Horns stampede past weakened Big 12

On the surface, everything appears Rosy for the Big 12.

Texas will be making its second trip to Pasadena in as many years, hoping to topple the Southern California dynasty in what should be a titanic battle between the best two teams in college football.

But upon closer inspection, the Longhorns appear out of character for the conference they represent. They might even be a product of the weakness in the rest of the conference as much as anything else.

Several reasons exist why the conference is weaker in terms of national appeal and prestige now than at any time in its 10-year history.

After Texas' 70-3 shellacking over Colorado last week in the Big 12 championship game, the margin between the conference's two divisions has never appeared wider. The Longhorns could have scored 120 points against the beleaguered Buffaloes if Texas coach Mack Brown hadn't let up midway through the third quarter.

And other than the Longhorns, all of the conference's other power teams had an embarrassing misstep that detracted from their appeal.

Texas Tech laid an egg at cellar-dwelling Oklahoma State and was lucky to beat Oklahoma in its regular-season finale. The Sooners started 2-3 before a late run that included a tight double-overtime home victory over Baylor.

Colorado lost its last two regular-season games to back into the championship game for the second straight season and finished without scoring a touchdown in its last 10 quarters. Iowa State, which lost its first three conference games, again squandered a chance to clinch the North Division title in its final regular-season game with a loss at Kansas.

The Big 12 enters the bowl season with only two teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 -- Texas at No. 2 and Texas Tech at No. 18. That is the lowest number of ranked Big 12 teams heading into the bowl games in the conference's 10-year existence. In no previous season heading into the bowls has the Big 12 had fewer than four ranked teams, or less than two teams in the top 10.

Eight teams from the conference qualified for bowl trips. But considering that six of them had six or seven wins, most Big 12 teams are almost interchangeable as a product of the parity.

The Big 12 isn't being mentioned in the same breath as the Big Ten, Pac-10 or Atlantic Coast conferences this season -- nor should it be. Instead, it is more closely resembles the Big East, which is keeping its Bowl Championship Series automatic bid with faith and hope as much as on-field performance.

Despite those recent struggles, Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said it's easy to defend the strength of the conference.

"I'm a part of it and I've seen it grow. I think it's a tremendous conference," said McCarney, the only active head coach still around from the conference's 1996 start. "Clearly, Texas was a dominant team and to have a team playing for the national championship says something. But we shouldn't have to apologize for who we are."

In an indirect way, the Big 12's weakness has detracted from UT's domination this season. The Longhorns are the first team in school history to make an undefeated run through the Big 12. But the Longhorns are still a 6½-point underdog in the national championship game against USC.

"On Jan. 4, we have to go out there and play Texas football, it's the only way we can prove ourselves," Texas guard Kasey Studdard said. "Talk is talk and you can't base the game on that. They have a great record, but we will not go out there intimidated."

Early point spreads indicate Big 12 teams are underdogs in five of their eight bowl games. Only Texas Tech, a 1½-point pick over Alabama in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Kansas, a 2-point pick over Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl, are favored. Colorado's game with Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl is off the board because of the uncertain status of quarterback Joel Klatt, who is nursing a concussion suffered in the championship game.

The Big 12 has posted winning records in bowl games in only three of the last nine seasons. The conference has lost five of its last seven outings in BCS games and its three most recent BCS title games: Nebraska in 2001 and Oklahoma in 2003 and 2004.

The conference has also struggled in its bowl history against the SEC and Big Ten, the two conferences it is most often compared with and recruits against. Big 12 teams are 6-10 against SEC teams and 3-10 versus Big Ten teams in the conference's bowl history.

So it would behoove Big 12 teams to perform a lot better this season. And it starts with Texas, facing the immense challenge of trying to dethrone the defending champion Trojans.

That game likely will set the tone for how the rest of the country looks at the Big 12.
A victory or close defeat should mean increased respect around the country. But an embarrassing loss will mean the same old stories about the "weak" Big 12 will be resurfacing throughout the offseason.

Most Valuable Player

Texas quarterback Vince Young
Only last year, some were calling for Young to be moved to another position after struggling performances midway through the season. Instead, Texas coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis decided to live with his erratic mechanics and throwing motion because of his natural talent.

The results have been the creation of the greatest quarterback in school history.

Young will be among the Heisman contenders, but his value to his team might be greater than any player in the country. That quality sets him apart from Heisman Trophy contenders Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, according to Brown.

"Vince Young is a great player, he's the most valuable player on our team for sure, and on any football team across the country," Brown said. "Understanding that Reggie and Matt are both great football players, but I don't think we would be sitting here without Vince."

