NORMAN, Okla. (AP) – Times are changing in the Big 12.
A new commissioner, two new schools and a batch of new starting quarterbacks bring a distinctly different flavor to the conference this season after a period of turmoil when one-third of the original members left.
Big East champion West Virginia and Mountain West champ TCU will at least partially fill the void left by Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M scattering to other leagues.
Exactly who will take over the superstar roles filled by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and fellow first-round NFL draft picks Justin Blackmon, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Kendall Wright remains to be seen.
It all makes for an unpredictable season. But can it be a great one?
“We don’t want the SEC to win another national championship,” new commissioner Bob Bowlsby proclaimed Monday during a stop on Oklahoma’s campus.
“We think the University of Oklahoma can compete at that level and have a chance, and we think there are several others this year that can do similar.”
Defending conference champion Oklahoma State (Wes Lunt), Baylor (Nick Florence) and Kansas (Dayne Crist) will all be breaking in new quarterbacks. And although they’re not new to starting college football games, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and TCU’s Casey Pachall will be new to the Big 12 and trying to continue their championship-winning ways.
“When you’re going into a new conference, a new landscape, it’s all about finding a way to win,” said TCU coach Gary Patterson, who’ll wait an extra week to make his Big 12 debut Sept. 8 against Grambling State.
“We’ve had this plan before. This is not the first time we’ve changed conferences.”
Patterson’s Horned Frogs are rejoining some former Southwest Conference foes after hopscotching to the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West.
“You’ve just got to keep growing up. That’s what good programs do, and that’s what we intend to do here,” Patterson said. “It’s not going to be a sprint. It’s three to five years, and then over the course of 10 years, how do we get as a program as we keep recruiting to the Big 12 to become what we need to become?”
Whoever can overcome all of the changes the best will be crowned the champion in December.
Oklahoma State is attempting to get there with Lunt, who’s just out of high school, taking over for the 28-year old Weeden. Yet coach Mike Gundy says the Cowboys won’t be changing their offense up — or relying heavily on the run — to ease Lunt into the college game.
“There’ll be mistakes, growing pains,” said Gundy, whose Cowboys open the season Saturday against Savannah State.
“We had them with Brandon Weeden here, and he had been in practice and was obviously very mature with his age. … He’ll make mistakes just like any other young player, and you go with it and you keep playing.”
Kansas, which didn’t win a single conference game last season, is turning to the former Notre Dame connection of Crist and coach Charlie Weis. Weis was brought in to replace Turner Gill, who was fired after two losing seasons, and said his players have been through a “pretty grueling offseason” to try and improve.
“I think they’re really looking forward to showing everyone they’re not as bad as they were,” Weis said.
Bowlsby believes there’s depth in the Big 12 from top to bottom that can help the conference build on its reputation.
“I think the thing that makes a great conference is great competition every time you take the playing surface,” he said.
The league has been dumped on at times over the past two years as longtime members have headed toward the door. Bowlsby believes there is stability ahead as he tries to conclude negotiations on a television contract worth as much as $2.6 billion, along with a written agreement among the 10 schools to give their grant of rights to the conference.
The latter part of that deal would be as close as the league can come to ensuring that no more schools will leave, since they would have to forfeit millions upon millions of TV dollars to do so.
“There are no real stumbling blocks. It’s a matter of just fine-tuning the wording and some things like that. I think the grant of rights will fall into place almost automatically,” said University of Oklahoma President David Boren, seated next to Bowlsby.
If Bowlsby can complete that, it might finally be time for the change to slow down for a while and for the conference to get back to talking about championships instead of its possible extinction.
“What enhances athletic reputation? Winning,” Bowlsby said. “And it isn’t just winning conference championships. It’s having our conference champion go on and win national championships. We’re going to do that. We’ve had a rich tradition of it, and we’re going to continue to do it.”
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