KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There was a time when the Big 12 was known as top-heavy, with powerhouses like Oklahoma and Texas playing for national championships and the rest of the conference fighting it out to squeak into some smaller bowl.
But, boy, what a difference a year can make.
Following a surprising season when four of its teams finished in the top 10 in the final 2007 poll, the Big 12 is no longer well down the pecking order behind powerhouses like the SEC, Big 10 and Pac-10. The Big 12 is back among the elite, perhaps as strong as it’s been in 12 years as a conference.
“There’s no question as to whether one of the top conferences in the nation,” Texas A&M defensive back Devin Gregg said Monday at the first of three Big 12 media days. “I believe the teams are a little more equal now, there’s talent all across the Big 12. You look at any team on any Saturday and there’s someone out there who can make a big play.”
The Big 12’s transformation happened abruptly, surprisingly.
Oklahoma and Texas did their part, as usual. The Sooners finished eighth in the final Associated Press poll after going 11-3 and winning the Big 12 championship game. The Longhorns ended the season tied for 10th with a 10-3 record and a blowout win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.
Kansas and Missouri, on the other hand, surpassed expectations — by a lot.
The Jayhawks, picked to finish fourth in the North Division after going 6-6 in 2006, put together the best season in school history, winning 12 games, beating Virginia Tech 24-21 in the Orange Bowl — their first win in a BCS bowl — and finishing seventh in the final AP poll.
Missouri, with only slightly higher expectations, just missed a chance at playing for the national championship after losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship. But the Tigers still finished fourth in the final poll after routing Arkansas 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl to cap off a 12-2 season.
The Big 12 had eight teams go to bowl games, winning five to match a conference record, and could be in for another big haul with nearly 60 percent of its starters coming back, including three All-Americans.
“I would say it’s stronger than it’s been in a while, especially with some of the teams that have emerged in the North,” Texas Tech receiver Eric Morris said. “The South, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M are traditional programs that are good year in year out. This year, there’s a lot of talent everywhere.”
It’s the talent on the offensive side of the ball that’s made the difference.
Once a power-running, option-heavy conference, the Big 12 is now filled with spread offenses, teams like Texas Tech and Missouri running some of most elaborate — and difficult to defend — schemes in the country.
The conference had six of the top 13 offenses in Division I last season, led by the maniacal Red Raiders at No. 2 with 529.62 yards per game, and three of the top 10 passing teams.
Ten of the teams have their starting quarterbacks returning this season, including Missouri’s Chase Daniel, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, who became the sixth player in NCAA history to throw for over 5,000 yards (5,705) in a season. That doesn’t even include Nebraska’s Joe Ganz, who started the final three games in 2007.
“It was seen at first as unconventional because it was the Big 12, a power conference and we were going to run right at you,” Gregg said. “Now, teams have kind of gone away from the option and spread you out, and now it’s like a spread, run-and-shoot all in one.”
The new style kind of caught first-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini off-guard in his return to the Big 12.
He started his career in the Southwest Conference, the precursor to the Big 12, as a graduate assistant to Hayden Frye at Iowa in 1991. Pelini returned to the conference in 2003 as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator after nine years in the NFL, then spent a year at Oklahoma as co-defensive coordinator. A few teams had started to open it up a little back then, but nothing like today.
“I was really taken aback when I first got to Nebraska and saw the offensive numbers,” said Pelini, who spent the past three seasons as Louisiana State’s defensive coordinator. “For a defensive guy, that kind of woke me up a little bit. I think it’s become an offensive league, to a certain extent.”