A month into the college football season, the Big 12 has as many top 10 teams in the weekly polls as the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA or any other non-BCS league you can name.
The total — zero — has not changed since August, when Big 12 teams were shut out of the preseason top 10 for the first time in league history.
From a national perspective, the extended absence of top 10 teams is understandable and deserved. Big 12 teams are a combined 0-2 in nonconference matchups against Top 25 opponents. Two league schools have fallen this season to FCS foes.
Struggles by projected title contenders Texas (2-2), Kansas State (2-2) and TCU (1-2) have overshadowed the efforts of the league’s four remaining undefeated teams: No. 11 Oklahoma State (3-0), No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0), No. 19 Baylor (3-0) and No. 24 Texas Tech (4-0).
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But this has the potential to become Breakthrough Saturday for the Big 12 in regard to recapturing some lost national luster, provided that the ranked teams from north of the Red River are up to the challenge.
That’s not a given, especially in the matchup that offers the biggest possible boost to the Big 12’s beleaguered reputation: Oklahoma at No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1). The Sooners head to South Bend, Ind., on Saturday with a 1-9 record in this series and lost last year’s meeting 30-13 in Norman, Okla.
An OU loss would drop the Big 12 to 0-3 in non-league matchups against ranked opponents, with no additional opportunities until bowl season. Just don’t expect Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to weigh in with any league-wide image concerns after making national headlines in the off-season for suggesting the Big 12 had stronger top-to-bottom competition than the SEC, the league that has produced the last seven BCS national champions.
Asked if he’s paid attention to the Big 12’s early results, Stoops said: “Not much. Even if I did, I wouldn’t give my opinion.”
Fair enough. Here’s mine: From the outset, most pundits envisioned this as a season when the Big 12 would be light on national title contenders but heavy on competitive balance. That’s proven true, but with an unwanted twist.
The Big 12’s struggles to win meaningful September matchups, combined with losses by Kansas State and Iowa State to FCS opponents, has the league in danger of dropping to fifth among the six BCS conferences in terms of national prestige in 2013.
That represents quite a slide for a league that prides itself on its football pedigree and, in most seasons, has enough national title contenders and Heisman Trophy hopefuls to back that claim.
Over the past decade, you’d be hard-pressed to say the SEC and Big 12 have not been the top two leagues in college football. But this season, the Big 12 is even further down than it appeared in August.
It’s a one-year aberration, caused by a dearth of veteran quarterbacks. But it’s going to bite this league when BCS at-large berths are handed out unless a pair of 11-1 teams are still standing at the end of the season. Or, better yet, a 12-0 league champ and an 11-1 runner-up.
Chances of that, based on what we’ve seen thus far, appear to be slim and none. But if OU could knock off Notre Dame and Oklahoma State wins Saturday at West Virginia (2-2), there could be a pair of top 10 teams from the Big 12 in next week’s polls.
That’s a start. Baylor and Tech, because of soft nonconference schedules and open dates Saturday, remain weeks away from top 10 consideration. So the onus this week is on OU and OSU if the Big 12 is to get a big shot of national recognition before October. OSU coach Mike Gundy remains wary heading into Saturday’s game at West Virginia.
“In this league, there is a huge amount of parity,” Gundy said. “There’s a number of teams that could win or lose any given day, depending of the location of the game.”
Throughout September, we’ve witnessed the vulnerability of Big 12 teams in high-profile settings. Can Stoops’ troops break the glass ceiling against Notre Dame? The key, said the coach, rests with whether his offense is productive in a hostile environment. And he’s optimistic.
“With our style of offense, going no-huddle as much as we do, we don’t count on verbally being able to communicate much, anyway,” Stoops said. “I think that helps us in that environment.”
Regardless of the outcome, Stoops said he’s glad to have Saturday’s game on the schedule because of BCS ramifications in the event of a multi-team tie for the conference title.
“With all other things being equal, you’ve got a better opportunity to get the nod in the BCS formula. That’s served us well through the years,” Stoops said, reflecting on league tiebreakers that reward the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.
For Saturday, however, the only question is whether a Big 12 team finally can play its way into the top 10 of the national rankings.
J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State QB
Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh, a sophomore from Denton Guyer, ranks among the nation’s most productive players at his position. Heading into Saturday’s game at West Virginia, Walsh is No. 36 nationally in total offense (274.7 yards per game) and No. 32 in passing efficiency (151.7 rating) despite heading into the season opener as the team’s backup quarterback. But he came off the bench Aug. 31 to trigger a 21-3 victory over Mississippi State and has remained in the lineup, helping No. 11 OSU (3-0) post a statistical line unmatched by any FBS school: The Cowboys have a 100 percent conversion rate on drives that reach the opponent’s red zone (15 of 15), with all 15 drives ending in touchdowns. The Cowboys have 10 rushing touchdowns. Walsh has five passing TDs. Of the 10 FBS teams that remain perfect in red-zone conversion percentage, only OSU has yet to mix in a field goal. To Walsh, that is his most telling statistic this season. “That’s pretty efficient,” Walsh said. “We’ve had a lot of explosive plays that have ignited the offense. With the depth that we have at every position, we’re going to make plays as long as we get the ball into the right people’s hands.”
Televised tiebreaker: Thursday’s Iowa State-Tulsa game (6:30 p.m., FS1) marks the third meeting between the teams in 386 days. They split last year’s contests, with Iowa State winning the season opener (38-23) and Tulsa claiming the rematch in the Liberty Bowl (31-17).
Offensive balance: Through four weeks, Big 12 teams have scored 104 rushing touchdowns and 103 passing TDs. Average length of the scoring plays: 10.3 yards per rush; 28.6 yards per pass.
Finger pointing: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is willing to point the finger of blame after the team’s slow start (2-2, 0-1 in Big 12) but only in one direction. “I’m not pointing the finger at anyone but myself. I’ve got to do a better job of coaching and getting people in position to succeed,” said Holgorsen, whose team is 2-0 against FCS opponents but 0-2 against FBS teams heading into Saturday’s game against No. 11 Oklahoma State (3-0, 0-0). “We’re playing too uptight. You can’t go out there and be scared to make a mistake.”
Iowa State 28, Tulsa 24 (Thursday, 6:30 p.m., FS1): Cyclones must have this one to boost bowl hopes and they get it. Barely.
No. 22 Notre Dame 24, No. 14 Oklahoma 20 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5): Irish defense, home-field edge make the difference in Sooners’ first road trip of season.
TCU 31, SMU 17 (Saturday, 11 a.m., FS1): Horned Frogs’ defense should keep Mustangs in check while game in doubt.
No. 11 Oklahoma State 45, West Virginia 21 (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN): Undefeated Cowboys continue to knock loudly on the door that leads to a top 10 ranking.
Last week: 4-1Season: 24-6