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From turmoil to terrific

By John Raby
AP Photo
Heisman Trophy front-runner Geno Smith and West Virginia have injected a shot of excitement into the Big 12.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the span of a year, the Big 12 has gone from turmoil to terrific on television once again.

A conference whose football future was uncertain with the defections of Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri over the past two years has landed squarely on its feet.

The Big 12 has two teams in the top 10 and is the only conference to have eight schools with one or fewer losses. (The Southeastern Conference has seven).

No. 5 West Virginia and No. 6 Kansas State are the early front-runners in the Big 12 standings, with No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 15 Texas trying to keep pace while settling the Red River rivalry Saturday in Dallas.

"I think the league is stronger now than it has been in a long time,'' Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Monday.

It might have been hard to imagine this a year ago, considering the Big 12 could've gone bust.

"We've gone from possibly not having a league, to having an unstable league, to having a league that wasn't getting along, to having as stable a league as anyone with great football teams in it, great sports programs across the country,'' Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We're right at the top of conferences right now. This league has got more parity at the top than ever before.''

In September 2011, Texas A&M's announcement that it was leaving the Big 12 to seek SEC membership sparked a new round of positioning. Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were considering a potential move to the Pac-12 until that league announced it would not expand.

Shortly after that, embattled Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was dumped and the nine remaining member schools committed to healing.

"Nobody knew what was going to happen,'' Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You kept hearing Pac-12, everybody being independent, form our own league. The uncertainty was just unbelievable. And just the last year has enabled us to be solidified as a conference.''

A year ago Wednesday, TCU pulled an about-face and decided to make the Big 12 - not the Big East - its new home. The Big 12 then mulled over whether West Virginia or Louisville was the proper candidate for expansion before settling on the Mountaineers. In early November, Missouri made it clear it was moving to the SEC.

In May, Bob Bowlsby was named Big 12 commissioner. And last month, the conference announced a new 13-year deal with ESPN and Fox Sports.

"I feel better now than I've ever felt about this conference,'' Tuberville said.

When things got settled after two restless summers, the redrawn Big 12 was essentially the same - high-scoring offenses, questionable defenses and Heisman hype. Four Big 12 offenses are among the top seven passing teams in the FBS. Five are in the top nine in third-down efficiency.

This much is known - West Virginia likes the way it fits in.

The Mountaineers (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) set a lofty goal of winning the conference championship right away, but that's way too far in the distance to contemplate. For starters, West Virginia must get through one of its toughest October schedules after going 28-8 in the month over the previous decade.

After beating ranked teams Baylor and Texas in successive weeks, West Virginia travels to Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday before returning home for an Oct. 20 showdown with co-leader Kansas State (5-0, 2-0).

"I've got some guys that believe,'' said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. "I like the way this team plays together.''

Tuberville, who lost to West Virginia when he coached at Auburn in 2008, gets another crack at the Mountaineers on Saturday. What he'll see is a much different foe.

Back then, West Virginia relied heavily on the run. Under second-year coach Holgorsen, quarterback Geno Smith is averaging 399 yards passing per game, has thrown 24 touchdown passes and no interceptions.

"They've got a real good one,'' Tuberville said. "He does a good job of spreading the ball around. He's a cool guy in terms of just under pressure. I've been very impressed.''

There are seven teams with one league loss, but that number will certainly dwindle on Saturday.

Kansas State travels to Iowa State (4-1, 1-1), while it's Texas (4-1, 1-1) against Oklahoma (3-1, 1-1) at the Cotton Bowl, TCU (4-1, 1-1) at Baylor (3-1, 0-1) and Oklahoma State (2-2, 0-1) at Kansas (1-4, 0-2).

"Everybody understands how competitive it is and everybody seems to want to be a part of that,'' said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder. "I think perhaps that adds to the stability of the conference. I think the people who are in the conference want to be in the conference. That's the important thing.''

 

 

 


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