Archive for Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Commentary: Big 12 loses its luster

September 20, 2006

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ESPN dubbed it "Separation Saturday," and way too many Big 12 Conference football teams embraced the concept.

One after another, schools separated themselves from undefeated records and BCS bowl dreams in matchups against Top 25 opponents. The final ledger: 0-4 in four opportunities to boost the league's national image, which has been in backslide mode since Texas fell, 24-7, to top-ranked Ohio State on Sept. 9.

It would be easy to sit here and rail about defensive lapses (Oklahoma), punchless offenses (Texas Tech, Nebraska) and ill-fated fourth-down decisions (Iowa State) that conspired to lay the latest blemishes on the Big 12's sagging reputation as a power football conference.

As it stands, only four league teams - all of them unranked - remain undefeated: Missouri and three schools coming off losing seasons (Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M). Honk if you think that will impress poll voters.

Funny, I didn't hear anything.

But this message should be coming through loud and clear: The Big 12 is a regional league, not a prime-time national player, in 2006.

Look for a heck of a race to see which team wins the conference title and winds up playing in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. That's as close as any Big 12 team figures to get to this year's BCS national championship game, played in the same stadium on Jan. 8.

Based on three weeks of evidence, especially the results on "Separation Saturday," it's pretty clear there is ample separation between the nation's top three teams (Ohio State, Auburn, USC) and Texas, followed by even more separation between UT and the rest of the Big 12.

How best to improve Big 12 football? Here are some suggestions:

¢ Extend TCU an at-large bid to the Big 12 Championship Game. Have the Horned Frogs meet the winner of the play-in game between Texas and Missouri.

¢ Better yet, add No. 16 TCU (3-0) as the league's 13th school, following the lead of the 11-member Big Ten. That way, the Big 12 would still have an undefeated team in this week's Top 25 poll.

¢ Refuse to play in Pacific-10 conference stadiums unless you can bring your own replay official. For further clarification, consult Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

¢ If you're going to make a head-scratching decision on fourth down and put your team in position to lose in the waning minutes, make sure you do it against Army (1-2) and not No. 14 Iowa (3-0). Isn't that right, Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione?

As his team prepares to open the conference race this week against Iowa State, Texas coach Mack Brown declared it "too early" to dismiss this as a down season in the Big 12.

"You really can't tell," Brown said. "Every time you think you know what's going on in college football, something changes."

Unless something changes in a big hurry, Brown should feel comfortable looking in the rearview mirror as the Big 12 race unfolds. The defending champs have slipped since last year's national title run. But nobody is gaining on them, either.

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