During the offseason, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops defiantly dismissed the SEC’s supposed superiority over the Big 12 as pure “propaganda.”
“They’ve had the best team in college football,” Stoops bristled, when asked how the Big 12 could narrow the gap with the SEC.
“They haven’t had the whole conference.”
That theory will be put to the test on the field this weekend, as two neutral-site, Big 12-SEC showdowns highlight the opening Saturday of college football.
Preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State will meet Mississippi State at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Later that night, TCU will take on LSU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Any time you get a chance to play a team in the SEC,” said Oklahoma State wide receiver Tracy Moore, “you have something to prove.”
Which is why for the SEC, it’s just another Saturday. For the Big 12, it’s way more. One conference has nothing to prove; the other, most definitely something.
Justified or not, the Big 12 has been fighting a losing battle lately with the SEC in the court of public perception, which anymore is -– and will be -– half the battle in college football.
Just ask Mike Gundy, whose Cowboys lost out to Alabama for a berth in the BCS title game two years ago, even though Oklahoma State had three more wins over ranked opponents than the Crimson Tide did.
"I don’t think there’s any question the Mississippi State game is a big game," Gundy said. "The way the BCS is set up and eventually with the [playoff], these games factor in. If we as an administration decide to play these games, then you have to be ready for that to factor in the nation's perspective of your football team after that game. I don’t think it’s going to be any other way.”
For the Big 12, the national perspective has not been flattering. Even though nine Big 12 teams were good enough to go to bowls last season -– the crux of Stoops’ counterargument -– none apparently were good enough to begin in the Associated Press' Top 10 for the first time in the history of the conference.
“I do think our league has not gotten the credit nationally it deserves,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “As we keep looking at it over the next couple of years, the Big 12 will gain that respect.”
The Big 12 doesn’t have to wait years. Only days, as the weekend offers a prime opportunity for the league to show it can go toe-to-toe against college football’s preeminent conference.
“The only thing that should be talked about is what happens on Saturday –- and that will be the only way we’ll ever change all that,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “The only way we’ll ever catch the SEC -– if that is true that we’re behind them –- is you’ve got to play them.”
Credit the Big 12 for at least doing that.
On top of this weekend’s SEC tilts, Texas will play host to Ole Miss in two weeks. In 2014-15, Oklahoma has a home-and-home with Tennessee; Texas Tech, the same with Arkansas.
The Big 12 has also signed three bowl agreements with the SEC, including the Champions Bowl, which will pit the two best non-playoff teams from each conference against one another in New Orleans.
But there’s a difference between scheduling the SEC and defeating it.
“That’s always been the best way,” Patterson said. “We have to prove when we get the opportunity to play well or win. That’s the key. Obviously, you can’t have what it looked like in the Cotton Bowl, either.”
The last decade of Cotton Bowls, for that matter.
The SEC has won nine of 10 meetings over the Big 12 in the Cotton Bowl, which has been the highest profile bowl game between the two conferences. The SEC’s average margin of victory in those nine wins is two touchdowns, which, of course, includes Texas A&M’s 28-point annihilation of Oklahoma last season.
To stop the hemorrhaging, the Big 12 can ill-afford for two of its contenders to get taken out on national television by programs projected to finish third and sixth in the SEC West.
“It would be something we’ll never be able to overcome, at least until we got another opportunity,” said Cowboys defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, who signed with Arkansas out of high school. “At the end of the day, we are representing the Big 12. It’s a big week for us.”
The Big 12 can’t narrow the entire SEC superiority gap in a week, whether that gap is real or propaganda. But in a day, TCU and Oklahoma State can prove the Big 12 is deserving of more respect.
“The SEC, they deserve the respect they get,” Cowboys linebacker Shaun Lewis said.
“Hopefully we can earn some, too.”