A Big Saturday in the Big 12

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Saturday of Week Two started poorly for the Big 12. Iowa State’s come-from-ahead overtime loss to rival Iowa in Ames dropped the conference to 0-3 vs. Power Five non-conference foes.

By day’s end, the talking head influencers on ESPN were praising the Big 12 as the day’s big winner. Jesse Palmer, the best-looking and best-dressed college football studio analyst (sorry, Matt Leinart) jerked his knee and predicted a Big 12 team – gasp – would be in the – bigger gasp – College Football Playoff.

That’s what can happen when the punching bag punches back.

Oklahoma and quarterback Baker Mayfield helped the Big 12 plant its flag – literally and figuratively – in a season that looked like it was rolling off the rails. In Week One, Texas lost at home to Maryland to ruin Tom Herman’s debut and West Virginia lost a neutral-site contest with Virginia Tech.

A league that as of late has been better suited to staging belly-flop contests sorely needed what happened Saturday night in Columbus. The Sooners’ 31-16 upset of second-ranked Ohio State was far from flukish.

OU squandered several scoring opportunities in the first half but didn’t flinch when the Buckeyes scored on the opening possession of the second half for a 10-3 lead. With Mayfield leading the way, Oklahoma went on a 28-0 blitz to stun and shock the college football world.

Or, the world outside of Norman.

“We expected to win this game,” coach Lincoln Riley said.

To say that Riley aced his first major coaching test is to downgrade 100 percent achievements. His sideline adversary was Urban Meyer, owner of three national championships and the Avis to Nick Saban’s Hertz. In several areas, the Buckeyes appeared to need some pixie dust to counter the visitors’ second-half onslaught.

Last year, Ohio State romped and stomped OU, 45-24, in Norman – a victory that likely helped the Buckeyes earn a CFP berth. That loss, the fact the Sooners were touchdown underdogs plus seeing ESPN’s GameDay crew all pick Ohio State to win only served to fuel Mayfield’s white-hot desire.

In just his second game working with new offensive skill players – and playing the second half without injured favorite target Mark Andrews – Mayfield was magnificent executing Riley’s brilliant game plan. He completed 27-of-35 for 386 yards and his three TD passes went to a fullback (Dimitri Flowers), a walk-on (Lee Morris) and a true freshman running back (Trey Sermon).

Then during the post-game celebration, Mayfield grabbed an OU flag, did a victory lap that led him to midfield, waved the flag in triumph and then thrust the staff into the ground. Unfortunately, Ohio Stadium has FieldTurf so the stick didn’t take and the flag toppled. Regardless of that, emphatic point made.

“We’ve had this mood in the locker room that no one believes in us,” Mayfield said. “The guys were able to catch the fact that no one picked us from College GameDay. You see it on social media throughout the week that 80 percent of the country voted for Ohio State to win.

“We believe in ourselves, and quite frankly, that’s all that matters.”

Ten games and a potential Big 12 championship game remain for the Sooners but what matters for the Big 12 is that Saturday produced results that the conference office and the 10 member schools all realized were necessary.

Rebirthing the title game to add the magical 13th data point doesn’t matter much if the Big 12 can’t prove it’s not the fifth wheel in the Power Five.

About an hour before Oklahoma kicked off at Ohio State, TCU helped burnish its conference’s image with a 28-7 victory at Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t likely to finish in the top half of the Southeastern Conference’s West Division but winning on SEC turf is nonetheless noteworthy.

The Horned Frogs, somewhat in the same manner that the Sooners were unshaken by their first-half mistakes, won despite living on the edge. With a chance in the third quarter to build on a 14-7 lead, TCU fumbled inside the Arkansas five and then dropped a sure touchdown pass on the next possession.

Two late touchdowns accounted for the 21-point margin but coach Gary Patterson’s team displayed a type of Big Boy football that critics claim doesn’t exist in the Big 12. TCU’s defense smothered the Razorbacks’ offense while producing 195 yards rushing.

All four TDs were on the ground; none of that fancy, finesse, spread-the-field stuff, thank you very much.

“Everybody thinks we’re (the Big 12) soft,” said TCU quarterback Kenny Hill who is completing 70 percent of his passes. “We’ve just got to keep playing like this, keep being consistent.”

TCU and Kansas State, which has taken care of business against two over-matched foes, are both capable of challenging for the top of the league.

Friday night, Oklahoma State was cool and efficient in its victory at South Alabama. Few expected the Cowboys to stumble but they dispatched the Jaguars without even a hint of being disinterested or distracted. The Cowboys face their biggest non-conference test when they play Saturday at Pittsburgh, a team that pushed them to overtime last season in Stillwater.

Halfway through September, the Big 12 suddenly finds itself being complimented instead of kicked around. Keeping it that way is the next challenge.