We have reached the final weekend of the Big 12 football season, with three teams tied for first place in the conference standings and six of 10 members eligible to accept bowl berths.
Along the way, there has been one notable September firing (Kansas coach Charlie Weis), one messy departure by a defensive coordinator (Texas Tech’s Matt Wallerstedt) and several breakthrough seasons by freshmen, led by Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine and Baylor receiver KD Cannon.
Barring a stunning upset Saturday, the regular season will conclude with the league that boasts about producing “One True Champion” distributing two matching trophies to its co-champs. When the College Football Playoff’s inaugural four-team bracket is set Sunday, the Big 12 can expect to produce one or two participants depending on weekend results.
Before we wave goodbye to this Big 12 season, we need to honor some teams and individuals who made it memorable. The envelopes, please:
• Best new marketing campaign: One true champion, two shiny trophies.
• Best scheduling foresight: For a second consecutive season, the league’s final game on Championship Saturday offers a showdown that tops many title game matchups from other leagues: No. 6 Baylor (10-1, 7-1) vs. No. 9 Kansas State (9-2, 7-1) in Waco (6:45 p.m., ESPN), with the winner guaranteed a share of the Big 12 title. The matchup is big enough that ESPN’s College GameDay will kick off its coverage on Championship Saturday from the Baylor campus.
• Worst scheduling foresight: No. 3 TCU (10-1, 7-1) faces Iowa State (2-9, 0-8), the league cellar-dweller, in Saturday’s regular-season finale. Clearly, league officials expected this game to decide a down-the-line bowl berth rather than serve as the backdrop for the Horned Frogs’ probable coronation as a CFP playoff participant.
• Best irony: The top five teams in this week’s CFP rankings feature teams ranked in the same order as the perceived strengths of their Power 5 football leagues this season: No. 1 Alabama (SEC), No. 2 Oregon (Pac-12), No. 3 TCU (Big 12), No. 4 Florida State (ACC) and No. 5 Ohio State (Big Ten). That may not be a coincidence.
• Worst irony: Texas Tech (4-8) produces its first 1,000-yard rusher since 1998 (DeAndre Washington, 1,103 yards) in the same season the Red Raiders posted their fewest wins during the Big 12 era.
• Best newcomer: TCU co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, the team’s play-caller, has transformed last year’s lethargic unit on a 4-8 team into a productive machine averaging 525.8 yards and 46.1 points for a Big 12 title contender.
• Worst newcomer: West Virginia’s ball-security issues. The Mountaineers finished 7-5 and upset No. 6 Baylor despite finishing minus-15 in turnover margin (No. 119 nationally). Imagine how much better they could have been with just a break-even ratio.
• Best souvenir: The toppled goal post from Kansas’ 34-14 victory over Iowa State that allowed the Jayhawks (3-9, 1-8) to escape the Big 12 cellar (division or overall) for the first time since the 2008 season.
• Worst souvenir: Texas Tech defenders are working on a dismal statistical grand slam. Tech ranks last among Big 12 teams in the four major defensive categories: scoring defense (41.2 avg.), total defense (513.4 yards per game), rushing defense (260.2 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (145.2 rating).
• Best impact freshmen: Perine leads the Big 12 in rushing yards (1,428 yards) and rushing TDs (19). Cannon is the most productive freshman receiver (47 catches, 800 yards, 6 TDs).
• Least impactful returnees: The nine players dismissed from the Texas roster by first-year coach Charlie Strong for unspecified violations of team rules. With diminished depth at multiple positions, the Longhorns struggled to finish 6-6 and become bowl-eligible.
• Best message: The great TCU-Baylor playoff debate offers proof that four is not enough when it comes to CFP playoff teams. Hopefully, lessons learned in 2014 will expedite expansion to eight (the champion from each Power 5 league, plus three wild cards).
• Worst message: Iowa State lost its opener to an FCS school for a second consecutive season, falling to North Dakota State 34-14.
• Clearest message: CFP selection committee members want Baylor to upgrade its nonconference schedule before they warmly embrace a spot for the Bears in their playoff bracket. Next year’s slate includes games against Rice, SMU and Lamar.
