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How the resurgent Oklahoma-Texas recruiting war changes the Big 12

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After several years of declining recruiting results, the Sooners and Horns are headed in a different direction.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When the Big 12 formed in the mid-’90s, the northern half dominated. Nebraska was in the midst of a dynastic run, and its closest competitors were Kansas State and Colorado.

Within a matter of years, the balance of power shifted south because of the rises of Texas and Oklahoma. Texas hired Mack Brown in 1998, Oklahoma hired Bob Stoops one year later, and both programs took off. From 2000 to 2010, these two programs won nearly every Big 12 title game, with six of the nine wins by double digits.

As one would expect, the Sooners and Longhorns dominated recruiting in the Southwest during this period.

Between 2001 and 2010, Texas had a top-10 recruiting class in every season, while Oklahoma did in eight out of 10 years. (Note: I am using Phil Steele’s composite recruiting rankings, which combine various national rankings.) Oklahoma and Texas vacuumed up the best high school players and converted that into domination on the field. The rest of the league struggled to keep up.

After 2010, both programs slipped in recruiting, although with varying effects on the field. None of Oklahoma’s classes between 2011 and 2017 were in the top 10, as they fell between 11 and 20 in the rankings. Oklahoma has been able to manage four conference titles and four AP top-10 finishes on the field this decade, though, partly because of an outstanding offensive scheme, Baker Mayfield turning from a walk-on into one of the best quarterbacks in college football history, and Texas disappearing as a challenger.

Texas’s recruiting dip started in 2013. Brown’s 2011 and 2012 classes were both top five, as recruits had not yet figured out that the program was in decline after Colt McCoy graduated. From 2013 to 2017, Texas’ classes started matching the diminishing returns on the field, as those groups were all between 12th and 22nd nationally.

While the Big 12 was full of innovative offenses that could put up huge numbers with three-star talent, the one program that could compete with Oklahoma’s recruiting muscle was both behind the times offensively and also failing to sign the best players in Texas. It did not help that Texas A&M’s move to the SEC improved the Aggies’ brand and aided other members of the SEC in signing top Texas players.

Now, the recruiting war between Texas and Oklahoma has finally returned to prominence.

In 2018, the teams landed top-10 classes, Oklahoma’s first since 2010 and Texas’ first since 2012. Both have young, energetic head coaches with big personalities, appealing resumes, and clever offensive schemes. 2019 recruiting is shaping up to be similar, with Oklahoma in the early top 10 and Texas just on the outside. Oklahoma’s class is so good that one of their five-star verbals has proclaimed Oklahoma is “definitely gonna bury” Texas.

So what is the upshot of this trend?

With the standard caveat that always in motion is the future, here are a few:

1. It will be harder for teams other than Texas and Oklahoma to win the Big 12.

Not impossible, but more difficult. When Texas and Oklahoma were in their recruiting dips, the gap between their recruiting rankings and those of the other members of the conference were smaller than normal. This allowed other factors — great offensive schemes, better player development, luck, etc. — to become decisive, such that Baylor-TCU briefly emerged as the best rivalry in the league.

2. Texas and Oklahoma will be bigger threats to win Playoff games.

To date, the Big 12 is the only Power 5 conference that does not have a win in the Playoff. Oklahoma has made two appearances, one a 20-point loss to Clemson and the second an overtime loss to Georgia. In both instances, Lincoln Riley’s offense and Mayfield’s skills were not enough to overcome the fact that Clemson and Georgia had more talent.

While it is true that Oklahoma will have a hard time replacing Mayfield (the No. 1 pick in the Draft isn’t going to come along on a regular basis), it is also true that one or two more classes like 2018 and 2019 will mean that the next meeting between Oklahoma and a Southeastern power will be relatively even in aggregate talent.

Likewise, Tom Herman showed in 2014 that he can win Playoff games with the combination of his scheme and blue-chip recruits. He could do the same if he stays on his current trajectory.

3. Maybe the Big 12 stays together after all?

There is a school of thought that the Big 12 is going to come apart when its members’ grant of media rights expires in June 2025. The assumption is that the league will remain lower in the pecking order in revenue (as one member decided to make its own television network), and that since Big 12 teams have struggled to get into the Playoff (leading to the abominable decision to stage a title game after the completion of a round robin schedule), Oklahoma and Texas would decamp to one of the other four major leagues or independence, leading to a total dissolution.

Now, imagine a world in which Texas and Oklahoma are as healthy as they were in the Aughts. They pull in top classes annually. They return the Red River Shootout to being one of the most anticipated games on the calendar. They both win national titles. In an altered media landscape (and who knows what it resembles in 2024 and 2025), the Big 12 is a valuable media property, certainly relative to the Pac-12, which has its own possible issue keeping a marquee program.

And, for everyone else in the conference, beating Oklahoma and Texas becomes much more of a boost to a Playoff résumé.

If Texas and Oklahoma are healthy in football, then their incentive to leave for another league goes down. They made good head coaching hires in 2017 and those decisions have led to recruiting success.

Other Big 12 teams shouldn’t exactly celebrate Texas and Oklahoma upgrading their rosters, but it could be in the best interest of everyone anyway.