Courtesy Sports News West
DALLAS â€” As Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby opened Big 12 media days with his annual state-of-the-conference address, the giant video wall set up behind him practically shouted a new slogan:
“EVERY GAME MATTERS.â€
It felt like something new, but donâ€™t worry. Although it was hard to find Monday, “One True Championâ€ officially remains the leagueâ€™s motto. “Every Game Matters,â€ a reference to the leagueâ€™s round-robin schedule, is “a reinforcement of our position statement,â€ according to league spokesman Bob Burda.
If the messages seem mixed, it was probably fitting. As kickoff finally draws near, the Big 12 doesnâ€™t seem sure what it wants, or confident of its position in the college football landscape.
Since Baylor and TCU were left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff field last December, the league has writhed through significant soul-searching.
Last spring the Big 12 formally adopted a tiebreaker format designed to eliminate last seasonâ€™s quandary, when Baylor and TCU finished with identical league and overall records and no one in charge seemed to know what to do.
Head-to-head results â€” go with us here â€” will be used to determine which team should be designated the One True Champion.
Because that wasnâ€™t enough, Bowlsby and others pushed last spring, unsuccessfully, for a conference championship game.
Oklahoma President David Boren suggested conference expansion might be necessary and suggested the league is at a “psychological disadvantageâ€ as compared to its Power Five peers.
Angst permeated a long, difficult offseason. Which is why Bowlsby seemed surprised that the third question of the day referenced Borenâ€™s comments.
“I lost the pool,â€ he said. “I thought that would be the first question.â€Around here, itâ€™s essentially the only question: Whatâ€™s wrong with the Big 12?
Never mind that TCU and Baylor, the leagueâ€™s two best teams, were a couple of plays away from the inaugural Playoff field. Hereâ€™s the thing: If you think youâ€™re psychologically disadvantaged, you are psychologically disadvantaged â€” even if itâ€™s only in your own mind. Even if the inferiority complex is unwarranted, when it plays out publicly, it tends to become a public narrative.
TCU is likely to be ranked No. 2 when the preseason polls come out. Baylor is considered a good bet to contend for the playoff again, too. But in some corners of the Big 12 during the offseason, youâ€™d have thought the league had fallen into the Group of Five â€” or make it Six.
“As a league, we got left out,â€ Bowlsby said. “We need to be in a constant improvement mode. We need to play better, and we need to do what we can to get better in every single way.â€
They might start by acting like thereâ€™s nothing that needs to be solved. Or just by following the lead of TCU coach Gary Patterson.
Except for a brief moment last spring when Patterson wondered aloud whether TCU would have been in the four-team bracket “if we would have been an Oklahoma and Texas with a larger fan base and sold more T-shirtsâ€ â€” apparently, no one in the Big 12 is completely immune â€” he had been very diplomatic.
He said Monday being “a team playerâ€ was the best thing for college football and for the Big 12 â€“â€” but also for his team.
“I knew if I handled it differently,â€ he said, “then they wouldnâ€™t have played like they did in a bowl game.â€
In the Peach Bowl, you might recall, TCU blew out Ole Miss 42-3. Ole Miss wasnâ€™t the same team as it had been at midseason, but the Horned Frogs looked very much like a bunch that could have done significant damage in the Playoff. And yeah, Patterson knows it might mean something heading into this season.
“To be honest with you, Iâ€™m not sure TCU didnâ€™t gain more nationally by not getting into the playoffs, and by handling that whole playoff situation the way we did and then playing the way we did,â€ Patterson said. “Itâ€™s not the way I would have preferred to have done it, but it turned out that way.â€
The rest of the Big 12 didnâ€™t match TCUâ€™s standard, going 2-5 in bowls. But if thereâ€™s a perception issue, it might be as simple as Pattersonâ€™s hint: The league needs its biggest brands, Oklahoma and Texas, to play like the powers they are.
Regardless, the rest of the Big 12 would be wise to follow Pattersonâ€™s lead. Stop worrying out loud. Just go play. The problems might be nothing that a slightly different bounce of the ball wonâ€™t fix.
“I know how hard our teams play. I know how good the games are. I know the quality of the football teams in our league,â€ Bowlsby said. “Day in and day out, you donâ€™t want to play Big 12 teams. Theyâ€™re pretty salty.â€
Or else weâ€™ll learn that yeah, itâ€™s a systemic issue. Thirteen games might be better than 12, as playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long told Bowlsby. Without a conference championship game, the Big 12 might in fact be disadvantaged. But at this point, who really knows?
“You have to see how it all plays out,â€ Patterson said. “If we need to tweak our system, then you tweak it. But you donâ€™t do it off of one year.â€
Or as Bowlsby put it: “Donâ€™t panic.â€
“These things tend to be cyclical,â€ he added. “I donâ€™t think that those things sit tight forever. Itâ€™s easy to forget that until Ohio State went through and ran the table in the postseason, everybody thought the Big Ten was having a fairly poor year last year.â€
Heâ€™s right, of course. And when Ohio State got into the playoff at the Big 12â€™s expense, it set up the Big 12â€™s really poor offseason. Which is why when Bowlsby said he was excited that media days had arrived, that preseason practices were coming soon, and that kickoff was around the corner, it felt genuine.
At this point, the best thing that could possibly happen for the Big 12 Is to get back to playing football. No, check that. Bowlsby clarified:
“Get back to playing good football.â€
It wasnâ€™t so much a prescription for change, but a reinforcement of a position statement.