• Best idea for next season: Baylor should buy out Lamar and replace that game with a 2015 contest against Tennessee. The Volunteers lost a nonconference game on next year’s schedule when UAB dropped its football program, effective immediately. During a Monday news conference, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said school officials were “working on” upgrading future schedules but most mutual fits for games were “a couple of years down the road.” The UAB decision surfaced Tuesday, giving Tennessee an immediate vacancy.
• Best game: For dramatic impact, no contest was more riveting than Baylor’s 61-58 victory over TCU on a last-second field goal.
• Worst game: For the league’s national reputation, few nonconference defeats were more damaging than Texas’ 41-7 loss to Brigham Young.
Phil Bennett, Baylor defensive coordinator
Few coaches in the Big 12 grasp the significance of Saturday’s high-stakes showdowns for the three teams that share first place in the league standings than Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
Bennett has served as the defensive coordinator for all three schools in this year’s title mix: No. 3 TCU (1997), No. 9 Kansas State (1999-2001) and No. 6 Baylor (2011-present). A native Texan who played at Texas A&M and spent six seasons as the head football coach at SMU (2002-07), Bennett reflected on the possibility that the Horned Frogs (10-1, 7-1) and Bears (10-1, 7-1) could share the Big 12 title if his team can shut down the Wildcats (9-2, 7-1) in Waco.
During a week when most TCU and Baylor fans have been at odds, Bennett cited similarities between both schools.
“They’re both unbelievable, wonderful places,” said Bennett, who also served as TCU’s tight ends/tackles coach in 1982. “They’re both dedicated to the cause. I was at TCU with [former coach] Pat Sullivan when he got let go. When Dennis Franchione came in, their hierarchy said, ‘We don’t care what anyone else is doing. We’re on the road back to being a BCS school.’ And they spent money. They made commitments. They paid coaches. Fran started it, and they’ve kept it up. [Gary Patterson’s] done a great job. And when they hired Art [Briles] here at Baylor, it was the same thing.”
Bennett laughed while reflecting on both schools’ lean years as Southwest Conference members during his playing days at A&M. He also reflected on Baylor’s early Big 12 struggles.
“I can remember, vividly, when Baylor couldn’t win a conference game,” Bennett said. “That’s why I put them on the schedule when I was the head coach at SMU. I wanted some of Baylor, too.”
Now, Bennett is charged with helping the Bears join TCU atop the Big 12 standings if both schools prevail Saturday. What does that say about the respective programs at the league’s two private schools?
“I think it says a lot,” Bennett said. “No. 1, it says something about what’s going on at the two schools. I think it also says a lot about Texas high school football. There’s enough players in this state that there can be a bunch of good teams.”
Praising Perine: Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine caught the attention of Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray, a former Sooners standout, with his NCAA-record 427 rushing yards in his last outing. Perine hopes to add to his Big 12-best 1,428 rushing yards Saturday against Oklahoma State. Asked about Perine, Murray said: “Hell of a running back. A true freshman, so he has a lot of plays up ahead. That was a great accomplishment by him and the team [to set an NCAA record].”
Topping Dad: Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett needs one touchdown catch in Saturday’s game against Baylor to break the school’s career record. He currently shares the mark (26) with his father, Kevin, who played for the Wildcats from 1993-96. The younger Lockett became the K-State career leader for receptions (222) with nine grabs in last week’s 51-13 rout of Kansas. Those catches moved him past his father (217) on the school’s career list.
Lone Star legacy: Baylor has won a school-record 20 consecutive games played in Texas heading into Saturday’s matchup against Kansas State in Waco. The Bears are 31-3 in their last 34 games played in Texas.
No. 3 TCU 54, Iowa State 16 (11 a.m. Saturday, WFAA/8): Horned Frogs splatter Cyclones to secure a share of their first Big 12 title, finalize berth in CFP playoffs.
No. 9 Kansas State 35, No. 6 Baylor 31 (6:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): More purple reign alters plans to revel in the Bears’ second consecutive Big 12 title. Wildcats celebrate instead.
No. 20 Oklahoma 41, Oklahoma State 20 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, FS1): Sooners finish the regular season with three-game winning streak, prevent Cowboys from becoming bowl-eligible.
Last week: 3-1 Season: 62-10