With little regard for tradition that in some cases has taken decades to fortify, the landscape of major college football has undergone significant changes over the past few years.
Conferences that were once the benchmark for excellence, must now re-brand themselves in an attempt to make amends to a disillusioned and somewhat confused fan base. Despite boasting some pretty talented players, including two of the last four Heisman Trophy winners (Baylor's Robert Griffin III in 2011, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford in 2008), the Big 12 Conference is clearly one of those leagues.
Having lost Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) previously, the defections of both Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC this season leaves a pair of tradition-rich programs in Texas and Oklahoma to lead the Big 12 into this next chapter in its history. Both the Longhorns and Sooners have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success over the years, with the two combining for 11 national titles, including a pair since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998.
Furthermore, the two teams have claimed 10 Big 12 titles since the league began play back in 1996, with OU being the class of the conference with seven crowns, including four of the last six.
Not taking anything away from long-time, current members Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas, but the Big 12 is clearly led by the teams coached by Mack Brown (Texas) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma). Replacing Missouri and Texas A&M are outstanding programs in TCU (Mountain West) and West Virginia (Big East), and while both have enjoyed their share of success in the past, neither has played in a conference with the sense of tradition or overall talent, both on the field and in calling plays, that the Big 12 possesses.
Having suffered through a couple of down years, there are those who have wondered if the luster had worn off the Longhorns' star. Taking it to another extreme, there are some who have dared to raise the question as to whether it's time for a change in leadership, as Brown enters his 15th season at the helm and has directed the team to just three Big 12 titles, only one of which has occurred in the last six years. Despite all that, UT is poised for a return to the top of the Big 12, and perhaps even into the national championship picture, as Brown has amassed a collection of top-notch recruits who should be coming into their own rather quickly.
With an offense expected to rely heavily on sophomore RB Malcolm Brown (172 carries, 742 yards, five TDs in 2011) and perhaps to a lesser extent, freshman sensation Johnathan Gray (national-record 205 total TDs in high school), the big question in Austin is who is going to be the next great Longhorn quarterback. Last season, three different signal-callers saw action, but they accounted for fewer than 190 ypg and combined to throw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). Both Case McCoy and David Ash are expected to once again see time under center this season, and while coach Brown is optimistic about their progress, his eyes widen considerably when he thinks of the future, as expected to be on campus in 2013 is 6-4, 220-pounder Tyrone Swoopes, a highly- touted recruit who is already drawing comparisons to former UT standout Vince Young.
The Texas defense should be one of the top units in the Big 12 this year, as there is speed, athleticism and play-making ability at just about every position.
As for the unflappable Stoops, his knack for replacing star players with one talented newcomer after another assures a level of continuity at Oklahoma that most teams simply can not match. As is the case almost every year, the Sooners are again the pre-season favorite to not only win the Big 12, but to challenge for the BCS National Championship as well. Now clearly a lot has to go right for both of those things to occur, including avoiding the devastating upset loss that seems to plague OU nearly every season, but Stoops' troops certainly have the talent and know-how to not only survive, but to thrive in a conference that is relying on them to help restore its image.
The return of the majority of offensive playmakers, including QB Landry Jones, RBs Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch, and WR Kenny Stills, along with a defense that ranks as one of the top units around, makes the Sooners as formidable as any team in the country. Whaley (113 carries, 627 yards, nine TDs) appeared in only seven games last season before suffering a broken ankle, so it will be interesting to see if he has the same kind of impact this year, while the recent indefinite suspensions of four receivers leaves Stills and big-time recruit Trey Metoyer as the guys that Jones will look to down the field most often.
The Big 12 hasn't only opened its doors to some new teams this year, but to a new commissioner as well. Former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby is the man entrusted with helping the league achieve stability in the wake of unprecedented turmoil. Bowlsby's first major task is expected to be lining up a new, long-term and highly lucrative television contract. Working toward some type of agreement among member schools to avoid further defections is also on the agenda, and simply bringing a sense of calm after a few years of uncertainty is paramount to the league regaining its footing.
While the dizzying effect all the recent moves in college football has caused isn't likely to subside for a while, the Big 12 at least appears to be headed toward solid ground and could very well return to the time when it ruled the roost as one of the nation's elite conferences. One thing is for sure...if the Longhorns and Sooners have anything to say about it, and rest assured -- they do -- that time could be sooner rather than later.