FRISCO, Texas – Let’s interrupt the newfound optimism, relentless positivity and bustling momentum of the Big 12 Conference for a quick reality check. The Big 12 lacks a program poised to snap the league’s 12-year national title drought. And there really isn’t a program in position to remove the scarlet letter of the Big 12 being the only major conference not to advance a team to the College Football Playoff title game since it was formed in 2014.
But hope could be found in the gallows humor of Commissioner Bob Bowlsby on Monday morning at Big 12 media days. He joked about no reporters asking about conference realignment, which means the league’s biggest issues have receded from the board rooms and the court rooms to the actual playing field. The Big 12 can boast about its current reality with a catchy slogan – One True Problem – celebrating the issues have migrated to just milquetoast football, a significant upgrade from muckraking presidents – good riddance to Oklahoma’s David Boren – and the searing Baylor sexual assault scandal.
With the crosswinds of realignment mustering only a meek breeze and Matt Rhule’s admirable job pulling Baylor from the ethical sewer, the focus for the Big 12 is finally back on the field. The only bummer for the star-crossed league is that in life A.B. – After Baker – there’s little that would classify as must-see TV.
Who can save the Big 12 from a season of mediocrity and irrelevancy?
The star with the best chance to bail out the Big 12 from being a cluster of forgotten flyovers is Lincoln Riley, the precocious 34-year-old play-calling ninja at Oklahoma who seared his way into the nation’s consciousness last year. Riley led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff in his rookie coaching season after Bob Stoops unexpectedly stepped down last June. Riley continued the staggering development of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who went from walking on at two Big 12 schools to the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. And he dropped this casual nugget at media day that’s both intriguing and potentially dooming for the Sooners: “I think it’s got a chance to be maybe the most talented team that we’ve had in the … four years that we will have been at OU, but also probably our most inexperienced team as well.”
Who will win the Big 12? Departures at Oklahoma, inexperience at TCU and youth at Texas have the league positioned to be paralyzed by parity. The Big 12’s center of irrational preseason optimism resides in West Virginia, which has a much better chance of ending September with a losing record than in position to compete for a league title. (Please forward to this to @OldTakesExposed for a good laugh in November, but you’d have to squint watching the Mountaineers last year to believe they have the pieces to crack the top 10).
Who is the league’s biggest star? It’s probably West Virginia’s Will Grier, the league’s only frontline returning quarterback and best NFL prospect. (But the optimism should slow down because it’s defense can’t slow anyone, as the Mountaineers gave up 31.5 points and 445 yards per game last year). Don’t count on the Big 12’s trio of talented running backs – Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson. They are gifted enough to make one ponder if the league’s pass-happy image may be altered slightly in a season where quarterback inexperience will be the main storyline at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and Texas Tech. But none will be able to run their programs to the highest echelon of national contention and attention.
And that brings us back to the league’s most intriguing star, as Riley’s sideline potential can be gauged by the visitor log at his Norman, Oklahoma, office. Riley had enough NFL teams come through to pick his brain that he didn’t feel comfortable mentioning specifics, but he told Yahoo Sports that he traded ideas with well over a dozen officials and coaches from NFL franchises. “We talked to several,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “Some of them were very informal, a few minutes here and there. Some of them were a little longer. There was some give and take. I know there’s a notion out there that all these people are … it wouldn’t be very smart of us just to bring a bunch of people in and teach them and not get anything ourselves.”
The NFL and collegiate game have never been closer, considering the amount of spread concepts that the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots exhibited in the Super Bowl. That’s exciting to Riley, who comes from a coaching tree – Mike Leach’s Air Raid — that the NFL once viewed as adaptable to pro-style football as Jai alai. “Much, much closer,” Riley said of the intersection of college and NFL offenses. “I think it’s simply who is going to be the first one to try it. Finally, a couple of teams tried it on a limited basis and had some success and it’s grown from there.”
What’s more difficult to quantify is Riley’s most glaring gift, his uncanny ability to call plays. Opposing coaches have marveled at the versatility and fearlessness of Riley’s play calling. From Oklahoma’s blowout win at Ohio State in September to a 48-point outburst in a loss to Georgia in the playoff, Riley and Mayfield kept opponents off guard all season. “If you pack the box, they’ll throw it and take shots,” said Tulane coach Willie Fritz. “If you play coverage they’ll run the ball, particularly gap schemes and make new gaps.”
In other words, Riley kept them guessing, which he plans to do with his biggest decision of 2018. Riley went out of his way to emphasize the quarterback competition between Kyler Murray and Austin Kendall, as many have assumed Murray will start after he returned to school after the Oakland A’s gave him a $4.6 million contract and left him seven months to report. “Kyler is not the quarterback yet,” Riley said. “There is good competition going on, and Kyler is going to have to fight like crazy to win this job.”
Whoever wins will be the beneficiary of play calls from perhaps the brightest young offensive mind in the sport. In a year where the Big 12 lacks star power, the league’s best chance at national relevancy and solving its One True Problem rests on the sideline in Norman. The most exciting part of the Big 12 in 2018 will be seeing what Riley does for an encore.
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