The Big 12 landscape is evolving.
Expansion appears imminent, a championship game is on the way, and uncertainty surrounds the entire conference as the Big 12 looks to maximize its potential and remain intact for the long term.
Player’s perception of the Big 12 is not nearly as dark. Their interactions with family, friends and other college football players paint a different picture. Last week during Big 12 media days, several players talked about how the conference is perceived by others. The Big 12 is not known as the best of the bunch among Power 5 conferences, but is generally respected as a league. Few players felt like major changes were needed for the conference to improve its national reputation and/or chances to make the College Football Playoff (note: players were asked before the Big 12 announced plans to explore expansion on July 19).
"If you played in the SEC, people would probably be more excited about meeting you or something like that, (but) the Big 12 is respected," Iowa State quarterback Joel Lanning said. "Last year we didn’t perform very well, but we’re competing and were right there. Oklahoma was in the playoff and Baylor was right there if they don’t lose their quarterback."
The SEC gets all the accolades while the Big 12 is known for an "all offense, no defense" style when current players interact with others.
"A lot of people think it’s a little too easy," Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "They think we don’t have good defenses, which is not true at all. Our competition is very real, and on a week-to-week basis we have to come to play."
The high-scoring reputation carries some kernels of truth, as six Big 12 teams allowed more than 30 points per game and only Oklahoma and West Virginia finished in the top 50 nationally in points per game allowed in 2015. The offense-only narrative is rooted in high scores, weekly highlights, and is reaffirmed by some of the conference’s struggles in headline bowl games in recent years. The conference, as a whole, is not dominated by overwhelming defenses, but it does feature some quality units.
"We have some talented defenses in this league," TCU defensive end Josh Carraway said. "But they get overshadowed, because we have so many great (offensive) players. We can’t do anything about that. It hurts, because I have a defensive head coach. We’re all about defense at TCU, that’s where we started."
Points per game has always been the go-to measurement, but it’s not necessarily the best measurement to compare defenses across conferences. For example, TCU joined Oklahoma and West Virginia in the top 50 nationally in points per drive allowed, and Baylor is just outside the top 50 at No. 53 nationally.
"Teams like Baylor, they’ll run 100 plays sometimes, I don’t think people get that concept," Carraway said. "You run 100 plays, you’ll rack up some yards."
Right, wrong or indifferent, the Big 12 is facing a perception battle that remains. It could be helped or hurt by expansion or any other changes, but the fact remains that winning head-to-head Power 5 matchups will do more to help the conference’s reputation than anything else.
"We’re always rooting for our conference," Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph said. "Once you’ve played them all, you root for those guys (other Big 12 teams) and hope they do their best against other teams. Making the conference look good is what you want."
Since TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012, the conference is 12-17 in bowl games, with Texas Tech and TCU as the lone teams with winning records (2-1) during that span. Last season, the Big 12 went 3-4 in bowl games, including losses by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State by a combined 48 points in New Year’s Six bowl games.
"Come bowl season the Big 12 needs to play better," Mayfield said. "We’ve had success in bowl games but, on a consistent basis, for the better of the conference, we need to have more success."