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2017 Conference Story Lines: Big 12

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As we draw nearer to the start of football, we anxiously await to see how the narrative of the college football plays season unfolds.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In preparation, we bring you some of the most interesting story lines for each conference. In this edition, we take a look at the Big 12.

Finally, a Conference Championship Game

The biggest news for the Big 12 was the addition of a conference championship game, which will be played in Arlington, TX. The NCAA had previously required conferences to have two divisions and pit the winners in such a game.

This unnecessary and overreaching regulation was rescinded, and now the conference will have one of the most interesting and unique title games in the country. Only in the Big 12 will there be a full round-robin regular season (no divisions) followed by a guaranteed #1 vs. #2 matchup in a conference title game. While this also guarantees a rematch, it also avoids title game snoozefests like the ACC’s 2013 FSU (45) vs. Duke (7) matchup, the Pac-12’s Oregon (51) vs. Arizona (14) matchup, or the SEC’s 2015 Alabama (29) vs. Florida (15) matchup.

The title game will give its winner a major resume boost as they vie for a playoff spot. Imagine if 11-1 TCU and 11-1 Baylor had played to determine one true champion. That marquee win may have totally changed the playoff picture.

The Big 12 still faces major pressure from a talent standpoint. Aside from Oklahoma and presumably Texas soon, the rest of the conference falls way behind the rest of the nation in recruiting. For reference, two SEC teams topped Oklahoma in the 2017 Rivals recruiting rankings. The next Big 12 team in those rankings was Texas. 10 SEC teams ranked above the Longhorns. The story doesn’t get a whole lot better (a little) when comparing to the likes of the other Power Five conferences either.

Nevertheless, adding a conference championship game is a major boost to the conference on multiple fronts and should take a small step in ensuring its long term stability.

Texas Oklahoma Schools Rule This Conference

Remember when Michael Crabtree’s TTU Red Raiders were battling the vaunted Longhorns for Big 12 dominance, or when Baylor and TCU were tangling for the crown? Now that Big 12 heavy weight battle occurs within the great state of Oklahoma. The two programs who have recently battled for conference supremacy (and will likely continue to) are the Oklahoma Sooners and their rival Oklahoma State Cowboys (AKA the Pokes).

Oklahoma has won the conference the past two seasons and are favored to do it again. They lose WR Dede Westbrook and their dynamic RB duo, but Baker Mayfield returns with a more experienced offensive line and more overall talent than the rest of the conference. Mayfield may be the pre-season Heisman favorite after Lamar Jackson sputtered and backed into the trophy last season.

Over in Stillwater, Mike Gundy has been more successful than many realize. Over the past eight seasons, his Pokes have appeared in the Cotton, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls and won the conference in 2011. They’ve won 10 games in consecutive seasons.

They return one of the best QB-WR connections in college football. (It’s no Watson-Williams, but it’s good.) QB Mason Rudolph passed for 4,091 yards with 28 TDs and only 4 INTs. Sure, Big 12 defenses are bad, but they aren’t so bad enough to make those numbers not spectacular. Rudolph was a three-star QB prospect from Rock Hill, SC and will now be among the pre-season Heisman favorites. James Washington is his star WR and ended his year with a 171 yard performance in an Alamo Bowl win over Colorado.

This rivalry gets two notches up this season. They’ll again be competing for in-state bragging rights and conference supremacy, but with a conference title game, they may face off in Stillwater and again in Arlington. If so, it may be the most compelling conference title game.

Will The Longhorns Re-Emerge

While the fireworks are going off in Oklahoma, Texas has a new coach and is trying to return to their glory days. The Longhorns return the most starters in the Big 12 – 17 – including QB Shane Buechele. With a new coach coming in, Tom Herman, there is excitement around the program again. It’s hard to predict if it’ll take time for Herman to right the ship or if the returning talent is enough for his infusion to immediately lift them to compete with the Oklahoma schools, but it’ll be fun to watch.

The Longhorns are the only school in the Big 12 that can hold a candle to the Sooners’ blue blooded history. The Longhorns have four National Titles (to the Sooners’ seven) including the more recent one (2005), more all-time wins (891-872), and just one fewer bowl win (27-28).

Will Texas Tech Have Enough Defense to Save Kliff Kingsbury’s Job?

Kliff Kingsbury joined Texas Tech in 2013 after Tommy Tuberville inexplicably left for Cincinnati. Kingsbury has led them to a bowl in just two of his first four seasons compiling a 24-26 record along the way. The biggest problem is how hapless the defense looks though.

The TTU offense was prolific. It produced the second QB taken in the NFL draft (Patrick Mahomes). S&P+ advanced stats rank the 2016 Red Raider offense as #6 in the country, but the defense. Well, it required a lot of scrolling down to find them. S&P+ ranked them at #125. Kansas, TCU, and Baylor (barely) were the only FBS teams they were able to hold under 40 points.

If Kingsbury fails to show at least some level of competence at coaching a P5 defense, they may have to move on. Kingsbury is a bit hard to fire though. He’s a young, likeable alumnus and former Red Raider QB. Fortunately, he may be able to be the next Bachelor if he can’t field a P5-quality defense and TTU decides to move on. We’re cheering for him!

Will The Big 12 Earn Their First CFB Playoff Win?

Back in 2014, the Big 12 failed to crown an outright champion and the eventual Champion Buckeyes (rightfully) made the playoff over Baylor or TCU. In 2015, Oklahoma bounced back from a Champs Sports Bowl loss the season prior to rematch the Clemson Tigers. They were torched by Christian Wilkins’ receiving dominance and bowed out. In 2016, Oklahoma went 1-2 out of conference to start their season. Oklahoma State similarly lost to Central Michigan and Baylor within their first four games. In just a few weeks, the Big 12 was largely boxed out of making the CFB Playoff.

This year, the Sooners will travel to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes and later travel to Stillwater. They’ll have a hard time finishing the regular season with just a lone loss. If Oklahoma State can do it they’ll have to face a major battle in the new conference title game.

Aside from Oklahoma, there are no programs in the Big 12 that have recruited on par (or close to par) with elite programs like Clemson, Florida State, or Michigan. In fact, Texas had the second best Big 12 class (Rivals) in 2017, but would have finished 11th compared to SEC programs. It’s for that reason that even if the Big 12 gets a team in the CFB playoff, they’re unlikely to beat Alabama or Ohio State in a playoff game unless they’re the Sooners (and who would pick the Sooners in a game like that?).

There are some great story lines in this conference, but it’s the fifth best conference in America.

While the glory of Clemson’s National Title has delayed the usual anxiousness for a new football season, that anxiousness is now returning. We still have two months before the Tigers unveil their new Death Valley Championship signage during the season opener against Kent State. Until then, we’ll continue to bring you these conference story line articles! One more thing, I get married in less than a week!