The Big 12 has a problem.
And like any massive and complicated problem, it can only be conquered one step at a time.
To retake its place as one of the preeminent conferences in college football, the league can take these steps to rehabilitate its tarnished image:
Step 1: Win the nonconference games that count
Due to its collective scheduling practices, the Big 12 doesn't have many prime opportunities for marquee nonconference victories this season. That means the league must win the few noteworthy games it does have on the docket -- Texas at Notre Dame, Oklahoma at Tennessee and Texas Tech at Arkansas.
After that, however, the Big 12 likely won't have another opportunity for a top-25 nonconference win. And when the College Football Playoff selection committee begins to deliberate, best believe it will be comparing how each Power 5 conference performed in those types of games.
A year ago, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas State all hung tough with Alabama, Florida State, UCLA and Auburn, respectively. But, moral victories won't be enough.
Without a top-25 win, the Big 12 won't compare favorably in the eyes of the committee, even if TCU beats Minnesota, West Virginia takes care of Maryland and Iowa State topples Iowa again.
Whether it happens in South Bend, Knoxville or Fayetteville, the Big 12 must have a win it can point to this time around that will enhance the credibility of the overall league.
Step 2: Schedule tougher
In short term, all the Big 12 can do is win the games on the schedule. But in the long term, the league must schedule better as a whole, to give it more than, say, three opportunities for a marquee victory.
This season, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State have nonconference slates that don't include a single Power 5 opponent. Texas and Oklahoma, meanwhile, are the only Big 12 schools without an FCS opponent.
Such lackluster schedules will damage the overall strength of schedule of the Big 12, and thus, the teams that do wind up vying for a playoff spot, regardless of how they scheduled individually.
Yes, the Big 12 is not getting enough credit from the playoff committee for playing nine conference games. Yes, the SEC is not getting enough demerits for hosting FCS cupcakes in November. And yes, Ohio State proved you can still get into the playoff without you or your conference netting a significant nonconference win.
Yet neither the SEC nor Ohio State is fighting a battle against perception. The Big 12 is.
Many of the league's members are undergoing measures to augment their nonconference schedules. Baylor, which draws criticism for weak nonconference scheduling, is working to play its 2016 opener against a Power 5 opponent in Australia.
But whether it's through scheduling mandate or by unwritten agreement, the Big 12 must enhance its schedules to give itself more chances to prove its worthiness to the committee.
Step 3: Showcase the league's budding rivalry
Two rounds of conference realignment gutted several of college football's most compelling rivalries, nowhere more than among Big 12 members. Texas-Texas A&M, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Kansas-Missouri and West Virginia-Pitt are all now mostly defunct.
But among its few silver linings, realignment revived the Baylor-TCU game. Since reconnecting as conference foes, the "Revivalry" has carried the stakes, drama and acrimony to emerge as one of the most anticipated showdowns in college football.
This season, the Big 12 smartly elected to showcase the Baylor-TCU game on Black Friday to give it even more national exposure.
The Big 12, however, didn't do TCU or Baylor any favors.
Six days before traveling to Fort Worth, Baylor has to go to Oklahoma State; six days before playing host to the Bears, TCU has to go to Oklahoma. It won't be easy for either Baylor or TCU to thrive facing such a gauntlet on short rest.
The Big 12 has the right idea in promoting this game, its third-biggest rivalry behind the Red River and Bedlam games. Yet Texas, as usual, has the weekend off before playing its annual Thanksgiving Day game. Going forward, the league should give Baylor and TCU the same consideration it also gives the Longhorns.
Step 4: Schedule smarter
The league has a great Thanksgiving weekend lineup: Texas Tech-Texas on Thanksgiving, Baylor-TCU on Black Friday and Bedlam Saturday. It's the final weekend that's a problem.
Without a championship game, the Big 12 office has been rotating teams in and out of the final weekend, with the goal of giving different schools the opportunity to use that week to focus on recruiting instead of playing.
That strategy, however, could backfire in a big way this season.
In 2015, three of the top four teams in the conference preseason poll -- TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State -- will be off on championship weekend. Given how dramatically the committee altered its rankings on championship weekend last year, the Big 12's scheduling practices could deprive the Horned Frogs, Sooners or Cowboys of the chance to send the committee a message on the field when it might matter the most.
"If you're one of the teams that has a chance to be in the playoff, you'd want to have a presence that weekend, I would think," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who wants Bedlam to be moved to Dec. 5.
