Much of the offseason talk in the Big 12 has focused on structural changes to the conference. We've engage in some of that here at BOTC, discussing who the conference should consider adding were one of the members to skip town, not to mention whether the divisions should be realigned, and how it could be done.
Over at his blog on the Tulsa World, Dave Sittler has discussed the subject, too. His focus was the increasing imbalance of power between the North and the South. In short, Sittler proposes we junk the current divisional system so that the two best teams can meet in the conference title game each year. Specifically, he wants the two best teams, as determined by Texas' favorite benchmark, the BCS, to meet at Jerry World in Dallas to settle the score.
First of all, Sittler doesn't address how conference play will be handled if the divisions are dropped. I assume he isn't proposing an 11-game round-robin, which would be interesting, but severely detrimental to the conference's chances of ever having a representative in the BCS National Title Game. But that's not the really important point, because even I could probably find an acceptable way to set up the schedule. Hell, they should just ask The Boy over at Rock M Nation. I'm sure he would have some suggestions.
Anyway, the important point is not how conference play would be handled in such a scenario. To me, the real question is whether we really need to drop the divisional alignments at all. Sittler and other Confederates (pro-South, not pro-slavery, in this case) would argue that it's just not fair to the second-best team in the South to watch some whipping-boy Yankee get thrown to the wolves each December.
Even I, the consummate North apologist, cannot deny that the South is absolutely kicking the North's ass right now. The numbers don't lie. But, as I've noticed in many areas of life - politics, science, music etc. - people only seem to remember the recent past, and forget the more distant past a little too easily.
I may not have remembered it because I was just a kid at the time, but were the columnists for the Kansas City Star and Omaha World-Herald proclaiming back in 1999 that we needed to do away with the conference's divisions so the two best teams, in this case those from the North, could settle the score in the conference title game? Because they would have had a case, based on Sittler's logic.
Sittler laments the inequity in a system that permits 9-3 (5-3) Missouri to meet up with 11-1 (7-1) Oklahoma in the conference title game, while Texas (11-1, 7-1) and Texas Tech (11-1, 7-1) sit at home. But where was Sittler in 1996, when 10-2 (7-1) Colorado was stuck at home while Nebraska played 8-5 (6-2) Texas? Yes, I realize Texas won, but even the most ardent Cow Worshippers couldn't have expected a win.
Or how about in 1997, when 11-1 (7-1) K-State was stuck at home while Nebraska played 9-4 (6-2) Texas A&M, and slaughtered the defenseless Aggies? Or maybe 1999, when K-State was again left home with an 11-1 (7-1) record while Nebraska took on 9-5 (6-2) Texas, a team K-State had defeated 35-17 in Austin?
Maybe 2001 isn't the best example, because the South challenger was 11-2 Texas, but Nebraska was left out of the conference title game that year despite an 11-2 record. Of course, they were gifted the national title game as a consolation, although I'm guessing it was cold comfort after Hurricane Future NFL Stars blitzed them in Pasadena.
Anyway, it's not like we haven't seen this before. We've seen arguably the second-best team in the conference get shut out of the title game because the single best team in the conference was in their division before, and we've seen it on the North side of the ledger.
What's the point? The point is, let's be cautious before we go making drastic changes to the conference structure based on the South's current domination. I'm not yet convinced this isn't essentially a cyclical changing of the guard. Think back to when the Big 12 was formed. Oklahoma went 3-8, 4-8, and 5-6 in its first three Big 12 seasons. Texas threw in a nice little 4-7 season in 1997, along with a bunch of pedestrian eight- and nine-win seasons. Texas also couldn't beat K-State to...oh wait, that's still true. Texas Tech was a South Plains afterthought, never winning more than six games until 2002. Texas A&M enjoyed as much success as anyone in the early years of the Big 12, but even the Aggies were capable of a couple 6-6 seasons. Oklahoma State was 34-45 from 1996-2001. Baylor was the Baylor we've all come to know so well.
In my opinion, the line of demarcation for when things really started to swing toward the South was 2002. Nebraska had pretty much run out of magic by then (don't tell their fans that), K-State was in the final two years of Bill Snyder's glory, and Colorado competed in its last conference title game. Meanwhile, Oklahoma had won a national title, Texas was becoming a consistent 10+ game winner, and Mike Leach was starting to do a little better than .500 each season. Sure, there was the K-State "upset" of Oklahoma in 2003, but since 2002 the South has utterly dominated the conference title game, winning five to the North's one. From 2002 back to the conference's formation, the South led, 4-3, in conference titles, but two of them were won in the most shocking fashion. In the first, Texas beat Nebraska on one of the most insane playcalls I've ever seen. In the second, Texas A&M stood around and ate some St. Louis BBQ and let K-State self-destruct in the most spectacular fashion ever seen. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts we'd all have a merry Christmas, but in those formative years, the North was an eyelash from owning five titles to the South's two.
Here's what I'm getting at. After next season, a season in which the South will surely dominate again, we will have finished the Big 12's second seven-year stint. If we don't start seeing the North teams challenge more consistently in the next two or three years, then I will be more open to calls for restructuring the conference. Until then, however, I'm willing to wait and see if Gary Pinkel can continue Mizzou's success and pull them to higher accomplishments. I'll wait to see if Bo Pelini continues the improvement he showed at Nebraska last season. I'll (gulp) keep an eye on KU and see if they're anything more than a flash in the pan, accomplished with smoke and mirrors. I'll see if Colorado can avoid injuries on the offensive line this season and thereby establish a running game and protect their quarterback. I'll see if Bill Snyder can work another Miracle in Manhattan. I'll...well, I won't hold my breath on Iowa State.
Meanwhile, that's only one part of the equation. As we saw with Oklahoma and Texas in the conference's early years, even the traditional powers are only one bad coaching hire away from mediocrity. Bob Stoops isn't going to coach forever. Mack Brown is stepping down soon at UT. Maybe Will Muschamp will be a badass replacement who will keep things going where the CEO left off. Or maybe he'll turn out to be a guy who should be a lifetime coordinator, ala Gene Chizik or Ron Prince. Mike Leach probably isn't going to stay at Texas Tech forever, and who is going to replace the mad pirate in Lubbock if/when he leaves? Mike Sherman strikes me as a Bill Callahan clone in College Station, and I'm not changing that opinion until the results show otherwise.
The current state of the conference in football is a definite cause for concern for those teams in the Sunflower, Show-Me, Centennial, Cornhusker and Hawkeye states. But forgive me if I hold off on advocating large-scale restructuring of the conference for just a little bit longer.