Heartbeat of the Heartland: Big 12 Championship Edition

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Speculation and planning have become reality. In an effort to join the club and sit at the adult table, the Big 12 Conference board of directors decided that adding a championship game would improve the odds of making the College Football Playoff.

The sting and stink of 2014 has lingered. The Big 12 had TCU and Baylor as “co-champions” despite a motto of “one true champion” and both 11-1 teams were left out of the first CFP final four. As the smallest Power Five league and with expansion to 12 or more to allow divisional alignments, the Big 12 took its lemons and made lemonade.

Sometime Saturday afternoon, that drink will either be bitter or sweet. Regular-season champion Oklahoma will face TCU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington in the Big 12 championship game. The Sooners slapped the Frogs, 38-20, in Norman on Nov. 11. Both teams lost to Iowa State. Oklahoma must win the rematch to assure itself a place in this season’s CFP bracket.

This is the dice roll, the roulette wheel spin that the Big 12 chose in May of 2016. The league is hedging its bet with the added revenue from playing a championship game. But money doesn’t buy prestige and after failing to place a team in the college football final four two of the first three years, the Big 12 desperately needs for Oklahoma to repeat in the rematch with TCU.

When the Big 12 was numerically correct and staged a championship game matching the winners to two six-team divisions, it had a title game 15 times. Six of those games were rematches of regular-season games and four times the regular-season winner won the rematch.

Oklahoma won three of those rematches:

  • 2000: Oklahoma defeated Kansas State 41-31 in the regular season and then defeated the Wildcats, 27-24 in the Big 12 championship game.
  • 2002: Oklahoma defeated Colorado 27-11 in the regular-season and then won the rematch, 27-9.
  • 2007: Oklahoma defeated Missouri 41-31 in the regular-season and then beat the Tigers 38-17 in the Big 12 title game.

Based on the eye test of Your Veteran Scribe, Oklahoma is playing as well as any team in the country. Baker Mayfield is going to win the Heisman Trophy, sophomore running back Rodney Anderson has made the running game lethal, Mayfield has several reliable receivers and the offensive line is arguably the best in the country.

“It’s two different games. So, nothing from the first one’s going to matter,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of the rematch. “They were a really, really good team when we beat them here and they’re still a really, really good team, and we’re going to have to play really well to beat them.”

The Sooners are 62nd in total defense, a far worse ranking than the teams who are in CFP contention. That’s a flaw that the nation’s best offense will try to mask as Oklahoma is three victories from the school’s first national championship since 2000.

But if Oklahoma can’t beat TCU for a second time, the chances of making the CFP will be next to zero. And that scenario will make the Big 12 leadership look foolish for its jerrymandering.

TCU’s Orr suspended

Near the end of the third quarter of Friday’s Baylor-TCU game, the bad blood that exists between the schools boiled over. The Bears were headed to their 11th loss and the Frogs to the Big 12 championship game. A flare-up near the Baylor sidelines became a full-fledged brawl with every player on both teams being assessed unsportsmanlike penalties.

TCU senior safety Nick Orr was suspended by the Big 12 for the first half of the championship game with Oklahoma. Upon review of the video tape, the conference office determined that Orr deserved a flagrant personal foul for throwing punches at opposing players.

Gary Patterson doesn’t agree that the punishment fits the crime. The TCU coach appealed to the conference office to suspend Orr just for the first quarter.

“I’m not saying he’s not wrong. (Orr) is at fault,” Patterson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Sunday. “He’s the kid that didn’t want to be a part of it and now he’s going to lose. If you watch the video, you’ll see he was trying to stay out of it. He got slammed to the ground from behind.

“That’s my whole question — there have to be different levels (of suspensions). Did you come off the sidelines, or were you protecting yourself? I’ll promise you that’s going to be brought up at league meetings. I am disappointed for Orr because he’s a senior and he’s not going to be able to play the whole Big 12 title game. It’s not like he came off the bench and cold-cocked a guy.”

Orr is on the team in tackles, has three tackles for losses, two interceptions and seven passes defended. TCU played the second half of the first meeting without defensive end Mat Boesen, who was ejected late in the first half. Boesen set TCU and Big 12 single-game records with 5.5 sacks against Baylor, a performance that earned him the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week award.

While Orr will miss the first half, having Boesen for the entire game plus the expected return of linebacker and leading tackler Travin Howard and junior safety Niko Small should help the Frogs’ defense get back to closer to full strength.

“We’re gonna have to start a lot faster than we did up in Norman,” Patterson said. “The first game, we did a poor job of tackling and we’ve got to get better in that.”

Not a strong start

In his first season at Texas in 2014, Charlie Strong’s Longhorns finished 6-6 and then lost to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

Tom Herman’s first Texas team is 6-6 after a stunning home-field loss to Texas Tech. The Longhorns opened the Herman Era with a surprising loss to Maryland and closed the regular-season by allowing the Red Raiders to score 14 points in the fourth quarter that wiped out a 10-point lead. Only a bowl victory will make Herman’s first season better than his predecessor.

If Texas finishes 6-7, it will be the fourth-consecutive losing season. The last time that happened was 1935-38. For Herman, he’ll be 10-10 in his last 20 games as a head coach. He appeared shaken after Friday’s loss. It followed a road victory at West Virginia that was arguably the Longhorns’ best complete game in Big 12 play.

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” Herman said when asked about the season-long inconsistency. “I don’t know. I don’t know. They’re kids. We’ve got to figure that out, obviously.”

What is also obvious is that Texas is not “back.” The program remains stuck in neutral and no different than any other scuffling teams just happy to play in a meaningless bowl game.

“We’ll see when our slot comes up and what conversations occur,” Texas athletic director Mike Perrin said after Friday’s game. “I’m just glad we’re going to a bowl this year.”

Congrats, Longhorns. You cleared a low bar.