Coach of the Year

Texas coach Mack Brown
His critics derided him as "Mr. February" because his recruiting wizardry never quite translated into the kind of football success expected with the largess of riches that goes with coaching at Texas.

But Brown made some significant changes this season to pave the way for his first conference championship in a 22-year coaching career.

Before the season, Brown borrowed the theme "take dead aim" from the teachings of late Texas golf coach Harvey Penick. Brown instructed his team not to get distracted from his mission for the 2005 season and had a burnt orange wristband emblazoned with those words to remind them.

Players talk about Brown downloading rap songs on his iPod before the season as a way to better connect with them. They say the 54-year-old native of Cookeville, Tenn., did a passable rendition of 50 Cent's "In Da Club" before a practice earlier this season. He even wore a rat trap around his neck before the Texas A&M game to employ a teaching point about trap games.

Those decisions showed more than Brown merely trying to be "Mack Daddy" to his players. Instead, he provided the leadership that goes with being a championship coach -- with a few gimmicks sprinkled in for good measure.

Newcomer of the Year
Texas RB Jamaal Charles
Expecting to redshirt coming into this season, Charles developed into the top rushing threat in Texas' deep backfield.

Charles rushed for 844 yards to lead all Longhorns running backs, averaging 7.4. yards per carry and adding 14 receptions for 157 yards for good measure.

But his biggest attribute was the way he immediately handled blocking duties in Texas' blitz protection schemes. He jumped in against Ohio State and handled those important duties like a seasoned veteran.

"Jamaal absolutely was not intimidated of anything," Brown said. "I think he's a special player."

Biggest Surprise

Maybe it was the green helmets that were decried by traditionalists but seem to infuse Baylor players with a new attitude. No longer were they the Big 12's version of "The Bad News Bears."

Although failing to make a bowl bid, Baylor's 5-6 season represented a landmark of achievements for the perennial South Division cellar-dwellers. Their 44-34 season-ending victory over Oklahoma State pushed them out of the South division basement at the end of the season for the first time in conference history.

Baylor snapped a 37-game conference losing streak by beating Iowa State. By winning two conference games, the Bears posted their best Big 12 mark ever. They took Oklahoma and Texas A&M into overtime before losing both. Defensive coordinator Bill Bradley might have done one of the best jobs in college football squeezing production out of his unit.

Coach Guy Morriss appears to have the Bears headed toward more good things next season.

Biggest Disappointment
Texas A&M

The Aggies were expected to challenge Texas and Oklahoma for the South division title before the season. Some were even calling them a darkhorse challenger for the national championship. But a season-opening loss at Clemson that turned when coach Dennis Franchione failed to go for a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter only started the problems.

A blowout road loss at Colorado and a humiliating 42-14 home loss to Iowa State showed the defensive inadequacies of the team that ranked last nationally in pass defense. It was a marked contrast from the old "Wrecking Crew" defenses of former coach R.C. Slocum, who was fired in favor of Franchione despite never having a losing record while coaching at A&M.

A&M's 5-6 record will be the second time in three seasons that the Aggies finished below .500 under Franchione. Those struggles helped lead to the sacking of veteran defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, who was fired by Franchione three days after the season ended.

An easier schedule should give the Aggies renewed hope next year. But similar struggles, particularly defensively, might mean that Franchione's neck ends up on the chopping block next time around.

All-Big 12 Team
QB -- Vince Young, Texas
RB -- Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
RB -- Taurean Henderson, Texas Tech
WR -- Joel Filani, Texas Tech
WR -- Jarrett Hicks, Texas Tech
TE -- David Thomas, Texas
OL -- Jonathan Scott, Texas
OL -- Davin Joseph, Oklahoma
OL -- Will Allen, Texas
OL -- Tony Palmer, Missouri
C -- Mark Fenton, Colorado

DL -- Charlton Keith, Kansas
DL -- Rodrique Wright, Texas
DL -- Dusty Dvoracek, Oklahoma
DL -- Brian Smith, Missouri
LB -- Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma
LB -- Aaron Harris, Texas
LB -- Nick Reid, Kansas
DB -- Cedric Griffin, Texas
DB -- Michael Huff, Texas
DB -- Dwayne Slay, Texas Tech
DB -- LaMarcus Hicks, Iowa State

Special teams
PK -- Mason Crosby, Colorado
P -- Daniel Sepulveda, Baylor
KR -- Shaun Rochon, Baylor

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.