STILLWATER – Big 12 football has fallen down a rabbit hole. Here’s what we know about the conference in this axis season of 2023:
- Oklahoma and Texas are good. Apparently really good. UT beat Alabama, and OU beat UT.
- Houston is bad. Apparently really bad. The Cougars lost to Rice and are 0-2 in conference play, beaten 36-13 and 49-28 by teams that mostly are disappointing (Texas Christian and Texas Tech).
And in between are 11 teams that seemingly could go either way.
That’s right. This kooky Big 12 season includes more teams among the great unwashed than were even in the conference the previous dozen years.
And next year, when the league expands to 16 members but loses OU and Texas, the great unwashed could get even more crowded.
Which brings us to Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium and an OSU-Kansas game that is a splendid example of this Alice-in-Wonderland season.
Most Saturdays are like playing croquet with the Queen. Like answering the Mad Hatter’s riddles. What’s up is down and what’s down is up. Teams grow huge one week, shrink small the next.
I ranked the Cowboys 13th in the conference last week. This week, OSU is up to No. 7. Beat Kansas, and the Cowboys could be third or fourth. The league is that goofy.
“I don’t know where you would start in this league,” Mike Gundy said of making sense of things past OU and Texas. “Those two teams are playing really good. There’s things that happened in the Big 12 we wouldn’t have predicted. It’s the way it is now. There’s not much difference between anybody.”
The Big 12 members have to be grinning like a Cheshire Cat now that they’re playing each other. The non-conference was a ghastly experience.
Six Big 12 schools lost to mid-majors: OSU at home to South Alabama. Iowa State at Ohio U. Houston lost at Rice. Cincinnati at home to Miami-Ohio. Baylor at home to Texas State. Texas Tech at Wyoming.
Two Big 12 schools lost to Big 12 expatriates: Texas Christian at home to Colorado, Kansas State at Missouri.
The notable wins out of conference? Aside from Texas’ win at Alabama, the pickings are slim. You’d probably rank them this way: Brigham Young at Arkansas, Central Florida at Boise State, Kansas over Illinois, OSU at Arizona State, Texas over Wyoming, both Cincinnati and West Virginia at Pittsburgh.
And it’s not like we know who’s good in the conference yet. Iowa State beat OSU. OSU beat Kansas State. K-State beat Central Florida. Central Florida beat Baylor except for signing the scorecard; the Bears outscored UCF 26-0 in the fourth quarter to win 36-35.
Lewis Carroll never made up anything that mad.
“You’re going to see a lot of teams win 5-6-7, just like the NFL, based on what’s happened,” Gundy said.
It’s the new normal. It’s life in the rabbit hole.
“You’ll have runs,” Gundy said. “You’ll have teams with three or four NFL players, then they stay healthy, they can make a pretty good run. But as soon as they lose a couple three of those guys, then get a couple of injuries, they become a six-win team. That’s my guess in the future.”
Sounds a lot like the present.
Which is good news for the Cowboys, who seemed a wayward, lost team in September. But the 29-21 victory over Kansas State last Friday night breathed life into their season.
“Definitely gets the momentum going,” said Cowboy defensive end Anthony Goodlow. “It gets us very excited for the next game, we just have to keep it going. It’s a big turning point. The energy is high.”
Kansas has a chance to break out of Wonderland. The Jayhawks are 5-1, their only loss at Texas, and could emerge as the Big 12’s third-best team. Quite a journey, and not just because KU two years ago was completing the worst 12-year stretch of power-conference football since World War II. The Jayhawks have been playing much of the season without star quarterback Jalon Daniels.
Frankly, that’s been a trend, too.
Half the league has had quarterback changes due to injury or August scandal, the latter from Iowa State’s betting arrests. West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas, Baylor, UCF and TCU have had to shuffle quarterbacks.
OSU chose to shuffle quarterbacks, with Gundy even using a three-man rotation in non-conference before settling on Alan Bowman. Alice would have felt right at home.
Quarterback upheaval leads to chaos, and chaos is what we have below OU and Texas.
Can the Cowboys emerge from the chaos and still have a solid season? Or are they destined for that 5-6-7-win season of which Gundy spoke?
Gundy said he warned us that he was unsure of his 2023 Cowboys, because of so many new players. Then the quarterback uncertainty. Then the injuries to staples like safety Lyrik Rawls and receiver De’Zhaun Stribling. Truth is, Gundy is like the rest of us. Still unsure about the 2023 Cowboys.
“Playing four freshmen in the secondary scares me, and that sets me back a little bit,” Gundy said. “But we played a smart football game (vs. K-State), and our coaches had good plans and our players understood the plans and they executed ‘em.”
Gundy allowed himself to reminiscence without so much as taking a pause. These are not the Mason Rudolph Cowboys on offense. This is not the Jim Knowles defense.
This is a team that must scratch and claw for every yard and every game.
“We have to find out who we are and what we can get accomplished,” Gundy said. “Not what we can draw on a board. I think we’re moving in that direction better.”
Whether the Cowboys are coming out of the rabbit hole or going down deeper, I have no idea. And neither do they. But the Wonderland of Big 12 football gives OSU a chance to make something of this season.