After the opening week of college football, the Big XII is the only conference in America in which every one of its teams is undefeated. Not even the almighty SEC can boast that. Considering the Big XII was close to folding a little over a year ago, their early-season success is nothing short of miraculous.
Over the past few seasons, the Big XII lost Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac 12 and Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC. As a response to the exodus, it appeared as if Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would be leaving to create a superconference in the Pac 12/16.
Those plans fell through and the remaining eight members of the Big XII committed to the future of the conference. By inviting West Virginia and TCU, membership is up to 10 institutions, and the Big XII has the unusual distinction of having three reigning conference champions this season (Oklahoma State, Big XII; West Virginia, Big East; TCU, Mountain West).
Conference expansion around the country has been fueled by money. The Big Ten, SEC, Pac 12 and ACC are all raking in money hand over fist by staging conference championship games and bringing in the extra money that comes from selling television rights.
Meanwhile, the Big XII has realized that by avoiding a conference championship game, the road to the national championship game for one of its teams is that much easier. There’s no risk of a contender losing in the conference championship and, as a result, being shut out of the national championship.
In an interview at halftime of this past weekend’s Baylor/SMU football game on Fox Sports Network, new conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby answered a question about possible expansion by saying he’s happy with the full, round-robin, nine-game conference schedule, which makes some sense. It’s a choice that’s benefitting the football teams from a competitive standpoint instead of one being fueled by money.
The Big XII is shaping up to be an extremely competitive conference in 2012 too:
- Oklahoma and Texas are legitimate title contenders even if they got off to a slow start last week.
- Oklahoma State is coming off one of the best seasons in team history and arguably deserved to play in the BCS national championship last season.
- Dana Holgorsen has the West Virginia offense operating at peak efficiency by scoring a combined 139 points in its last two games, 70 in last year’s Orange Bowl and 69 in the season opening win over Marshall.
- Baylor begins the post-Robert Griffin III era, but Art Briles is exceeding expectations in Waco and looked great putting up 59 points against SMU in the opener.
- Bill Snyder continues to work his magic at Kansas State coming off a surprising 10-win season a year ago.
- Texas Tech was a flaky team in 2011, failing to qualify for a bowl game, yet beating third-ranked Oklahoma. Tommy Tuberville looks to make them more consistent.
- Iowa State ruined Oklahoma State’s chance to be in the national championship game last season, and has qualified for a bowl in two out of Paul Rhoads’ three years at the helm.
- Kansas is probably still looking at the basement, but at least they can’t be any worse under new head coach Charlie Weis than they were a year ago when they went 2-10.
Where College Gameday Is At
ESPN’s Gameday crew will be in College Station, Texas for A&M’s first conference game as a member of the SEC by playing host to Florida.
While we extol the virtues of the Big XII above, it was Texas A&M that got sick of playing the role of little sister to Texas and left the Big XII for the best football conference in America. No longer are they in the shadows of Texas and its Longhorn Network, but the Aggies are going to find out that it’s going to be pretty darn tough to win in the SEC.
The Aggies fired former Packers head coach Mike Sherman during the offseason and brought in former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. They can only hope that some of the success Sumlin had at Houston rubs off where he engineered a prolific passing attack and led the Cougars to a 13-1 record last season.
Texas A&M goes from Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, who’s now the starter for the Miami Dolphins, to redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. There will be some bumps and bruises along the way for Manziel, but he does have a terrific corps of receivers to throw to, including one of the most underrated targets in America, Ryan Swope.
Manziel would have benefitted from a tune-up game against Louisiana Tech before jumping into the SEC frying pan, but that matchup was postponed by Hurricane Isaac last week. And now the young quarterback has to face one of the best defenses in America.
Florida has some quarterback issues of its own, deciding to go with Jeff Driskel ahead of Jacoby Brissett despite rotating the two in the opener and not naming Driskel the full-time starter until this week.
Prediction: Texas A&M gets Florida at a good time, early in the season. Had this game been played later in the season when Driskel becomes more comfortable and the defense really gets hits its stride, the outcome could be different. But the Aggies will be pumped for their first SEC game and behind the strength of their own top-notch defense will win the game in a closely-fought battle. A&M 24 Florida 17.
The Wisconsin Connection
It was a really, really weird season-opening victory for Wisconsin over Northern Iowa last Saturday.
Normally when a heavyweight allows a overmatched opponent to hang around, it’s because the favorite commits several mistakes. But that didn’t happen to the Badgers who had zero turnovers and only two penalties all game.
New quarterback Danny O’Brien came into the game as a question mark for the Badgers offense, and all he did to ease concerns was complete over 80 percent of his passes.
It really wasn’t terribly surprising that the Badgers running game struggled to get going when Northern Iowa committed eight and nine players to the box, even taking out the Wisconsin offensive linemen’s legs to prevent them from pulling.
So where did the Badgers go wrong? First of all, they didn’t force a single turnover, and that has to change. When facing an FCS opponent, even a good one like Northern Iowa, there’s no reason Wisconsin shouldn’t win the turnover battle.
Second, their issues with allowing the big play to hurt them continues, just like last season in losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon. The Badgers allowed touchdown passes of 31 and 55 yards with breakdowns in coverage last Saturday. That too has to be fixed before it costs them another game.
This week the Badgers travel to Oregon State for a good out-of-conference game against a Pac 12 opponent. Last year Wisconsin beat up the Beavers 35-0 in Camp Randall, but should face a much better Oregon State squad on Saturday.
Last year’s Oregon State team was incredibly unlucky and had 54 starts missed to injury, according to Phil Steele. This year they have 15 returning starters and figure to be a much better team. The Badgers will have to look out for wide receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback Jordan Poyer who are among the best players on the team.
Prediction: The Badgers will look better than they did last week, but the Beavers are good enough to keep this game from getting out of hand. Wisconsin wins 28-14 in a game that might be closer than the final score indicates.
What Happened Before Saturday
Former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is off to an incredibly trying start at Pittsburgh after losing to FCS opponent Youngstown State 31-17 in its first game and then getting blasted by Cincinnati 34-10 in the Big East opener on Thursday night.
It’s hard to blame Chryst. If you count interim coaches, Pitt is on its sixth head coach since December of 2010. Six! Since Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign, Pitt hired Mike Haywood who just days later was jailed on domestic violence charges and subsequently fired. Phil Bennett was then named the interim head coach for the bowl game.
The Panthers named Todd Graham head coach for 2011 and after one season, he left for Arizona State. Keith Patterson was the interim man for last season’s bowl game before finally hiring Chryst.
With such constant turnover, it’s no wonder Pitt has struggled. Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports put it well when he said in this week’s Forde-Yard Dash, “How athletic director Steve Pederson has kept his job while bungling multiple major hiring decisions is mystifying.”
Thankfully for Chryst, Pitt will be patient with him. Or at least they better. Getting off to an 0-2 start is not what they envisioned, but Pitt’s issues are hardy Chryst’s fault. You never want to lose to an FCS opponent, but if it’s going to happen, there’s no better time than the first game of your head-coaching career. There’s no where to go but up.