Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has spent the entirety of his five-year tenure playing defense, which makes him the diametric opposite of most of his league's football teams.
What, no rim shot?
O.K., that's the kind of cheap stereotype Bowlsby has railed against, but his is the league that gave us Oklahoma 66, Texas Tech 59 in a game that featured 1,708 total yards last October. It gave us the highest average yards per play allowed (5.7) among Power Five leagues over the past five seasons. It gave us the highest average points per game allowed (29.4) among Power Five leagues over the past five seasons. If the shootout fits, the Big 12 has to wear it.
Before this year, Bowlsby has spent more time refuting the notion that the league's membership (only 10 schools) and media-rights deals (once the ACC Network launches in 2019, the Big 12 will be the only Power Five league without its own cable network) will force it to eventually dissolve. Bowlsby's defense is reasoned and accurate. The Big 12 distributed at least $34 million to each member school this past school year, and that doesn't count money schools made from the third-tier games they get to sell for themselves instead of handing them over to the conference to program a cable channel. The league is healthier financially than the Pac-12, which tried to take half the Big 12's teams in the summer of 2010, and it is at least as healthy as the ACC. The Big 12 may have tried to blow itself up during college athletics' major changes in recent summers, but it somehow wound up stronger on the balance sheet.
The product of a mid-1990s shotgun marriage between the Big Eight and what was left of the Southwest Conference, the Big 12 has seemed on the precipice of collapse for much of its history. But earlier existential threats came from the boardroom. The issue that must get fixed before it rips the conference apart lies somewhere else: the football field. "We finished in the top four in the country in 18 sports," Bowlsby says. "But we're here to talk about football, and we didn't make the College Football Playoff. Obviously, that's the coin of the realm at this point."
Missing the dance twice in the three years the CFP has existed is but a symptom. The Big 12 has hired consultants and taken steps to address the underlying issue. In December, for instance, the league will bring back its football championship game to provide the "13th data point" Big 12 leaders believe the playoff selection committee craves. But the problem goes much deeper. Simply put, the Big 12 needs better football players—and it needs them now.
Every league in the country would like to be in business with cash cows Oklahoma and Texas, who will be free agents again when the Big 12's grant of rights expires with its media rights deal in the spring of 2025. The Sooners and the Longhorns are hardly suffering in the Big 12 as currently constituted. As Bowlsby often points out, no athletic department makes more money from TV than Texas, which has its own ESPN-run network. The two schools effectively control the Big 12 because without them, it's not a power conference. But if the Big 12's champion keeps getting left out of the playoff, those two desirable commodities may seek better fortunes elsewhere. What would make them stay? A league that routinely puts teams in the playoff. To do that, Big 12 athletic directors and football coaches must solve a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
By the two best measures—NFL draft results (chicken) and recruiting rankings (egg)—the Big 12's players lag behind those in the other Power Five leagues. In the past five recruiting classes, only two Big 12 schools (Oklahoma at No. 8 in 2017 and Texas at No. 10 in '15) cracked the top 10 of the team rankings in the 247Sports.com composite. Alabama and Ohio State, which have made the playoff thrice and twice, respectively, cracked the top five every year. Texas and Oklahoma used to appear much more frequently. Rivals.com began ranking recruiting classes in '02, and either Texas, Oklahoma or both appeared in the top 10 every year until '12. Don't trust recruiting rankings? Then consider the numbers that influence those top-ranked recruits more than anything else: NFL draft data.
NFL talent evaluators don't care about conference or school affiliation. If a guy can play, they say, they want him. But judging by the numbers from the most recent draft, those people wanted little to do with the Big 12, which had 14 players drafted. This number lagged behind five other leagues, including the American Athletic Conference.
After the draft, Big 12 honks reflexively made the excuse that a 10-team league would naturally have the fewest draft choices. Anyone with a calculator could see that they were full of it. The Big 12's 1.4 players drafted per team was far behind the fourth-place Big Ten (2.5). The next excuse, that everything is cyclical, seemed more valid. (A year earlier, the Big 12 had tied for fourth with the ACC with 26 players drafted.) But an examination of the five drafts that have taken place since the Big 12 settled on its current lineup shows that the issues go much deeper than one down year in the league. The conference needs to improve its football product. If Big 12 teams can't produce more and better NFL draftees on a more consistent basis, schools from other leagues will continue to raid the Big 12 footprint for the best recruits, and making the playoff will get even more difficult. It's a vicious cycle that can only be broken by coaches recruiting better players, developing those players more effectively and winning more crucial out-of-conference games. (It's not healthy for the league's image when its best team gets drilled at home by Ohio State and beaten at a neutral site by Houston. That's what happened to Oklahoma last year.)