Since the Big 12's deadline to move games in concert with its TV partners passed on June 1, this can't change this season.
But in the future, the Big 12's playoff viability should trump all. Make the change and have the premier teams in front of the committee the day before the selections.
Step 5: Get Texas and OU back on track
These are things that only the Longhorns and Sooners can solve.
The Longhorns becoming relevant again would only serve to make the Big 12 more relevant nationally, too.
Charlie Strong appears to have Texas on the right track. But the sooner he gets Texas relevant again -- recruiting better and an upset victory at Notre Dame would be nice -- the better it will be for the Big 12.
Oklahoma hasn't been carrying its weight lately, either. Middling results and getting blown out in a bowl game just won't cut it for a conference blueblood.
It's simple: when a conference's flagships are performing (see Ohio State and the Big Ten) it changes the way people perceive that conference.
Imagine a Big 12 in which Oklahoma and Texas returned to their 2008 levels to complement the rises of TCU and Baylor (yes, there are enough recruits in the state of Texas to go around for this scenario). We wouldn't be talking about a league fighting to survive.
We'd be talking about the best conference in college football.
Step 6: Implement a championship game
Enough beating around the bush; the Big 12 is operating at a disadvantage staging only 12 regular season games without a championship. Committee chairman Jeff Long copped to this in the spring. The only question now is, how much of a disadvantage is the Big 12 at compared to the other four major conferences, who give their champs a shot at a 13th game?
The league is in no shape to be starting from behind the pack before the season even begins.
Sure, a championship game is an awkward fit in a 10-team round-robin format, but if the committee is going to punish the Big 12 for not having a 13th game and a championship, the Big 12 has little choice but to implement one.
And that's just another reason why expansion is ultimately the long-term answer.
Step 7: Target the best expansion candidates
Oklahoma president David Boren correctly assessed that in the wake of losing Nebraska to the Big Ten and Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, the Big 12 had become "psychologically disadvantaged."
The conference is not yet in danger of dissolving, but it will be when the grant-of-right TV contracts that have bound the Big 12 together expire in 2025. The most vulnerable get devoured. So to avoid such a fate, the Big 12 must become proactive.
In the long term, expansion would strengthen the foundation of the conference. And in the short term, it would make the league more competitive for the playoff, giving the league a 13th game and championship. It could also serve to improve the league's national perception while enhancing its strength of schedule profile.
Of course, adding any two teams for the sake of expanding won't cure the Big 12's ills.
"You don't want to just add two teams and split with whatever money you have 12 ways instead of 10 ways if they're not bringing value to it," Stoops said. "But if they're bringing value, then sure, it needs to be 12."
Houston has a new stadium and a hotshot coach in Tom Herman, who is already turning heads on the recruiting trail. Cincinnati is completing a renovation of its stadium, and has won at least nine games in all but one season since 2006. Memphis is planning facility upgrades off its 10-win season as well under Justin Fuente. All three schools are in big markets, too.
Central Florida has a massive student body and would give the Big 12 an avenue to greater recruiting exploits in the prospect hotbed of Florida. Colorado State is building a $220 million stadium. And East Carolina averaged almost 45,000 in attendance last year, which would've ranked seventh in the Big 12.
All these programs have upside worth monitoring.
But if the Big 12 expanded tomorrow, the two schools that would bring the most value to the league would be BYU and Boise State.
The Cougars have won a national title in the last 30 years. And in the last 40, only Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida State have more victories.
Since 1999, Boise State has won at least 10 games in all but three seasons.
Both would bring a quality brand of football that would help quell the perception gap the Big 12 is fighting.
On top of that, they would bring more to the TV pie than they would take out. Because of the Mormon Church, BYU has an international following. Boise State has been a TV darling since it stunned Oklahoma in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.
Whatever direction the Big 12 goes, it has to get serious about expanding. To strengthen the Big 12 for the present. And help sustain it for the future.
Step 8: Win a national championship
It's easier said than done, but nothing could elevate the Big 12 more than one of its members finally winning a national title again. The Big 12 hasn't won a national championship in 10 years. It hasn't even played in one in six.
Just look at what Ohio State did for the Big Ten. Not that long ago, the Big Ten was termed slow and outdated, and was a national punchline for its inability to hang with the SEC. Nobody is referring to the Big Ten as second tier anymore.
TCU or Baylor or Oklahoma winning a national title would achieve the same for the Big 12. Ultimately, the Big 12 will have to earn back its reputation. And that can only happen from getting on the biggest stage and beating the best on the field.