Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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September 18, 2012

Big 12 should heat up after sleepy first 3 weeks

— The Big 12’s big bore is about to finally come to an end.

The league that dominated headlines for a variety of reasons during the offseason, not least of which was whether it would continue to exist, has been a blip on the national radar once games finally started against a dismal lineup of non-conference weaklings.

Oklahoma State scoring 84 points against Savannah State. West Virginia’s Geno Smith throwing for 411 yards and 5 TDs against James Madison. Games against the likes of Western Illinois, Sam Houston State, Florida A&M and Grambling State over the past couple of weeks.

Not much to get excited about.

That all changes Saturday night, when sixth-ranked Oklahoma hosts No. 15 Kansas State in the first true showdown of the new-look conference. It’s a game that should help decide the league champion, and also give people outside the Big 12 a reason to start tuning in.

“They’re an excellent team, so the preparation for them is always complicated,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops, whose team will have had two weeks to prepare for the Wildcats.

Still, it’s a difficult situation for the Sooners to be in.

They appeared rather uninspired in a season-opening victory at UTEP, then routed Florida A&M two weeks ago, leaving Stoops to wonder whether his team is ready for a real test.

“They look like an excellent football team. They’re doing an excellent job of running the football, like always, and using the quarterback to run it,” Stoops said. “It’ll be a challenge.”

It’s just the start of challenges awaiting the Sooners.

The offseason overhaul of the Big 12 resulted in the loss of Missouri and Texas A&M, two teams already saddled with losses in the SEC, and the addition of No. 8 West Virginia — the reigning Big East champion — and 17th-ranked TCU, the defending champions of the Mountain West.

Both of them will see the Sooners down the road, along with everyone else in the round-robin Big 12. Oklahoma also has a non-conference game against No. 11 Notre Dame on Oct. 27, right in the middle of the league’s regular meat-grinder.

While the conference has been beating up on punching bags, though, other leagues have played games that warranted more national attention. Florida and Tennessee pitted SEC rivals on the rise last Saturday, while the Fighting Irish visited then-No. 10 Michigan State. Even top-ranked Alabama booted around Michigan in a rare, season-opening showdown between power schools.

Now, the Big 12 will be getting into the act, and Oklahoma and Kansas State aren’t the only conference schools ramping up the difficulty this weekend.

Baylor takes on Louisiana-Monroe, the school giving the SEC all kinds of fits. TCU steps out of league play after a debut win against Kansas to take on Virginia. The Jayhawks visit Northern Illinois and the Mountaineers play a regional game against Maryland.

The feeble early competition for the Big 12 can be traced to a few reasons.

First, the league jockeyed its schedule relatively late to make room for the new additions, which left programs such as Oklahoma scrounging for non-conference games against the likes of UTEP.

Second, the new members in the league have made life much more difficult. Missouri and Texas A&M were a combined 9-9 in conference games and barely finished above .500 last season, while West Virginia won 10 games and TCU is coming off another 11-win season.

Finally, the larger footprint of the Big 12 — nearly 1,500 miles separates Texas Tech and West Virginia — has left teams scheduling regionally out of conference. So the Red Raiders are playing nearby New Mexico, Texas is making a short trip to Ole Miss, and the Mountaineers scheduled a game against Virginia school James Madison in suburban Washington, D.C.

“That James Madison thing over in D.C. was great for our fans. Attendance was awesome, fan support was awesome,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We want to play regional games.”

The byproduct, though, is gaudy statistics and not much else.

Smith is an astonishing 66 of 75 for 734 yards and nine touchdowns in a pair of blowout wins, and is second nationally in total offense. Oklahoma State leads the nation at better than 686 yards per game, while West Virginia, Texas Tech are Baylor also among the top 10 in the country.

Nice stats, sure — but not the best prep for what’s still to come.

“It’s going to get tougher this week. Athletically, it’s going to get tougher,” Holgorsen conceded. “It’s going to get harder and harder in the Big 12.”

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