Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sam Bradford and the Big 12's national perception

A lot has been made the last few years of the national perception of the various college football conferences. The SEC has been taking home top honors because of the conference's top-to-bottom speed, Florida's continued dominance, and the league's presence in the Top 25 poll. Last year, however, there was just as much talk about the Big 12 and it's three-headed monster of Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, and their prolific, record-setting offenses. Led by Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Graham Harrell respectively, their teams set countless records for offensive efficiency as the league went on to be 1B to the SEC's national dominance.

Beyond these two divisions, the other four of the Big Six (Pac-10, Big Ten, ACC, Big East) were all relegated to fight amongst one another for the scraps national attention not spent on the big boys. None of these conferences felt more slighted than the fallen-from-grace Big Ten, a conference that, toward the end of 2006 was the mostly undisputed national power, watching Michigan and Ohio State square off in Columbus for the first #1 vs. #2 matchup in the rivalry's storied history. But then came OSU's frequent bowl-game flops, the implosion of Michigan, and the general apathy felt toward the rest of what appeared to be a dwindling league of teams unable to adapt--three yards and a cloud of dust; dinosaur ball.

2008 seemed like a weird year to anoint the Big 12, though. Undoubtedly, much of the conference's love came because of the starry-eyed all American boys leading the Southern powerhouses. They were easy to latch onto and put into the spotlight. The rest of the league? Well, they were about as good as the Big Ten. If you subtract the big three's record's from the Big 12 and the Big Ten's big two (Penn State and Ohio State) from 2008, their records are remarkably similar:

Big 12: 56-57
Big Ten: 56-57

Now I understand that in league play, someone has to lose and someone has to win. The eventual record of everyone in every division will always be .500. But for a conference that's supposed to be better than another conference, this just doesn't sit right with me. Nonconference games should create some sort of separation between divisions, right? Even if it's a small difference, a better conference should have better teams, top to bottom. But this record is all we really have to go on at the end of the day, besides head-to-head play, which ended in favor of the Big 12 with four wins to the Big Ten's one--a stat that separates the two slightly, but not enough to make up for the significant difference in national perception; five games is hardly a statistically significant amount, especially when two of the games ended within a touchdown of one another.


What do we make of the current Big 12 landscape, though, is the most important question. Last year, the Big 12 was supported largely by the play and success of Harrell, McCoy, and Bradford. Harrell was lost to graduation, and in the 30 minutes that we were able to see Bradford, his team produced a measly 10 points, a far cry from the 60+ points/game that the Sooners put up all last year. But more pressingly, Bradford is now injured, and while his backup is proving to be a relatively impressive starter in his own right, he clearly doesn't run the team quite like Bradford used to. With OU and TT already sitting with one loss (albeit TT's in the revenge game against Texas after last year's upset), the Big 12 looks geared for something of a downfall from the straw house it sat atop last year.

But this is where public perception becomes so important and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kansas currently sits #20 in the Top 25 polls, a team whose most impressive win came on the road against UTEP (?). Meanwhile, Iowa has beaten a Big 12 opponent (Iowa St.) on the road, as well as a Pac-10 opponent (Arizona) and is relegated to the Others Receiving Votes category. Iowa was ranked higher than Kansas preseason, but after a close win against Northern Iowa, they were dropped from the rankings completely. It stands to reason that when the media catches a single whiff of a weakness in a Big Ten team, the reaction is severe. Meanwhile, Big 12 teams can amass losses, and as long as they are against the oft-overrated Big 12 opponents suffer nary a consequence in the national rankings.

We'll see where this is headed with Bradford injured going into Big 12 play (with his predicted return sometime around the Texas matchup). For the national media, an entity that clearly puts a lot of emphasis on one or two national powers per conference, it may be time to rethink their stance on the Big 12. Without Harrell and OU tending back toward the mean sans-Bradford, this looks to be a particularly humbling year in the Big 12.

Postscript: This was not intended to be an impassioned argument for the Big Ten a la Adam Rittenberg, though I realize that it may have come off that way. Rather, it was my expressing skepticism at the strength of the Big 12 as a whole and it's crowning as an elite conference--which, for the record, I think is mostly bullshit anyway. There's little separation, top to bottom, between most of the conferences. Head-to-head wins are often cyclical, as is national dominance.


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