ALONG THE BANKS of the Brazos River a new-age football cathedral of brick and steel and green-tinted glass glows like a slot machine under the darkening Texas sky. Inside, the Saturday-night extravaganza begins with a billowing cloud of smoke that shrouds the players' entrance, and fireworks that rocket from the rafters and paint the sky in blinding Technicolor. Music that belongs at a warehouse rave pulses through the stadium, and the Baylor players, outfitted in all black, emerge from the cloud in a mad dash toward midfield, where they run through a blazing ring of fire that looks as if it could be on loan from the Evel Knievel museum.
The game against Oklahoma at one-year-old, $266 million McLane Stadium was a showcase of Big 12 football in the modern era: a hyperspeed, sensory-overloaded version that is as glitzy as anything Las Vegas has to offer. Last weekend kicked off the conference's enthralling denouement, a three-week stretch during which the top four teams (Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU) were set to face one another in a veritable round-robin tournament that could either serve as an impeccably timed springboard to the College Football Playoff—or as a series of trips down the gangplank. The spectacle between the Bears and the Sooners last Saturday was appropriately over the top: 78 points; 927 yards; a 410-pound tight end making a nimble touchdown catch (senior LaQuan McGowan of Baylor); and an undersized quarterback pinballing across the field in a four-TD, Heisman-worthy performance (Oklahoma junior Baker Mayfield).
America's heartland has become the land of showtime football. Video-game scores from around the conference flickered on a ribbon screen that wraps around McLane: 59--44 (Texas Tech over Kansas State), 38--20 (West Virginia over Texas) and 35--31 (Oklahoma State over Iowa State). In becoming the only school in the country to twice rally from 17 down this season, Oklahoma State kept its perfect season intact as it heads into home showdowns against Baylor (8--1) and Oklahoma (9--1). "I'm sure TV loves us," said Mike Gundy, the 48-year-old Cowboys coach with the spiky boy-band hair. Yes, but will the selection committee?
YOU GO into the No. 6 team's backyard on a night like tonight and play this way...," said coach Bob Stoops after Oklahoma's 44--34 victory. "We're one of those teams that has a chance ... at everything."
His signature white visor ringing hair still wet from the night's warm rain, Stoops was using his postgame press conference to politick. After suffering a seemingly fatal 24--17 loss to Texas on Oct. 10, the Sooners had won their last four by scores of 55--0, 63--27, 62--7 and 52--16—and now could crack the CFP code with victories at home against TCU (9--1) and at OSU (10--0). In recent years, as the Big 12 has dwelled in the shadow of the SEC, Stoops has become more and more ornery when defending his program and his conference. Take SEC Network pundit Paul Finebaum, who at the start of the season proclaimed Oklahoma "irrelevant" after its 8--5 finish last season. Stoops, following his team's 31--24 win over then No. 23 Tennessee on Sept. 12, shot back, "Ask Tennessee and their 105,000 people if we're relevant or not." Last week Stoops went on a national radio show and made an impassioned case not only for his team but also for Baylor and TCU, citing overlooked nonconference wins for each. ("People have selective memories," he barked.) When Stoops's comments were replayed over speakers during the tailgating outside McLane, the Bears faithful roared in appreciation.
The Big 12—the coaches, players, fans, media members—have embraced an us-against-the-world attitude. With four playoff spots and five power conferences, at least one league is going to be left out every year. Last year the Big 12 looked like a CFP shoo-in at midseason, with both Baylor and TCU undefeated. But the Bears, after beating TCU 61--58, lost to West Virginia 41--27. In the final playoff rankings, the committee put one-loss Ohio State, fresh off a 59--0 throttling of No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, at No. 4, even though TCU had been ranked third in the committee's poll the week before. The Buckeyes, of course, won the national championship, but the committee's decision reinforced the notion that the Big 12's unbridled and joyful brand of football remains underappreciated.
The committee—a group of 12 former coaches, administrators and executives, only one under the age of 50—hasn't exactly warmed to the Big 12 in 2015. In the Nov. 10 playoff rankings Baylor, then undefeated, came in at No. 6 behind two one-loss teams (No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame), while Oklahoma State—fresh off a 49--29 throttling of TCU, the No. 8 team in the committee's own poll—barely cracked the top 10. The trend suggests that when the final rankings are announced on Dec. 6, a one-loss Big 12 champ could be on the outside looking in, again. In Waco there were even grumblings of a doomsday scenario in which an undefeated Big 12 team is shut out. Would one-loss Notre Dame be given an invite over a 12--0 Power 5 team like Oklahoma State? No one knows.
