FORT WORTH, Texas -- A few minutes after they had walked off the field at Amon G. Carter stadium on Saturday afternoon following their 10th win of the season, Oklahoma players emerged from their locker room wearing T-shirts and hats that bore the phrase "Big 12 Champions." The league had made it quite clear that even if Kansas State beat Texas on Saturday night and clinched the conference's automatic berth in the BCS, both teams would be allowed to claim the title if each finished 8-1 in Big 12 play -- even though the Wildcats beat the Sooners head-to-head.
That wasn't good enough for Oklahoma players. They wanted the outright title even though getting it would mean the following things:
• They had to cheer for hated rival Texas to beat Kansas State.
• They would probably face Oregon (a terrible matchup for Oklahoma's defense) in the Fiesta Bowl (in a metro area in which they've spent the past two bowl seasons) instead of most likely playing Florida (a better matchup) in the Sugar Bowl (where they can eat all this stuff).
"Obviously," Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones said after his team's 24-17 win against TCU, "you want to be the outright champion." But isn't it tough for a Sooner to pull for the Longhorns? "Probably not," Jones said. "Not right now." Offensive tackle Lane Johnson had even fewer qualms about turning the horns up. Asked if he could cheer for Texas, he smiled. "Yeah," he said. "No doubt."
This contradiction is a quirky, fun byproduct of the Big 12's decision to ditch the conference championship game, remain at 10 schools and play a full round-robin schedule. As day turned into night on Saturday, the Big 12 was one of only two leagues that mattered. The SEC staged a national semifinal in its conference championship game, but the other conference title games were afterthoughts. The SEC has enough elite teams to stage a meaningful conference title game most seasons, but the other leagues do not. On Saturday morning, tickets for the Big Ten title game were selling for $20 on StubHub. Meanwhile, tickets for the ACC title game were going for $2 on StubHub. Instead of paying two bucks to watch EJ Manuel chuck, the Big 12 staged four football games. One (Kansas-West Virginia) was a dud, but the two other morning contests (Oklahoma-TCU and Oklahoma State-Baylor) were entertaining, one-touchdown games that had bowl placement implications for every team involved and championship implications for Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the late game (Texas-Kansas State) decided the outright conference title. Kansas State clinched it by pouring it on the Longhorns in the second half, but everyone was riveted from noon until 10 p.m.
So please, Big 12, resist the urge to grow bigger. I've never criticized a conference or a school for trying to make more money through realignment, but given the Big 12's structure, growing makes no sense except out of panic because the other major conferences look different. Your television rights are all sold. Your two biggest brands (Texas and Oklahoma) have established institutional networks in concert with competing media companies. So you'll probably never have a cable channel that can provide an income stream comparable to that of the Big Ten Network or the upcoming SEC Network. Still, with the new TV deals and the changing postseason format, each of your schools will get something in the neighborhood of $30 million a year once the playoff starts in the 2014-15 school year. For Iowa State and Kansas State, which looked as if they'd be thrown to the wolves during the Big 12 Missile Crises of 2010 and 2011, that's an unbelievable payday. So just because the SEC and Big Ten have gone nuclear, don't let any TV types or nervous presidents talk you into growing unless the money is right. Because right now, you're offering one of the best football products -- and the 10-team alignment is a big reason why.
That doesn't mean the league offers a perfect product. On the field, the Big 12 might want to examine its officiating. On Saturday in Fort Worth, Oklahoma offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson was only flagged when the rules are clear that he should have been flagged and ejected for pinning and punching TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga. Later, officials called a TCU field goal attempt no good when replays appeared to show the ball hooking inside the right upright. The sun was shining directly into the eyes of the two officials under the uprights, which made a tough call even tougher. The Big 12 -- and all the other leagues -- must do more to help officials get those calls correct. Currently, plays are not reviewable when the ball flies above the uprights. This needs to change, and, given the advances in technology, there must be some way to actually extend the uprights indefinitely. (Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has suggested lasers. This seems to work when something is blocking the path of my garage door, so it could work here.) The league was lucky TCU didn't punch the ball into the end zone in the final seconds. An overtime loss for the Horned Frogs would have been bemoaned everywhere, because they should have had three more points in regulation.
Oklahoma's defense, which got shredded in previous weeks by West Virginia and Oklahoma State, stood firm in the final minutes. "The offense has carried us the last couple weeks," Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "We wanted to make sure that after the Oklahoma State and West Virginia games that we came to play. You've got to play good defense if you want to win championships."
Even though the players probably won't, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops still plans to count this season as a championship. "Champs or co-champs, either way you're recognized as champions," Stoops said. For those who want to count this one, this makes eight Big 12 titles for Stoops since he took over the Sooners in 1999. Even if you consider it seven titles, it's still an astounding run, and it makes the annual carping from the fan base about Stoops' job performance that much more laughable. Look at it this way: At least 120 fan bases would trade coaches with you right now, no questions asked. So the Sooners didn't win the national title this year. They lost to two teams with a combined record of 23-1. They could be 11-1 had they chosen to schedule a patsy instead of playing 12-0 Notre Dame.
"I've got to be perfect is the bottom line," Stoops said. "This is eleven 10-win seasons. I'm proud of that. It's consistency. It's not easy to do, or everybody would be doing it."
All Stoops does is beat Texas and compete for Big 12 titles. That's all you can ask from a coach at Oklahoma. The national title requires a ton of skill -- which Stoops has -- and some luck. Stoops has one title and has played for three more. If he keeps winning like this, the breaks will go his way and he'll get at least one more. So relax.
Oklahoma can't do better than Bob Stoops. Nor should it try. Meanwhile, the Big 12 can't do better than its current alignment. Nor should it try. Thanks to the old-school, 10-team league, we had more than one interesting game to watch on Saturday.