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Big 12 parity figures to drive more thrilling finishes, exciting league race

Midway through the fourth quarter, Oklahoma State was on the move, primed to take its first lead over Baylor. But as true freshman running back Justice Hill tried to fight his way toward the end zone, he lost the ball. Baylor recovered at its own 1-yard line and went on to salt the win away.

With a Big 12 long on good teams, but so far seemingly short on great ones, Saturday night’s wildly entertaining tilt in Waco figures to be the first of many thrilling fourth-quarter finishes this conference season in a Big 12 race that appears to be as wide open as ever. Especially considering that the gap between the Big 12’s top team — whoever that might be — and the eighth one — whoever that might be — doesn’t appear to be significant.

In defeating Oklahoma State 35-24, Baylor netted the Big 12's first key conference win. But this wasn’t the same methodical Baylor attack of the last few years. Unable to control the line of scrimmage offensively, the Bears averaged just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt. Take away quarterback Seth Russell’s scrambles and zone-read keepers, and the average dipped to just 2.8.

As a result, the Bears had to rely almost exclusively on the big pass play, as Russell completed touchdown passes of 38 (off a fluke tip), 38 and 89 yards, to take down the Cowboys.

Who knows, Baylor could go on to steamroll its way through the Big 12 slate. The Bears boast the same scary firepower at the skill positions. But without the run-grating line to go along with it, this Baylor offense doesn't appear to be as complete as it has been in recent years.

Still, at least the Bears remain undefeated, which is more than anyone else in the Big 12 can say, with the exception of the squad picked to finish seventh in the preseason.

Thus far, West Virginia has been better-than-expected, boasting wins over Missouri and BYU. Offensively, the Mountaineers have rapidly generated an identity, with Justin Crawford's versatility, Rushel Shell's tough running and Shelton Gibson's downfield playmaking rounding out a rather balanced attack. Quarterback Skyler Howard has been efficient with his weapons, ranking third in the Big 12 in QBR.

In the 35-32 victory over BYU on Saturday, West Virginia’s young defense forced four turnovers, including Rasul Douglas' 54-yard pick-six and Maurice Fleming's game-clinching interception in the final minute. But the Mountaineers also surrendered 521 yards to a BYU offense that had averaged 17 points its first three games.

Given their three-game start, the Mountaineers have to be considered a league contender now. But that might have as much to do with the struggles of the Big 12 preseason favorites as it does with West Virginia.

TCU, for already the third time this year, sputtered in a first half, and it needed a big third quarter to put away SMU after leading just 6-3 at half.

Oklahoma State remains suspect along the offensive line, and currently trails everyone in the Big 12 except Texas Tech in pass defense, as Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush and Russell combined to torch the Pokes for eight touchdowns and 755 passing yards.

Oklahoma has looked rather average at receiver and has been surprisingly vulnerable in the secondary, with a massive void at cornerback.

Texas, meanwhile, has actually allowed more touchdowns than the Jayhawks, and its supposedly program-defining win over Notre Dame in the opener continues to look worse by the week.

All of which is why Kansas State and Texas Tech should feel reasonably confident they can play with anyone in the conference. Like everyone else, the Wildcats and Red Raiders have definite strengths and glaring weaknesses.

K-State still has a plodding offense, but counters with a tenacious defense. And while Tech appears to be as hapless as ever defensively, it boats a Heisman hopeful quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, who leads the nation in passing.

With such parity across the board, the Big 12 appears unlikely, at least through the season’s first month, to produce a playoff team.

But such parity should produce an exciting conference race, and many thrilling finishes. Like the one just witnessed in Waco.