Friday October 30th, 2009

Was it really only a year ago the college football world centered around the Big 12 Conference?

It seemed like every week, another primetime Big 12 shootout carried national implications. Oklahoma-Texas. Texas-Missouri. Texas Tech-Texas. Oklahoma-Texas Tech. Oklahoma State-Oklahoma. Each game involved at least one top five team -- not to mention at least one Heisman-contending quarterback. When all was said and done, Oklahoma and Texas wound up in a controversial, computer-decided duel for a spot in both the Big 12 and BCS championship games, and their quarterbacks, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy, finished 1-2 in the Heisman race.

But if ever there was a textbook example of the cyclical nature of conference strength, it's this year's Big 12. With the exception of undefeated Texas, nearly every team in the league is dealing with some sort of crisis.

Oklahoma, already saddled with three losses, officially bid farewell this week to Bradford (shoulder surgery). Oklahoma State learned it will be without suspended star receiver Dez Bryant for the rest of the season. Nebraska and Kansas have plummeted from the rankings following consecutive losses; the Huskers have no offense, the Jayhawks no defense. Missouri, the two-time defending North champ, is already likely eliminated following a 0-3 start to conference play. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is blaming "fat little girlfriends" for his team's embarrassing 52-30 loss to Texas A&M (itself a week removed from a 62-14 loss to Kansas State).

Here's all you need to know about the current state of the Big 12: If the season ended today, 5-3 Kansas State -- which suffered nonconference losses to UCLA and Louisiana-Lafayette and a 66-14 whipping by Texas Tech -- would earn a spot in the league championship game.

"I spent a little bit of time [Sunday] trying to figure [the conference] out," said Kansas coach Mark Mangino. "I came to the conclusion that those are for better minds than mine. I just can't figure it out."

A year ago this time, the BCS standings included four Big 12 teams (No. 1 Texas, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 7 Texas Tech and No. 9 Oklahoma State) in the top 10 and a fifth, No. 14 Missouri, not far behind. This week, it's No. 3 Texas, No. 14 Oklahoma State ... and that's it. That means Saturday night's showdown in Stillwater between the 7-0 'Horns and the 6-1 Cowboys may be the last nationally relevant Big 12 game we see this season.

Eerily for Texas, the Halloween contest comes on the same weekend as last year's ill-fated trip to Texas Tech, when Michael Crabtree's last-second touchdown cost the 'Horns the game and, ultimately, their shot at a title.

"It's the same week, the same situation," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "How many times in your life do you get a chance to re-do something that you're not as proud of?"

There's one big difference, though. Last year's game vaulted the 9-0 Red Raiders to No. 2 in the BCS while Texas stayed in the heart of the mix at No. 4. The respect factor for last year's Big 12 was such that a spot in Miami became almost preordained for the eventual league champion.

This year, however, Texas will almost certainly need to remain perfect if it hopes to reach Pasadena due to its weak remaining schedule. After Saturday, the 'Horns face UCF (4-3), Baylor (3-4), Kansas (5-2) and Texas A&M (4-3). The Cowboys, meanwhile, will take over first place in the South Division if they knock off Texas for the first time since 1997, but it would take a lot of attrition at the top of the polls for Mike Gundy's team to enter the national-title mix.

A Texas loss will likely relegate the Big 12 to national oblivion the rest of the way, which is hard to fathom considering the vast attention the league received last season. But this being college football, conference dynamics can change drastically from one season to the next due to graduation and injury.

Before the season, one figured to see drop-offs at Texas Tech (which lost Crabtree and Graham Harrell) and Missouri (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman). Then the season began, and Oklahoma -- already faced with replacing several veteran offensive linemen and receivers -- lost Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham, turning the Sooners from title-contenders to rebuilders. Oklahoma State lost running back Kendall Hunter during an upset to Houston, and Bryant shortly thereafter. Conference USA's Cougars also took down Texas Tech, which has endured injuries to two different quarterbacks (Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield).

Meanwhile, Baylor, whose fans entered the season with realistic hopes of a rare bowl berth, suffered a devastating setback when dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the Bears' third game. Colorado suffered embarrassing early losses to Colorado State and Toledo and has sunk to 2-5. Texas A&M, 4-8 last season, teased its fans with a 3-0 start against lightweight competition before falling 47-19 to Arkansas and losing three straight.

"It's been a different kind of year," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of his team's uncharacteristic bout of adversity, and he's hardly alone. Remarkably, only six Big 12 teams have had the same quarterback start every game.

"At some point, you'd like to not talk about adversity and talk about the future, but that's become a topic," said Oklahoma State's Gundy, who's been fortunate to keep star quarterback Zac Robinson intact but has seen several other positions decimated.

Amidst the carnage, there have been a handful of bright spots for the Big 12. K-State (back under the direction of Bill Snyder) and Iowa State (under first-year coach Paul Rhoads) are both 5-3 and have already equaled or exceeded their win totals from a year ago. Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska have all seen significant improvements in their defenses (all three rank in the top 10 nationally). And much like a year ago, three teams (Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Kansas) rank in the top five in total offense.

But there aren't a whole lot of happy coaches around the Big 12 right now.

Following his team's 20-6 win over Colorado last weekend, Snyder was furious. "We did not play well," he said. "This is about getting better, and we did not." Nebraska's Bo Pelini is under fire following a 9-7 loss to Iowa State in which his team committed eight turnovers. His offense has scored five touchdowns in four games against BCS foes. "I'm considering a lot of [changes]," he said.

And then there's Leach, who's caught heat for these bizarre (even by his standards) comments following the A&M blowout: "As coaches, we failed to make our coaching points more compelling than [the players'] fat little girlfriends. Now, their fat little girlfriends have some obvious advantages. For one thing, their fat little girlfriends are telling them what they want to hear, which is 'how great you are' and 'how easy this is going to be.'"

The happiest coach in the Big 12 right now is undoubtedly Texas' Brown. Following a mistake-marred win over Oklahoma in which McCoy noticeably struggled, the 'Horns offense finally broke out in a 41-7 win at Missouri. It wasn't by accident. McCoy, recovered from illness and a painful thumbnail injury sustained against the Sooners, completed 26-of-31 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns as Texas' coaches reshuffled the receiving corps (star Jordan Shipley returned to his old slot position, while sophomore Malcolm Williams and freshman Marquise Goodwin entered the starting lineup).

"Colt has had a very tough year and he's been sick, he's been hurt," said Brown. "We've got the Colt of old back now, so we're ready to make this stretch run."

That run begins Saturday night in Stillwater, where Texas has prevailed in every game under Brown but, in recent years, has made things scary for itself. In 2005, Vince Yong led the 'Horns back from a 28-9 deficit. In 2007, Ryan Bailey's last-second kick gave Texas a 38-35 win after it trailed 35-14.

For its part, Oklahoma State has rallied from that early Houston loss to win five straight games, thanks in part to the steady arm of Robinson, the nation's seventh-leading passer, and some big performances by Hunter's replacement, senior Keith Toston (86.6 yards per game). Mega-booster T. Boone Pickens invested $265 million in Oklahoma State athletics with designs on a Big 12 championship, and a victory Saturday would put the Cowboys in prime position to achieve that. SCHROEDER: Cowboys look to seize giant opportunity

But if Texas prevails, we might as well pencil in the 'Horns for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

Brown and his players have said repeatedly that they don't want to put their fate in the hands of the "system" like they did by losing a game last season. Thanks to the rapid decline of their conference competition, that's suddenly an easy thing to avoid.

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