Three by double digits.
And only two favorites.
With this bowl season comes a prime opportunity for the Big 12 to earn national respect. Yet also, an opportunity for calamity.
This year, even though Baylor remained undefeated until the final month and Oklahoma State had just one loss until the final game, the Big 12 was never a factor in the national championship race.
One reason why is no Big 12 team opened in the preseason top 10. And that was due in part to a lackluster bowl showing from the conference in 2012.
Big 12 co-champ Kansas State couldn’t hang with Oregon in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Johnny Manziel wiped out the Big 12’s other co-champ, Oklahoma in, the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
All told, the Big 12 went 4-5, with its only impressive victory coming courtesy of Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
In the spring, despite the poor showings at the top, Sooners coach Bob Stoops championed the depth of the conference. But unable to fill out its quota this year with bowl-eligible teams, the Big 12’s depth argument has dissipated.
And another poor bowl showing from the conference will do nothing but widen the Big 12’s national perception gap with power conferences like the SEC.
Of course, with several premier matchups, the chance is also there to narrow the gap -- starting with a pair of matchups against top teams from the SEC.
Oklahoma gets defending national championship Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and Oklahoma State faces SEC East Division champ Missouri in the Cotton.
Sweeping those would be a huge step forward for the Big 12, as college football transitions into next year’s College Football Playoff, where perception will play a major part.
But if the Bedlam schools get waxed the way K-State and Oklahoma did last year it would do major damage to the Big 12’s case for de facto annual inclusion into the four-team tournament.
“There’s always a lot of talk because there has to be because newspapers have to be filled and air time has to be filled,” said Stoops, when asked about carrying the Big 12 banner in New Orleans. “You have to talk about something, but we don’t concern ourselves with it.”
Yet whether Stoops cares to admit it, his Sooners will in fact be carrying the Big 12 banner as two-touchdown underdogs against college football’s preeminent program of the last five years.
“Being a competitor and going up against a team like this is going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be a lot of fun, as well,” Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “We’re pretty anxious and we’re just excited to get out there and play.”
The Cowboys will be carrying the banner against the SEC, too. Even though they’ll be playing a team that was in the Big 12 just two years ago.
“We've always had a lot of respect for Missouri,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. ““It's interesting that they made the change of going into the SEC and having tremendous success right away.”
“It certainly makes us feel good about ourselves being in the Big 12.”
Missouri might be a former Big 12 team proving its chops in the SEC. But style points the Tigers rack up count for their current conference, not their previous one.
And as only one-point underdogs, Oklahoma State might have the best opportunity of any Big 12 school to land the conference a landmark bowl win.
“With as many games as they've won and their current ranking,” Gundy said, “they're talked about as a really good football team.”
The Big 12 has opportunity elsewhere to garner respect by toppling a pair of “name” teams.
Like fellow Big 12 flagship Oklahoma, Texas is a two-touchdown underdog to Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl, even though the Longhorns will be playing just 80 miles from their Austin campus.
Texas rallied to defeat Oregon State in the Alamo last year. But the challenge here will be far greater in coach Mack Brown’s final hurrah. The Ducks ranked second in the polls for much of the season, and despite some midseason struggles still boast one of the top offenses in college football.
The Longhorns averaged 31 points per game. Oregon scored that few only twice all season.
“They are someone you definitely have to keep up with or you'll get left behind quickly,” said Texas guard Trey Hopkins. “It will be a big challenge for us against a talented opponent.”
K-State is back in the desert for the postseason, this time the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Even though it’s not a BCS bowl, the Wildcats can also give the Big 12 a big win over a big name.
“As a kid growing up, Michigan is one of those poster programs that you see all over TV, you watch them growing up,” said K-State receiver Curry Sexton. “You kind of almost idolize them – one of those programs that every kid in the country likes to watch play.”
Arizona State might not be idolized the way Michigan is. But this season, the Sun Devils are more talented, and were a fringe top 10 team late in the season. That’s a difficult National University Holiday Bowl challenge for a Texas Tech team that closed out the season on a five-game losing streak and lost starting quarterback Baker Mayfield to transfer two weeks ago.
Which is why for the Big 12 it’s incumbent Baylor prevails as the conference’s only comfortable favorite in the Fiesta over Central Florida.
Tough matchups abound elsewhere. Which is an opportunity for the league to prove its playoff mettle. But also one to lose precious ground in college football’s perception wars.
“It always helps,” Stoops said of beating the likes of an Alabama. “It’s definitely something that could boost you.”