Some were fitting the Big 12 for toe tags only six years ago as the conference appeared to be imploding.
The departure of Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12 in 2010 prompted many to question its future. And when Missouri and Texas A&M left for the Southeastern Conference the following year, the Big 12’s survival prospects looked bleak.
Something needed to be done – and quickly.
That’s when the conference reached out to TCU and West Virginia as its newest members. And at least for this weekend, the sagacity of that decision has never been more apparent. It’s time for the Big 12 to celebrate a decision it got right.
The conference’s future remains a little murky. But the newest kids on the block provide two programs that have raised the conference’s national profile.
Adding West Virginia and TCU wasn’t necessarily the most popular course of action at the time. Many wondered if schools such as Louisville or BYU might have brought more national cache.
But at least on Saturday – as College GameDay visits Fort Worth and an early share of first place is up for grabs – the value of the Big 12’s two newest members remains clear.
With TCU ranked No. 9 nationally and West Virginia at No. 23, it makes sense for ESPN to be at the Big 12’s top game this week.
It wasn’t the case two weeks ago when GameDay bizarrely visited Times Square in New York the same week TCU traveled to Oklahoma State. This week’s Big 12 featured game is the best in the country again. More importantly, ESPN realizes it.
Dissimilar styles make for a good rivalry
TCU and West Virginia’s styles of play have always provided an interesting contrast that has made for some intriguing games.
In Gary Patterson and Dana Holgorsen, the two programs feature two of the most colorful and best coaches in the nation. Patterson might be college football’s top defensive tactician. Holgorsen is known for his offenses.
The Big 12 was badly needing an infusion of excitement. The unlikely grouping of the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers has brought that home.
TCU was a no-brainer because of the school’s location in the heart of the conference and traditional rivalries with several of the schools in place.
“From a rivalry standpoint, the reality is that our geographic rivals work the best for a long-standing situation,” TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “Now that we’ve joined, we’ve rekindled those memories.”
West Virginia was an unconventional choice, but one that provided immediate advantages. The Mountaineers had notched a convincing 70-33 victory in the Orange Bowl over Clemson the season before their Big 12 arrival. Still, some were curious how their style of play would translate in their new conference.
But Holgorsen’s Big 12 roots – he formerly was an assistant at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State – made the transition smoother.
And the transformation has clearly helped West Virginia’s national profile, even if the school remains far-flung compared to the rest of the conference.
“Football is good in the Big 12,” West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons proclaimed earlier in the summer at his annual state-of-the-program press conference.
Tight games mark TCU-West Virginia rivalry
It’s been similarly strong because of the games between the two schools. The first three games between TCU and West Virginia since they joined the conference were settled on the final play. Their combined margin of victory was six points, including a double-overtime game, an overtime game, and another settled by a kick at the gun. The two most recent games haven’t been as close, but the contest on Saturday promises to be more like the early ones.
“Our coaching staff and everybody around here knows that our games with West Virginia have been absolute dogfights,” Del Conte said. “They’ve been settled after big comebacks, blocked extra points, games at the gun. Every game has been a great story and we’re aware around here of how tough those games have been and what a great rivalry we are developing.”
The rivalry almost started in the Big East. West Virginia was a member from 1991 to 2011. TCU was a member briefly, but never played a game before moving to the Big 12.
“I think we were in it for about two months,” Del Conte said. “We were in it long enough that I attended three meetings.”
Big 12 admission boosts recruiting at both schools
Recruiting has picked up for both schools, raising their profiles nationally after their new conference affiliation. That growth promises more big-time games in the future.
“I can tell you we get more looks from the people we want than we did years ago,” Holgorsen said. “Kids in our recruiting grounds are familiar with the Big 12 and the exciting style we play.”
“We’ve had some very good players over the years,” he said. “The key has always been the guy that took their place. We’ve always had good ones. Now our twos and threes are better.
“The doors have opened, the opportunity we have to talk to more good players has increased. We’ve got to continue to market our brand and grow.”
Rivalry germinated after schools’ arrival in Big 12
West Virginia and TCU are unlikely rivals considering the distance between them and the lack of a historical connection other than meeting in the 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl.
But being thrown into the Big 12 has been the best thing for both programs, an entry into the Power 5 that has increased a commitment to athletics and upgrades to their facilities.
“Not just in athletics, but in academics and all the rest of it — how much the visibility of our university and the things that are happening,” Patterson said. “As a university and as a city, coming into the Big 12 totally changed the whole outlook of everything that’s happened here in Fort Worth and TCU.”
Both teams needed the Big 12 to make their jumps into the upper echelon of the sport.
In turn, the Big 12, in order to remain relevant in college football, needed West Virginia and TCU.
The result has been a marriage that has benefited them all.