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BEFORE WE DISCUSS THE STRENGTH OF THE SOONERS OR THE ASCENT OF THE AGGIES, LET'S PUT our hands together for English poet and playwright Robert Browning, who in his 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto coined the phrase "less is more," which best encapsulates life in the Big 12 circa 2011. The work's title character, a High Renaissance painter, complains to his wife, Lucrezia, about inferior artists who did not work as much as he but produced more-acclaimed pieces. "Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged," spaketh Andrea. Centuries after Del Sarto's epiphany, the Big 12 has had a similar lightbulb moment. The conference no longer has Nebraska, which took its Big Red brand of ball to the Big Ten. Nor does the league have Colorado's Buffaloes, who are now roaming in the Pac-12. What the Big 12 does have, however, is addition by subtraction. A conference that was plagued by philosophical bickering and divisiveness among its 12 member schools even before play began in 1996 has evolved into a hand-holding group of 10. If you listen closely enough, you just may hear a few choruses of Kumbaya.
"Our conference now is as strong as or stronger than it has ever been," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told The Dallas Morning News in May. Commissioner Dan Beebe more than once has said, "When the conference came together, it was a marriage of convenience." Now? "It's a marriage of commitment."
At this time let's recognize the man largely responsible for this Big 12 lovefest. (Please sit down, Commissioner. We'll return to you in a bit.) That man is Nebraska athletic director and state icon Tom Osborne, who took to the Big 12 as eagerly as he took to the idea of the forward pass. It didn't help that right from the beginning of the conference, he and the Huskers lost three important political battles—over the location of the headquarters (they preferred Kansas City, Mo., to Dallas); the choice of inaugural commissioner (they wanted Bob Frederick, not Steve Hatchell); and the acceptance of partial academic qualifiers (Nebraska wanted it, the conference said no).
So when the opportunity to join the Big Ten arose during 2010's wild game of conference musical chairs, Osborne and Nebraska jumped on it like a fumblerooski. Anticipating the Huskers' move and not wanting to be stuck without a conference, Colorado went west. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were poised to bolt. Baylor, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri seemed doomed to a life in the Great Valley Sun Belt League or some such lower tier.
But something happened on the way to divorce court. ESPN and Fox Sports promised to open their wallets to a 10-team Big 12; Texas politicians played hardball; and Beebe (now you can stand, Commissioner) twisted arms and legs and just about every other body part. Cooler heads prevailed, and the conference was saved.
The future, however, wasn't solidified until this spring. In April the Big 12 struck a deal with Fox, which agreed to pay the conference $1.17 billion a year over the next 13 years (a 362% jump in annual payments from its last contract) for the conference's second-tier TV rights. Two months later the board of directors addressed what had long been a point of contention by increasing the amount of TV money shared equally among the schools from 57% to 76%, thereby propping up the lower-revenue-generating programs.
Colleges being collegial—imagine that. Thank you, Nebraska.
Under this newly optimistic atmosphere the 2011 college football season kicks off, and this year will be different than any before. The North and the South divisions are history, and the schedule is a round-robin format. The Big 12 championship game has also been punted, which, depending on whom you ask, is either good (no late stumbles for regular-season powers) or bad (loss of a lucrative event).
What has not changed is that the conference will be a major presence in the national-championship chase, with no fewer than three teams among the preseason top 15. Oklahoma is almost everyone's early No. 1 (the naysayers reside in the Southeast region of the United States) and has arguably the nation's best quarterback-receiver duo in Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles. Then again, that duo might be Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon—who give the Cowboys a real shot to cause bedlam on Dec. 3, when the Sooners roll into Stillwater for their season finale—or Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Jeff Fuller, who have made the Aggies nationally relevant for the first time since 1999.
Elsewhere in Big 12 land, Missouri has quietly averaged 10 wins over the past four seasons and has lost just 13 lettermen. Texas Tech is making strides under second-year coach Tommy Tuberville and has stolen defensive guru Chad Glasgow from TCU to install the Horned Frogs' confounding 4-2-5 defense. Texas has also found itself a new defensive coordinator (and offensive coordinator and offensive line coach and cable network and ...); if it can find an offensive identity to match its talent, watch out.