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The Big 12 Is On The Outside Looking In

Josh Cohen |
April 4, 2015 | 3:19 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The Big 12 Conference’s plight is real. 

The conference boasts a healthy balance of talent in both football and men’s basketball, solidifying its reputation as a power conference in both sports. However, after this season’s College Football Playoff debacle and a subpar showing in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, the Big 12 has managed to look perfectly average, lagging behind the Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten.

I am not a huge proponent of comparing conferences, especially when it comes to the postseason. Grouping teams’ bowl performances by conference seems like a halfhearted attempt to make sense of the landscape of college football, while the NCAA Tournament—given the bracket setup—is so matchup-specific that ranking a conference’s showing as a whole seems like a flawed metric. 

That said, the Big 12 has immense potential yet manages to underachieve more than any of its peers. The problem starts and ends with parity. This is undoubtedly a good problem to have in terms of competition during regular-season conference games, as it is an absolute bloodbath in both football and men’s basketball. 

But the Big 12 has not won a national title in football since the Vince Young-led Texas Longhorns defeated USC in the 2005 season’s national title game. Meanwhile, the last Big 12 basketball team to win it all was Kansas in 2008. 

USC’s football dynasty during the early 2000s was the Pac-12’s most dominant team in recent history (Pac-10 at that time). The SEC went on a remarkable seven-year tear in which Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn each won the BCS National Championship at least once. The Big Ten has relied on Ohio State to hoist the hardware (football, 2002 and 2014), but Urban Meyer and Ohio State won the inaugural College Football Playoff in style. Alabama, Oregon and Florida State were also selected for the four-team playoff. Big Ten? SEC? Pac-12? ACC? Check, check, check, and check. Big 12? Nay.

The 2014 college football season in the Big 12 grew increasingly intriguing with each passing week. Baylor beat TCU. TCU beat West Virginia. West Virginia beat Baylor. 


But while TCU and Baylor vied for playoff spots (which neither ultimately captured), the rest of the conference was noticeably underperforming for the better part of the season. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State won only nine conference games combined. Texas finished the regular season with a .500 record. The high-flying offenses of the Big 12 kept fans on the edge of their seats all season long, but several of the tradition-steeped programs failed to live up to lofty expectations.

After teams from the other four power conferences occupied the only four seats at the cool kids’ table—also known as the College Football Playoff—the Big 12 still had an opportunity to make a splash on the hardwood in the NCAA Tournament. 

But alas, the other power conferences all saw their teams secure spots in the Elite Eight, while the Big 12 was once again left on the outside looking in. Kentucky was the lone representative from the SEC, while Notre Dame, Louisville and Duke all represented the ACC in the quarterfinals. Wisconsin and Michigan State met in the Big Ten Championship, and they both advanced to the Final Four. The Big Ten is not only home to the reigning national champs in football, but it is also the parent of two of the four teams in the NCAA Tournament’s semifinals. Not bad. The Pac-12 started the NCAA Tournament like a house afire, but Arizona was the only team that managed to reach the last eight. Still, the Pac-12 was represented in the Elite Eight. The Big 12? Nope. 

The Big 12 was nowhere to be found in the Elite Eight, and only Oklahoma and West Virginia managed to reach the Sweet 16. The Sooners and Mountaineers turned in quality performances in the tourney, but why is Kansas a perennial disappointment in March? Aside from Kansas’ 2012 tourney run to the championship game, which was overshadowed by Kentucky’s dominance, the Jayhawks have failed to follow up strong regular seasons with equally impressive postseason runs. Okay, so Trey Burke’s miraculous three-pointer for Michigan in the Sweet 16 in 2013 brought Kansas’ season to a screeching halt. Plus, Joel Embiid’s absence in the 2014 tournament was undoubtedly a huge miss, and it is hard to believe Bill Self’s side would have lost to Stanford had Embiid been in the lineup. But this is one of the proudest basketball schools in the country, and this conference needs them to return to the national spotlight. 

Also, where was Kansas State in this year’s tournament? The Wildcats failed to make the field of 68 for the first time since 2009, and their 8-10 conference record was disappointing for the folks in Manhattan, Kansas to say the least. Baylor and Iowa State locked up three-seeds in this year’s tournament and looked poised to make deep runs, but they lost to Georgia State and UAB, respectively.

Upsets comprise a great deal of the intrigue and allure of March Madness, but these types of losses have you seriously questioning whether the Big 12’s level of quality matches its degree of parity. Upsets happen. Sure. But Baylor turned the ball over 21 times in that game against Georgia State, while Iowa State fell to a UAB side that went 12-6 in Conference USA play. These bracket-busting fixtures highlighted the Big 12’s March flop, and there were not many major upsets in this season’s edition of the tournament, which only exacerbated the situation and accentuated the disappointing performances from the Big 12's participants.   

Looking ahead, TCU should once again be in the mix for the College Football Playoff this upcoming season, especially with Heisman hopeful Trevone Boykin returning behind center. And maybe Bill Self’s 2015-16 Kansas Jayhawks will make a dent in next year’s NCAA Tournament and strike legitimate fear into the hearts of their opponents.

Perhaps Baylor and Iowa State did not deserve to be three-seeds in the tournament. Maybe the Kansas basketball program faces unfairly high expectations, especially this season when Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid departed for the NBA Draft and the Jayhawks were expected to pick up right where they left off. But they reloaded and looked like an elite team at times this season, yet they did not appear to be serious contenders despite living in the top fifteen of the national rankings all season long. 

Why does it feel like an uphill battle for the Jayhawks? And how does Oklahoma football follow up a 2013 season that ended with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama with a campaign that ended with a whimper in the form of a 40-6 defeat to Clemson? This conference appears to be sailing against the wind at the moment.

The parity in the Big 12 provides fans with wonderful entertainment, but this element of unpredictability in the conference could be blinding us from gauging whether or not certain teams are legitimate threats on a national level. The quality is obviously there, but the Big 12 seems like the most unlikely source of a national title contender in football or men's basketball as it stands today, save TCU football.

Much like we remember legendary teams, we remember conferences for being the homes of those legendary teams. Both the parts and the whole of the Big 12, at least for the time being, are struggling to return to that realm of greatness. 



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