Can 'balanced' Big 12 shed fifth-wheel status?

FRISCO, Texas – The Big 12 won the conference media day sweepstakes. Consider it 1-0 in July.

The league is having this year’s confab at the Ford Center, which is a 10,000-seat indoor stadium that is part of The Star in Frisco – also known as the “world headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys.” Like everything the Cowboys are involved in, it’s a first-class facility. And it’s a game-changing venue for media days – modern, spacious and clearly more football-themed than any hotel ballroom could be.

It’s perfect. Don’t be surprised if other conferences opt for on-field venues by 2018.

The rest of the Big 12 is highly imperfect, however. Winning media days only goes so far if you’re losing in other vital areas.

The Big 12 has slipped to fifth-wheel status in a sport that rewards the top four conferences. It may be cyclical, it may be reversible – or it may be the beginning of the end as we creep toward new media-rights contracts and the possibility of another realignment spasm sometime next decade.

The conference missed the four-team College Football Playoff in 2016. It was the second time in the CFP’s three-year existence that the Big 12 was excluded. All told, the Big 12 has played just one playoff game and is the only Power Five league without an appearance in the championship game, while the ACC and SEC are 3-2, the Big Ten is 2-2 and the Pac-12 is 1-2.

The Big 12 wasn’t even a controversial exclusion last year. It flopped so thoroughly in non-league play – going just 3-6 against the rest of the Power Five plus Notre Dame – that there was no conference caterwauling. The jig was up by the end of September, and everyone knew it.

“We understood,” said Joe Castiglione, athletic director at league champion Oklahoma.

That playoff exclusion followed on the heels of the Big 12’s tortured exploration of expansion, which ultimately led to standing pat at 10 members while still adding a championship game. That was the wise decision – there were no quality additions to make after the league foolishly turned up its nose at Louisville’s ardent bid at the same time it brought in West Virginia. But the process of wooing and then rejecting more than a dozen desperate schools from the Group of Five conferences only created a perception of an indecisive membership that couldn’t agree on what it wanted to be.

Who will have the better first year as head coach: Texas' Tom Herman or Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley? (Getty)
Who will have the better first year as head coach: Texas’ Tom Herman or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley? (Getty)

The expansion dithering also underscored the overall imbalance of a league populated by two powerhouse programs – Texas and Oklahoma – and eight riding their coattails. If they opt out in years to come for the bigger bucks and better stability of another conference, the rest of the league will crumble into irrelevance.

Then came the NFL draft this past spring. In a sport that relentlessly sells the pros in recruiting, the Big 12 came away with precious little to promote: the SEC had 53 players picked; the ACC 43; the Pac-12 36; the Big Ten 35. And then there was the Power Five’s fifth wheel, the Big 12, with just 14 selections. That even trailed the American Athletic Conference, which had 15.

(The AAC’s media days is ongoing this week as well, and the league gave out golf balls emblazoned with “P6,” indicating its push to expand media thinking beyond the Power Five. Nice try, but not happening. Sports writers will get more mileage out of the golf balls than with the conference spin behind them.)

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the smoking crater that is Baylor.

Despite it all, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby declared Monday that, “We had a pretty good year.” He had a couple of facts to back that up: a 15 percent increase in revenue distribution to league members; two Heisman Trophy finalists; a 4-2 bowl record, including a 2-1 record against the SEC; and a cute stat about the Big 12 leading the nation in scoring defense in bowl games at 21.5 points per game.

“For a league that is reported to be singularly interested in offense, that speaks volumes,” Bowlsby said.

Rest of the story: none of the Big 12 bowl opponents were in the top 30 nationally in scoring average in 2016, and the average rank was 52nd. So the league still has work to do to prove it knows how to stop opponents. A six-game bowl sample against fairly average offenses isn’t going to change the no-D reputation.

Bowlsby can better back up this assertion: “I know that top to bottom, we’re the best in the country in terms of balance.” At least, if everyone pretends bottom feeder Kansas doesn’t exist. The Jayhawks are 3-51 in conference play over the last six seasons.

The other eight teams can be considered “balanced.” Another modifier might be “mediocre.” No member has played in a national championship since the 2009 season, and no member has won one since the 2005 season.

In both instances, that member was Texas. Obviously, it would aid the league immensely if the Longhorns get back to being good after three straight losing seasons and seven straight middling years.

The other twin tower, Oklahoma, is replacing the winningest coach in its history in Bob Stoops. Now the league is entrusting its two Cadillac programs to a pair of new coaches (Tom Herman and Lincoln Riley) with a combined 26 games of head-coaching experience.

Most everyone is sold on both Herman and Riley as rising stars in the profession. But after a rough last few years, the Big 12 needs its rise to happen swiftly and concurrently.

Otherwise, the league might not be able to win much more than media days. And if that continues to be the case, its future will be tenuous.

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