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October 22, 2006

Big 12 feels weight of perception

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LINCOLN, Neb. Its name alone indicates the Big 12 to be a hulking power of a football league, but cynics would suggest the conference is afflicted with some sort of anorexia.

Conference members look at themselves and see the Big 12. The rest of the country looks at them and sees the Big 1, maybe the big two because of a non-conference beating disorder in which Big 12 members failed to beat any top 25 opponents and had a miserable 2-8 record against teams from other BCS conferences.

To be fair, however, that includes Oklahoma's loss to Oregon - which would have been a win if not for errors by the Pac-10 officiating crew.

Still, a 20 percent success rate against the other so-called "power" conferences is hardly acceptable. The Big East has been harshly criticized for its anemic membership and has heard calls for its champion's automatic entry to a BCS bowl to be repealed. But at this juncture in the season, the Big East still has three undefeated teams and two ranked in the top 10.

No Big 12 teams are undefeated and only Texas resides in the top 10.

But Commissioner Kevin Weiberg, who should be backed with chants of "Dee-Fense, Dee-Fense" when discussing the state of Big 12 football, offered a rebuttal to opinions that his conference is overrated.

"Sometimes, I think we're underestimated on the national scene," Weiberg said. "Last year Texas had a fantastic year, but before the bowl games some were questioning the strength of our conference, and I thought our teams were great in the bowls."

The Big 12 did come under fire a year ago and fired back by going 5-3 in bowl games. Of course, that included Texas upsetting "unbeatable" Southern California in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship.

This year, the Longhorns are contending for the championship once again with a No. 5 national ranking. Four other Big 12 teams Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Missouri are listed among the nation's top 25. Indeed, Nebraska on Saturday was one late fumble away from defeating the Longhorns - which probably would have only added to the conference's negative national perception.

But Texas' only loss was 24-7 to No. 1 Ohio State when redshirt freshman quarterback Colt McCoy was playing in only his second collegiate game. Since then, McCoy has completed about 70 percent of his passes and gained the confidence that comes with throwing 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions. No question, Texas is better now than it was in the second week of the season.

Yet, Texas - easily the Big 12's highest rated team - was only ninth in the initial BCS computer standings which the NCAA uses to determine which two teams will play for the national championship.

Weiberg, however, theorized that low ranking as a glitch in the schedule and feels the Big 12 teams standings will improve as the season progresses.

"I think we'll be OK," he said. "I think what happened is that in some conferences their strongest teams have already played and that's skewed the rankings some. I think it will adjust as time goes on."


The question now is how strong the remaining Big 12 teams are this season.

Oklahoma obviously took a major step backward with the season-ending injury to marvelous tailback Adrian Peterson, but the Sooners' only legitimate loss was to Texas. They would probably be on the cusp of the top 10 had Pac-10 replay officials seen what the rest of the country saw on an onside kick. Those officials wrongly gave Oregon possession and a chance to mount a final game-winning drive.

But there are doubts about the other teams, especially those in the colder climates. Not since Fort Sumpter has there been such discussion about the difference in strength between North and South as there is in the Big 12. This time, Lincoln is on the losing end.

South teams have won the last two Big 12 championship games by a total score of 112-6. The North was 3-16 against the South in 2004 and 7-12 last year. So far this season the North is 3-11 against the South. Colorado is already eliminated from postseason consideration and Kansas State (4-4), Kansas (3-5) and Iowa State (3-5) will struggle to get the six victories required for bowl eligibility.

"I recognize we had two unusual years when it seemed nobody wanted to win the (North) Division race," Weiberg said. "But I don't think the competitive difference is as great as people make it out to be."

Maybe. Maybe not. The North absorbed another blow on Saturday when Texas blew two field goal attempts from inside 40 yards, had an extra point blocked, settled for field goals three times when it had first and goal and still managed to defeat Nebraska - in Lincoln, no less. The Longhorns victory may indicate the balance of power isn't likely to shift soon.

"You will probably see (Nebraska) in Kansas City," Texas coach Mack Brown said in reference to the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 2. "We hope we'll have an opportunity for a rematch, but we've got to play a lot better than we did today to have that opportunity."

There you go. Texas had just defeated arguably the best team the North could offer and Brown is suggesting the Longhorns, with three South Division teams remaining on their schedule, will be lucky to reach the championship game.

"Programs sometimes go through down periods and you have to give them time to build up," Weiberg said.

Make no mistake, the Big 12 is building. Construction to add and enhance football facilities that will entice highly regarded high school recruits is under way - or has recently been completed at almost every school in the conference. Also, the Big 12 will renegotiate its TV deal with ABC after the 2007 season and may be able to get even more exposure to attract future stars.

Even now, there is reason to be optimistic because so many outstanding players are underclassmen. Texas' McCoy, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman, Nebraska I-back Marlon Lucky, Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee, Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, Texas tailback Jamaal Charles and Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly have bright futures in the league.

For now, however, the Big 12 looks pretty lean - even if the conference doesn't see itself that way.

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