No college athletics conference does hysteria quite like the Big 12.
The league has existed in its current form since 2012, when TCU and West Virginia replaced Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri. But in five years, the conference has freaked out more than everyone else combined.
Two years after those moves, in the midst of the first College Football Playoff, the system shut out Baylor and TCU. In a four-team playoff, one of the Power 5 conferences gets left out. That’s basic math. Largely based off this fluke — and with the Nos. 5 and 6 teams nationally it was a fluke — the Big 12 opened the floor to solutions.
First, it was seemingly endless talk of expansion. The league wasted the time of UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and whole host of other schools before ultimately deciding not to expand. Then weeks later, the league decided it shouldn’t totally close the door.
Then it was adding a Big 12 title game. Granted, a 13th data point has some value when it comes to choosing playoff teams. The implementation made the league’s road significantly harder.
The league already plays a grueling nine-game, round-robin schedule. With the new “Baylor rule” forcing teams to play a Power 5 nonconference game, every schedule already possesses 10 difficult games going forward.
This system forces an 11th Power 5 game. If a team gets through the stretch relatively unscathed, it will prove itself national caliber. Most won’t. It’s too hard.
It feels inevitable that the inaugural Big 12 title game will end with the No. 2 team upsetting a likely playoff team and keeping the conference out of the playoff. And then, the Big 12 will overreact again.
Keep in mind, all of this is within five years of the Big 12 landscape shifting dramatically. We still have yet to see what TCU and West Virginia can accomplish with a full arsenal of Big 12 resources. Both schools received full payouts for the first time in 2016 — barely a year ago.
Come on, Big 12. Can’t we even get a honeymoon period?
The problem isn’t the system. Teams just haven’t been national caliber consistently enough. No amount of shuffling administrative rules will change that.
Oklahoma got its shot at Clemson two years ago and failed to convert. The Sooners knocked themselves out of the playoff with a 1-2 nonconference slate. Beat Houston and the committee might have had a discussion. Don’t blame the lack of a title game. And heck, college football virtually demanded a playoff because Oklahoma State ridiculously didn’t play for a national championship in 2011.
The league still has plenty going for it. Tom Herman is breathing new life into Texas. Matt Rhule is an inspired hire at Baylor after the horrific scandal. Gary Patterson and Lincoln Riley will contend for national prominence every year into eternity.
Eight out of 10 Big 12 schools won eight games since that 2012 watershed. Five of those won at least 10 games in that stretch. Even recent bottom-feeders Iowa State and Kansas have promising coaches breeding optimism. That doesn’t even count the incredible basketball success Big 12 teams enjoy.
Recent release of Big 12 tax returns only emphasized the health. The Big 12 distributed $34.8 million per school in revenue over the course of the 2016-17 academic year, per The Associated Press.
Nine of the 10 schools received the full allotment. The Big 12 is holding one-quarter of Baylor’s distribution in escrow. The league will disseminate it after Baylor implements 105 recommendations following the campus sexual assault scandal.
That number does not count third-tier broadcast rights. Texas made $15 million from the Longhorn Network. Oklahoma earned $7 million from its own broadcasts. Other schools’ deals were not that rich but were still perfectly generous. There’s plenty of money left in the banana stand.
Ten years ago, the Big 12 distribution was $8.8 million per team. We’re living in a new college football world.
Embracing the dysfunction
None of this is to say this lovable conference is perfect. The league significantly lags behind other conferences in terms of recruiting and producing NFL talent. It’s been nearly 10 years since a conference team was in the football national title game.
But, regardless, the league is in a good place. The league can continue to exist as long as its member schools will allow it — namely Texas and Oklahoma.
Oklahoma President David Boren, one of the powerbrokers of the conference, has been a vocal presence expressing concerns about the conference. But at the Big 12 meetings, Boren shut down any talk that Oklahoma would consider leaving the conference now.
“Emphatically not,” Boren told media in public comments. “I think we’re more optimistic than we’ve been in some time about the future of the Big 12, about the strength and stability of the conference. My goal is to get that topic off the table.”
Maybe it’s just a smokescreen until the next dilemma. Regardless of whether he truly meant it, Boren is right.
Turn off the warning sirens. The Big 12 is fine, for now.