Controversy marks Big 12 season

National respect was fleeting for the Big 12 in 2006, even coming after a banner season last year.

Texas' national championship in 2005 -- the conference's fifth appearance in the BCS title game in six years -- and the league's strong 5-3 bowl record were quickly forgotten after Big 12 teams struggled through a subpar nonconference performance like none other in its history.

The Big 12 posted an 0-9 record against ranked foes in nonconference games and a 3-7 mark against opponents from BCS conferences.
The most telling mark of national disrespect can be seen in the current Associated Press rankings. Oklahoma, the highest-ranked team from the Big 12, was seventh in the AP poll. It's the lowest ranking for the top Big 12 team heading into the bowls in the history of the conference.

The Big 12's season also has been marked by controversy. Oklahoma dropped out of the national title picture after a loss in its conference opener against Texas and a heartbreaking nonconference loss at Oregon, which was decided on two debatable replay calls.

Missouri lost to Iowa State on a phantom holding call that ended up costing the Tigers several places in the conference's bowl pecking order. Iowa State coach Dan McCarney, the dean of Big 12 coaches whose team in the preseason was picked to challenge for the North title, resigned after posting a disappointing 4-8 record.
Oklahoma rebounded to claim an improbable championship behind quarterback Paul Thompson, a converted wide receiver. The Sooners were helped when Texas lost its final two regular-season games. Nebraska returned to the title game thanks to a strong performance by quarterback Zac Taylor and a retooled running game.

But the conference can again regain some of its lost respect during the bowl season. Four teams are favored in their bowl games: Texas Tech over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, Oklahoma State over Alabama in the PetroSun Independence Bowl, Oklahoma over Boise State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and Texas over Iowa in the Alamo Bowl.

The conference's other four representatives are underdogs: Kansas State against Rutgers in the Texas Bowl, Missouri against Oregon State in the Brut Sun Bowl, Nebraska against Auburn in the AT&T Cotton Bowl and Texas A&M against California in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said that many teams in the Big 12 have improved steadily throughout the season by breaking young players into the starting lineup.
Those results should be revealed in the conference's bowl performance, he said.

"People kind of label things and you have to win respect," Pinkel said. "But I remember last year at this time people were criticizing us as a conference and we ended up sharing that trophy for the best performance. This is a great league and I think the teams are better and more competitive than they have been."

The Big 12 has posted winning records in bowl games in only four of the last 10 seasons. The conference has also struggled in its bowl history against the SEC and the Big Ten, the two conferences it is most often compared with and recruits against. Big 12 teams are 7-11 against SEC teams and 4-10 vs. Big Ten teams in bowl history.

Pinkel, whose team notched an upset victory over South Carolina in the Independence Bowl last season, said the conference's performance last year was a big indicator of the Big 12's overall strength.

"We made one small contribution, but as the bowl season kept going the wins kept mounting," Pinkel said. "As these games are played, it tells a story and kind of quieted some critics."

Nine of the 12 teams will return their quarterbacks next season, including all of the bowl teams except Oklahoma. Nine of the conference's top 10 rushers, six of 10 receivers and five of its 10 top tacklers also will be back next season. So the Big 12's future looks brighter after early struggles this season.

"This league won't be down for long," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "As you look at the national championship game, we've been well-represented. We don't feel like we have anything to be ashamed of."

Most Valuable Player

Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor
Zac Taylor has helped turn the culture around at Nebraska in only two years. Coach Bill Callahan's transformation of his program from a stodgy option-based attack to a pro-style offense was jump-started by playing Taylor at quarterback. Taylor's statistics weren't as noticeable as some other Big 12 quarterbacks, but no player was more valuable to his team.

Coach of the Year

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops
Bob Stoops battled through more adversities in 2006 than in any previous season to lead the Sooners to an unexpected Big 12 title. Through injuries, player dismissals, an early defensive slump and overhauling a young offensive line, Stoops never made excuses. His work this season will be remembered as one of the most satisfying coaching jobs of his career.

Newcomer of the Year
Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman
Adarius Bowman made the most of his second chance. After being kicked off North Carolina's team in 2004, Bowman came to Oklahoma State looking only for playing time. Instead, he produced team-leading totals of 57 receptions, 1,131 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. His 19.8 yards-per-catch average was the highest among the nation's top 100 in receptions. And his 300-yard, 13-reception performance against Kansas was the best in conference history and the 11th-best in NCAA history.

Biggest Surprise
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy
Colt McCoy was expected to struggle like most redshirt freshmen during his first season as starter. However, he was able to escape most of those problems, throwing 27 touchdown passes as he led the Longhorns to the brink of a Bowl Championship Series berth. His injury against Kansas State doomed the Longhorns' South Division title hopes. But McCoy still provided surprising leadership and performance unexpected before the season.

Biggest Disappointment
Iowa State

With most of its offensive weapons returning, Iowa State was expected to challenge for the North Division title. Instead, the Cyclones lost all but one conference game as a tough schedule, young defense and injuries contributed to McCarney's resignation before the season ended.

All-Big 12 Team
QB -- Zac Taylor, Nebraska
RB -- Jon Cornish, Kansas
RB -- Brandon Jackson, Nebraska
WR -- Joel Filani, Texas Tech
WR -- Adarius Bowman, Oklahoma State
TE -- Chase Coffman, Missouri
OL -- Chris Messner, Oklahoma
OL -- Justin Blalock, Texas
OL -- Corey Hilliard, Oklahoma State
OL -- Kirk Elder, Texas A&M
C -- Lyle Sendlein, Texas

DE -- Abraham Wright, Colorado
DE -- Ian Campbell, Kansas State
DT -- James McClinton, Kansas
DT -- Chris Hudler, Texas Tech
LB -- Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma
LB -- Marcus Bacon, Missouri
LB -- Brandon Archer, Kansas State
CB -- Aqib Talib, Kansas
CB -- Aaron Ross, Texas
S -- Reggie Smith, Oklahoma
S -- Melvin Bullitt, Texas A&M

Special teams
PK -- Mason Crosby, Colorado
P -- Daniel Sepulveda, Baylor
KR -- Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.