A little more than two weeks ago, Baylor unveiled their new on-campus palace, McLane Stadium, in a celebration full of pomp, circumstance, and a bronze Robert Griffin III statue. The opening of the $266 million stadium on the Brazos River, and the subsequent, 45-point beatdown of Southern Methodist University, symbolized the new era in Baylor Bears football.
Five years earlier in 2009, the program finished 4-8 with a 1-7 record in the Big 12. When rumors of conference realignment began to circulate in 2010 and 2011, Bayor was one of four Big 12 schools on the outside of any proposed plans (the others being Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State). They were unwanted, with little to offer to another conference.
But on the field, head coach Art Briles began to turn the program around, thanks in large part to RG3. The team went 7-6 in 2010 and 10-3 in 2011, with Griffin winning the first Heisman Trophy in school history.
The ugly stepchild of Texas football — BU went 4-41 against Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech from 1995 to 2009 — forced itself into the national title picture. The university broke ground on McLane Stadium the following fall. By the time it opened on Sept. 1, 2014, the Bears were the reigning Big 12 champions for the first time. Baylor’s turnaround represents a larger transformation in the Big 12. The conference once decided by the annual Red River Showdown, formerly Shootout, between Oklahoma and Texas is now the most unpredictable in the five power conferences.
If you want dominance, watch the Southeastern Conference, home of seven of the last eight national champions. In the last five years, though, only three schools have won the conference title and six have gone winless in conference play.
Four of the 14 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference haven’t had a losing record in-conference in the last five seasons. Only two squads in each of the four other power conferences can boast the same feat.
In that same time frame, only one school has gone undefeated against their conference opponents in the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively. But the same teams have dominated the championship picture: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten; Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12.
But the Big 12 has seen a new conference champion in each of the last five seasons — Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma, and Baylor.
Bill Snyder returned to Kansas State in 2009 and coached the Wildcats from a team that flirted with .500 seasons to a Top 25 team that went 42-22 from 2009 to 2013. The Big 12’s perennial bridesmaid to the Longhorns and the Sooners, Oklahoma State finally broke into the upper echelon in 2010 with an 11-2 record and followed up with a 12-1 mark. It was the first time since 1987-88 that the program won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons.
Although Texas Tech hasn’t shined of late, they’ve made four bowl appearances and reached the Top 10 last season. And even given their recent struggles, Texas is still a team for the rest of the conference to fear — given their 7-2 record last year in-conference. Don’t forget, newbies Texas Christian and West Virginia are lurking in the middle of the pack. Both teams will play three of the four ranked teams in the conference — Baylor, KSU, Oklahoma, and OK State — at home this year.
The only weak links in the conference have been Iowa State and Kansas. The Jayhawks went 3-40 against conference rivals in the last five seasons, while the Cyclones finished 13-29.
The Bears kick off their 2014 conference schedule Sept. 27 on the road against those same struggling Cyclones. A victory seems like a sure bet — Baylor won 71-7 last year — but in this Big 12, which hasn’t seen a repeat champ since 2007-08, it’s not crazy to expect the unexpected.