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Analysis: As conference play begins, can anyone catch Texas and Oklahoma?

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Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (3) celebrates the team’s win over Alabama.

Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (3) celebrates the team’s win over Alabama.

Vasha Hunt, Associated Press

Buckle up folks. The Beehive State is officially Big 12 country, and things will only get crazier from here. 

Four new schools are in. Texas and Oklahoma on their way out. Utah, Arizona and Arizona State are coming soon. Coach Prime’s Colorado squad can’t arrive soon enough. 

Is the Big 12 positioned to become America’s most chaotic conference? Anything less would be rather disappointing. 

Week one of conference play is upon us. Here’s a preview:


Texas and Oklahoma are enjoying their last rodeo in the Big 12.

The league’s two top brands — practically invisible in the championship race over the past two seasons — are primed to end their conference tenure with a bang, currently standing as the Big 12’s lone ranked squads in the AP poll. 

Dillon Gabriel and the Sooners are dropping more than 55 points a game, while Quinn Ewers and the Longhorns have already secured the season’s most impressive victory in 34-24 fashion at Alabama. 

If I hear “Texas is back” one more time, so help me ...

Will this year’s Big 12 title game be a Red River rematch before Texas and Oklahoma ride into the SEC sunset? Maybe so. Both teams appear invincible thus far. 

In other words, this conference needs a hero. The villains have become too powerful.

That being said, should either the Longhorns and Sooners capture the conference crown this year, the ensuing trophy presentation with Brett Yormark will be full of meme potential. 

Misery business

Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Cincinnati all competed against each other this past Saturday. No, none of those schools actually matched up on the field, but the quartet engaged in a contest to see who could suffer the most humiliating nonconference loss. 

Spoiler alert: It was a four-way tie for first.

Just a week after Texas took down Alabama in Tuscaloosa, the Big 12’s next trip into SEC territory saw Kansas State collapse late at Missouri to lose on a 61-yard field goal, knocking the 15th-ranked Wildcats completely out of this week’s poll and exposing their weak pass defense for the rest of the quarterback-stacked conference to drool over. 

Seriously, if you offer little to no resistance against an opposing air raid, you have no shot in this league. Such is the case for Kansas State, as the defending Big 12 champs will face the likes of Quinn Ewers, Chandler Morris and Jalon Daniels later this fall. These Wildcats aren’t contenders, they’re pretenders.

Iowa State managed a single score in a 10-7 snoozer at Ohio, posting just 271 total yards while failing to break 2 yards per carry. I don’t care how good the “MACtion” may be; you can’t lose that game if you’re the Cyclones. You just can’t.

Speaking of things you shouldn’t do, someone should let Matt Campbell know that attempting to confront heckling fans is never a good idea. Had he not been held back by security, Campbell likely could have put up a better fight than his team did. Can you say “hot seat?”

I must have missed the memo where South Alabama was declared a juggernaut, because Oklahoma State sure made the Jaguars look like one in a 33-7 blowout. The Cowboys’ confusing three-quarterback plan yielded 114 passing yards — less than half the number of rushing yards South Alabama earned on the afternoon. 

Mike Gundy, I know you’re better than this. 

As for Cincinnati, there’s really no shame in falling 31-24 to Miami. Unfortunately for the Bearcats, this Miami was that of Ohio, not “the U.” There’s the shame. 

Cincinnati may have rallied late to delay its defeat past regulation, but the Redhawks of the MAC delivered an overtime dagger to snap their 16-game series losing streak. This Power 5 promotion could get ugly for Cincinnati. Luke Fickell’s absence is looming large. 

The Big 12’s parity has been its strength over the past few years. Anything can happen in conference play, but these early season flops just seem to be paving a more convenient road to the top for Texas and Oklahoma, with eligible challengers dropping like flies. 

But hey, maybe the MAC is just better than we thought. 

Jayhawks vs. Jay Hill

The most interesting Big 12 matchup this week? Look no further than Lawrence, Kan., where the Jayhawks will meet a fellow undefeated underdog in BYU for the Cougars’ league debut.

This is not your grandfather’s Kansas team. No longer will winning a conference game merit storming the field and tearing down goal posts. Quarterback Jalon Daniels — the Big 12 preseason Offensive Player of the Year — is a superstar. Dynamic running back Devin Neal has already racked up 434 scrimmage yards. It’s an offense that can score — and win — in so many different ways.

It’s also an offense that Jay Hill was hired to defeat. 

Hill may very well be the most popular man in Provo right now. The first-year coordinator has transformed BYU’s defense from woeful to wonderful, forcing seven turnovers in three games while holding opponents to a 28% third-down success rate. The Cougars are no longer dropping eight, they’re dropping quarterbacks — four sacks and six tackles for loss this past week proved instrumental in stunning Arkansas on the road. 

From a pure football standpoint, this matchup is a dream. 

Kansas’ offense is good enough to hang with the best of the conference. The early returns on BYU’s defense have seemed to raise the Cougars’ season ceiling. On paper, both teams should be capable dark horse contenders within the Big 12. Saturday will determine which squad actually sticks in the mix. 

Knight riders

Not enough people are talking about UCF this season. We need to change that.

They may be flying under the radar, but this Knights team has the potential to be something special. What’s happening right now in Orlando can’t be ignored.

No one in the country is moving the ball better than UCF’s 617.7 yards per game mark. The Knights are averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a team. They’ve already scored an impressive road win over Boise State on the “Smurf turf” — quite the feat no matter how much the Broncos are struggling — and have a solid defense that can hang with anyone in the conference.

While starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee is sidelined for the near future with a leg injury, backup Timmy McClain is playing so well that he may just take over the offense for good. When you’re putting up more than 300 team passing and rushing yards per game, you probably don’t want to mess with that.

UCF’s remaining schedule is decently favorable, as only road tilts with Kansas and Oklahoma appear overwhelming. Are the Knights positioned for legitimate conference contention? They sure make a compelling case.

If nothing else, UCF storming to the Big 12 title game to face either Texas or Oklahoma would wax poetic. A showdown between the league’s old guard against the new kids on the block would be a perfect and fitting end to the current era of college football before realignment ruins it.

Embrace chaos

Once upon a time, Texas Tech was an attractive sleeper pick to contend for this year’s Big 12 crown. Then, the Red Raiders lost to Wyoming and Oregon, and everyone decided the 1-2 start was enough reason to jump off the hype train.

Conversely, West Virginia was projected to be the conference’s doormat this season, only to sit at 2-1 now after last week’s messy Backyard Brawl win over Pitt. The Mountaineers run the ball well and may have the Big 12’s most valuable back in CJ Donaldson. 

There’s a lot on the line when the two squads meet Saturday in Morgantown. A West Virginia win could propel the Mountaineers forward to bowl eligibility and beyond— a near miracle given this year’s expectations. For the Red Raiders, winning could put themselves back in the thick of the Big 12 hunt, whereas a loss would sweep them into obscurity. 

Saturday’s best Big 12 matchup will be BYU at Kansas, but perhaps the most important is Texas Tech at West Virginia. The ways in which a win or loss would send each team following Saturday will shape how the rest of 2023 plays out for the entire conference. 

The bottom line? A West Virginia win would complicate all of the Big 12. Embrace the chaos. I say Mountaineers by seven. 

Jackson Payne is the sports editor for BYU’s Daily Universe and a Deseret News contributor. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.