About two years ago, the Big 12 was on its death bed. The conference was on the operating table, waiting for a priest to read its last rites and a coroner to dissect its cause of death. Gored by a Longhorn, maybe. Excessive bleeding of (Big) Red blood cells, another possibility.
But look at the Big 12 now. It's not only alive and well, it's the "it" conference, the talk of the college football world. More than half of its teams (six) are ranked in the top 20 of the latest simulated BCS standings. Its two new acquisitions are a combined 8-0, and one of them boasts the undisputed frontrunner for this year's Heisman Trophy.
This week's simulated BCS standings:
Keys: Pvs = Previous Week; Coach = USA Today Coaches Poll; AP = Associated Press Poll; Md = Median ranking of 44 computer ratings; CM = Colley Matrix; JS = Jeff Sagarin; KM = Kenneth Massey; RB = Richard Billingsley; Cp Avg = Computer Average
Explanation: This rankings method is a simulation of the actual BCS standings with the following variations: 1) The AP Poll is used in place of the Harris Interactive Poll, which is not published until after the first weekend of October; 2) Four of the six BCS computer ratings are available - Colley Matrix, Jeff Sagarin, Kenneth Massey and Richard Billingsley; 3) The other two computer ratings - Anderson & Hester and Peter Wolfe - will not be available until October, so they're replaced by the median ranking of 44 computer ratings.
If it weren't for an inexplicably late collapse by Oklahoma State, the Big 12 would've had a representative in last year's BCS title game. This year, five teams are currently unbeaten as the conference season gets under way to decide who'll be left standing and possibly sending someone to challenge Alabama.
To be sure, it will be a daunting task for whoever emerges as the Big 12 champion. For one, the Big 12 is now the only AQ conference to play a true round-robin schedule with nine conference games. There will be at most one undefeated team but more likely, none. And for another, because the misnomered Big 12 has only 10 teams and no conference championship game, a one-loss conference champion is unlikely to get a reprieve, as was shown last year with the Cowboys.
Of the five unbeaten Big 12 teams - plus Oklahoma, which already lost to Kansas State - the team with the best potential to get to the national championship game is West Virginia, with Heisman favorite Geno Smith having just completed an otherworldly performance.
The Mountaineers are new to the Big 12, having paid for a fast divorce with the Big East on Valentine's Day, but their speedy union with the Big 12 so far has been substantially and mutually beneficial. WVU's entry gave the conference the stability it needed at a time after Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M all bolted in quick succession. And the Big 12, even a weaker and reconstituted one, has lent much more credibility to a program that's constantly seeking respect.
West Virginia, now ranked ninth in the simulated BCS, certainly was in the news on Saturday, with its 70-63 shootout win over Baylor in its Big 12 debut. But its biggest game of the season is coming next, a Saturday night visit to Austin in FOX's national game of the week. A Mountaineers victory will make them the clear favorite to win the conference, with Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma all still having to visit Morgantown.
No. 11 Texas escaped against Oklahoma State last week and is in the midst of a three-game stretch where it will next host West Virginia and then face Oklahoma in Dallas. The Longhorns' schedule gets lighter after that, though its regular-season finale might be its toughest - a road trip to Kansas State.
And as is typical with Bill Snyder's teams, the Wildcats just quietly sneak up on everyone again. No. 8 K-State is the highest-ranked Big 12 team and has already shown its bona fides in a road win over Oklahoma and a rout of better-than-expected Miami. The Wildcats might be the only Big 12 team seriously committed to playing defense, so its Oct. 20 visit to Morgantown should help answer whether a great defensive effort will be enough to slow Smith's aerial machine.
But even an unbeaten Big 12 team is guaranteed nothing, not with Oregon currently entrenched at No. 2 and Florida State at No. 4. The Ducks would have to play 10 conference games if they were to win the Pac-12, but on second look the Pac-12 might not be as strong as it first appeared, now with only the two Oregon schools remaining unbeaten. Oregon will have to potentially beat USC twice, and at the moment just how good the preseason top-ranked Trojans really are seems a bit of a mystery.
Then there's Florida State, which might be the team that has the easiest path to an unbeaten season. There are only two ACC teams in the BCS top 25, the other being Clemson, a team the Seminoles thrashed last week. The ACC is truly gawd-awful, as evidenced this past weekend when its members lost to Cincinnati, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech.
So the Noles' biggest challenge might be to maintain their level of interest until the end of the season, as it's highly likely that the only ranked team they'll face the rest of the year is Florida in the regular-season finale. The Seminoles' computer rankings should not be an issue as long as Oregon loses at least once as a No. 2 ranking in the two polls will be enough to lock up the No. 2 spot in the BCS.
This week's simulated standings still include the AP poll standing in for the Harris poll and the median computer rankings substituting for two computer rankings that remain unavailable. But by next week, we'll have this season's first release of the Harris poll as well as the Anderson & Hester rankings, so essentially our simulation will be just as good as the real thing, two weeks in advance of the season's first BCS release on Oct. 21.
One more trend to look for as the computer rankings begin to stabilize with more available data: The fate of the highest non-AQ conference champion. Right now that appears to be a two-team race between No. 27 Boise State and No. 29 Louisiana Tech, though neither is currently in position to win an automatic BCS bowl bid.
Both teams will need to win out to have any shot at an invitation to, most likely, the Orange Bowl. They will substantially improve their chances if they can leapfrog either the Big Ten or Big East champion in the final standings. In that case they merely need to be in the final top 16 to guarantee selection. The way the Big Ten is looking this season, don't be surprised if it's the one rolling out the red carpet for the non-AQ leader, instead of the always much-maligned Big East.
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