Will Big 12 duopoly be undone?
DALLAS -- With a Texas-sized Band-Aid struggling to cover the fractures of the Big 12, the restructured league seems to be on the verge of downsizing once again.
If Texas A&M gets its way, the Big 12 might lose another team, only a year after it lost Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.
But even if the Aggies leave for the SEC, won't the Big 12 survive as long as Oklahoma and Texas continue to pledge their allegiance?
The Longhorns and Sooners have combined to win each of the past seven Big 12 titles -- five for the Sooners and two for the Longhorns. Their recent dominance has left the Big 12 fighting a national perception of being nothing more than the "Big 2" and everyone else.
"It's like we're getting overlooked, but it's the respect they've earned," Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon said. "Until somebody takes it from them, it's their conference."
But as the Big 12 begins anew in 2011 -- without two of its former schools and no longer playing in two divisions nor staging a conference championship game -- there might actually be room for a shift in competitive balance.
The Sooners, who defeated Nebraska 23-20 in the last Big 12 championship game in 2010, are ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches' poll. But Texas limped to a 5-7 record last season, and Longhorns coach Mack Brown overhauled his program during the offseason by hiring five new assistant coaches, including both coordinators.
Three other Big 12 teams -- No. 8 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 21 Missouri -- are ranked ahead of the No. 24 Longhorns in the preseason coaches' poll.
If a team like Oklahoma State is going to make a move to catch the Longhorns and Sooners, this might be the season to do it.
"I think it's been like that in the past, even when Nebraska and Colorado were here," Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "I think it's kind of critical for us to stay on the map."
With Weeden and Blackmon coming back to a prolific offense, the Cowboys are a popular choice to challenge the Sooners in the Big 12, where every team will play nine conference games in a true round-robin format.
"I think it's going to help our league," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "At the end of the season, there won't be any teams that say that a certain team for the North or a certain team from the South didn't play each other and didn't deserve to be in a conference championship game."
Gundy said the Pokes' surprising results in 2010 helped elevate his program. After losing many of its stars from a 2009 team that finished 9-4, including quarterback Zac Robinson, receiver Dez Bryant and offensive tackle Russell Okung, the Cowboys were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 South in 2010. Instead, OSU won a school-record 11 games and finished in the top 10 of the final coaches' poll for the first time since 1984.
"Last year really brought our program to a new level because we weren't expected to be any good," Gundy said. "But we competed and had a chance to win the conference."
Like Gundy, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel's good work has also gone largely unnoticed. The Tigers have played in six consecutive bowl games and won 40 games since 2007, the 10th-highest victory total among FBS programs in that span. Missouri has won 10 games or more three times in the past four seasons, after doing it just once in the program's history.
But until the Tigers win the Big 12 and dethrone Oklahoma or Texas, they won't be considered on the same level with those teams.
"It's very competitive," Pinkel said. "You've just got to do it. I think it's a great league, but that's what has to happen. Somebody's got to do it. You can talk about it all you want, but somebody has to go do it."
Texas A&M would also like to leave its mark in the restructured Big 12, especially if this really will be the Aggies' last season in the league.
SEC presidents took no action in a meeting on Sunday, after discussing whether to invite Texas A&M as the league's 13th team. Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin was given authority by the school's board of regents to take any action concerning the Aggies' conference affiliation. Loftin hasn't ruled out staying in the Big 12.
"The Big 12 is a very competitive league and we have great teams in it," Texas A&M defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie said. "You can't give any team the benefit of the doubt. The statistics might show two teams -- Oklahoma and Texas -- but statistics are just statistics. You've still got to go out and play nine games."
The Aggies haven't won the Big 12 since 1998. After suffering back-to-back losing campaigns in his first two seasons at Texas A&M, coach Mike Sherman guided the Aggies to a 9-4 mark in 2010.
With 10 starters coming back on offense and eight on defense, Texas A&M might be poised for a break-through season in 2011.
"I take a lot of pride in the school I go to," Aggies receiver Jeff Fuller said. "To me, Texas A&M has always been one of the greatest programs in the country. These people have been let down for a long time."
Until a team like Missouri, Oklahoma State or Texas A&M topples the Longhorns or Sooners, everyone else in the Big 12 will be looking up to Oklahoma and Texas.
"I'm convinced that eventually it's going to happen," Gundy said. "I think there are several teams that can win this league."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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