Conference Championship Odds: The Big XII

Last year was the first time since its 1996 inception that the Big 12 conference didn’t play a conference championship game. It was also first time since 2003 that a team not named Oklahoma or Texas wore the conference’s championship crown. Mike “I’m a Man, I’m 40” Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys sprinted to the title in 2011. The Red River Rivalry is slated to determine the conference’s BCS bid in 2012, but don’t tell that to a pair of newcomers that could very well represent the Big 12 at the Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia enters the league after a roller-coaster ride in the Big East while TCU slides in after it became tired of dominating the Mountain West Conference. Both teams are good enough to win the conference every year, making the league’s Top 5 as strong as any other league’s Top 5.
In the 15-year Big 12 Championship Game era, either the Sooners or Longhorns played in 13 of the 15 title bouts, winning 10 (7 for Oklahoma, 3 for Texas). That’s why before looking at sleepers and major long shots, the smartest play is to always scan the Oklahoma and Texas rosters and schedules; one of those teams is the most likely to be playing on a BCS stage in January. Here are the odds to secure the automatic BCS bid from the Big 12 this season:
***The oddsmakers are pretty clear about their expectations in the Big 12: The path to a title runs through  Norman, Oklahoma. Only USC (-130) in the Pac 12 is more of a favorite to win its BCS conference than the Sooners. There’s also no bigger gap between the favorite and second favorite than in the Big 12 – there is a +295 difference between Oklahoma and Texas. (Only the USC-Oregon difference [+280] comes close but most are between +20 and +150). What that should tell you is it is pertinent to be extremely confident Oklahoma will trip up in the conference before looking elsewhere. The early portion of Oklahoma’s schedule should be a breeze; at UTEP, Florida A&M are two easy openers and Kansas State, as you’ll read below, is highly overrated and should be another rest-your-starters-late victory. That same should be said about the early-October trip to Texas Tech, but remember it was those Red Raiders who whipped Oklahoma in Normal last season. But, for the sake of coupling Oklahoma’s expectations and the odds, let’s assume the Sooners run wild and start 4-0. Here is where things change: Four of Oklahoma’s final eight games are doozies: Texas (in Dallas), at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, at TCU. In fact, those final three are a much tougher-than-it-looks gauntlet to close the season. The Notre Dame game on Oct. 27 will only hurt or help Oklahoma’s national title outlook therefore we won’t spend any time dissecting the potential ups and downs of that game in regards to OU and the Big 12. The above-noted four-game quartet will determine if Oklahoma is the Big 12 Champion and possibly secures a spot in the BCS National Championship Game or if the Sooners chalk up another disappointing season under Bob Stoops. Put simply, anything less than a 3-1 record against Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU will derail any championship aspirations. It isn’t inconceivable that Oklahoma could lose two (or more) of those games. It also isn’t unimaginable that Oklahoma could run through the regular season 12-0 and, due to the absence of a Big 12 title game, find itself playing for the national title. One thing is clear: The two weeks from November  17 to December  1 will be the judge and jury. Landry Jones’ return is the main reason Oklahoma is thought so highly entering 2012, but it also helps that OU returns 8 of 11 starters from an offense that was one of the nation’s best in 2011. Regardless of wins and losses you’ll likely be hearing and seeing highlights of the Jones-to-Kenny Stills connection all season. At +105 you have to be prohibitively sure that the conference’s prohibitive favorite will do what it’s supposed to do: Finish no worse than 11-1. It’s a gamble willing to take with fairly unassuming payday.
***The Longhorns are another team to love but, unlike it did with Oklahoma, the schedule makers are attempting to dictate Texas’ future by October 13. That week closes the following 3-game stretch: at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma in Dallas. If Texas somehow survives the “Stretch of Death” the Longhorns should coast to the Big 12 crown. Since the 2009 conference title (and national runner-up finish) Texas has been terrible by Texas standards. After a miserable 5-7 year in 2010 the Longhorns followed that up with an 8-5 campaign capped off with a Holiday Bowl win. Needless to say, the defense never seemed to be the problem last season, that is, if you ignore the Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor games. Take away the combined 141 points surrendered in those games (47 points per game) and Texas allowed just 148 points in its other 10 contests (14.8 ppg). The defense was solid and is expected to be the same this season. With nine returning starters on offense it appears likely we won’t be seeing 5-point rotten egg performances such as the one Texas laid at Missouri last year in a 17-5 defeat. Naturally, it all starts with the QB position and if David Ash can make plays this team will look more like the Vince Young teams than the Garrett Gilbert squads. Like its rival, Oklahoma, Texas needs to finish an at-worst 3-1 in the four-game bracket of Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and TCU. (If the loss is to the Sooners it would obviously mean OU would have to finish 2-2 in the same stretch). It’s definitely doable and given how Texas looks to be a major national surprise this fall a small wager at +400 is a safe and smart play.