The Big 12 doesn't only produce the fewest NFL draftees of the Power Five leagues. The conference also has the lowest drafted players of the five. In the past five drafts, the median draft position for a Big 12 player is 140. That's 12.5 spots below the ACC, 21.5 spots below the Pac-12, 32.5 spots below the SEC and 34 spots below the Big Ten. When coaches from schools in those conferences recruit against coaches from Big 12 schools, they can attach dollar amounts to how much a player stands to lose by playing in the Power Five league the NFL clearly respects the least. "It's different for every guy, but it doesn't hurt when you look at the hard facts," says Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin in response to a question about how the SEC's brand has changed the Aggies' recruiting. Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season, and since joining their new league they've combined to produce 33 NFL draft picks with a median selection position of 70.5. The 10 Big 12 schools have produced 103 draftees in the same period.
The oldest of those former Missouri and Texas A&M players signed up to play in the Big 12. They didn't magically become better players when their schools joined the SEC. But they did benefit from playing against more varied styles of offenses and defenses, as well as from facing other players NFL teams liked.
The style of play in the Big 12 is a key reason the league struggles to produce NFL players. Mike Leach brought the Air Raid to the league as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator in 1999, and then he used the spread-out, up-tempo, pass-happy offense to turn Texas Tech into a consistent winner as the Red Raiders' head coach from 2000 through '09. Different up-tempo offenses have proliferated across the country, but no other league has been as homogenous as the Big 12. Leach has since moved on to Washington State, but his disciples rule the Big 12's offenses. His former lieutenant Dana Holgorsen is West Virginia's head coach. Lincoln Riley, who went from walk-on quarterback to student assistant to receivers coach under Leach, was named Oklahoma's head coach after Bob Stoops retired in June. Oklahoma State runs an offense derived from the one Holgorsen brought to Stillwater in '10. Doug Meacham, who worked at Oklahoma State during that time before moving to TCU, is the new offensive coordinator at Kansas. One Leach-era Texas Tech quarterback (Kliff Kingsbury) is the head coach of the Red Raiders. Another (Sonny Cumbie) runs TCU's offense. Until this year, Baylor ran a cousin of the Leach offense developed by since-fired coach Art Briles. Texas ran a Briles copycat offense last season. Kansas State, coached by 77-year-old Bill Snyder, dares to be different by staying true to what was conventional 20 years ago. When TCU entered the league in '12, coach Gary Patterson tried a pro-style offense. After two lackluster seasons, he scrapped it favor of the Air Raid, and the '14 Horned Frogs went 12–1.
The preferred offense in the league favors tempo over strategy and works to exploit one-on-one matchups in the passing game and a numbers advantage in the running game. Offenses thrive on run-pass option plays that allow the quarterback to decide whether to run or to throw after the snap. This flummoxes defenses and makes blocking easier because lines typically will block the run (usually a simple zone play) no matter what the quarterback does. Unfortunately for the linemen, they often begin these plays in a two-point stance. The scheme can work even if the linemen don't master the finer points of pass blocking, and they don't usually have to fire out of a three-point stance to open a hole for a back. In their offenses, the hole often exists because the defense spreads itself too thin.
But in the NFL, linemen must make the hole. "You're drafting a guy coming out of some colleges that haven't been in a three-point stance since high school," Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said at last year's NFL combine. "You have to teach him to get in a three-point stance and run-block. The athletes are much better, but the fundamentals are worse than they've ever been."
The Texas and Oklahoma high schools that supply much of the Big 12's talent also overwhelmingly use up-tempo spread schemes. Big 12 coaches have adjusted by running schemes their players can master quickly. That helps in the short term, but it has become a key recruiting point for coaches from other leagues when they enter Big 12 territory. The median Big 12 draft position for offensive linemen is 164. That's 46.5 spots below the Pac-12, 53 spots below the ACC, 62 spots below the SEC and 78 spots below the Big Ten. Given those numbers, is it any wonder the top-ranked offensive tackle recruit in Texas in 2017 (Walker Little of Bellaire) signed with Stanford and the next-highest-ranked tackle (Austin Deculus of Cypress) signed with LSU?
