Nebraska players making the tunnel walk on red carpet. Red balloons climbing to the clouds after the Cornhuskers’ first score. The visiting team receiving a standing ovation after the game’s final play.
No Big 12 game-day experience matches that of the one in Lincoln, Neb., where there is more red on shirts and coats, gloves and hats, than there is on the purses swung by the professionals who make their livings in the streets and hotel lobbies of Las Vegas.
Ralphie the Buffalo in Boulder and the march of the Corps of Cadets into Kyle Field also are missed, as is a Kansas-Missouri rivalry that features two sides of a border that think so differently they can’t even agree on the all-time record of the series.
Sadly, conference realignment stole some flavor from Big 12 football, but this much is indisputable: It also made it a stronger football league.
Half the schools, including both new members, that compete in the 10-member conference are ranked among the top 17 in the country: 7. Kansas State, 8. West Virginia, 11. Texas, 15. TCU, 17. Oklahoma. Three others received votes: Texas Tech (39), Baylor (31) and Iowa State (3).
Other than Kansas, Oklahoma State is the lone Big 12 school that didn’t receive a vote in the Associated Press poll, and the Cowboys (2-2) are ranked 18th in the Sagarin power rankings and received three votes in the USA Today coaches poll.
Thanks to West Virginia, the Big 12 hasn’t lost its identity as college football’s home for high-octane offenses and record-breaking quarterbacks.
First-year Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis was asked on the weekly Big 12 coaches conference call for his early impressions of the league’s offenses.
“Well, it’s a tad bit scary to tell you the truth because of the volume of points that are scored,” Weis said. “Every week you look at the scoreboard and say, ‘My gosh.’ You just look at the numbers. And then statistically you go look at the verification, the type of numbers the quarterbacks are throwing up.”
Numbers such as the ones Baylor quarterback Nick Florence compiled Saturday when he threw for 581 yards and five touchdowns and lost to West Virginia, 70-63. Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith established himself as the Heisman Trophy favorite by completing 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards and a Big 12 record eight touchdowns. He has thrown 20 touchdown passes without throwing an interception.
“What Geno Smith did the other day, when you look at those numbers, you say, ‘How could that possibly happen? How could a guy be sitting there with those type of numbers at the end of the game against a very good competitor? ’ I mean, it’s kind of scary,” Weis reiterated.
Four of the five highest quarterback ratings and seven of the top 16 in the nation are from Big 12 quarterbacks.
Even Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, in his second tour of genius duty, doesn’t have an answer for slowing down the offenses.
“I think you kidnap the quarterback,” Snyder said. “That’s the only thing I can think of right now.”
Texas coach Mack Brown has the nation’s second-rated QB, David Ash, and plays host Saturday to West Virginia and first-rated Geno Smith. Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is charged with devising a game plan to slow Smith.
“I’ve been down there three times,” Brown said of Diaz. “He’s got his door closed and he’s under the desk. It’s been hard to communicate with him.”
Starting with Texas running back Ricky Williams in 1997 and continuing with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, the Big 12 has had five of the past 14 Heisman Trophy winners, all but Williams a quarterback.
Brown was asked if the Big 12 had ever seen a quarterback quite like Smith.
“As good as our quarterbacks have been, he’s playing as good or better as any quarterback we’ve ever had,” Brown said. “Just unbelievable. I mean, he hasn’t made a mistake and there is a tremendous amount of pressure on him, with trying to handle all the hype and the Heisman stuff.”
West Virginia has fit as smoothly into the Big 12 as Nebraska has the Big Ten and I’m told brings quite a game atmosphere of its own.
The Big 12 has gotten smaller and better, which makes building a competitive football program an even tougher task for Kansas. But as Weis himself said upon taking the job, Kansas State has shown it can be done and it wasn’t so long ago that Kansas showed it too with a 12-1 season and Orange Bowl championship.