The Big 12 is in a free fall.
The conference is drowning.
The league should wave the white flag.
Preseason favorite Oklahoma — FOX analyst Urban Meyer says — is “done.”
It’s still September, and the national media has already emptied its cliche book on the Big 12. Some of the barbs are warranted, as the conference is toting three losses to Sun Belt schools — not mention No. 3 Oklahoma’s meltdown in Saturday’s 38-35 home loss to Kansas State.
Still, many who cover the conference more regularly are more measured with their criticism.
“I don’t think we should push the panic button yet,” Joel Klatt, who calls games each week for FOX Sports, told Outkick. “Some of these teams are really good. There are so many factors at play that we’ve never had to consider.
“It’s just a different kind of year.”
Klatt, of course, was referring to COVID-19 and all of the challenges it presents.
Whether it’s the weekly, last-minute scratch of key players because of positive tests or contact tracing, the elimination of home-field advantage or the limited number of spring and summer practices programs had to prepare for the season, schools are dealing with issues they never could’ve envisioned.
That is why teams in 2020 should be evaluated differently, Klatt says. And that goes for all programs — not just ones in the Big 12.
“You saw some of the same type of surprise, unique outcomes in all conferences — particularly the SEC,” Klatt said. “I don’t think we can evaluate college football as linearly as we want to.
“Usually we just say, ‘This team is good. This team is bad. They should win, and if they don’t, they don’t deserve x, y or z.’ I don’t view this season that way. I think this season is going to be incredibly unique in every conference.”
Things couldn’t have started any worse for the Big 12 back on Sept. 12, when Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas all lost to teams from the Sun Belt — at home, no less. And when Texas Tech and Oklahoma State eked out fourth-quarter victories over Houston Baptist and Tulsa, respectively, the vultures stopped flocking and began to swoop.
Iowa State redeemed itself with a road victory at TCU last weekend, and Oklahoma State (in a win at West Virginia) and Texas Tech (in an overtime home loss to Texas) looked better, too. But no team bounced back like Kansas State, which shocked the college football world by defeating No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman.
The Wildcats, who also upset Oklahoma last season, won despite the absence of three starters in the secondary.
Klatt, who called the game for FOX Sports, said K-State’s victory over the Sooners illustrates the league’s strength, not its weakness. And he couldn’t have been more impressed with the job Wildcats coach Chris Klieman did to prepare his team amid COVID-related challenges.
“It’s never been more difficult to be a college football coach,” Klatt said. “I don’t envy these guys. What’s really tough is that they just can’t get all their team in one spot. Kansas State told me they can’t even meet in their own team room. It just seems so dumb. Hey, we’re all negative, but we can’t have a team meeting?
“Not being able to test out of contract tracing is a huge issue. Not knowing exactly what your lineup is going to look like from week to week … you’re going to have to rely on some guys that would ordinarily not even be a factor at all within your lineup, and now here they are. They’re going to have to contribute in some way, because there’s no other option.”
Even though Kansas State’s victory speaks to the depth of the conference, it appears to have done more bad than good in terms of the Big 12’s overall reputation. How strong can league be, after all, when a mid-tier school is beating the preseason favorite?
Klatt said the fact that only 22,700 fans were in the stands in Norman played a huge role.
“Oklahoma was dominating,” Klatt said, “but you never got that feel that Kansas State was just getting absolutely annihilated, because you didn’t have the roar of the crowd like you normally do. The offense for Kansas State wasn’t playing well at all, but they weren’t demoralized. They could still communicate. They could still get the snap counts. They didn’t have a bunch of false starts. All of the things that normally go bad for you when you’re in a tough road environment, when the crowd noise becomes unbearable … it wasn’t happening to Kansas State.
“Do you really think K-State’s offense, which looked anemic, would’ve had the ability to turn things around if the crowd was bearing down on them, making it hard and making it loud? Who knows?”
Klatt said he is still high on Oklahoma and hasn’t given up on the Sooners in the league title race. But he noted that the makeup of the team is much different than in year’s past. Instead of a veteran quarterback such as Baker Mayfield, Jalen Hurts or Kyler Murray, Oklahoma is starting freshman Spencer Rattler.
“And they’ve got young guys in so many other positions, too,” Klatt said. “In the past, when things started to go awry, they had enough leadership and maturity for someone to stop the bleeding. I looked over at Gus (Johnson) during one of the commercials and said, “They can’t stop the bleeding. They have no idea how to stop the bleeding. They look so young. They looked kind of lost.’”
Texas wasn’t faring much better for much its game at Texas Tech. The eighth-ranked Longhorns trailed by 15 with just more than 3 minutes remaining before rallying to win 63-56 in overtime.
As happy as it was to escape with a victory, Texas realizes its must improve drastically after surrendering so many points. Tim Brando, who called the game for FOX, said he was as encouraged by Texas Tech as he was by Texas.
“If Texas Tech protects the football, they win that game with relative ease,” Brando told SicEm365 radio. “But you have to give Texas credit for the comeback.”
And it was probably good for the conference, as Week 1 losses by both of the Big 12’s flagship programs would’ve made things even worse.
Of course, Brando and Klatt are quick to note that nationally-ranked teams from other conferences suffered upsets last weekend, too — and the backlash wasn’t nearly as bad. The most notable example was defending national champion LSU’s 44-34 home loss to Mississippi State, which got 623 passing yards from quarterback K.J. Costello.
Brando couldn’t help but chuckle at Costello’s passing numbers, as SEC fans have long chided Big 12 schools for “not playing any defense.” Suddenly, Mike Leach — a former Big 12 coach at Texas Tech — is in their conference at Mississippi State, and those schools can’t stop him, either.
“They’re a bunch of non-believers in the SEC when it comes to the Air Raid and the spread,” Brando said. “These are the elitist, pompous SEC fans that believe (the Big 12) just doesn’t play defense like they play defense in the Southeastern Conference. We line up with our four-stars and five-stars, and we’re going to have multiple guys taken in the NFL Draft every year. There’s no way they can bring that mamsy-pamsy crap into our league and get away with it.
“(LSU defensive coordinator) Bo Pelini made man coverage the whole game. Bo is a really good coach, but he was hard-headed. Even with (cornerback Derek) Stingley out, he decided to keep his defensive backfield on an island playing man-to-man coverage. Leach looked at that and said, ‘Oh my God. This is like stealing.’ K.J. Costello was made to look like the second coming of John Elway.”
Klatt had a different take on the game.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Do we really think in a normal year with fans, on the same day, Kansas State would come back on OU and Mississippi State would throw for 600 yards on LSU in Death Valley? I just don’t think that happens without COVID. I don’t want to take anything away from those other teams, but c’mon.”
Someone recently suggested to Klatt that, because of COVID, an asterisk could be placed next to anything that happens throughout the entire 2020 season.
“Oh, there’s no doubt,” he said. “But I’d still rather be playing than not.”
Big 12 Rankings
1. Texas (2-0)
2. Oklahoma State (2-0)
3. Oklahoma (1-1)
4. Kansas State (1-1)
5. Iowa State (1-1)
6. Baylor (1-0)
7. Texas Tech (1-1)
8. West Virginia (2-0)
9. TCU (0-1)
10. Kansas (0-2)