Patterson can find all the speed he needs in Texas and Louisiana, but recently he has begun to scour the country to bring bigger bodies to TCU. Last February, the Horned Frogs signed a defensive tackle from Fort Lauderdale and a guard from Tacoma, Wash. In the class of 2018, TCU has a verbal commitment from an offensive tackle who grew up in Illinois and plays for a junior college in Iowa.
Defensive backs in the Big 12 also lag far behind their Power Five counterparts, probably because the best athletes in the league are turned into receivers. In the past five years, the median draft position for a Big 12 DB was 141. That's 28 spots behind the ACC, 30 spots behind the Pac-12, 30.5 behind the Big Ten and 72 behind the SEC. If LSU, Ohio State and Texas are all trying to recruit a cornerback or safety from the Dallas area, those numbers most likely will get Texas crossed off the list. In this past recruiting cycle, the top-ranked DB in Texas (Jeffrey Okudah of Grand Prairie) signed with Ohio State, and the next highest ranked (Kary Vincent of Port Arthur) signed with LSU.
It isn't impossible to win games and put players in the NFL in the Big 12. Oklahoma has won or shared seven of the past 11 Big 12 titles. It's been the league's lone representative in the CFP. And in the past five drafts, 23 Sooners have been picked at a median position of 115. Riley has ammunition when coaches from other leagues bash the Big 12 to sway recruits away from Norman. Riley also has pivoted somewhat from the pure Air Raid to take advantage of a wealth of backs and athletic offensive linemen. Oklahoma likes to run downhill, and that helps the Sooners win games and get players ready for the NFL. "We want to prepare them for that next step. That's part of our job," Riley says. "If you look at what we do schematically, a lot of it fits with what's being done in the NFL."
2017 NFL draft picks, by college conference
One coach knows what it's like to dip into the Big 12's backyard and take the best recruits elsewhere: new Texas head coach—and former Ohio State offensive coordinator—Tom Herman. "When I came down here and signed J.T. Barrett and Dontre Wilson and Demetrius Knox and Mike Mitchell," he says, "I think that was a little bit different than what had been done in the past in Texas. Especially when Texas is down, other schools smell blood in the water a little bit."
Herman was hired last November to reverse a Texas slide that dates back to the end of the Mack Brown era. Since playing for the national title in 2009, the Longhorns have gone 46–42. They have had 13 players selected in the past five drafts. The median draft position (96) is better than most of the league, but the Longhorns haven't had an offensive lineman taken since '08, and their numbers don't compare favorably to other storied programs'. In the past five drafts, Alabama has produced 41 draftees (median position 55), Ohio State has produced 33 draftees (median position 59) and Florida State has produced 35 draftees (median position 78). Herman disagrees with the notion that league or team affiliation can hurt a player in the draft. "It is irrelevant what conference you played in. It is irrelevant what school you went to," he says. "We've got to do a better job recruiting and developing our talent." Herman is working on the chicken at practice, and he seems to be improving the egg on the recruiting trail. Texas currently has oral commitments from four of the five highest-ranked recruits in the Lone Star State for the class of '18.
Herman and new Baylor coach Matt Rhule will try to succeed without running a version of the Air Raid or the Briles offense. Rhule will adjust his offense to take advantage of the speed he inherited, but he hopes a slow tempo will keep his defense off the field. Herman, also a former Iowa State offensive coordinator, likes to run at a fast pace, but his offense uses many of the same single-wing principles as former boss Urban Meyer's offense at Ohio State. His linemen must know how to open holes. It helps that predecessor Charlie Strong, while unsuccessful on the field, did help restock the talent base. Junior offensive tackle Connor Williams, for example, should snap that offensive line draft streak if he goes pro after this season.
A common trope is that a successful Texas will cure the Big 12's ills. At a gathering earlier this year, a Big 12 athletic director pointed at a sign with the word LONGHORN. "We really need them to be good," the AD said. Herman has heard this, but he has enough on his plate without worrying about trying to save an entire conference. "Texas needing to be good is not the problem," says Herman.
The problem is that the Big 12 needs better players. Whether it's Herman, Rhule, Riley, Patterson or someone else, coaches in the league need to recruit better on the front end and develop players better once they arrive on campus. That, not a 13th data point, will get the Big 12 into the playoff and national title conversations. It needs to happen, and soon. Otherwise, the Big 12 might just score itself into oblivion.