Renewed sense of optimism in Big 12
The Big 12 has a new defending champion. Oklahoma State finished 12-1 last season and ranked No. 3.
The Big 12 has a new commissioner. Bob Bowlsby came to the league from Stanford, where his program won the Directors' Cup every year he ran it.
The Big 12 has a new membership roster. Two unranked teams, Missouri and Texas A&M, fled for greener pastures. Two ranked teams replaced them. West Virginia is No. 11. TCU is No. 20.
The Big 12 is finalizing a television deal reported to be worth $2.6 billion over 13 years.
Prod the Big 12 however you like. Time its pulse. Take a rubber hammer to its knee. Place a cold stethoscope on its back and ask the league to inhale deeply. It appears to be the picture of health. That is how the Big 12 feels and that is how it wants to look.
A healthy conference has as many teams that could win the championship as not. A year ago, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State, three schools that have spent most of their football history as homecoming opponents, finished the season ranked ahead of Oklahoma. Eighth-place Iowa State toppled Oklahoma State. Ninth-place Texas Tech humiliated Oklahoma -- in Norman.
"It looks to me like there's a lot more parity here than in the SEC," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. He came to Lubbock in 2010 after coaching 14 seasons at Ole Miss and Auburn.
The 2011 version of the Big 12 couldn't have been scripted any better. In the short-term-memory world in which we live, the Big 12 has established itself. With new success, a new commissioner and new blood, a new optimism has taken root in the Big 12. The future is bright.
But for anyone who can look backward and see beyond last year, the question of balance in the Big 12 hangs like a Shane Lechler punt.
In the conference's 15 years of existence before last season, Oklahoma won the championship seven times. Texas won three. The Big 12 has lived its life as one-sided as a Texas election. In Texas, Republicans have won every statewide election since 1994, two years before the Big 12 took the field.
History pegs last year as the aberration. History hums "Boomer Sooner" in one ear, "The Eyes of Texas" in the other. History tells us that the success of 2011 masks the angst of 2010, when Texas and Oklahoma negotiated with the Pac-10 Conference.
The wooing from both sides lasted right up to the church steps before both sides called the wedding off. Texas and Oklahoma came home, wiped the lipstick off their cheeks and pronounced their undying devotion to their longtime partners. The cuckolds, pride be damned, took the Sooners and the Longhorns back.
To prove their devotion to the league, Texas and Oklahoma agreed that the conference TV money should be split equally. Up to that point, the Big 12 split half the money equally and doled out the other half based upon television appearances.
For that agreement, the league agreed to cede "third-tier" television rights back to its members. That means after the broadcast network (ABC) and the cable networks (ESPN, FSN), the schools may sell what's left to the highest bidder.
The new contract, divided equally among 10 members, should mean $20 million per year per school. But Texas made a deal with ESPN for The Longhorn Network for another $15 million annually. Oklahoma has a deal with Fox's regional sports networks.
Money doesn't guarantee happiness and it doesn't guarantee 10-win seasons. According to Tuberville, if all 10 schools are getting $20 million per year, all 10 schools will have the tools to be competitive. Winning and losing will depend on the decisions of the staff, as it always does.
"Everything that surrounds winning and losing is on a more equal playing field," he said. "[The third-tier money] is not going to affect us. You can only spend so much."
The key to the future, he said, is the security that comes from knowing that the league is pulling in the same direction.
"We all feel more confident because we all know where we are going to be," he said. "It was a little bit harder to recruit when you didn't know where you were going to be. It was hard for three years. Other coaches would say to recruits about us, 'Who are you going to play? What conference are you going to be in?'"
Every athletic director has more money in his pocket. Every school -- even Kansas, which went to the Orange Bowl just five seasons ago -- has enjoyed the taste of success in recent years. That leaves one gap, one gulf that separates Texas and Oklahoma from the other eight schools.
In a sport in which success begets success and history remains as stubbornly important on the field as it does in the classroom, the Sooners and the Longhorns have a decided edge. The history of winning in college football and the importance attached to it by the school and its fans is wrapped in one catch-all word -- tradition.
Of the five schools in the original Big 12 that had won national championships -- Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M -- only two remain. Nebraska left for the Big Ten. Colorado moved to the Pac-12. The aforementioned Aggies jumped to the SEC. Oklahoma has won seven national championships. Texas has won four.
Among the other eight schools, there are a couple of near-misses and one hit. Kansas State almost played for the 1998 BCS championship. The Big 12 brought in West Virginia, which played for the 1988 national title, and TCU, which won it all in 1938. As recently as two years ago, the Horned Frogs went 13-0. They, too, didn't get the opportunity to play for the BCS championship.
It is easy to see a future in which Texas and Oklahoma continue to dominate. They have the confidence of having it all. But the other schools have the confidence of security and a taste of recent success. Nine of the conference's 10 programs have enjoyed a 10-win season in the last five seasons.
It is a new era. Everyone is undefeated in the new and improved Big 12. Let the games begin.
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