DALLAS — A year ago, the Big 12 did its best to put on a strong face when it hosted its football media days. Nebraska and Colorado were gone to the Big Ten and Pac-12, and rumblings were about to begin again out of College Station.
The conference staged a media reception that was more akin to a pep rally, followed by a season-long marketing campaign emphasizing the league’s strengths and traditions.
Then two more schools left.
But there’s more of a sense of stability this year as the league and media gather Monday and Tuesday. The Big 12 is again at 10 schools, making the league’s very name a misnomer, but those who remain seem to really want to be here. That includes the two new additions in TCU and West Virginia.
However, there’s still work to be done. The Big 12 faces numerous issues as it embarks on another football season. Here are five of the biggest ones:
1. Oklahoma needs to be really, really good. And Texas needs to get a lot better.
The Sooners are the Big 12’s only national title contender, on paper, going into the season. They’ve got an NFL-ready quarterback in Landry Jones who returned to start for a fourth season – a real rarity these days. They’ve got Mike Stoops back running the defense for his brother, Bob.
Texas needs David Ash to be the answer at quarterback and help put the Longhorns back in national title conversations. The Longhorns have had two sub-par seasons in a row. The Big 12 doesn’t have the depth it did a year ago, so it needs its flagship programs to play like flagship programs.
2. The stars must come out
The Big 12 has been on a roll lately in producing high-profile, first-round draft picks. The conference even had the Heisman Trophy winner, again, last season. This year, there are not as many stars to brag about, at least not going into the season.
OU’s Jones and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith are already on the national radar. There are other exciting players, such as Kansas State QB Collin Klein and Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills, who probably don’t get enough attention.
Oh, there are plenty of Big 12 players on all the awards’ watch lists. But watch lists aren’t very selective these days. The Big 12, after a string of high-profile players, needs a few more players who are on the finalists’ lists at the end of the season.
3. Champion the Champions Bowl
The Big 12 and the SEC made headlines this offseason by partnering to form the Champions Bowl, a sort of “Rose Bowl-East” that will theoretically match the two leagues’ champions. The bidding will begin soon to decide which city, or cities, will host the thing.
Partnering with the big dog of college football conferences is a smart move. The Big 12 just has to make the sure the SEC doesn’t get its way on everything, as it usually does when that league throws its weight around. Like making Atlanta the permanent site.
But then the Big 12 has to win the darn thing once in a while. In the ATT Cotton Bowl, a close approximation of what the Champions Bowl will become, the SEC has beaten the Big 12 in eight of the last 10 years, and a lot of those SEC wins haven’t been close.
4. The up-and-comers need to stay up
Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor all had breakthrough years of some sort last season. With Texas A&M and Missouri removed from the conference’s midsection, they need to continue to play at a higher level.
Kansas State looks to have some quality pieces back, but Oklahoma State will go with a true freshman at quarterback to replace “old man” Brandon Weeden. No one can replace what Robert Griffin III meant to Baylor, but the Bears have enough talent to continue to progress under Art Briles.
And Texas Tech – remember those guys? The Red Raiders need to be relevant again.
5. Give West Virginia a warm welcome
It may be hard to get your mind around the idea of a team in the Eastern time zone playing in the Big 12. Yet West Virginia’s membership in the league could say a lot about the Big 12’s future.
It’s important that the Big 12 welcome West Virginia with open arms. West Virginia is the first true expansion school of the Big 12 – TCU is well within the league’s footprint and is a longtime rival of several schools.
West Virginia has no natural ties to the Big 12, a league that has a reputation of being run by Texas and, to a lesser degree, Oklahoma, to the detriment of the other members. That’s why schools like Nebraska and Texas A&M left the Big 12, ostensibly.
For now, the Big 12 is content to be a 10-team league. Further expansion may be necessary to keep up in the realignment rat race. If West Virginia makes a smooth transition to playing schools in Texas and the Midwest, it could help the Big 12 extend its reach if it needs to again.