Opinion: Big 12's Strength Depends on Texas, Oklahoma

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A few days ago, Oklahoma President David Boren made some ripples — we know, what's new? — by saying he is "philosophically in favor of a 10-win Texas."

Tom Herman's response: "So am I!"

Herman laughed as he said it. And then the Longhorns' first-year coach acknowledged that he'd like to see Oklahoma have similar success. And this isn't so much detente in a heated rivalry as it is recognition of the obvious:

The Big 12 needs Texas to be good again — and for Oklahoma to remain there.

All of which is why the Red River rivalry is suddenly so fascinating. Herman is Texas' new hope, the guy who is supposed to catapult the Longhorns back to winning. On the other sideline at the Cotton Bowl that second Saturday in October will be another newcomer. All Lincoln Riley is charged with is maintaining what Bob Stoops built and goosing the Sooners just a bit to reach their success levels of the 2000s.

Both jobs are big enough by themselves. But in very important ways, both coaches also shoulder the fortunes of the Big 12 at a very critical time.

As the conference's media days unfolded Monday and Tuesday, coaches and players mingling with mascots and cheerleaders in an indoor football arena, the vibe was upbeat with a dose of defiance.

"I don't think the Big 12 is in any jeopardy whatsoever or as weak as some might portray," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said.

He was echoed by others, which was a good sign: The league that can't ever seem to get out of its own way was, publicly at least, reading from the same page. But as always with this league, the backdrop is uncertainty.

The Big 12's TV contracts run through the 2024-25 school year; that's also when the grant-of-rights from each school to the league is set to expire. After that, no one is sure if the league will continue to exist in its current form — or, at least, with its current membership.

The best hope for continued viability involves on-the-field success in the next few years, including appearances in the College Football Playoff. As the thinking goes, that would go a long way toward persuading Texas and Oklahoma not to look at their options in other conferences.

And the Big 12's best-case scenario would be for the Longhorns and Sooners to trade punches and Playoff appearances, two powers playing to their heavyweight status. If that happened, they'd feel secure that their best path to the Playoff was remaining where they are — which would ensure the league's future.

Someone asked Herman if he felt responsibility to be an ambassador for Big 12 football abroad.

"Abroad, like across in Europe?" Herman said — but he continued: "Is it my job to take care of the Big 12? No. It's none of our jobs to take care of the Big 12."

He's right, as far as it goes. But if Texas and Oklahoma are good, they'll take care of the Big 12.

As they made the media rounds, the Big 12's coaches touted:

The nine-game round-robin format coupled with the rebooted conference title game between the top two teams in the standings (We play everybody! And somebody twice!).

Its riches at quarterback (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Kansas State's Jesse Ertz, for starters).

Its defensive performance in bowls last season (Big 12 teams held opponents to a 21-point average, lowest of any league).

But the plain truth is this: On the field at least, the Big 12 has fallen behind the other Power Five leagues. Missing the College Football Playoff in two of its first three years isn't an indictment of the selection system, as TCU's Gary Patterson would have you believe, but rather an indication of the conference's issues, both real and perceived.

But much of the Big 12's trouble boils down simply to this: Texas has fallen from elite to inferior.

"Certainly our league is better if Texas is playing at a very high level," Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

After three losing seasons in a row, Herman's first task is simply to reverse the trend. He told of asking in the first team meeting after he was hired from Houston: Which of you have played on a winning Texas team? Three players raised their hands.

"So," Herman said, "we don't know how to win really well right now."

If during the next couple of seasons the Longhorns figure it out, the renaissance could shift recruiting fortunes in their talent-rich state — which has been regularly poached in recent years by other conferences — not only for Texas but also probably, in a trickle-down effect as the perception of the league rose, to other Big 12 schools.

Meanwhile, as Texas has struggled, its biggest rival has been good but not quite great. The Sooners have won the last two conference championships, and they made the Big 12's only Playoff appearance in 2015. But over the last few years, they've hovered a notch or two below the level they occupied during most of the decade of the 2000s. And now Bob Stoops, the architect of that success, is on a golf course somewhere, leaving Riley, who'll turn 34 in September, to try to ensure the Red River shootout — and maybe a rematch in the conference championship game — regains its status as a defining moment in the national picture.

It's a tall order for both new coaches. But anyone invested in the Big 12's viability needs to be philosophically in favor of its traditional powers being, well, powerful.

"Texas and OU matter a lot in this league," Riley said. "I mean, they do. But do I feel that or think about it? No."

Which is fine. He has plenty of expectations to meet without considering larger long-term implications. The same applies to Herman, who has an even bigger immediate challenge.

But they understand the reality.

"It's good for the league if Texas is playing well," said Oklahoma's Mayfield, who's from Austin and is the farthest thing from a Texas fan. "The one win they can't have is against us."

Reverse that, and the Longhorns feel the same way. In the Big 12, so should everyone.

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July 19, 2017


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