Rewind back to late August. All of the national sports publications were touting Oklahoma as the runaway choice to easily win the Big 12 in 2011 and defend the conference title it won at the end of the previous season in sending Nebraska packing and off to play football in the Big Ten this season.
The Sooners weren't only a lock to win the Big 12, the experts said, but a prime contender to finish its 2011 season in New Orleans in January in the BCS National Championship. Some would say that was the automatic kiss of death. It didn't seem, though, to affect the team the sports pundits' crystal balls said had the best chance of joining the Sooners in New Orleans, the Crimson Tide of Alabama. The Tide, indeed, will be rolling to the Bayou for a Jan. 9 date with SEC and SEC West rival LSU, the top-ranked team in the land.
What a difference a season makes, right? Every team in the conference won its season-opening game, which doesn't happen often. Kansas State, however, came dangerously close to being the lone Big 12 team to fall victim in its first game, and to an FCS opponent, Eastern Kentucky, to boot. Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at the time, given that Kansas State was picked by the Big 12 coaches in the preseason to finish no higher than eighth in the conference.
In mid-October, six games into the 2011 season, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were holding to form, both with 6-0 records and ranked No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in the USA Today coaches' poll. Texas A&M, which had been ranked in the top 10 with OU and Oklahoma State to start the season, had already begun to slip with two losses in its first half-dozen contests, the same as Baylor. These four teams were expected to do well in 2011, but already a shift was in place in Big 12 country. Kansas State also was 6-0 and had cracked the top 20 in the national polls, sitting at No, 16 in the coaches' poll.
The following week, Week 8, was the first indication that the end would not mirror the beginning in the conference race. Out of nowhere, Oklahoma fell to Texas Tech in Norman, not only knocking the Sooners from No, 1 but also ending their 39-game home winning streak. That stunning victory would end up being the only game Texas Tech would win the remainder of the season, covering five games.
Oklahoma limped into Manhattan, Kan., the next week to an energized purple-clad crowd and early chants of "overrated." The game was very competitive for a half, but then the Sooners unloaded, scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half to break open a 23-17 game after the first 30 minutes. At that point in time, it appeared that Oklahoma was back with a vengeance and that Bill Snyder's surprising Wildcats had finally been exposed.
The same weekend that the Sooners seemingly recaptured their mojo against upstart Kansas State, the Wildcats' next opponent, Oklahoma State, was tuning up for the Cats' visit by totaling dismantling high-flying Baylor and the RG3 (quarterback Robert Griffin III) express. OSU had a 49-3 lead entering the fourth quarter and ended up winning by 35, 59-24. Not only did the Wildcats have Oklahoma State the week after the OU game, but Texas A&M back in Manhattan after that. Not a good prognosis for a team that had done surprisingly well seven games after almost losing its season opener to a highly overmatched opponent.
At this point in the season, the Big 12 championship race was truly at a crossroads. With Missouri having upset Texas A&M in College Station for the second year in succession, handing the Aggies their third overall loss and second in the conference, it appeared to be a three-team race for the conference crown between OSU, OU and surprising Kansas State. In truth, with the games the Wildcats had left, no one short of KSU fans really gave the team from the Little Apple much hope of staying with the two powerhouse teams from Oklahoma.
Bill Snyder's bunch had other plans, however. The Cats did lose to Oklahoma State, but only by eight points and they actually had a chance to tie the game were it not for a game-saving goal-line stand by the Cowboys' defense in the final minute of the game.
Flashing forward to the present, the back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were the only two losses Kansas State would suffer the entire season. It would end up being one more than the Big 12 champs, the Cowboys, and one less than the Big Red machine from Norman that no one saw floundering at the end like it did, let alone finishing fourth in the conference it was supposed to own.
So here we are, the 2011 college football season now completed. The dust and disgust from the first round-robin season of play in football in Big 12 history is behind us. Instead of seeing Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M at the top of the league, as most everyone expected, the top tier in the league consisted of O-State, K-State and Baylor, the team that just a few years ago used to finish every year looking up at the rest of the conference.
While Kansas State's football season was a pleasant surprise, Missouri's farewell pigskin tour was about as disappointing as Texas A&M's, which not coincidentally will join Mizzou in the SEC next season. What started out with high hopes quickly devolved into a ho-hum season for the Tigers. Missouri did end the year a game better than A&M overall, at 7-5 and 5-4 in the conference, but the Tigers were very inconsistent all season.
For Kansas, what more can anyone say, except thank goodness that it's finally basketball season. The Jayhawks have won five games (out of 24) in two years, which cost Turner Gill his head coaching job, with three years and $6 million still left on his contract.
In many ways, it is refreshing to see this shift in the power structure and changing of the guard in Big 12 football. How long it will last is anyone's guess. With every season comes new players, blending in with holdover talent and experience, and hopes by every team for the kind of year that either lives up to expectations or defies the odds.
This is why they play the games. Otherwise, why bother.
Now, if only we could make it a complete success and show that the remodeling we witnessed this season in Big 12 football was not a design fluke. All it would take is for Bill Snyder's boys to take the SEC ego down a notch by taking out that league's third-best team, Arkansas, in the Cotton Bowl. And for Oklahoma State to send the Pac-12 a mixed message by striking early and often and letting it be known that the Big 12 doesn't take a back seat to any conference.
Oh, and it would be nice for Baylor, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Iowa State and Texas A&M to do well in their postseason bowl engagements, as well. Good luck to all.
Wouldn't that make for a happy holiday season!