NORMAN, Okla. -- It wasn’t too long ago the reputation of the Big 12 Conference rested on the shoulders of Oklahoma and Texas.
Those two programs won every Big 12 football title from 2004 through 2010 as both the Sooners and Longhorns made two BCS title game appearances during that span, with Texas capturing the BCS title in 2005.
Clearly, they were the faces of the Big 12.
This season Oklahoma appears to be on its own when it comes to carrying the torch for the conference on the national stage. No other Big 12 school brings the combination of name recognition, championship pedigree, tradition and on-field production to match the Sooners.
“We don’t really worry about that too much,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said when asked if the Sooners have the league’s reputation on their shoulders. “But if anybody wants to say that, we’ll take it because it’s an honor. But we just want to play football because at the beginning of the year everybody wasn’t high on us so we still have a chip on our shoulder.”
Meanwhile, Texas has fallen by the wayside. The Red River Rivalry has traditionally been a game circled on the national calendar and both teams have been nationally ranked entering the game in every season since 2006. This season, the Longhorns are unranked and speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future has become the featured conversation piece when thinking of UT, not the actual football team.
So, there sit the Sooners, all alone on the Big 12 throne.
“That’s a residue of wanting to be the best,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We want to be that team every year in the Big 12. Quite frankly since Coach [Bob] Stoops has been here, we’ve been that team, that’s important to us. In the nonconference games like Notre Dame, we kind of carry the torch for the whole conference and we want to play well. We want to be the best team in this league and want to be recognized as a national power.”
Without question Baylor has a strong argument to stand beside the Sooners when it comes to carrying the torch for the conference in 2013. Yet the Sooners hold the edge, and are ranked higher, for three reasons: (1) They boast the best win of the two, with their 35-21 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 28. (2) Their winning reputation under Stoops for the past 15 seasons brings instant credibility the Bears cannot match simply by throttling opponents by half-a-hundred each Saturday. (3) They handed the Bears their last loss, a 42-34 win in Norman last November.
Thus, if things remain the same until November with OU and BU looking impressive while remaining undefeated, the Sooners will be the first Big 12 team to come to mind when discussions of BCS berths begin.
And the Big 12’s national reputation is setting up as a potential obstacle instead of an asset when the Sooners and Bears will be evaluated. If the league was strong, both teams might have an argument to earn a BCS berth.
But the Big 12 is not strong this season.
Oklahoma State -- the preseason Big 12 favorite -- couldn’t win a conference game before it already had a loss, Texas Tech is slowly gaining national respect but will have to shore up its quarterback situation, and TCU had its chance to make its mark in losses to LSU and OU. The league’s sub-par national reputation has taken a hit with Texas’ struggles and other teams' stumbles, but Norvell isn’t convinced the Sooners will stand alone on the national stage at the end of the season.
“When the traditional powers struggle, the conference looks like it’s not as strong,” Norvell said. “I don’t know that that is the case. Texas hasn’t been, maybe, what they have been in the past in the national spotlight but you have to look at Baylor, Texas Tech -- those are strong teams right now and we’ll see as the season goes along how it all unfolds, but I think by the end of the year we’ll get the feel that maybe the Big 12 is a little better than people give it credit for.”
Only time will tell.