***Newcomer No. 1, West Virginia, is a great play at +500 for a few reasons: First, if you believe the bowl game acts more like an opener to the following season rather than the conclusion of the previous year then no team should have a better outlook than the Mountaineers. West Virginia dismantled, dismembered, and absolutely pilleraged ACC Champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 70-33. And that was taking the foot off the throat by scoring just one touchdown in the final 24 minutes! If the NCAA wasn’t pushing its sportsmanship campaign so much we just might have seen Georgia Tech-Cumberland 2! The win capped off what was the most under-the-radar 10-3 season in recent memory. After a nationally-televised home loss to LSU, the Mountaineers could never crack the spotlight again because of a 26-point loss at Syracuse (despite being 14-point favorites) and a narrow defeat at home to Louisville (despite being 12-point favorites). With an offseason to instill more of his offense, Dana Holgorsen will have the Mountaineers scorching scoreboards across the country. Geno Smith is a sleeper Heisman candidate and the receiving corps is led by Tavon Austin, a kid who might be one of the most overlooked WRs in the country. The issue in Morgantown will be the defense; Holgorsen’s team will score with the best of ‘em, but can his squad really win every game in 50-40 shootout fashion? The Mountaineers draw both fellow newcomer TCU and Oklahoma at home but that means road games vs. Texas and Oklahoma State. Whichever team wins the Big 12 will be battle tested and the Mountaineers have as good of a shot as any; that makes +500 more than intriguing.
***My thoughts on TCU, newcomer No. 2, will be short and sweet: I love Gary Patterson’s team. I love how it plays as a unit. I love the toughness. I love the way winning has become an expectation while losing always seems like a shock. The problem with TCU this season is it plays three of the four other big boys (Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas) on the road. It finishes the season with Oklahoma at home, the very week after visiting the Longhorns in Austin. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a sleeper Big 12 champion in 2013 or 2014 the Horned Frogs will be in the mix, but there are a few too many obstacles in the way this season and +525 isn’t worth it. This team might finish the regular season 9-3 and it could very well be a Top 10 team that’s ranked closer to the 20s.
***The worst odds in the Big 12 – and possibly the country –  go to… Kansas State. Bill Snyder has a way of working his magic but last year’s 10-3 campaign was a major overachievement. What’s amazing is the Wildcats were favorites in just four – four! – games last year and still posted double-digit wins. It took down years from Miami and Texas as well as an early Baylor stumble for the Wildcats to get off to the red-hot 7-0 start. I like Collin Klein’s decision-making at QB and his experience means the Wildcats won’t be terrible. But this has the look of an 8-4 team with all losses in conference play. This is just a terrible play at +1050, however you spin it.
***One of my favorite plays nationally is Oklahoma State at +2100. Losing Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon looks like death blow on the surface but the Cowboys are still loaded with athleticism and the defense is expected to be one of the top units in the conference. Here’s why the Pokes could return to the Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State gets Texas, TCU and West Virginia at home. Stillwater has become a very difficult place to play, especially when TV execs turn the day games into night games. We should know early on whether the Cowboys can survive with freshman Wes Lunt at QB; the conference opener is against Texas on September 29. Lose that game, which is sandwiched between two bye weeks, and the Cowboys will probably settle for a third- or fourth-place Big 12 finish. A win there and it’s off to the races. At 21/1 the Pokes are definitely worth a play (or two, or three).
***If you have an extra Ben Franklin lying around and you don’t care what you do with it, put it on Kansas at +14000. The Jayhawks are major long shots but I believe the 2007 team that finished 12-1 wasn’t exactly expected to light up the world. Charlie Weis surprised his first year at Notre Dame and, now that he picked up Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist, a player who played under him for two years in South Bend, there is some optimism in Lawrence. Your expectations should be extremely low, as in this team is closer to winning four games than it is winning the Big 12. Nevertheless, despite being favored just once each of the past two seasons you never know what could happen. Home games against TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas make it feasible to think the Jayhawks have it in them to make a BCS splash in 2012. Again, it’s not likely and you should make this play expecting to donate your money. Still, 140/1 odds have never felt so good.
Bottom line: The Big 12 seems to be a four-team race unless TCU proves to be better than I thought. Oklahoma and Texas are the best plays and, given recent history, are most likely to win the conference. Nevertheless, given the odds and recent history, Oklahoma State might be the best team in the conference again. I really, really like West Virginia but I’m cautioned by the hype Nebraska received joining the Big Ten in 2011 before staggering to a 9-3 finish. That is exactly what could happen with the Mountaineers… or West Virginia could finish 11-1 or, gasp!, 12-0. All four of the teams are good plays and, had I made the odds, would have probably done it this way: Oklahoma (+200), Texas (+225), West Virginia (+275), Oklahoma State (+300). That shows there is no clear favorite but a handful of worthy selections.