The Big 12 Conference just staged a championship it didn’t need. The programs at Kansas and Baylor continue to mortify. Texas celebrates a berth in the Houston Bowl.
All is not well when it comes to football in this maladjusted league of ours. That’s stating the obvious.
But here’s sharing a secret: All is better.
We spent the first three years of the College Football Playoff era laughing at Big 12 football. And while we aren’t necessarily cheering the conference as year four winds down, at least our faces have straightened.
For this, commissioner Bob Bowlsby owes Oklahoma a holiday bonus.
Back at Big 12 Media Days in July, Bowlsby lauded some conference accomplishments before getting to the point, declaring: “We’re here to talk about football, and we didn’t make the playoff. Obviously, that’s the coin of the realm at this point.”
Yes, it is. And now that the Sooners are in the playoff, the Big 12 will be judged differently.
The Big 12 championship cost the league a second New Year’s Six bowl, as TCU slid down to the Alamo after getting thumped by OU. I guarantee, however, that the Big Ten, with three New Year’s Six bids but shut out of the playoff, would trade places with the Big 12.
If that doesn’t soften TCU’s landing in San Antonio, this should: Eight Big 12 teams are bowling. Lincoln Riley, Mike Gundy and friends spent a considerable amount of this season bragging about the depth of their league. Now they have something to present besides words — no other conference sent 80 percent of its membership to the postseason.
No other conference claims the best player in college football. Baker Mayfield is about to give the Big 12 its first Heisman Trophy winner since Robert Griffin III in 2011. The Sooners will get the biggest bounce off Mayfield’s Heisman tour, but their league will feel it as well.
The Big 12 benefits from Mark Andrews’ Mackey Award, an honor the OU tight end claimed Wednesday. It benefits from Mason Rudolph’s Unitas Award, a prize the Oklahoma State quarterback bagged last week.
It is sure to benefit Thursday night, when Mayfield competes for the Maxwell and teammate Orlando Brown competes for the Outland; when Mayfield or Rudolph wins the Davey O’Brien; when OSU’s James Washington likely wins the Biletnikoff over West Virginia’s David Sills; and when Texas’ DeShon Elliott and Michael Dickson vie for the Jim Thorpe and Ray Guy.
The awards circuit proves the Big 12 remains second to none for offense and entertainment value. If it doesn’t, that 114-point Bedlam last month sure did.
But notice Elliott’s inclusion. A defensive player. Sample 2018 NFL mock drafts. Mayfield, Brown, Washington, Rudolph and Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams are included. So are OU rush end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
The Big 12 felt like a flag football conference heading into this season. When your league’s top-rated defense ranks 51st nationally (Kansas State 2016), how do you think otherwise?
A year later TCU (19th), Texas (42nd) and Iowa State (46th) have rubbed some dirt into the Big 12’s reputation. Texas scored 17 points and won a game this year. Iowa State scored 14 and did the same. OSU scored 13 and won in overtime.
The league can’t completely escape the old narrative — everyone handicaps the Rose Bowl as OU’s Big 12 offense versus Georgia’s SEC defense — but progress is plain to see.
It would have helped for Texas to beat Maryland, K-State to beat Vanderbilt and Baylor to beat somebody last September. But at least OU won at Ohio State, TCU won at Arkansas and Kansas defeated Southeast Missouri State.
KU aside, games were competitive and often dramatic through October and November. December arrived with a playoff berth, all of those bowl invites and new contracts for Gundy, Gary Patterson and Matt Campbell.
Riley will get one soon. The Sooners will get their one-year membership in the Jelly of the Month Club from Bowlsby.
As with a Big 12 Conference widely considered a source of jokes before the 2017 season, it will be the thought that counts.