The Big 12 Needs a Spark

The Big 12 is a mess. Don’t believe me? Here’s Oklahoma State losing on a last-second play to Central Michigan:

Need more proof? In the Power 5 conferences, there are two teams who won every game in their conference. One of them is in the playoffs this year (roll tide I guess), and the other one couldn’t move higher than #7 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Of course, the reason Oklahoma never really sniffed the playoff has a lot to do with their two losses in non-conference play (Houston and Ohio State), but it sure didn’t help that no one was really that impressed with their 9-0 domination of the Big 12.

The Big 12’s other historic power lost to its worst team, which led to Texas firing its second coach in four years. West Virginia was the only team to put on a respectable play in non-conference play, but they followed that with two losses to conference foes. Baylor was also undefeated in non-conference play, but they pulled their typical “Baylor schedule,” so their wins wouldn’t have been impressive even if they’d won by triple digits. Oh, and Baylor also ended up losing its last six games to finish a not-so-impressive 6-6.

Unfortunately, this is the world in which Big 12 fans now find themselves. To make matters worse, the Big 12 declined to expand its size this season. While I personally think that means some of the bigger programs are starting to plan an exit strategy, that’s neither here nor there, and as long as the conference exists, its reputation matters. This is especially true with a playoff committee that bases their choices on the “eye test,” with a carousel of other excuses used to justify votes as necessary.

Well, reputation for next season starts with the bowl games this season, however unfair that might be. Perception is everything. So let’s preview the bowl games coming up for the few teams who actually played well enough to merit entry into one.

Baylor

First up, 6-6 Baylor takes on Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl. Personally, I think this is a winnable matchup for the Bears, even though Vegas has the Broncos as 7-point favorites. Unfortunately for Baylor, Seth Russell suffered a season-ending injury in Norman, and Shock Linwood is skipping this game to try increase his draft stock (or so he says). Boise State puts up points, but honestly everyone puts up points on Baylor’s defense, so that’ll be nothing new to the Bears. The Bears will have to keep the tempo going to see if they can try to match the Broncos point-for-point, then get lucky at one point or another with a turnover.

With the guard changing at Baylor, this game won’t matter much for their own national reputation. But it would certainly help the conference as a whole if they could show they’re not the dumpster fire they certainly appeared to be in the second half of the season.

West Virginia

Wednesday night, the Mountaineers will face the Miami Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Outside of perhaps Oklahoma, no team needs a bowl win to boost its reputation more than West Virginia does. West Virginia finished the season ranked #16 in the country, with seven (!) teams with more losses ranked ahead of it. It has no coaching changes coming, instead signing Dana Holgerson to an extension, so it should get to keep some of the good will it could garner with a win in postseason play. Against 8-4 Miami, they’re 2.5 point underdogs.

On offense, the game actually looks fairly even. Miami averages two more points-per-game than West Virginia, but in the teams’ last three games they’ve reached averaged exactly 33.67 points. West Virginia averages just over seven fewer passing yards per game, but its big advantage is in the running game, where it averages more than 70 yards-per-game more than Miami. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, West Virginia has a better scoring defense, passing defense, and rushing defense than Miami does. And they say the Big 12 doesn’t play defense…

Ironically, a conference known for poor defensive play will actually need its representative in this one to flex its defensive muscle to come away with a win against Miami. I don’t know what the odds makers saw that told them West Virginia should be an underdog, but I don’t agree.

Kansas State

Also on Wednesday night, Kansas State plays Texas A&M. Big 12 fans might remember the Aggies as the sore losers who bounced to the SEC for more money and less embarrassment against Texas, and now they’re back for their second bowl matchup against the Big 12 since their exodus. Johnny Manziel carried the day for the Aggies the last time around, but he’s long gone. Instead, the Aggies will trot out another Big 12 deserter in Trevor Knight. As much as Sooner fans love Trevor Knight, they also know all too well what kind of a quarterback he can be. On paper, the Aggies are the clear favorite to win this game, but if Kansas State can keep Knight in the pocket, they’ll have a chance. They’ll have to keep Myles Garrett at bay, too, or they might not generate many points of their own.

