sooners ultimately proved no match for the Tigers.

The Orange Bowl wasn’t decided by turnovers, coaching blunders or special teams miscues. Clemson simply imposed its will on both sides of the ball in the second half, and Oklahoma was powerless to do much about it. And while dominating what had been one of the Big 12's most physical teams, the Tigers outgained Oklahoma on the ground, 312-to-67

“They played in a more physical way than we did,” said Bob Stoops, affirming what anyone who watched the game could easily discern.

By making the playoff, the Sooners broke down one barrier for the Big 12, which got shut out of the inaugural playoff last year despite having a pair of worthy teams in Baylor and TCU.

But now two years into the playoff era, the Big 12 remains the only major conference yet to make the national championship game.

That is a troubling trend for a conference that has struggled to be relevant at the very top over the last decade. It's now been six years since a Big 12 member played for a national title. And not since 2005 has a Big 12 team won it. The SEC, ACC and Big Ten, meanwhile, have won national titles in the past three years. And Alabama alone has won three titles over the past six seasons and will play for a fourth against Clemson next Monday.

Yet, the Orange Bowl debacle wasn't the only troubling sign for the Big 12 this bowl season. And when it came to facing the SEC, the reason was the same.

In the three bowl matchups against the SEC, the Big 12 -- like Oklahoma vs. Clemson -- was completely overmatched up front. LSU outrushed Tech 384-to-29; the Rebels outrushed Oklahoma State 207-to-63; and the Razorbacks outrushed K-State 254-to-79. As a result, the Big 12 lost those three games by a combined margin of 79 points.

“Fast and physical,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury called the Tigers. Mike Gundy and Bill Snyder essentially echoed the same following their losses, too.

The bowl season wasn't all bad for the Big 12.

Baylor, in fact, showed that a Big 12 team could still win a battle in the trenches. Despite not having leading rusher Shock Linwood or Biletnikoff winner Corey Coleman due to injuries, the Bears set an all-time bowl record with 645 rushing yards in their resounding 49-38 win over North Carolina.

Saturday, senior quarterback Bram Kohlhausen helped deliver the Big 12 another quality bowl win in his first career start, rallying TCU from a 31-point deficit for a stunning 47-41 triple-overtime victory over Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

And the same night, West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard played the best game of his career, as well, throwing for 532 yards, which included the game-winning touchdown pass, to lift the Mountaineers to a 43-42 win in the desert.

Before those two wins, it looked as if the postseason would be an unmitigated disaster for the Big 12, especially when TCU trailed 31-0 at halftime.

The bowl season, turned out, was no catastrophe. Considering the opponents, three out of seven wasn't half-bad. Yet, all told, it wasn't great, either.

Overall, the Big 12 did take a step forward this year. But as this bowl season showed, the conference still has work ahead.