In another dose of offseason navel-gazing, let's think a bit here about the Big 12, which, according to the pundit is either the most overrated conference in the nation or the most underrated. Personally, we here at EDSBS.com think the split verdict on the Big 12 comes from a number of factors, most of them being based on human factors and not on how the Big 12's teams actually perform on the field.
1. First, most Big 12 schools exist in the heartland,, or as most sportswriters would call it, "flyover country." Politely speaking, most Big 12 schools sit in the middle of nowheresville: Manhattan, Norman, Lubbock, Columbia, Lawrence, Waco...places that make you think of serial killers, methamphetamine rings, and a lot of empty space. This is a major PR problem, since there's just not as many people out there to generate and echo the kind of hype you have surrounding, say, a USC, Miami, or even the kind of persistent residual respect reserved for your clearly decrepit programs at ND or Penn. State. It's also an analytical problem for sportswriters living where most Americans live-in the corridors along the coasts, who whether they like it or not, are more likely to run into serious discussion of Michigan or Florida's qb controversy at the local bar than, say, a hearty debate over Brad Smith's disappointing performance in 2004 for Missouri. It's just numbers, people, and when you come from the only part of the country with negative population growth, it's going to show up in the most surprising little ways.
There's no place like home. And that's why they moved away.
2. Their bowl record doesn't lie: 24-30 since the inception of the conference. That's atrocious, especially given the proliferation of smaller bowls...
looking for big name schools whose fans travel like Mongolian nomads.(Which they do: Nebraska fans would fire up the RV if the Huskers decided to hold spring practice in Uzbekistan. How, you ask? They'd drive right over the north pole. Gotta see how the qb race is shaping up...) When pitted against other conferences in showcase games, they haven't measured up.
2. The only Big 12 teams in recent years who garner serious respect-Oklahoma and Texas-have had a nasty habit of disappointing their most ardent backers. Texas under Mack Brown has been a tragicomedy of superb recruiting classes and an overall superb record (70-19 since 1998) being erased by skull-thumping losses to Oklahoma and one particularly drawn-out and embarrassing qb controversy (Major Applewhite vs. Chris Simms, which Mack Brown handled with the delicacy and skill of a neurosurgeon with Parkinson's.) Oklahoma, after a world-class WTF moment versus Miami in 2001, has dropped the two national title games it's made since in awkward fashion, mostly due to the "Double Toretta" act Jason White pulled in those games, but not entirely. When your honors kids flunk the big tests, it doesn't bode well for the rest of your conference.
3. The vacuum left by the decline of Nebraska has severely affected the standing of the conference. The dominant team of the 1990s-the blackshirts, the improbably devastating run game, the one great close call they'd have every year, the bowl game brawls-has suffered the ignominy of ignominies in a six year plummet to a losing record in 2004 with Bill Callahan at the helm. It's hard not to think that the lack of a run-mutilating throwback team in the middle of their schedules hasn't made the Big 12 a softer conference-see Mike Leach and Bob Stoops' finesse-ish offenses for concrete examples of this. Not that we, as someone who watched our favorite team DESTROYED by Big Red, really miss them. We just think they raised the bar for the rest of the conference with their style of play. Now that we're remembering hearing the sound of Jacquez Green's hip coming out of its socket, maybe we don't miss them so much...
Glory days for Nebraska: Tommie Frazier, outrunning the entire roster of the University of Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
In summary, the Big 12, once the vaunted home of smashmouth football, may be the biggest finesse conference in America. Which leads us to this question: why not the finesse-heavy Texas Tech Red Raiders for the conference championship? Mike Leach finished 8-4 with Texas Tech last season, capping the schedule with an pants-down spanking of Cal in the Holiday Bowl, effectively ruining Cal's season in the process. Tech's defense improved drastically last season, and returns eight starters. And yes, they're looking for a new qb, but this is the same guy who turned Sonny Cumbie into a Playstation on easy level quarterback in a single season. They'll score points, and occasionally stop people on defense. What's not to like? Besides Oklahoma's tradition of beating them senseless? Not much. In a wide-open race in a muddled conference with an ongoing identity crisis, the pick of Texas Tech makes as much sense as any other.
Mike Leach: we're guessing he's calling a pass in this picture.