Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
By all accounts, 2008 was a landmark season for Big 12 football.
The unprecedented three-way tie for the South Division championship that involved Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma made the conference must-see television for the second half of the season for fans across the country. Attention was riveted to the conference unlike any previous time in the Big 12's history.
It should be more of the same this season as strong races are expected in both the North and South Divisions.
The conference again will feature cutting-edge offensive units that will score boatloads of points and be powered by the most talented collection of quarterbacks that can be found anywhere.
Those numbers are nice, but the Big 12's lack of defensive production is the main reason I still think it ranks behind the Southeastern Conference.
The top athletes in the Big 12 are clustered on offensive units, helping to result in shootouts.
In the SEC, those same athletes seem to end up playing defense. It might not be as much fun to watch, but the physical nature is apparent.
In recent bowl games, the Big 12 has struggled to match that defensive nature of the SEC for many statement-making victories. Oklahoma's loss to Florida in the BCS title game and Texas Tech's defeat to Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl last year indicated there's still a gap between defenses found in the SEC and the Big 12.
The SEC also has a deeper concentration of top teams, as seen by its four teams in the top 10 when the USA Today coaches' poll was released earlier today.
It doesn't mean the Big 12 won't be exciting or fun to watch this season. Because it will be -- again.
But until Big 12 teams can notch some statement-making victories where defense isn't an afterthought, its national perception will continue to lag behind the SEC's.
The rest of the nation is no comparison. Big 12 teams can occasionally win their BCS bowl games, unlike the ACC. It might not have the fancy television network of the Big Ten, but has a more exciting brand of football to showcase. And it's not nearly as top heavy as the Pac-10 with its concentration of USC and Oregon at the top and little balance after.
Here's my ranking of the top eight conferences heading into the upcoming season