It was a perfect Week 1 for the retooled Big 12, at least as far as the scoreboard goes. All nine of the league’s members in action, including newcomer West Virginia, got off to winning starts.
How they got there varied widely, and in some cases left more questions than answers.
Oklahoma scuffled its way to a 24-7 victory at UTEP, but the fourth-ranked Sooners were tied at halftime. No. 22 Kansas State needed a late scoring binge to separate from stubborn Missouri State, which briefly tied the game with a field goal early in the third quarter.
Iowa State trailed Tulsa in the second quarter, Kansas had trouble putting away South Dakota State until late, and No. 15 Texas was underwhelming in a defeat of Wyoming.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops believes it can all be traced back to one thing: parity.
“I mean, it’s been talked about for a long time now,” Stoops said. “There’s more and more good players that go around to everybody, and since they changed the rules that one team can’t get 140 guys — you can only get so many — there’s guys everywhere. And it’ll remain that way.”
Stoops is referring to the scholarship restrictions imposed by the NCAA to prevent heavyweights from recruiting players simply to keep them off the rosters of their rivals.
There were no limits on scholarships until the early 1970s, and for much of the decade the limit was 105. It’s been trimmed twice since then to the present limit of 85, so players that the Sooners might have stocked up on during the heyday of Barry Switzer are going places such as UTEP, where they are guaranteed a scholarship and have a better chance to see the field.
The result is more talented teams from the middle-tier of college football.
Programs that were once the punching bags of the big boys — think Boise State — have a better chance of becoming legitimate powers, and all of those early season blowouts that became a hallmark of the non-conference portion of the schedule have become a rarity.
“Every time someone has a close game, they say, ‘Oh, they overlooked them,’” said Stoops, whose team beat Air Force by a field goal in 2010. “That’s not always the case.”
The trickle-down of talent extends beyond divisions, too.
Schools such as South Dakota State that play in the Football Championship Subdivision are getting recruits that two decades ago would have been backups at a power school such as Nebraska, and the result are more scores like this: Youngstown State 31, Pittsburgh 17.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder certainly understands such peril.
Missouri State won two games a year ago and even had an assistant coach quit 10 days before the season, but showed enough moxie that the Wildcats didn’t get control until 20 minutes were left.
“That’s going to be a good football team. They were picked last in their conference,” Snyder said. “You have to realize that their defense kept us out of the end zone for the entire first half and into the second half. I think they are going to be fine.”
Not everybody in the Big 12 had a tough time squeezing through Week 1, though.
Bookmakers made No. 19 Oklahoma State a nearly 70 point favorite on Savannah State, a line so preposterous that most people figured the Cowboys couldn’t possibly cover the spread.
Then they scored five touchdowns by the end of the first quarter, yanked the majority of their starters in the second, and did everything but kneel on the ball the entire second half to keep the game from getting out of hand. Oklahoma State still won 84-0.
The victory demonstrated another challenge of early season games.
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said it was never his intention for the game to get that one-sided, but he also pointed out the challenge in setting up schedules. Savannah State had to be added late once Big 12 realignment had been sorted out — “I think Savannah State was maybe the 17th school they called,” he said — and other schools are often a shadow of what they were when the game was made.
“This debate could go on forever with scheduling. It’s hard to predict,” Gundy said. “For example, you may schedule a team three or four years out, where they’re doing very well, and then by the time you play them, they’re having a really tough time. And when you schedule that game, it may not end up being what you thought. And it could work the other way.”
Regardless, Gundy said he’d prefer beating up on a patsy — even if there are fewer now than ever — rather than playing someone that could give the Pokes problems.
“I’m not a big fan of opening against what would be a tradition-rich national power, because it makes your preseason so much more difficult,” he said. “Would you like to keep (starters) in through the third quarter? Yes, but I wouldn’t trade it for having to play into the fourth.”