Sooners bring Big 12 into warm, validating glow of national spotlight

Funny how fast perceptions can change.

Seven days ago, Big 12 football was burnt toast, a defense-less league destined to go a second straight year without a playoff bid.

Now there is talk of a Big 12 renaissance. Thank you, Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma. You, too, TCU.

The Big 12 has four teams well-positioned in the polls — No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 18 Kansas State and No. 20 TCU — and a long-shot chance to create a jolt Saturday night in Los Angeles that would be felt across the college football world.

Texas, a 16-point underdog, doesn’t need to beat USC, just deliver a competitive showing to further validate talk of a Big 12 revival.

“I’ve always felt these conference things go in cycles,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. “So far the league has looked pretty good.”

After some opening-week hiccups, the Big 12 bounced back with decisive victories by OU at Ohio State and TCU at Arkansas. Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia all clobbered opponents, and even Iowa State turned a few heads in its overtime loss to Iowa.

Oklahoma’s victory, in particular, brought national respect that could be the tipping point in getting the Sooners, Oklahoma State or TCU into the final four.

“That’s too far down the road to consider,” said Sooners coach Lincoln Riley, “but we’ve won big non-conference games around here before and we’ve done pretty well against the SEC.”

If there is a Big 12 revival, it could be because of defense, of all things.

Granted, it’s foolish to read too much into two weeks’ worth of stats, but …

  • TCU is No. 4 in the NCAA in scoring defense (3.5 points per game) and total defense (166 yards per game).
  • Five Big 12 teams are allowing 15.5 points or fewer and 303 total yards or fewer.
  • Five league teams are permitting 175 or fewer passing yards per game.
  • Oklahoma held Ohio State to 350 yards of total offense.
  • Even Texas, torched for 51 points in its opening loss to Maryland, rebounded with a 56-0 shutout of San Jose State.

Sooners edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is an early candidate for Big 12 defender of the year with 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three other quarterback pressures.

The Horned Frogs are getting significant contributions from three new defensive starters: end Ben Banogu, freshman tackle Corey Bethley and strong safety Ridwan Issahaku.

“You guys are surprised by this,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the Frogs’ improvement on the d-line. “I’m not surprised by it. I’ve been telling you, but you haven’t been listening.”

Oklahoma State’s defense lacks big names but has been difficult to crack.

“We don’t have that guy people are talking about being an early round (NFL draft) pick, but I like our overall team speed and depth,” Gundy said. “We have more guys able to play at this level than we’ve had in a while.”

Now the goal is to not get tripped up this last Saturday before conference play begins.

TCU is a huge favorite over SMU, but Chad Morris’ Mustangs are flying high at 2-0 and will have an emotional edge playing a Big 12 team in the Iron Skillet rivalry.

Two other ranked Big 12 teams face tricky road tests. Oklahoma State is a 14-point favorite at Pitt, which just got popped by Penn State. Kansas State is favored by 4½ at Vanderbilt, which is 2-0. The Commodores beat Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee last year.

“Vanderbilt went to a bowl and has most of that personnel back,” K-State coach Bill Snyder cautioned. “They’ve gotten our attention.”

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