Image is everything
Big 12 recruiting takes hit after the recent struggles of Texas and Oklahoma
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Dwight Williams is a child of the new millennium.
He was born in 1995, the same year Ricky Williams landed at Texas via San Diego en route to the all-time NCAA rushing mark, four years before Bob Stoops took over at Oklahoma, six years into Bill Snyder's first stint at Kansas State.
It was one year, in fact, before the Big 12 began playing football.
Williams, an ESPN Watch List junior linebacker from Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra, was in preschool when quarterback Josh Heupel and linebacker Torrance Marshall led Oklahoma to the most recent of its seven national titles. To Williams and football players his age, Texas' run to the roses during the 2005 season happened nearly half a lifetime ago.
It's a different Big 12 today, one in which Texas and Oklahoma no longer look untouchable. But is it better for recruits?
Williams said he believes the league's brand is strong. None of the upheaval of the past two years -- the loss of four schools, addition of two and wavering fortunes of the Big 12's flagship football programs -- has much impacted his opinion of the conference.
Williams counts more than 20 scholarship offers from the likes UCLA and Washington to Florida, Miami, Tennessee, Nebraska, Michigan State, Ole Miss and Texas Tech.
Missing are Texas and Oklahoma. He's noticed.
"Those schools are huge," Williams said. "I count all offers as a blessing. They're amazing. But Texas and Oklahoma are as strong as any programs in the country."
Actually, UT and OU, for the second straight year last season, both failed to finish higher than 15th in the Associated Press poll. Before the 2011 season, either the Longhorns or the Sooners finished among the top 11 for 11 consecutive years (from 2000 to 2010). Eight years in that span, at least one of them finished in the top five. Five times, both were in the top 10.
But memories of dominance from years past -- even if it's the memories of their coaches and parents -- still shape the image of the Big 12 to recruits.
"There are so many Big 12 teams that are strong right now," Baylor receivers coach and co-recruiting coordinator Kendal Briles said. "A lot is the style of play. It's fun to watch. Kids who play offense want to be a part of it. From Montana to Florida, if you're watching Big 12 football, it's exciting.
"I think the national brand of the Big 12 is as strong as it's ever been."
Kansas State enjoyed a magical season in 2012. Oklahoma State did the same in 2011. Baylor produced a Heisman Trophy winner. The Big 12 can go only so far on their backs, though.
After all, the league was reshaped through the most recent round of realignment to enhance the power of Texas and Oklahoma. Every team plays a round-robin schedule. The conference title game is gone.
"The Big 12 is the ultimate place for our kids to be," said Steve Spavital of Broken Arrow (Okla.) High School, coach of ESPN Watch List junior running back Devon Thomas, an OSU commit, and coveted Watch List junior linebacker Gyasi Akem. "We want our kids to go there. You're talking about some great schools.
"Our guys view it as an incredible honor to be a part of that conference."
Despite insistences that all is well, the league needs its thoroughbreds to start churning again.
Some top recruits are choosing their Big 12 options more carefully.
In 2011, UT signed the nation's fifth-rated recruiting class. It featured five of the top 10 prospects in the state of Texas. Of the five in the top 10 who went elsewhere, the Longhorns offered just one -- running back Aaron Green, who followed his brother, Andrew, to Nebraska, and transferred a year later to TCU.
Two weeks ago, Texas' class, which ranked 15th nationally yet was tops in the Big 12 -- generally regarded as its worst on signing day since 2005 -- included just two of the top 14 prospects in Texas. It offered and missed on five of the state's top nine recruits and suffered pride-swallowing decommitments early to Texas A&M (receiver Ricky Seals-Jones of Sealy) and late to Alabama (defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson of Arlington Heights).
UT did sign the state's No. 1 prospect, center Darius James of Killeen Harker Heights, the second time in the last three years the Longhorns landed ESPN's top-rated Texas prospect.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma got the No. 2 recruit, running back Keith Ford of Cypress Ranch, but no others were among the top 22.
The Sooners, on the heels of their 41-13 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, signed a class that finished 16th nationally, their lowest class ranking since 2007 when they finished outside the top 25.
"We all remember when Texas and Oklahoma beat everybody," said Briles, the son of Baylor coach Art Briles, "but that's just not the case right now."
Briles said he sees no problem in spreading the wealth.
"There are so many good kids out there (in Texas), everybody's going to get a stack of them," he said.
Junior linebacker Kevin Mouhon of Norcross (Ga.) High School holds an Oklahoma State offer among others that include Florida State, Ohio State, Tennessee and Auburn. Mouhon said he'll look at the Cowboys but admitted he hadn't kept up with all the recent change in the Big 12.
"To be honest," Mouhon said, "I really don't know much about that part of the country, because I'm surrounded by the SEC and the ACC."
When Texas and Oklahoma competed for titles, kids everywhere knew them. And they knew the Big 12.
And where UT and OU once got first pick of recruits, it's now more democratic.
One factor is the SEC, with its seven straight national titles and the increasing power of Texas A&M.
Alabama and LSU show signs of bolstering their presence in traditional Big 12 recruiting grounds. USC and Oregon visit regularly, as do national brands Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska, with newer players like Clemson on the prowl.
Facts indicate that the playing field has evened.
And for a league that put so many of its chips on crimson, cream and burnt orange, that's not necessarily best for business.
The Big 12 may not have an image problem, but it's got a new world order.
It's an order that may soon leave it unrecognizable, even to a football player born in 1995.