In many quarters, the Big 12’s future appears tenuous.
As the smallest of the Power 5 conferences and the only one without a league-wide television network, or a plan to launch one, the national perception of the conference is muddled.
But according to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the conference’s decline has been overstated by the national media.
“I don’t really agree with that premise,” Bowlsby said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his office in Irving, Texas. “It’s not difficult to be in the Big 12. We have a lot of things to be excited about, not the least of which is that our presidents and athletic directors are as unified as they’ve been in the five years I’ve worked here.
“The reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated.”
Some of the national narrative stems from the Big 12’s aborted expansion plans. The conference remained at 10 schools, despite several institutions eagerly interested in joining. The conference eventually chose to stand pat and did not proceed with the creation of a television network.
“We felt in the end that the technology was rapidly changing and it was time to keep our powder dry,” Bowlsby said. “We talked about adding members, and in the end we realized unanimously we liked it at 10. There were a lot of different opportunities in front of us. Some of them, we’ve moved ahead on. Others, we decided we might be better served by waiting. I feel very good about where we are at, and our conference leadership feels likewise.”
Steps to improving Big 12’s perception
The best way the Big 12 can change its national perception would be to improve its on-field performance in football.
That showed in bowl games last season, when the Big 12 produced a 4-2 record — its best since 2011. The victories were dotted by Oklahoma’s 35-19 thumping of Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma State’s resounding 38-8 triumph over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, and Kansas State’s 33-28 conquest of Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl.
Those impressive wins were only a start, according to Bowlsby. The Big 12 needs to build on those games with strong efforts in key September games when Oklahoma travels to Ohio State and Texas visits USC.
Big 12 teams will be heavy underdogs in both games. Getting a victory might be too much to expect.
But other September games such as West Virginia-Virginia Tech, Kansas State-Vanderbilt, Arizona State-Texas Tech, Baylor-Duke, Maryland-Texas, TCU-Arkansas and Oklahoma State-Pittsburgh also will be important in shaping the early-season perception of the Big 12.
CFP appearance critical
The ultimate goal will be qualifying for a place in the College Football Playoff, in which the Big 12 is the only Power 5 conference without a victory. Oklahoma’s loss to Clemson in the 2015 playoff remains the conference’s lone appearance.
Winning a playoff game would cure a lot of what is perceived to be a credibility issue.
“I think we had a pretty good postseason except for the fact that we weren’t in the playoff,” Bowlsby said. “And if a couple of things had gone differently, we certainly could have been.”
The formula is clear in 2017. The Big 12 must build on its strong finish and have a strong conference race to reclaim some respect.
“We need to win games, play good teams and win good nonconference games,” Bowlsby said. “We now will have it so that we’re playing a full round-robin schedule and a championship game that will give us the best chance we can to get into a playoff. But, you still have to go out and win the games.”