If you love old school football, then with a few notable zone-read exceptions, the SEC is for you. If you like watching week-in, week-out fun, then there’s only one choice: The Big XII. The Big XII is a dichotomy of sorts. It combines fun on the field, with a basic undercurrent of dysfunction away from it.
Of the Big XII’s 10 teams (yes, that’s its own story, see below), 7 were ranked in the top 50 in Rushing Offense led by Baylor with an average of 326.7 yards per game, which was second in the country. That made Baylor the only non-triple-option team to finish in the Top 4 in rushing in the nation. 6 of the top 50 teams in Passing Offense were from the Big XII led by Texas Tech whose version of the air raid offense was second in the nation at 388.2 yards per game. 6 of the top 50 teams in Scoring Offense were from the Big XII, led by Baylor again with an average of 48.1 points per game. Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and TCU joined Baylor in the top 10, with Oklahoma State 14th in the nation and West Virginia 35th. And, the top three teams in the nation last year in Total Offense were from the Big XII. Baylor led the country with an average of 616.2 yards per game, Texas Tech was second at 579.5 points per game, TCU was third at 562.8 yards per game. Just for good measure Oklahoma State and West Virginia finished in the top 50 of total offense as well at 22nd and 23rd respectively.
With all that fun going for them, what does the Big XII do just to keep things interesting off the field? Remain the most vulnerable Power 5 conference around and constantly create drama. I guess it’s only fitting that the Big XII seems to thrive in a state of drama since it was basically born that way in 1994. At the time some of the best college football was being played in the Southwest Conference between schools like Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas and in their cheating days, SMU. But, in 1992, the landscape changed when very quietly Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles cut a deal to move his team to the SEC, along with South Carolina to create the first 12-team conference, create the first football championship game and set the stage for what has become the most lucrative conference football television contract. That left the Southwest Conference with a limited market, with schools all within the State of Texas. So rather than replace Arkansas, the University of Texas took Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor with them to join up with the 8 schools from the Big 8 and the Big XII set up shop in Irving, Texas beginning in 1996. The old Southwest Conference quickly went the way of the dinosaur and the schools left behind in the move instigated by Texas were left fending for themselves in lower conferences.
Since the Big XII began, their existence has been tied mostly to the whims of Texas and Oklahoma. Texas, the richest athletic department in the country, was somehow able to convince ESPN to give them a boat load of money for the Longhorn Network, the first network dedicated to a single school. It’s been a colossal failure. ESPN has lost money hand over fist on the network, the school’s coaches reportedly hate the time demands placed on them by the network which sometimes includes going straight from practice to do a coaches’ show, and the only place I’ve ever found the network was on a Cable System in Amelia Island, Florida of all places. What’s the point of the Longhorn Network anyway? Having the thrill and excitement of hearing from Charlie Strong about today’s practice. The Longhorn Network once programmed 24-hours of Bevo, the Texas mascot grazing around a field on Christmas Day. Sounds like the same guys programming NBC. ESPN has made some bone-head business decisions like overpaying for 17 Monday Night NFL games, and one Wild Card game that has to be simulcast on ABC, but the Longhorn Network is clearly the $150 million dollar movie that makes just $10 million at the box office.
Texas’s decision to start its own network alienated its biggest rival in Texas A&M and Nebraska and so when they both saw the chance to get out and move to the SEC and Big Ten respectively, they did so. Missouri followed Texas A&M to the SEC and Colorado bolted to the PAC-12. Just a few short years ago, it appeared that the Big XII was about to fall apart. And indeed it could easily have. Oklahoma was reportedly ready to grab Oklahoma State, and Texas was going to grab Texas Tech and head to the PAC-12, making it the PAC-16 Super Conference. My guess is that while the PAC-12 was appealing, Oklahoma and Texas had no real desire to be a small fish in a big pond and realized that the Big XII allowed them to control largely what happens in their current league and of course, Texas isn’t going to give up all that Longhorn Network money.
To cure its defections, the Big XII invited West Virginia who saw the handwriting on the wall that the Big East’s days were numbered, and had been lobbying the Big XII hard for membership and TCU, who took the most circuitous route to Big XII membership in history. TCU was actually on the list of initial Big XII teams and the final spot was between TCU and Baylor. Baylor got the nod and for the next 15 years, TCU played in the Western Athletic Conference (which no long sponsors football), Conference USA and the Mountain West. The Big XII decided to go with 10 teams and forgo its football championship game.
Now comes the current drama. In January the NCAA voted to allow conferences with less than 12 teams to hold a championship game and thus the Big XII title game is back in 2017. The question is will the Big XII have 10 teams or 12 teams, or even 14 teams in 2017. No sooner had the ACC announced its new conference network agreement with ESPN than the Big XII started talking expansion. The question has been what teams and how many. First there was talk of 2, and then 4. Frankly, I’m left to conclude that the Big XII brass hasn’t a clue and we can just about guess that the conference only expands if Oklahoma and Texas want it to do so. Oklahoma President David Boren has been a bully on expansion saying that the Big XII is “psychologically disadvantaged” with only 10 teams. Apparently, Boren is a subscriber to the Ryan Lochte Thesaurus. Texas probably doesn’t care as long as they get to keep the Longhorn Network, but where the league goes for more teams is as big as mystery as to whether it happens at all. The conventional wisdom has BYU joining up with perhaps Cincinnati. Cincinnati would open markets in Ohio and BYU likes to think of themselves as a National Brand. Then there’s Houston openly lobbying to get the hell out of the American Conference, and names like Central Florida (which by the way went 0-12 last year), South Florida, and Tulane have popped up. If it’s about TV eyeballs then Cincinnati and Tulane make the most sense since that gets the Big XII into Ohio and Louisiana where there’s no shortage of good high school football players. Cincinnati also gives a travel partner to West Virginia. WVU is at least 800 miles from every other Big XII school. The sad part is that in 2011 the Big XII could have had Louisville as a travelling partner for WVU. Louisville was begging to get into the conference. The Big XII said no, and Louisville is probably glad they did so, now a member of the ACC.
