By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A year ago West Virginia University was celebrating about moving into the Big 12, escaping from the collapsing Big East into what many believed to be the second-best football conference in the country behind the powerful SEC.
But the football landscape keeps undergoing seismic changes and, while the SEC remains at the top (you argue with seven straight national championships if you want), the Big 12’s footing has become shaky. As you look at the conference as it heads into game week, there are cracks in the foundation.
Indeed, the string of spectacular quarterbacks from Vince Young to Geno Smith seems to have run out. Indeed, while West Virginia is having a hard time deciding upon which of its two inexperienced backup quarterbacks to anoint as Smith’s successor, similar situations are a theme throughout the league.
And whereas once the Big 12 — and its predecessor, the Big 8 — would strike fear across college football with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, as this season begins it has not a team in the Top 10.
Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma and TCU are ranked Nos.14, 15, 16 and 20 in the AP poll.
It ain’t Conference USA, but it ain’t what WVU thought it was getting into either.
The Big 12 would like to think off its depth and history it is as good a football conference as the SEC.
In fact, earlier this year Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was asked about the perceived gap in the conferences. For whatever reason, this set Stoops off.
“What’d (the Big 12) have, eight of 10 teams in bowl games this year?” he asked.
It was nine.
“So you’re listening to a lot of propaganda that gets fed out to you. Again, you can look at the top two, three, four, five, six teams, and you can look at the bottom six, seven, eight, whatever they are. How well are they all doing?”
Stoops was not foolish enough to argue the fact that the Big 12 was stronger at the top, but his point was throughout a case can be made.
Last year, for example, true Texas A&M — a refugee from the Big 12 — dissected Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, 41-13, but also last year a Texas team that was far from great routed Ol’ Miss, 66-31. In fact, since 2000 the margin is not far out of line in competition between the two conferences, SEC winning 25, Big 12 winning 17.
“The only way I think you can tell where you’re at is to play them on the field,” Gary Patterson, the TCU coach, said during Monday’s Big 12 coaches’ conference call.
He is a man who practices what he preaches, for he opens with No. 12 LSU while Oklahoma State is opening with Mississippi State.
Patterson spoke freely about the SEC and the differences between the two leagues.
“As a general rule the top six (in the SEC) are big and physical and fast. They rush the passer and don’t have to add people to do it. They have big wide receivers and they have strong tailbacks,” he said. “I see bigger bangers in the tailbacks. You look at the guys at Alabama and look at the guys at LSU, they have speed and size, whereas if you look at our guys, we have guys who can run but maybe not that size.”
What you really have is a pair of conferences with diametrically opposed philosophies, the SEC living off defense, the Big 12 off offense.
Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech is a rookie head coach who last year was the quarterback coach at Texas A&M, producing a Heisman Trophy winner in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, a Big 12 refugee.
What kind of differences does he see between the conferences?
“Football is football,” he said. “They had a good run. They have good athletes, and I couldn’t be more impressed with coaching jobs, but I feel the same way about the Big 12. The Big 12 is known as a scoring league, I guess. There’s some differences in game management.”
In truth, there probably isn’t a right or wrong way to play the game, and for who is the best, well that is determined when they go head to head.
Texas coach Mack Brown doesn’t believe an early season matchup or two proves anything.
“I think it’s better at the end of the year to look at the body of work from the Big 12. We’ve been a dominant league. One of the great things you learn about football is survival. It’s who ends up on top, not just the first couple of games of the season.
“With things changing during the season, it’s better to wait to the end to see who had the best years.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.