What the Big Ten's Decision Could Mean for Oklahoma and the Big 12

John. E. Hoover

Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby told media Thursday he was not privy to the Big Ten’s announcement that it will not play non-conference games this fall.

That’s troubling on the surface, because the Big 12 is supposed to be working in lock-step with the Big Ten and other Power 5 leagues — at least in times of crisis, like now.

From a Big 12 perspective, the Big Ten’s decision — followed by expectations and reports that the Atlantic Coast Conference will do the same thing; the Pac-12 will reportedly make the announcement later; no word yet from the SEC — clouds the likelihood of its members playing anything more than a conference-only schedule in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

Bowlsby, however, indicated to Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register that the Big 12 had no plans to move forward any time soon with anything but a full 12-game schedule. 

But the Big 12 is supposed to act in unison with other Power 5 leagues — “autonomy conferences,” they call themselves, because their separation from the Group of 5 gives them the autonomy to make unilateral decisions that suit schools with similar interests. So it’s hard to see the Big 12 doing anything else when a powerbroker like the Big Ten has already taken an affirmative direction.

That would put in jeopardy premier non-conference matchups between Oregon-Oklahoma State, West Virginia-Florida State, Baylor-Ole Miss, TCU-Cal, Tennessee-Oklahoma, Iowa State-Iowa, Texas-LSU, Boston College-Kansas, Maryland-West Virginia, Vanderbilt-Kansas and Arizona-Texas Tech. And that could hurt the Big 12 champion's chances of getting a spot in the College Football Playoff. OU's annual trip to the playoff has been bolstered by a prominent non-conference opponent.

Against opponents from Group of 5 conferences, OU’s Sept. 26 game at Army has always seemed in jeopardy (the game is in New York); now it seems all but finished. Likewise, OU’s season-opener against FCS Missouri State seems essentially superfluous, particularly with smaller schools not having the COVID-19 testing resources of a bigger school.

Same with TCU-SMU, Tulsa at Oklahoma State, UTEP-Texas, UTEP-Texas Tech, North Dakota-Kansas State and others. And not playing those games raises economic strife that could be felt nationally throughout college football. Schools from outside the Power 5 leagues often rely on those games — and the hefty paychecks that come with them — to keep the lights on.

For now, the only Big 12 school affected by the Big Ten's declaration is Iowa State, with its annual in-state rivalry game against Iowa seemingly canceled for 2020.

But there are ACC and Pac-12 schools all across the Big 12's schedule. And the league's two most anticipated non-conference games this season are supposed to be against SEC schools (OU-Tennessee, LSU-Texas).

Bowlsby and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey both issued statements Thursday.

“The Big Ten decisions are interesting and provide additional information to inform our discussions,” Bowlsby said. “At this time our medical and scientific advisors have suggested we should move ahead slowly and with constant re-evaluation. We plan to continue to prepare for all available scenarios until we are informed that some are no longer viable.”

“The Southeastern Conference will continue to met regularly with campus leader in the coming week, guided by medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports,” Sankey said. “We recognize the challenges ahead and know the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans must remain a the forefront of those decisions.”

A conference-only season for Big 12 schools (nine games) would look drastically different than a traditional 12-game schedule. Bowlsby may not have plans to announce such a move any time soon, but that genie might already be out of the bottle.

If Bowslby hadn’t been apprised of the Big Ten’s plan by mid-July, then it seems unlikely the Big 12 could make any significant adjustments to the 2020 conference schedule. For a logistical challenge like football, that would be imprudent anyway.

So, if the Big 12 heads down the same road as the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 and cancels its non-conference games, its slate of games will be sparse early.

There would be only three games in September: Baylor hosts Kansas on Sept. 12, and West Virginia hosts Kansas State and Iowa State hosts Texas Tech on Sept. 28.

The rest of the Big 12 wouldn’t open the season until Oct. 3: Baylor at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State at TCU, Texas at Kansas State, Iowa State at Kansas, and West Virginia at Texas Tech.

Oklahoma’s conference schedule is front-loaded. The Sooners open Big 12 play against last year’s runner-up (Baylor) and the three other Big 12 teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 (Texas on Oct. 10, at Iowa State on Oct. 17, Oklahoma State on Oct. 24) before road trips on Oct. 31 (at TCU) and Nov. 7 (at West Virginia).

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