With the small slate of non-conference games that the nine game Big 12 conference schedule allows, each foray outside of the conference becomes hugely important. The total among the 10 teams is 30 games, with over a third of those (11 to be exact) occupied by sacrificial lambs from the FCS. As such the opportunities for league members to make a statement outside the conference are few and far between. Here’s a look at the top 8 games that Big 12 members will play out of conference, all of them played by the 3rd week in September.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment and throw a ton of credit Bill Connelly’s way for his outstanding series of team previews. I’m not too proud to say I leaned on them heavily. Those things are jamb packed with a ton of great information, not to mention amazingly useful charts that provide numbers on 2012 production and returners in a format you can take in at a glance. I've linked each team to their respective preview in the section heading - you should give them a look)
#8: Iowa @ Iowa State
As the only one of these with a trophy on the line, I felt obligated to include this one. I’ll confess to not knowing a ton about either team and frankly found the trophy portion of my research the most interesting thing about this game. Let's talk about that.
Turns out that for over 30 years the teams played for a perfectly serviceable rivalry trophy that everyone agreed was just fine. It had the team logos and plates indicating who had won games and by what score. College football being college football however, The Powers That Be decided they were smarter than tradition and the old trophy was retired in favor of a new version that, in a shock to no one, was designed to allow some corporate entity (in this case the Iowa Corn Growers Association) to avail itself of the nostalgic cloak that college football offers. In another shocking development, their design sucked and was universally panned by everyone including an opportunistic governor who knew low-hanging public opinion fruit when he saw it. A week later that trophy was retired and a temporary one used for the 2011 game.
Last year a new design was unveiled at the end of the game and fans in the Hawkeye state will once again cheer their teams on as they play for a perfectly serviceable trophy with footballs and logos and nameplate until The Powers That Be feel the need to remind us how smart they are in 30 years and (foul) everything up again.
(As far as the game Iowa St. won the last 2 and will probably win this one because they can be pretty tough in Ames and Iowa is terrible and the only notable thing that could draw my attention to this game would be if the Iowa State Police showed up at halftime and arrested Hawkeye coach Kirk Firenze for larceny.)
#7: West Virginia @ Maryland (in Baltimore)
This game as much as any other could decide the direction in which the Mountaineer's rebuilding effort will go. The hope among Mountaineer fans by this game will be that Dana Holgorsen will have settled on a starting quarterback, but the reality is that it could be this game that helps him make that determination. To this date he'll have had a case study in contrasts - a pair of games against FCS opponents and one road game against a powerhouse - to make his judgment on, and it won't be until they face the Terps that WVU will see an opponent with a similar level of talent to provide an even proving ground.
It could very well be on this day that the path of the next two years of Mountaineer football will be set.
Maryland fans look at WVU's perceived "quarterback troubles" and laugh. They're coming off a season where things degraded to a point that they started a freshman linebacker at QB for the 9th game of the season. That spate of injuries combined with a dozen transfers in the wake of Randy Edsall's taking the reins made the Terps one of the youngest teams in the country. They return all sorts of players with experience and production from 2012 and the hope is that with an actual healthy quarterback they'll be able to put up some production.
Mountaineer fans remember supposed third-string quarterback Perry Hills shredding their D for 305 yards on 20 for 29 passing and a trio of TDs, 2 of them to Stefon Diggs. Diggs was Maryland's most productive receiver in his freshman year and returns hoping to replicate his success against WVU from a year ago. He'll get help on the other side from Deon Long (WVU fans might remember that name) and the corps will give a useful measuring stick for how far this WVU secondary has really come after the nightmarish 2012.
All in all it's a game that won't merit a great deal of national attention but will be hugely important for the respective programs. This is the closest thing to a rivalry game left on the WVU schedule and as the teams square off for their 50th all-time meeting, the Mountaineers will be looking to extend their current 7 game winning streak against UM - the longest streak for either team in the series so far.
A win for either team will be something to build on, a loss will be crippling and could touch off a multi-game slide.
