By Wendell Barnhouse
The Big 12 Conference found itself in an unusual and unexpected position this week. Like Sally Field accepting her Oscar, the League Of Ten was gushing, “You like us, you really like us.”
Thanks to Oklahoma planting a flag of respect at Ohio State and, to a lesser extent, TCU playing Big Boy Football to win at Arkansas, the Big 12 had a satisfying Saturday.
The day started in Columbus with the ESPN GameDay crew unanimously selecting the Buckeyes to beat the Sooners. It ended in Bristol with Jesse Palmer, the best-dressed, best-looking studio analyst in college football (sorry, Matt Leinart) saying a Big 12 team will make the College Football Playoff.
That Week Two knee jerk reaction, from all accounts, did not snap Palmer’s patella. Those sorts of in-the-moment comments are exactly what analysts are paid to do. But with two-and-a-half months of the season remaining, it’s premature speculation.
What Oklahoma did prove is that its program probably won’t skip a beat with Lincoln Riley replacing Bob Stoops and that senior quarterback Baker Mayfield is a baaaaad man. The Big 12 has to hope that Oklahoma 31, Ohio State 16 is déjà vu all over again. The league’s most recent national championship, won by Texas in 2005, was jump started by an impressive victory at The Horseshoe early in that season.
Five paragraphs into this missive and the Longhorns are finally mentioned. The cold, hard fact is that if the Big 12 is ever going to be “back” the Forty Acres need to start producing crops. Much of the conference’s disappearance from the national stage has come over the last seven years while UT has been a .500 program.
With numerous negatives, the Big 12 needs Oklahoma and Texas to both be nationally relevant. The Longhorns, ever since losing to Alabama in the 2009 title game, have been reduced to stumbling around a dark room looking for a light switch.
Texas and new coach Tom Herman get a shot at regaining respectability Saturday in the Coliseum when they take on USC. It’s been a dozen years since these power programs met in the Rose Bowl for all the Tostitos and both have regressed since then. The Trojans, though, are ranked No. 4 and are considered strong contenders to reach the CFP.
After their first-game flop against Maryland, few expect the Longhorns to win. Texas is currently playing the role of the plucky underdog who will hope to compete respectably for three quarters and to keep the final score out of the “embarrassing” category.
Which – finally – brings us to the reason why you should be reading this. While Week Two’s outcomes were significant in restoring the Big 12 brand, Week Three might be just as important.
Oklahoma appears to again be the flag bearer for the Big 12. But the down-the-ticket teams also need to maintain respectability and avoid upsets.
The first team that should be on upset alert is ninth-ranked Oklahoma State, which appears to be equal to challenging its Bedlam rivals for Big 12 supremacy. To make a run at the CFP, the Cowboys can’t afford losing on the road at Pitt.
The Panthers are facing their second consecutive top 10 team. In last Saturday’s loss to Penn State, the Panthers out-gained the Nittany Lions and posted a nearly two-to-one edge in time of possession. Getting Pitt’s offense off the field could be a tough task for an Oklahoma State team that is No. 123 in opponent third-down conversion percentage. Beware of Pitt playing keep away.
Bill Snyder’s Kansas State teams are always undervalued. This is one of Snyder’s most-talented teams, especially on offense, in his second tour in Manhattan. No. 18 Kansas State is at Vanderbilt. A loss to one of the Southeastern Conference’s also-rans would not help the Big 12’s profile.
No. 20 TCU, newly ranked thanks to its victory at Arkansas, faces SMU in a battle for the Iron Skillet. Frogs coach Gary Patterson became a history professor this week. He reminded his players that in 2005 TCU opened the season with an upset of No. 7 Oklahoma in Norman and then lost to the Mustangs. (Think a cartoon where a character’s face is flattened by a skillet.)
Don’t assume SMU will be a push over. Third-year coach Chad Morris has been bringing the program back from the Ground Zero left by June Jones and the Mustangs have an All-America candidate in 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior receiver Courtland Sutton. He lit up North Texas for eight receptions for 164 yards and four TDs last Saturday.
Playing road games at Mid-American teams is a dangerous gambit for Power Five teams. Iowa State is at Akron and Kansas (which was pounded at home by Central Michigan last Saturday) is at Ohio.
All of this might sound as if Your Veteran Scribe is a nattering nabob of negativism when it comes to the Big 12’s hopes and dreams for this week and the rest of the season. Well, he counters that by noting that he has been around the 22-year-old league since Day One. It may be of age but it has yet to grow up.
Perhaps last weekend is an indication that The Football Gods have grown tired of dealing bust cards every time the Big 12 thinks it’s holding a winning hand. But YVS is here to tell you that the conference has a chronic case of CSP.
Can’t. Stand. Prosperity.
Wendell Barnhouse has spent more than four decades covering sports, including 25 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he served as the paper’s national college football and basketball writer. Wendell has covered 15 national title games and 22 Final Fours. From 2008 to 2015 he served as web site correspondent for the Big 12 Conference.