Living up to name
Sooners' title shows Big 12 not just Nebraska anymore
Updated: Tuesday August 14, 2001 11:08 AM
By Tim Griffin, Special to CNNSI.com
The Big 12 was supposed to immediately take its place among the power conferences in college football.
The assimilation of the old Southwest Conference's strength into the already mighty Big Eight was expected to create the country's strongest collection of superpowers.
But respect had been grudging for the Big 12 through much of its first five years. Nebraska gained most of the early publicity after streaking through with only one conference loss in the first two years of the league. Nationally, the Cornhuskers' early success seemed to be an albatross for the rest of the league. Other Big 12 teams had trouble emerging from their shadow as national players.
Until last season, the conference failed to post an above-.500 bowl record and in its five-year history notched losing composite records against teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC conferences.
But after Oklahoma's surprising charge to the national championship in 2000 -- the Sooners' seventh national title but first since 1985 -- it appears the Big 12 finally is living up to the early expectations.
Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma all were picked in the top five in the 2001 preseason Associated Press poll. It was the first time in the conference's brief history that three Big 12 teams were ranked that high.
Kansas State and Colorado are both regulars in most preseason top 25 lists and Texas A&M and Texas Tech aren't far behind.
All of which leads Kansas State coach Bill Snyder to scoff at questions about weak non-conference games.
"People ask me what is a difficult schedule," Snyder said. "You just look at a Big 12 schedule and you'll find out what one is. To get through those eight ballgames is paramount to any schedule in the country. It's a strong, strong, strong conference."
Snyder described two near upset losses in the last two years to illustrate the Big 12's top-to-bottom balance.
"Two years ago, we went up to Iowa State and fell behind 21-0," Snyder said. "We went down to Oklahoma State and the same thing happened. Before we knew what was happening, they got after us."
Considering that neither the Cyclones nor the Cowboys were title contenders was indicative of the balance of the league, Snyder said. The Wildcats rallied for comeback victories in both games, but not without some hard lessons along the way.
"All of us feel a great sense of pride of being in the conference," Snyder said. "The negative is that you're always on thin ice because everyone is so good."
Oklahoma will be aiming to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Nebraska in 1994-95. The Sooners return 16 starters and will also be looking to become the Big 12's first repeat league champions.
Coach Bob Stoops is confident that the Sooners have returning players that will give them a chance to repeat.
"My coaching staff and I believe we have a stronger, faster and undoubtedly more experienced group of players," Stoops said. "I think the most important thing going into this season that our players know how to win."
The Sooners must overcome the loss of Heisman Trophy runner-up Josh Heupel and skate through a potential quarterback controversy involving replacements Nate Hybl and Jason White.
After juggling a similar quarterback controversy last year, Texas has settled on sophomore quarterback Chris Simms in place of Major Applewhite. The Longhorns return 17 starters from last year's 9-3 team and under fourth-year coach Mack Brown have gone from national afterthoughts much of the 1990s to No. 1 contenders to start the 21st century.
"I think we're very talented," Simms said. "But that's a double-edged sword because people expect so much out of you."
Anticipation is especially keen in Austin, where fans are expecting the Longhorns to challenge for their first national championship since the days of Darrell Royal.
"The thing that Oklahoma did for us is that it opened our eyes that we all needed to work harder," Simms said. "The fans in our city are literally foaming at the mouth for a national championship."
Nebraska was the popular preseason choice for No. 1 last year and held that spot before a 31-14 loss at Oklahoma midway through the season. A loss at Kansas State cost them the North Division title for the second time in three years and left them disappointed with an Alamo Bowl trip after their early expectations.
The Cornhuskers lost most of their prime offensive playmakers, but return quarterback Eric Crouch for his senior season. A favorable home schedule -- where the Huskers have won 60 of their last 61 games -- will include games against Oklahoma, Kansas State and Notre Dame.
"The road to Pasadena goes through Lincoln," Crouch said. "We've got a lot of big games at home. It's a pretty meaningful home schedule."
Meanwhile, Kansas State has quietly taken control of the North Division, claiming two division titles in the last three years punctuated by home victories over the Cornhuskers. The Wildcats, Nebraska and Florida State are the only teams in the country with at least 11 victories during each of the last four seasons.
Now, others in the league are looking to duplicate the Sooners, Longhorns and Wildcats' recent success.
New coaches will be in place at Oklahoma State and Missouri, hoping to end bowl droughts of four years for the Cowboys and three for the Tigers.
Oklahoma State coach Les Miles made an interesting move when he arrived to coach the Cowboys. The former Dallas Cowboys assistant diverted $300,000 from his own salary to provide better salaries for his assistants.
Gary Pinkel has inherited the conference's losingest recent program at Missouri, where the Tigers have posted 15 non-winning seasons in the last 17 years. The new coach has installed a disciplined program where players are forced to run extra sprints after practice if they leave the huddle in the wrong manner dictated by their new coach.
Since the creation of the conference before the 1996 season, Big 12 teams have notched 1 1/2 national titles (Nebraska shared the 1997 title with Michigan). Only the SEC -- with Florida's 1996 title and Tennessee's championship two years later -- has won more national titles during that span.
Oklahoma was ranked 19th in the Associated Press' preseason poll last season. The Sooners streaked to the national championship, riding momentum from a three-game midseason string of upsets over Kansas State, Texas and Nebraska to their first national title under Stoops.
"I think there's any one of five or six teams that could have that kind of year," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "Oklahoma is one of those teams. There's a lot of balance in our league and it's no easy feat to get through it every week."
That strength will undoubtedly provide sleepless nights during the fall for many Big 12 coaches.
"It's definitely difficult to line up week after week, play a physical game and walk off the field a winner," Solich said. "You've got yourselves a handful in every game. The challenges are ahead for everybody this year."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express News. His "This week in the Big 12" column will appear weekly during the season.