The season's over, but our look back is just beginning. Here's five things we learned this year in the Big 12.
1. In the national title debate, losses mean a lot more than wins. Oklahoma State deserved its shot at LSU. Period. It was close, yes. Making LSU beat Alabama a second time was unfair to the Tigers, who already waded through one of the most difficult schedules in college football history, dispatching the Big East and Pac-12 champions, who also won BCS bowls. It also beat the national champion and SEC East champion. But OSU deserved a shot, based on its total résumé. Voters, though, weren't willing to look beyond the one awful loss (in double overtime at Iowa State) and focus on the five wins over teams in the final BCS top 25 of the regular season (Alabama only had two). They also looked over the seven wins over bowl teams with winning records (the Crimson Tide had three). Do I think Alabama was a better team? Yes, I do. But in the current system, Oklahoma State deserved its chance, not a second chance for Alabama that rendered the Nov. 5 "Game of the Century" meaningless. It also produced a snoozer of a title game and deprived us of definitively settling the year-long conference dispute, which might be the most frustrating aspect of the entire debate.
2. A whole lot of points are a whole lot of fun to watch. Bad defense? Yeah, there was some of that. There was also a whole lot of good offense. Baylor's Robert Griffin III only accounted for one touchdown and the Bears still hung 67 points in a win over Washington -- a bowl record for all of a week before West Virginia posted 70 in the Orange Bowl. Baylor had three 100-yard rushers and Griffin wasn't one of them, even though he had arguably the most memorable run of his season, a Houdini act of slipping out of a handful of tacklers and outrunning the Washington offense to the pylon, taking a hit as he dove into the end zone. The game drew a 5.1 rating, and more than 5 million people watched, making it the fifth most-watched non-BCS bowl in history.
3. Texas looks on its way back up. The whispers were out there: Was 5-7 the beginning of the end of Mack Brown's tenure at Texas? Had he lost it? The problems were plentiful throughout the 2010 season, but the Longhorns bounced back (sort of) in 2011 and fixed many of them. The 21-10 win over Cal was mostly a four-hour advertisement for Texas' best asset: the Manny Diaz-led defense. An enormous, and biggest, void at quarterback remains, but this year the running game was much improved, and will continue to get better in 2012. Malcolm Brown will mature and Johnathan Gray will join him and Joe Bergeron in the backfield. The defense was the Big 12's best and should reclaim that title in 2012. Texas isn't back yet, but 2010 was not the beginning of the end for the burnt orange.
4. The top two teams are all that separates the Big 12 and SEC. Assume all you'd like, but compare the bowl records: The Big 12 was 6-2. The SEC was 6-3, with a win over and loss to itself in the title game. The Big 12 finished 33-5 (.868) in nonconference play, the best mark of any conference since the SEC in 1997. The SEC finished 47-8 (.855). The SEC earned all the headlines by putting LSU and Alabama in the title game, but the difference between the two leagues isn't very wide. They met on the field just twice this season: Arkansas beat both Texas A&M and Kansas State. The Big 12 beat teams like Stanford, TCU, Florida State, Washington, Northern Illinois and California along the way. The league's top five teams returning in 2012 went 19-1 in nonconference play. Four of the five losses came via expatriates-to-be Texas A&M and Missouri, as well as Iowa State and Kansas, who finished in the bottom three in the Big 12 standings. The league was deep, and unfortunately, didn't get many chances to prove it against the SEC.
5. The Big 12 is getting two really, really good teams in 2012. If you didn't watch, you should have. West Virginia put on an absolute show in the Orange Bowl, beating Clemson by a rousing 70-33 final that included 400 yards of passing from one Geno Smith (you'll get to know him better in 2012) and a 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown that featured a review that could have resulted in a touchdown for either team. TCU? All the BCS-snubbed Horned Frogs did was play an uninspired game against underrated Louisiana Tech (who beat, ahem, SEC member Ole Miss by 20) and win by a touchdown. But they're on their way in 2012, and both could win the Big 12. Next year, the league will have three conference champions, and if you include new members, went 8-2 in bowl games. Of course, if you subtract the departing members, it went 6-2, so who's counting?