Oklahoma president David Boren is correct. The Big 12 has a psychological disadvantage.
But it’s less about the conference competing with 10 teams and lacking a football title game, and more about the Sooners and Texas slipping from the top of the standings.
The Big 12 begins its 20th football season this fall and fifth in the current structure. In the slimmed-down version, Oklahoma shared a conference championship in one year, and the Longhorns’ best finish was a second-place tie. There’s been one top-10 finish nationally — OU in 2013 — between them.
Compare that to the previous decade. From 2000 until 2009, among power-five conference schools, Texas and Oklahoma tied for first nationally with 110 victories and were first and second in winning percentage.
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In six of those seasons, one or the other played for the national championship. Their meeting at the Cotton Bowl was in many years the most nationally significant game of the regular season. That hasn’t been the case since the days of Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy.
In their place atop the standings stepped Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and most recently, TCU and Baylor. It’s natural to wonder how the postseason might have looked if the Sooners and Longhorns posted the 11-1 records of the Horned Frogs and Bears.
Had Oklahoma, part of the game’s aristocracy, been ranked third in the next-to-last College Football Playoff poll as TCU was, and defeated its final opponent 55-3, as the Frogs did, would OU have fallen out of the top four and playoff bracket?
Or would a fifth-ranked Texas, with one of sports’ greatest brands, after impressively holding serve at home against ninth-ranked Kansas State in the season finale, have had enough juice to find a spot in the playoff? Baylor didn’t.
TCU coach Gary Patterson didn’t want to address the idea that national unfamiliarity kept the Frogs and Bears out of the playoff at the expense of Florida State and Ohio State.
“Everybody’s asked me that,” Patterson said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. It could have happened, but then I would be giving (Texas and Oklahoma) credit and why should I do that?
College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock insisted brand wasn’t an issue when football’s final four was selected. But as the lone power conference not represented, the perception arose that the Big 12 champion wasn’t as strong as the others.
That was never the case in the previous decade. Twice the Big 12 played for the national championship without its league champion. Nebraska didn’t reach the title game in 2001 and Oklahoma was crushed by Kansas State in the 2003 Big 12 finale, but both qualified for the national title game.
Today, Big 12 champions not named Texas or Oklahoma don’t make the finale. When one-loss Oklahoma State finished with the same record as Alabama in 2011, the Crimson Tide got the nod over the Cowboys to oppose undefeated LSU in the BCS title game.
How did the Sooners and Longhorns regress? Quarterback play at both schools has been a problem. Texas is trying to find its footing under coach Charlie Strong in the second year of the post-Mack Brown era, and Oklahoma continues to look for a defensive spark with the return of Mike Stoops as coordinator.
The historical powers used to own the fertile Texas recruiting turf. But since realignment, the stranglehold has loosened. Texas A&M’s departure to the Southeastern Conference helped open the state to that league. The addition of TCU presents to Dallas-Fort Worth prospects the opportunity to play in the Big 12 without leaving the Metroplex.
In Art Briles, Baylor has a coach who has transformed the program from a doormat to a two-time defending conference champion by selling his campus location and identifying and developing mostly Texas high school talent.
“Waco is South Dallas and North Houston,” Briles said. “You want to challenge me on the state of Texas? Ask me anything right now. I lived for 59 years in the state of Texas. I’ve coached all over the state. I know the people. I know the climate. I know what ticks here.
“I know mamas like to be able to get in their car and drive to watch their babies play football.”
What’s also known is Baylor and TCU topped the Big 12 last season and are projected to do the same this season. That may be a disadvantage in national perception for the Big 12, and it doesn’t help Oklahoma or Texas.