Frankly, these two teams couldn’t be more opposite. Kansas State has a knack for overachieving, and the Aggies always seem to find a way to come crashing down when the hype gets too big. As Kevin Sumlin finds his seat warming beneath him, expect the Aggies to come out firing. The game could be ugly, but that’s probably better for Bill Snyder’s crew than his opponent.

Ultimately I think A&M will come away with a win, but if Kansas State can keep it close, they can at least win some respect.

Oklahoma State

On Thursday, the Cowboys (featured in the video at the beginning of the article) play Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl. While Colorado is three point favorites, Oklahoma State’s got a chance to win this game. Last we saw Oklahoma State, they were being put out of their misery by Samaje Perine, but they’ve since learned that their star quarterback and wide receiver will both be returning to Stillwater next year, so (unlike Linwood), they don’t need to sit out and introduce themselves to NFL scouts.

Colorado’s defense will give the Pokes all they can handle, but Washington showed the world that the Buffaloes can be beaten by a strong running game, which Oklahoma State possesses every once in a while. If they can run the ball like they did in the first half against Oklahoma, they should be able to put enough points on the board to win. Sefo Linfau is Coloroado’s star gunslinger, and if he’s perfectly healthy he could be a problem for the Cowboys. He certainly didn’t look healthy against Washington in the Pac 12 championship, but he’s had quite a while to heal. His play will likely be the difference here, and it’ll probably be enough to carry Colorado.

Even a loss in this game wouldn’t hurt the Big 12 too much, since Colorado was at one point on the cusp of the Playoffs, but a win sure would be nice.

TCU

TCU goes toe-to-toe with Georgia on Friday afternoon in the Autozone Liberty Bowl. The odds makers say this is a toss-up, and I’m inclined to agree. The Kenny formerly known as Trill will be fielding the snaps for TCU, and he’s been both electric and disastrous depending on whether he chooses to make good choices with the ball. He’ll be facing a Georgia team that has been a disappointment in the SEC with losses coming against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Georgia Tech. They also squeaked out a win against both Nicholls and Missouri, so suffice it to say these are not your father’s Bulldogs. Nick Chubb will be doing his best to run through TCU’s defense, but if Gary Patterson can find a way to slow him down, and Hill doesn’t crash and burn, TCU could come away with a win.

Despite Georgia’s historic reputation, given the season they’ve had, a loss by TCU would really be a problem for the conference. It’s not always easy to root for TCU, but Big 12 fans will have to try.

Oklahoma

The Sooners, quite easily the crown jewel of the Big 12, play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl next Monday. Since the Sooners are the prrrrrriiiiiiiide of the Big 12 conference, there’s a lot at stake in this one in terms of respect. Also, they will not be playing the SEC champion, since Alabama will be busy beating up on Washington in the playoffs. That means that the best team from one conference will be playing the second-best team from another conference. There’s a lot at stake if the Sooners lose, and I don’t think they’ll get a lot of credit if they win a game in which they’re favored.

One question mark for Oklahoma will be how they handle the circus that’s been going on around them for the last two weeks. It won’t be easy to forget, but perhaps having an actual football game will give them something of a reprieve.

The Sooner secondary should certainly be getting a reprieve, since Auburn has repeatedly showed that they don’t care to complete passes. While the Auburn running attack is solid, the passing game is decidedly not so. Oklahoma has been quietly getting better in the secondary while at times seeming worse against the run, so the matchup comes at an odd time for them. They’ll have to find a way to put together a respectable performance on defense.

On offense, the Sooners just need to do what they’ve been doing. A stout Auburn defense is sure to greet them, but the SEC doesn’t face many (any) offenses with Oklahoma’s well-rounded skill. If the Sooners can keep them off balance and push the tempo, they should be able to save face and come away with a win in a big-time bowl game.

Overall, in the Big 12’s six bowl games, it really needs to win at least three of them. It also needs to avoid embarrassment in any of the losses. If it can do that, this bowl season should go a long way in voter’s minds, and it might be enough to help the Big 12 avoid missing out on the playoffs for a third time next year.

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