From death’s door to nation’s best

Remember one short year ago, when the Big 12 was on life support, when Middle America was looking at being both conference-less and without a football identity, and when every Big 12 school that was anyone was looking for a lifeline, a way out of the Big 12 at any cost?

What a difference a year makes.

Now, with West Virginia and Texas Christian proving more than ample football replacements for Texas A&M and Missouri, the Big 12 of 2012 has turned into something we never would have expected from the unstable Big 12 of 2011: Where we look for the most exciting football in the country.

The up-tempo style of Big 12 football means a slew of offenses that value quarterback play as much as any. The four highest-rated quarterbacks in college football hail from the Big 12, with two more passers among the top nine. The Heisman front-runner — West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith — plays in the Big 12, as do two other quarterbacks being mentioned in Heisman discussions: Kansas State’s Collin Klein and Texas’ David Ash. (That doesn’t even include Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, who could revive his Heisman hopes with a stellar performance this weekend against Texas in the Red River Rivalry game, the flagship rivalry in the Big 12.)

“We’ve gone from possibly not having a league to having an unstable league to having a league that wasn’t getting along to having as stable a league as anyone, with great football teams in it,” said Texas coach Mack Brown. “We’re right at the top of conferences right now. This league has got more parity at the top than ever before.”

In 2010, parity wasn’t the goal of the Big 12. The goal was merely survival. Colorado and Nebraska had left, and rumors had Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech all considering moves to the Pac-12. Then in 2011, with Missouri and Texas A&M heading for the greener pastures of the SEC, TCU decided to spurn the Big East and join the Big 12, and the conference also accepted West Virginia as a new member.

“It was a slam dunk for TCU as far as joining the Big 12,” Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said. “Financially, as far as the landscape of college football in the next five years, we’re on the right side of the street.”

Last month the ultimate stability came in the form of dollar signs, as the Big 12 signed a new 13-year television deal with ESPN and FOX Sports.

All this is not to say the Big 12 can claim a full 180, from Dead Conference Walking to National Football Capital. The best football in the land still belongs to the SEC, with seven teams currently in the Top 25. Anyone who isn’t picking the SEC to win its seventh national title in a row this season — with Alabama ranked No. 1, South Carolina third and Florida fourth — is betting against the house.

But not to be overlooked is the fact that seven of the 10 most difficult schedules played so far belong to Big 12 teams. The Big 12 has an impressive four teams currently in the top 15 in the AP poll: West Virginia, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas.

And don’t look now, but three other Big 12 teams are barely out of the top 25: Baylor, Iowa State and TCU.

“I think the league is stronger now than it has been in a long time,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “The difference in our league is the tempo and the style of play, how fast we move and the number of plays we try to get in in a game. But we’re still running the ball, and we like to stay as balanced as possible.”

Don’t forget: The up-tempo, pass-happy, spread-the-field style of offense common in today’s college football claims lineage in the Big 12, to Mike Leach’s first Air Raid offense at Oklahoma in 1999. It’s an amazing thought, talking today about the impressive tradition of the Big 12 when a year ago we were all preparing the conference obituary.

“We were seeing a Heisman candidate in Geno Smith last week, and we’re seeing another one this week (in Landry Jones),” Brown said. “Our league’s got the best passing efficiency quarterbacks in the country. It’s a league where people are throwing at such a high level and are so accurate, it’s tough on defenses. But it’s fun to watch.”

And that’s where the Big 12 stands right now. It may not be the country’s best football: That honor goes to the SEC, with the Pac-12 (sporting Oregon and USC) getting an honorable mention. And it may not be the country’s biggest football; that’s still the Big Ten. But if the Big 12 is simply the place where the most exciting football is played, that’s something anyone in this rose-from-the-dead conference will take in a heartbeat.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.