Then there’s the school of thought that expansion doesn’t happen at all. In 2012, ESPN and Fox signed a new television contract with the Big XII. If the conference expands, those two networks will be forced to pay out more money in rights fees for teams that aren’t all that appealing to begin with and they absolutely don’t want to do that. So, if the Big XII expands they may wind up suing their television partners and eventually looking for another outlet for their games and the options there aren’t appealing either. The NBC Sports Network thrives on a steady dose of Nascar and Hockey and I dobut there has been anything less successful than CBS’s attempt at 24-hour sports with the CBS Sports Network.
Apparently when it comes to the Big XII, dysfunction is just a part of the game. The Big XII is the only Power 5 conference that doesn’t not control what are known as “third tier” television rights. Those are the ones that the schools retain consisting of minor sports and one football game and 4 basketball games per year. This allows a school like West Virginia to sell those rights to another outlet and increase its revenue, but the games themselves aren’t terribly appealing.
So amidst all the drama (and we haven’t even talked about Baylor) comes what figures to be an interesting 2016 season, the last without a conference championship game. And when it comes to picking a winner, you know what they say about what wins championships? Defense. Well, the best defense in the league last year belonged to Oklahoma and with quarterback Baker Mayfield back and the two top running backs, Oklahoma is my pick to win it again.
After that, I like TCU to finish second making the October 1st match-up in Fort Worth between the Horned Frogs and Sooners, the de-facto championship game. Despite all the off the field drama, I think Baylor finishes 3rd. The non-conference schedule is its traditional joke and they score enough points to beat almost everyone but TCU and Oklahoma. Watch how Baylor reacts early in the season though. If they appear to be tuning out interim head coach Jim Grobe, then the season will likely head into a free fall and Grobe will have lost any chance he may have had at the job permanently.
Fourth is Oklahoma State if for no other reason that they always seem to quietly hang around the top of the Big XII standings. Not a big fan of Mike Gundy, but like he cares.
Fifth place is interesting in that I’ll take West Virginia. I don’t think it’s any secret that Dana Holgerson is coaching for his life this fall. He’s working for an athletic director that didn’t hire him and in a state where the fans can turn on you in a heart beat. The general thought at the end of last season was that he was on his way out, only to be given a stay of execution due mostly to a large contract buy out that will presumably decrease after this season. In all fairness, he was kind of handed a bad situation anyway having to build a Big XII team from scratch. His first couple of years he had to play in the Big XII with a Big East team. The talent level has increased, but my wish for Holgerson is that he would give up his play calling duties and manage the entire game like a Head Coach is supposed to do. I understand he enjoys calling plays, but I think staying employed is better.
Speaking of unemployed, that might be the plight for my pick for sixth, Texas and its head coach Charlie Strong at season’s end. Strong hasn’t done much of anything in his first three years on the job other than pull a surprising win over Oklahoma last year in Dallas. He’d better show some signs of improvement because with all that Longhorn Network money, Texas has no problems paying contract buyouts. How you cannot have a top 15 program in the state of Texas is a mystery to me with all of that High School Football talent. Just as an example, TCU, which has clearly passed Texas in terms of a better football team, has 80 players on its roster from Texas.
For seventh, I’ll take Texas Tech. The Red Raiders score points in bunches and there are few places in the Big XII harder to play than Lubbock with the West Texas winds blowing over AT&T Stadium, but they need to learn how to stop someone or 6-and-6 is going to become the norm.
8th place – Iowa State. New coach in Matt Campbell. Campbell’s pedigree is that he was a player and then a coach at Division III power Mount Union. He was then the head coach at Toledo and last year beat Arkansas. Now, he inherits one of the worst jobs in the Big XII. Ames, Iowa isn’t the garden spot of America and it’s a place where more than one coach has gone to die. Then again, Gene Chizik parlayed 5-and-17 into a job at Auburn so there’s always hope I guess.
Ninth – Kansas State. Manhattan Kansas is known as the “Little Apple” and Kansas State fans have learned over the years what it is like having Bill Snyder coach Kansas State football and what it is like not having Bill Snyder coach Kansas State football. Snyder though is in his 70s and is no doubt near the end of his second tenure as K-State’s Head Coach. He’s reportedly tried to leverage his clout with the school (the Stadium is named in honor of his family) into having his son replace him when he retires for the second time. Athletic Directors hate when coaches try to do that because it undercuts their authority and makes them look weak in the eyes of their other coaches. The Kansas State A-D may not be nearly as lucky as Whit Babcock was at Virginia Tech who avoided what was heading to be a awkward exit by Frank Beamer, but the end is coming sooner rather than later at K-State.
And finally, here’s poor old Kansas who actually has a chance to triple their win total this year by winning their three non-conference games, but has virtually no chance of winning a Big XII game. In all fairness, what’s most important at Kansas is basketball. But, they have been good at football at times. Remember the year Big Fat Mark Mangino led K-U to an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, which remains right beside the loss to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl as one of Frank Beamer’s Top 10 head scratchers. Kansas is again the example of what happens when you hire the wrong coach. A few years ago, the K-U administration thought it was a good idea to hire failed Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis as Head Coach. He piloted the ship right into a large iceberg and K-U is still trying to recover. Weis meanwhile joins former Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley in the laughing all the way to the bank brigade getting monthly checks not to coach from both K-U and Notre Dame.
Conference Champ: Oklahoma 12-0 and the number two seed in the playoff.