COMMENTARY

Mellinger | Big 12 should celebrate new beginning

Updated: 2012-08-27T18:26:15Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

The first autumn of the rest of the Big 12’s life is upon us and there has to be a better name for it. The Heartland Conference. The Great Midwest League. The Survivalists. The Red River Rivalry and Eight Welfare Recipients.

Whatever.

This isn’t about the basic math fallacy of calling a league with 10 schools the Big 12. And it’s not even about the sad state of holding onto a past that no longer exists — like a divorcée keeping her wedding pictures up.

This is about putting the focus on the league’s brightest and most promising present and future in years.

This is about a conference with solid membership for the first time since, conservatively speaking, 2009 — when this year’s seniors were freshmen.

The point is that this is essentially a new league. Not just without four old schools and with two new ones, but with new priorities, solidarity, strengths, weaknesses, geographic footprints and perspectives.

Look closely, and you see that the league should celebrate that. This autumn will be its first chance. There is so much to smile about.

The Big 12 is not a better league than it was five years ago, and anyone who tells you differently should be slapped and given a five-year show-cause penalty for why you’d listen to anything they say. Nebraska is a national brand and powerhouse, the kind of program any TV network would renegotiate a contract for. The Big 12 could only replace the Huskers by landing Notre Dame, but the problem with that plan is that it just won’t ever happen.

But after that, the Big 12 did about as well as could be expected.

Over the last five years, West Virginia (48-17 overall and 9-6 against non-conference BCS opponents), Missouri (48-19 and 8-2) and TCU (55-10 and 8-2) are a virtual competitive wash. Texas A&M (33-31 and 1-8) is much less impressive.

That said, if the last few years taught us anything about the value of college football programs, it’s that TV ratings are much more important than wins. And in that way, A&M is a staple program in the heart of Texas, Missouri is the only major program in a state of six million people, and TCU has an enrollment of fewer than 10,000. These were not even trades.

But the Big 12 is a stronger league, in the true sense of the word, better prepared to face the future together. And who could’ve expected this?

The conference became something like ground zero for college football realignment. With the alarms going off around the country, the Big 12 was looted by the Big 10 (Nebraska), Pac-12 (Colorado) and SEC (Missouri and Texas A&M). The league did the only thing it could do in response, which was to make cries about conferences respecting each other plainly hypocritical by raiding the Big East for West Virginia and TCU.

That the eye of the realignment storm ran directly over the Big 12 was inevitable for a lot of reasons. What wasn’t inevitable — not by even the most optimistic stretch of Dan Beebe’s imagination — was that the league would not only survive the attack but come out of it stronger than at any point since before colleges started speed-dating conferences.

So the drama is over. Somehow. The debris is being cleared, slowly but steadily. For the first time in years, you can be sure that the schools in this league now will be here next year and the year after that.

This is a good league, too. Top to bottom, it’s as strong as any in the country. And, yeah, that includes the conference that now has Mizzou and A&M. The SEC is a better league at the top — LSU and Alabama are national-title favorites — but the rest is similar to the Big 12.

Using Athlon’s preseason rankings of every FBS program, the SEC averages 30th place and the Big 12 34th. Half the Big 12 is ranked 22nd or higher; you have to go to 30th for the halfway point of the SEC.

The point is that hand-wringing about the Big 12’s demise — very much including my column and head — has been overdone and ultimately proved a waste of energy.

The Big 12 is different, and it will never again be what it once was. Heated rivalries that are older than Oklahoma’s Union membership are gone. But different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Different doesn’t necessarily mean weak. Different, in this case, means new and competitive and for the first time in years: steady.

The first autumn of the rest of the Big 12’s life is upon us. Worth the wait, too.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com

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