Wrapping up the 2010 Big 12 season

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
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The top may not be anything new, but there was plenty of change across the rest of the league in 2010.

For the first time since 2006, the Big 12 spent most of the second half of the season as a non-factor in the national championship race. When Missouri suffered a loss to Nebraska on Oct. 30, the league lost its final undefeated team.

For the first time since 2006, there won't be a Big 12 player at the Heisman ceremony.

Texas' freefall was one of the league's lowlights.

But none of that is enough to slap the "Down Year" tag on the Big 12 as a whole.

Nebraska and Colorado's departure was a storyline that colored the conference throughout the year, and 2010 began with three Big 12 teams in the top 10. One was Nebraska. When the Huskers decided to leave, the future of the Big 12 looked to be a two-team conference with one nationally-relevant game a year.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma's Jeremy Beal
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesJeremy Beal and Oklahoma raised the championship trophy, but this was The Year of the Rising Middle Class in the Big 12.
Thus, a challenge, explicit or otherwise, was issued.

Everyone wants to label things the Year of the This or Year of the That, but nothing personified the Big 12 more in 2010 than that challenge being answered rather emphatically.

This was The Year of the Rising Middle Class.

Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas A&M aren't exactly college football blue bloods. They're all in the top 20, and poised to become mainstays. That gave the Big 12 five teams in the top 20 to end the year, made even more impressive considering the league's signature program, per se, is floundering at 5-7 and searching for a new offensive coordinator rather than preparing for a bowl game.

Recognizing the rise of the middle may be hard for some to realize, especially when the Oklahoma Sooners and Nebraska Cornhuskers -- two card-carrying, blue-blood programs -- were battling it out in the Big 12 title game. In the 15-year history of the game, Oklahoma participated eight times to Nebraska's six.

But if the ball bounces differently on a couple Saturdays, it could have just as easily been Missouri against Oklahoma State or Texas A&M, with the Tigers and Cowboys chasing their first-ever Big 12 title and Texas A&M looking for its first since 1998.

2010 conference champion Oklahoma may inject itself into the national championship picture in 2011. No one would be surprised by that. But considering two programs who historically have had problems scaling their own conference, let alone all of football -- Auburn and Oregon -- have a month to prepare for a national title game, it's not impossible for any of those three rising teams to do the same in 2011. All should return key contributors from 2010 teams and at the very least, have installed a balance to the Big 12 that hasn't always been there.

Baylor made its rise in 2010 and could continue to do so under Art Briles in 2011. Only Kansas ranks outside the top 60 in the computer rankings. The Jayhawks are the only team in the league that didn't have a chance to play for six wins and bowl eligibility. That's remarkable parity.

Nebraska will be gone. That undeniably weakens the league. But thanks to Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas A&M, the Big 12 won't be starved for nationally relevant games after Red River is decided in early October, even without a national championship contender or a Big 12 championship game.

Now, time to pass out some awards:

Offensive MVP: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State:

No player in the Big 12 was a bigger game-breaker than Blackmon, and no player was more consistent. Even with an ankle injury late in the season that had him basically playing on one foot, he kept alive a streak of at least 100 yards and a receiving touchdown -- a streak that stands at 11 games. That's tied for an NCAA record, and the difficulty of doing so can't be underestimated. There are some great secondaries in the Big 12 -- Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas -- and none of them could stop, or really even slow Blackmon all that much. The Cowboys weren't held below 30 points this year with Blackmon in the lineup, and the idea of an offense putting up 41 points against Nebraska's defense is absurd looking back. What happened when the Cowboys had to play the Big 12's second-worst defense, Kansas State, without Blackmon? They scored 24 points. Enough said.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M's Von Miller
AP Photo/Dave EinselIn Big 12 play alone, no defensive player dominated like Texas A&M's Von Miller.
Defensive MVP: Von Miller, LB/DE, Texas A&M

Miller didn't win the award from the media or coaches, but he should have, and here's why: If you're handing out an award for conference player of the year, performance in conference games should be more heavily considered. In eight Big 12 games, no player was more disruptive to opposing offenses than Miller. Ask Oklahoma and Nebraska. His 8.5 sacks in those eight games are two more than any other player in the Big 12, and he tied Oklahoma's Jeremy Beal with 11.5 tackles for loss. He also tied for the conference lead with three forced fumbles, and sealed the season-ending win over Texas with his first career interception. In conference play, no defender played better, and an early-season ankle injury is the only reason Miller didn't put up equally impressive numbers in four nonconference games. Consider that his best games came in Texas A&M's biggest games. He had a combined 3.5 sacks against Oklahoma and Nebraska, with five tackles for loss in those games and also had 14 tackles with a forced fumble.

Coach of the Year: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

This one's pretty simple. Gundy's team didn't have very much coming back and was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 South. Instead, they won 10 games and came within an upset loss to Oklahoma of winning the division outright for the first time. Even though they didn't, Gundy still earned a share of the Big 12 South title for the first time.

Biggest surprise: Oklahoma State's offense

This goes along with Gundy, but consider this an award for Dana Holgorsen, who should have won the Frank Broyles Award as college football's top assistant coach. The Cowboys had a first-year quarterback who hadn't started a game in nine years. They had no proven receivers, and last year's leading receiver, Hubert Anyiam, sat out most of the year with an injury. Four new offensive linemen had to learn on the job, too. But Oklahoma State led the nation in total offense and ranked third in scoring. Blackmon emerged as a new star, and running back Kendall Hunter returned to his 2008 form, when he was an All-American.

Biggest disappointment: Texas

Anybody else come close, even nationally? I say no. The Longhorns were 2-5 at home, with wins over Wyoming and Florida Atlantic. They were blown out by UCLA and Kansas State. A team that began the season in the top 5 finished 5-7 and won't be bowling for the first time since 1997.

Game of the Year: Oklahoma 47, Oklahoma State 41

Find me another game this year with four touchdowns in 92 seconds inside the final five minutes. And it's between two good teams? (Sorry, Kansas 52, Colorado 45) AND the game decided the Big 12 South? AND it's an in-state rivalry?

That's a recipe for a classic, and this one fit the bill.

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