Big 12 Review: SEC Still a Better League
Well, there is always next season.
Aside from a season-opening win by Oklahoma State over Georgia, the Big 12 spent the rest of last season still looking up at the best conference in college football. But if there is a silver lining, it's the Big 12 didn't lose any ground as the second-best conference in the country after unsuccessfully squaring off against the SEC for the second year in a row.
Sure, many will forever wonder if things might have been different for No.2 Texas against No.1 Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game had the Longhorns' star quarterback, Colt McCoy, not been knocked out of the game after just five plays and freshman stud Garret Gilbert's career started a game earlier than expected. But us video game-challenged folks will never know.
What is certain is when the dust cleared in the title game at the Rose Bowl earlier this month, Texas was left to swallow a 37-21 loss in which the Crimson Tide looked faster and stronger in every facet of the game to give the SEC its fourth straight national title. That was more or less the case in all five Big 12-SEC head-to-head matchups this season in which the SEC boys came out with a 4-1 edge.
But then again, this was a rather difficult year for the Big 12 brought on by some crippling injuries that derailed a couple promising seasons. Oklahoma, the team picked as the co-favorites to win the Big 12 with Texas, was hammered the hardest after losing All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham (knee) before the season ever started and Heisman Trophy quarterback Sam Bradford (shoulder) after just the first half of the season opener for all intents and purposes.
Oklahoma State, seen as the only team in the Big 12 with an outside chance to realistically challenge either Texas or Oklahoma, also had its injury problems with senior quarterback Zac Robinson briefly missing some time and running back Kendall Hunter all but disappeared after a few games with a mysterious ankle injury. Those issues were compounded by the fact All-American receiver Dez Bryant was ruled ineligible for most of the year after he lied to the NCAA about his relationship with former NFL star Deion Sanders.
Texas Tech, the picture of stability at quarterback for 10 seasons under Mike Leach, started three different quarterbacks this season because of either injury or production issues.
The Longhorns, the only BCS-bound team from the Big 12, were fortunate enough to remain relatively healthy throughout the regular season, which allowed them to put together an undefeated season and advance to the national title game after missing out at a shot for both by seconds in 2008.
What Went Right?
A year after Texas coach Mack Brown threatened to all but abandon his vote in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll when the Longhorns were snubbed for a shot at the BCS title for Oklahoma, a team they beat on a neutral field, the 'Horns made it back to the national championship game for the first time since the end of the 2005 season.
What the Longhorns did that they didn't in 2008 is take it out of the hands of human voters and the calculations of the computers by going undefeated in regular-season play. McCoy, who became college football's all-time winningest quarterback in his senior season, proved to be an effective leader, while the defense made huge strides in Year 2 under Will Muschamp.
The only blemish in the Longhorns' magical run was the BCS national title game in which their best offensive weapon never got going after being knocked out of the game after just five plays. Talk about an injustice for McCoy, a four-year starter who had done almost everything right except win a national title during his career.
What Went Wrong?
More than a month later, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is still probably asking himself that very question. How could a season that seemed so right have gone so horribly wrong?
After season-ending injuries to Bradford and Gresham, the preseason No. 3 Sooners never were able to live up to the championship expectations that have been synonymous with the Stoops era.
Oklahoma seemed to lose every big game this season, falling to BYU, Miami, Texas, Nebraska and Texas Tech to end the regular season in fourth place in the South Division with a 5-3, 7-5 record. It could have easily been worse if not for a stellar showing from defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and the rest of the Sooners' defense.
The bright side is redshirt freshman Landry Jones got his career started early and seems to have the intangibles to return the Sooners back to the elite next season. The 31-27 victory over Stanford in the Sun Bowl could be the catalyst to a special season to come.
After the dominance of the South over the North again, the expectation was the Longhorns would come into Jerry Jones' Cowboys Stadium and just walk all over Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship en route to the national title game.
But the Cornhuskers came within a controversial clock call and subsequent game-winning 46-yard field goal by Texas as time expired from upsetting the Longhorns and probably the BCS power structure. The Longhorns prevailed 13-12.
Nebraska put forth a lights-out defensive performance led by All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Colt McCoy jokingly referred to as his new best friend after the two were nearly inseparable the entire game.
Just maybe the weighty expectations were too much for Oklahoma State after all.
The Cowboys had many believing they could be in for the best season since the mid-1980s and those expectations were given life by their season-opening 24-10 win over the Georgia Bulldogs in front of a capacity crowd at newly pimped-out Boone Pickens Stadium.
But the following week, the fifth-ranked Cowboys disappointed big time with a 45-35 loss to C-USA's University of Houston Cougars at Boone Pickens. Sure, the Big 12 season was still ahead of them but that deflating loss seemed to exemplify the history of the Cowboys.
Best Offensive Player
If you believe in happy endings then you still have to be clapping for Missouri receiver Danario Alexander.
Dogged by serious injuries throughout his career, Alexander gave Tigers' fans a glimpse of what could have been for four years if he had been able to stay healthy. Alexander had 113 catches for 1,781 yards and four 14 touchdowns for a Big 12-best 137.0 yards per game in his senior season.
He was Missouri's best weapon and teams schemed to stop him each week -- but couldn't.
Best Defensive Player
After watching his personal showcase in the Big 12 Championship, Heisman Trophy voters thought enough of Suh to give him the votes to make the trip to New York.
You wonder what the vote count might have been like had they been watching the entire season.
Suh was easily the most dominant player in all of college football this season, consistently beating double and triple teams to cause havoc on opposing offenses. The way he tossed Texas offensive linemen around like rag dolls en route to Colt McCoy was simply what he had done all season to every defensive line and quarterback he faced.
Suh finished the regular season with 85 tackles and was fourth in the league in sacks (12) and also had 20.5 tackles for loss on the season.
The Controversial Ending
More than Texas' run to the national championship game and more than the injuries that derailed some seasons, this year might be remembered most for the bizarre firings at the end.
Both Texas Tech coach Mike Leach and Kansas coach Mark Mangino were jettisoned after the season for their alleged mistreatment of the student-athletes left in their care. Both coaches had elevated their respective programs in ways that had not been done in years, but by the end of the day both administrations seemed to send the message that it's about much more than winning and success on the football field.