#6: Baylor vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Everybody learned about the Warhawks last year when they gave a trio of BCS conference opponents (Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor) all they could handle. Sure the first two of those sucked out loud, but remember that LMU rode a record home crowd to a 4th quarter lead over Baylor before the Bears scored a go-ahead touchdown with only 7 minutes left.
LMU returns nearly all the big pieces from their high-powered attack of 2012 including reigning Sunbelt player of the year Kolton Browning and 3 of his top 4 wideout targets. On the other side Baylor will be replacing over 4,200 passing yards in QB Nick Florence and Biletnikoff finalist Terrance Williams. But given that coach Art Briles came into last season needing to replace a Heisman winner under center and still has plenty of toys at his disposal, there’s no reason to think the Bears will be taking any steps back. The most formidable of those weapons would seem to be Lache Seastruck, who finished last season on a tear, posting rushing totals of 185 (Kansas State), 136 (Texas Tech), 178 (Oklahoma St.), and 138 (UCLA) in his last 4 games.
On the heels of Wofford and Buffalo, this will be the first thing resembling a real test for the Bears and the Warhawks have no reason to fear a team they took straight up last year. Baylor has made huge strides in the past 4 years and a surprise loss in this one could put them on the wrong track headed in to conference play – not to mention the damage it could do to the strength of schedule of any potential Big 12 title threat.
It’s not often that you get to test yourself against the gold standard of greatness, and it is with appropriate humility and no small measure of fear that the ‘Pokes will face the Cowbell Clangers from Mississippi State. When you stare across the field at a team from the ESS EEE SEEE you do so at your own peril.
Why are you looking at me funny?
What’s that you say?
Mississippi State limped down the stretch dropping 5 of their last 6 and lost their bowl game by 2 TDs to a BIG TEN TEAM? I thought every SEC team won 9 games, throttled someone in a bowl and spent the offseason scrimmaging the Falcons and Cowboys? This team looks pretty damn mortal.
Hoping to extend that swoon from last year will be an Oklahoma State team that scored at least 30 points in every game they played last season but one (a 20-14 win over Kansas). That included a quintuplet of losses where they averaged 37.2 ppg. Can Mike Gundy plug in his 4th different offensive coordinator in 5 years without missing a beat? We’ll find out pretty quickly when these two square off on the opening weekend.
State sports an offensive unit that has a lot to prove and, should they fall behind early to a OSU squad that can score in bunches, could be a long day. Senior Tyler Russell was solid if not spectacular last year and State O seems to be the polar opposite of their Cowboy foes – they score enough points to win some games and gain enough yards to drive it down the field, but they lack any explosive element.
On the defensive side they possess the type of typical talent you’d expect from an SEC squad, but it’s always fun to see the time-worn debate about SEC defenses rejoined on the field. Are they all that GOOD or are the offenses they see in conference just that damn un-inventive? Well they don’t make ‘em much spreadier than Okie State, so one way or another we’ll get a clear answer on that question – at least for a day.
Speaking of that ‘Poke potency, the pieces are there to keep on trucking. Two-thirds of last year’s quarterbacking trio is back (Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh will be sans transfer Wes Lunt) and with both returners having posted spookily identical numbers (Chelf – 119/197 for 1,588, 15 TD and 6 int, Walsh – 109/163 for 1,564, 13 TD and 3 int). More pieces return to the offense as well. Joseph Randle took over 1,400 yards with him at tailback but Josh Stewart brings back 1,214 at wide receiver, blah , blah, blah, blah Oklahoma State will score 40 a game no matter what. Conversely the defense will give up at least 30 unless it is incredibly opportunistic and lucky like in 2011.
The long and short of it is this is a game Oklahoma State should win and more importantly this is a game they COULD win convincingly. If they can hit State hard with a couple big plays early there’s no reason to believe the Maroon and White have the bullets in their gun to fire back. And Gundy won’t let up. He knows hanging fitty on a team from the ESS EEE SEE on opening weekend will turn a lot of heads – not just for his team but for his entire conference.
Check back with us tomorrow for the top four non-conference Big 12 games of 2013.