Big 12 supporters believe CFP chairman Jeff Long takes potshots at the conference every time he opens his mouth. When talking about 10--0 Iowa, which leapfrogged Baylor to No. 5 last week, Long said, "They've shown consistent improvement. Shown consistency on both sides of the ball. While they've not been flashy, they have been solid on both sides of the ball." Translation: The Big 12 might have four of the top six offenses in the nation, but their teams can't play defense. It's a sentiment shared by others: ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit recently compared the Big 12 to Arena football.
But when given the chance, the Big 12's elite have shown they can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Last year TCU shredded Mississippi—and the SEC's best defense—in the Peach Bowl 42--3. Baylor torched Michigan State's D, ranked second in the Big Ten, for 41 points during a one-point Cotton Bowl loss. This season two of the most high-profile computer rankings had Oklahoma and Baylor ranked first and second in the country when they took the field in Waco. The Sooners were also third in the country in yards per play.
"It's mind-boggling, the lack of respect the Big 12 gets," Oklahoma senior center Ty Darlington said after Saturday's win. "The team we beat out there is a great team. Even the Kansas States and the Iowa States, people don't know how good these teams are. It doesn't really make sense because I think we play good, exciting football here. I don't know what it's going to take for people to respect us. I don't know what it's going to take to get a little love."
WHAT IT might take is better scheduling and one more game.
Across the board Big 12 teams have played soft nonconference opponents; Oklahoma's victory over Tennessee is by far the league's most notable this season. The conference also doesn't have a championship game, which gives teams in other conferences a chance to notch one more win against a quality opponent. (The Big 12, with 10 teams, falls short of the 12 needed to have such a finale.) Baylor and TCU were 11--1 last year; Ohio State was 12--1.
That's why it's often assumed that a Big 12 team will need to run the table to make the top four, leaving Oklahoma State as the league's last chance. The Cowboys' road is as straightforward as the 82 miles down I-35 from Norman to Stillwater: Finish 12--0 and they win their second Big 12 championship. With quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington—a sophomore duo as dynamic as any in any conference—Oklahoma State puts up 43.6 points a game, seventh in the nation. The Cowboys also have the Big 12's standout defensive player, Emmanuel Ogbah, the bespectacled 6'4", 275-pound junior end known as Clark Kent, who throws around quarterbacks as if they were Metropolis henchmen.
A Nov. 28 date with Oklahoma at Boone Pickens Stadium looms as the conference's de facto championship and potentially a play-in game to the national semifinals. The Sooners jumped from No. 12 to No. 7 in the AP poll after the win in Waco, when they looked like the best all-around team in the conference. While their D held Baylor to 416 yards, 250 under its season average, their offense continued to roll behind a former Texas Tech walk-on who won Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2013, left Lubbock and walked on again in Norman. Now 6'1", 209-pound Baker Mayfield may be the best quarterback in the land. His statistics through the first nine games—3,082 yards on 70.2% completions, 31 touchdown, five interceptions—stack up favorably against those of the past 13 quarterbacks to win the Heisman (two of them from Oklahoma, Jason White in 2003 and Sam Bradford in '08). The hype machine went into overdrive after Mayfield passed for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 76 yards and another score last Saturday. "We're clicking at the right time," says Mayfield, "but people still haven't seen the best from us."
Mayfield was talking about Oklahoma, though he could have been speaking for the Big 12 contenders who will be front and center for the conference's thrilling final act. Should Baylor (with remaining road games against Oklahoma State and TCU over the next two weeks, and a date with Texas at home) or TCU (which goes to Oklahoma this weekend before hosting Baylor) win out, each could still take the conference crown, though earning a playoff berth—given the number of one-loss teams with stronger nonconference schedules—would require a lot of other teams to stumble.
It was almost 11 p.m. in Waco, and a drizzle continued to fall on the Oklahoma fans who remained in the stands, dancing in the aisles, chanting "Boomer Sooner." The first round in the Great 2015 Big 12 Knockout Tournament was over; now it was up to the playoff committee to decide whether there was more to the spectacle than smoke and mirrors.
"I don't know what it's going to take for people to respect us," says Darlington of the conference. "I don't know what it's going to take to get a little love."
Photograph by Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated
DUAL TREAT Mayfield, a walk-on transfer from Texas Tech, accounted for 346 yards and four TDs to help Oklahoma break Baylor's 20-game home winning streak.
STEVEN BRANSCOMBE/USA TODAY SPORTS
ROUND ROBIN Rudolph (opposite) leads the Cowboys' high-scoring attack; the Bears turn to McGowan (80) for some clout; Oklahoma gets a lift from Sterling Shepard (3) and Samaje Perrine (32).
Photographs by Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated
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