Big 12 a big winner during BCS era

The Big 12 was expected to be an immediate national title contender when the Bowl Championship Series was formed.

Despite some early growing pains, the conference created by the shotgun marriage of the old Big Eight Conference with four expatriates from the Southwest Conference has immediately taken its place as a power conference.

Though it's not quite at the national level of conferences like the Big Ten or the Southeastern in the BCS era, the Big 12 has carved out a couple of signature victories that involved two of its most storied programs.

Traditional powers Texas and Oklahoma claimed national championships that helped restore some swagger to historically dominant programs that had struggled early in the Big 12's history. Oklahoma's 2000 national championship was the Sooners' first national crown in 15 seasons, and Texas' national title in 2005 was the Longhorns' first undisputed national championship in 36 years.

But the Big 12's national esteem has diminished in recent seasons, as both Texas and Oklahoma have had trouble duplicating their earlier successes. Oklahoma has lost four straight BCS games, including two BCS title games. Texas has been unable to return to the BCS since claiming its national title.

As much as the Big 12 is known for its great teams, it also has been known for the star power of individual players. The conference has produced three Heisman Trophy winners -- Ricky Williams in 1998, Eric Crouch in 2001 and Jason White in 2003 -- and four players who have finished second during the BCS era.

The Big 12's early national awareness was marked by the domination of Nebraska, which claimed a share of three national championships in the final four seasons of Tom Osborne's coaching tenure. Osborne retired from coaching as the BCS was forming in 1998, but the Cornhuskers appeared poised to continue their success.

Hand-picked replacement Frank Solich carried the Cornhuskers to a No. 3 finish in 1999 and a trip to the BCS title game in the 2001 season. But Solich was fired only two years later, as the program was deemed to be sliding from the levels expected by then-athletic director Steve Pederson.

Oklahoma and Texas then emerged as the two dominant programs in the conference. Both took advantage of critical coaching hires when Mack Brown came to Texas in 1998 and Bob Stoops arrived at Oklahoma the following year.

Oklahoma made the fastest ascension, claiming the national title in 2000 in Stoops' second season. Stoops earned the nickname "Big Game Bob" with a remarkable success ratio early in his career, winning his first eight games against Top 10 opponents.

But the Sooners haven't won a BCS game since winning the Rose Bowl in 2003, and they've endured two losses in the BCS title game. Stoops' national reputation took additional hits after a 43-42 loss to Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and a 48-28 loss to West Virginia in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

Brown's boost of Texas was a little more measured. His national reputation had been marked by continually eating Stoops' dust during a five-game losing streak to the Sooners from 2000 to 2004. Quarterback Vince Young's arrival helped turn around that trend.

The Longhorns didn't play in a BCS bowl game until 2004, when Young led a dramatic 38-37 comeback victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

That season served as a springboard for the following season. The Longhorns claimed a school-record 13 victories and punctuated the season with a dramatic victory over defending national champion USC in the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl. Young scored the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down run with 19 seconds left, capping perhaps the most dramatic BCS game with the most dramatic play of the BCS era.

Moribund programs at Kansas and Missouri jumped into national title contention last season behind productive quarterbacks. Chase Daniel of Missouri and Kansas' Todd Reesing led their respective teams into a winner-take-all game finishing the regular season. Missouri's triumph boosted the Tigers into the Big 12 title game as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. It was the first time the Tigers had been ranked that highly since 1960.

Oklahoma ended coach Gary Pinkel's national title hopes by claiming the conference championship, enabling the Sooners to make history as the conference's first back-to-back championship team. And the Orange Bowl shocked many by picking Kansas over Missouri for the conference's at-large BCS berth, providing some BCS controversy inside the conference.

With five of the nation's top 15 quarterbacks in pass efficiency returning and a slew of potential Heisman candidates in place, the Big 12's star power again will be huge in 2008. But whether that translates into team success remains yet to be determined.

Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.