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On July 21, news broke via the Houston Chronicle that the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas would move their athletic departments from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. The decision set off a nuclear reaction inside the Big 12 offices.
The Sooners and Longhorns are/were the Big 12’s most historically successful programs and its biggest and most lucrative brands. Beyond on-field success, they brought television ratings, sponsorships and difficult-to-replace cache.
It was a dark day for what remained of the conference. It was followed by lots of uncertainty, finger-pointing and panic.
So, forgive the league, and certainly commissioner Bob Bowlsby, if, after the developments over the past few weeks, they aren’t enjoying a heavy serving of schadenfreude as they chuckle about how while the money might be big, the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.
Start with this: the Big 12 title game on Saturday features neither UT nor OU, but two Big 12 committed programs in Baylor and Oklahoma State. If the Cowboys, who clinched their championship game spot courtesy of a thrilling victory over Oklahoma on Saturday, wins, they would become significant contenders for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
They could be joined by Cincinnati, who agreed to join the league in 2022 as an answer to the defections of UT and OU. The Bearcats are 12-0 heading into the American Athletic Conference title game against 11-1 Houston (also headed to the Big 12 next season).
That means half the playoff field this season — and all the attention, publicity and momentum that comes with it — could be made up of current and future Big 12 teams. Only the SEC has ever had two teams in the same playoff.
Then came another bombshell Sunday when Oklahoma lost its elite, young coach, Lincoln Riley, who bailed on the idea of battling in the SEC. Instead, he’ll take over at USC where the path to national contention via the Pac-12 isn’t littered with so many peers that can match the program in terms of resources and tradition, not to mention exceed it when it comes to recruiting in-state talent.
Within hours of Riley taking the new job, three five-star commitments in the Classes of 2022 and 2023 backed out of pledges to Oklahoma as well. That includes elite quarterback Malachi Nelson from California, who will likely wind up at USC as well. And that doesn’t even count the future of current Sooner QB Caleb Williams, a Washington D.C. native who might follow Riley or transfer to nearly anywhere in the country.
“Not a lot of kids in Southern California [or elsewhere] are dying to move to Norman, Oklahoma,” said Adam Gorney, a California-based recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “They were going to play for Lincoln and his offense.”
Let’s be clear, Oklahoma football is a lot bigger than a single coach. The Sooners will find another high-level leader. OU will remain a desirable place to play and likely continue its decades-long tradition of fielding winning teams.
Still, Riley was a proven commodity and at 38 still had plenty of room to grow via experience. He led the Sooners to three playoff appearances in five seasons.
Maybe most important, he proved to be an elite national recruiter. That becomes even more important once OU enters the knife fights of the SEC, where five-stars are everywhere and more than half the league has a superior local recruiting base. Since 2007, the state of Oklahoma has produced just one Rivals 5-star recruit — Daxton Hill of Tulsa in 2019, who signed with Michigan.
Then, of course, there is Texas, which started this entire realignment out of frustration that its once vaunted program can’t get back to national contention. It hired Steve Sarkisian to make a good team a great one only to stumble to a 5-7 record.
This is the terrifying part of conference realignment. It looks good when the announcement is made and when the revenue check comes. Actual on-field results have proven far less positive.
There have been a few success stories, such as Utah from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. And a few others have had their moments: TCU (MWC to Big 12), Missouri (Big 12 to SEC) and Virginia Tech and Louisville (Big East to ACC) but none have maintained it.
That includes Texas A&M, which made the Big 12 to SEC jump in 2012. The Aggies have also enjoyed blips of success – Johnny Manziel, a 9-1 campaign in 2020, etc. – but are just 46-35 in conference play overall.
The sledding is just tougher in the SEC, where Oklahoma and Texas won’t have huge natural advantages over the rest of the league like they did in the Big 12. Riley understood that and now the Sooners are looking for a coach. Texas is just trying to find its footing. It’s clearly a whole new landscape.
The Big 12, meanwhile, will have two conference title games to watch with playoff implications for members current and future.
It sure doesn’t make up for that day in July when its league nearly blew up, but, yeah, this feels pretty good nonetheless.