IRVING, Texas -- The last time the Big 12 appeared in a national championship game, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was in the locker room and Garrett Gilbert was on the field. And before that January night in 2010 was over, Nick Saban was hoisting the first of his three Alabama BCS trophies.
But as college football transitions into the playoff era, the Big 12 discussed a return to the postseason limelight at its annual spring meetings, buoyed by a wave of momentum from the most recent bowl season, an aggressive nonconference scheduling strategy and the only round-robin format among the Power Five conferences.
“I think we’re positioned extraordinarily well,” Kansas State athletic director John Currie said. “The full round-robin competition leaves no question about strength of schedule. ... When [the playoff committee is] comparing one of the schools in our league and our schedule versus a school from one of the other conferences, there’s not going to be anybody we didn’t play. Everyone will have played K-State. Everyone will have played Oklahoma. Everyone will have played Texas. There won’t be anyone in our league that didn’t play Alabama or didn’t play USC or didn’t play Clemson, like will be the case in the other leagues.
“I think that will be an extraordinary strength.”
It remains to be seen just how the committee will pool teams together for the four-team playoff this season.
But while the other Power Five leagues spent their spring meetings discussing the merits of scheduling FCS opponents while also instituting nonconference scheduling requirements, the Big 12 was touting its scheduling, in and out of conference.
“We really believe the way teams will be evaluated for participation in the playoff will include the strength-of-schedule component,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “Certain people may define that differently. But everything we’ve heard. ... those that schedule competitively, that’ll position us the right way.”
On top of the nine-game conference schedule -- the ACC, Big Ten and SEC will play just eight conference games this season -- the Big 12 has teams playing several marquee nonconference opponents in 2014.
Oklahoma State opens with defending national champion Florida State. The same day, West Virginia will meet Saban’s Crimson Tide. Texas will face UCLA in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 13. Kansas State will take on reigning SEC champ Auburn on Sept. 18. Oklahoma-Tennessee, Iowa State-Iowa, Texas Tech-Arkansas, TCU-Minnesota and Kansas-Duke are also all on the slate in 2014.
“We’re going to play all comers,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
That includes the conference schedule, too.
While Baylor will have to travel to both Oklahoma and Texas this season, Alabama will avoid Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina on its schedule this fall. USC doesn’t have to play Oregon during the regular season. Wisconsin’s path to a Big Ten championship game doesn’t include Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State.
“When I was in the Pac-12, there were times you’d look up and go, ‘Geez, I’m glad don’t have Team X on my schedule this year,' " said first-year Texas athletic director Steve Patterson, who was at Arizona State last year.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema made waves earlier this week when he suggested the SEC would get a minimum of two teams in the playoff every year.
Bowlsby fired back at that assertion.
“I think it will probably come as a surprise to the selection committee that [the SEC] will automatically have two teams in,” he said. “You look at any other of the high-visibility conferences, the selection committee will have to look very carefully at who they played. Whether it’s eight or nine games, they may not have played three teams who were in the upper half of the [opposite] division. So one 7-1 record doesn’t look the same as another 7-1 record.
“The selection committee will be more than sophisticated to look at who they play and how they did against the people they actually played.”
The round-robin format previously had doomed the Big 12 from getting a team in the BCS National Championship Game.
In 2011, Oklahoma State was unbeaten and ranked second in the BCS standings before losing on the road in double overtime at Iowa State in its fifth conference road game. Even though the Cowboys had already defeated Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech on the road -- and would hammer then-No. 14 Oklahoma by 34 points after losing to the Cyclones -- they were narrowly edged out by Alabama for the national title game spot.
In 2012, Kansas State was also undefeated going into its fifth conference road game in late November, but lost at Baylor, which would go on to reel off 13 wins in a row before falling at Oklahoma State in 2013.
Conversely, five of the six teams that have played for the past three national titles got late-season reprieves in the forms of Georgia Southern ('11 Alabama), Western Kentucky ('11 LSU), Western Carolina ('12 Alabama), Idaho ('13 Florida State) and Florida Atlantic ('13 Auburn).
“They seem to need a break to rest and relax,” Patterson said.
Currie added the contrast would work in the Big 12’s favor in the playoff format.
“The playoff is [going to be] particularly advantageous to the Big 12,” he said. “Losing your fourth or fifth road game in the conference late in November versus winning your fourth nonconference game against a far lower-tiered opponent, as has been the practice in some leagues -- how do those things balance out? Which is a truer test of your program?
“We’ve had three years in a row where a Big 12 team was undefeated going into the last couple weeks of the season and lost on the road in either their fourth or fifth road game of the year. Those are all teams that would have been deserving of being in that mix. To me, this is a great opportunity for the Big 12 to be better represented in that top four, and have a much stronger chance of being in that group because of the qualitative factors of assessing scheduled stacked up against each other.”
It’s been a while since the Big 12 was a postseason factor. In 2008, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech were all ranked in the top five in late November, with the Sooners emerging to advance to the national championship game. The Longhorns played for the title the following year.
With its scheduling format, Big 12 leaders believe they’ll soon be playing for the championship again.
“There aren’t any weeks off,” Bowlsby said of his league. “We think our path to the playoff is a really good path to the playoff.”