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Bad Longhorns and the Big 12: A case study

Texas has been uncharacteristically mediocre since 2009. Does this affect the legitimacy of the Big 12?

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian
Texas hasn’t been the same against the Big 12 in recent years.
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get a few facts out of the way first.

  • The University of Texas is, without a doubt, the richest program in college football.
  • Texas is one of college football’s most storied programs, a bona fide powerhouse that has produced some of the game’s greatest players (see: Williams, Ricky, and Young, Vince).
  • If Texas were to take its stockpile of money and legion of fans and leave the Big 12, the conference would collapse on itself immediately.

Those are facts. Here’s another one — just because Texas has had a run of bad seasons since 2009 does not mean Big 12 results since then are less meaningful.

The argument that a down-on-its-luck Texas has somehow invalidated or delegitimized Big 12 results pops up every now and then. A fellow SB Nation contributor brought it back up on Friday.

This argument consumed TCU Twitter for a few hours on Friday, proof that we all desperately need football season to start back up again so we can start arguing about meaningful things.

Ian’s written plenty of positive things about TCU and does good statistical work at Football Outsiders. He’s earned the right to make Big 12 arguments.

But let’s take this particular argument at face value and examine the details. We’ll start at 2010, the year after the Longhorns made the BCS title game and lost to Alabama, and see what Texas did that season and what the Big 12 looked like in the overall college football picture. Then we’ll ask ourselves — were there multiple seasons in which a bad Texas team dragged down the rest of the Big 12 to the point where a conference champion was unfairly evaluated on a national scale?

2010: Texas goes 5-7, 12-2 Oklahoma wins Big 12

Yikes! The Longhorns had a dreadfully middling year after starting the season ranked No. 5 in the country. Garrett Gilbert took over for Colt McCoy and threw 10 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. Cody Johnson led Texas in rushing with 592 yards. The Longhorns stunned No. 5 Nebraska on the road, but only won one other Big 12 game (at Texas Tech) and endured a four-game losing streak.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma won a three-way tiebreaker for the Big 12 South crown and beat Nebraska in the Big 12 title game. The Sooners would go on to beat No. 20 UConn (??) in the Fiesta Bowl. Five Big 12 teams finished the season ranked in the Top 25.

2011: Texas goes 8-5, 12-1 Oklahoma State wins Big 12

The three-headed quarterback monster of David Ash, Case McCoy and Garret Gilbert piloted the Longhorns to an 8-5 record and a win over Cal in the Holiday Bowl. Texas won its first four games and got all the way up to No. 11 in the country before getting waxed 55-17 by Oklahoma, and proceeded to split its next eight games. The Longhorns were better than 2010, but certainly weren’t back to their glory days.

Oklahoma State was one of the best teams in the country, but inexplicably lost to Iowa State in a little bit of Ames Magic and finished the regular season at 11-1. They were snubbed for the BCS title game — unfairly, it could be argued — and finished the season ranked No. 3 in the polls. Eight Big 12 teams were ranked at some point or another, and four finished the season in the Top 25.

It’s hard to argue that a 10-win Texas would’ve been the difference between the Cowboys making the BCS title game or playing in the Fiesta Bowl. And the rest of the conference did just fine — six teams won their bowls.

2012: Texas goes 9-4, 11-2 Kansas State and Oklahoma split Big 12 title

David Ash put together a forgettably good season at quarterback for Texas, throwing for 19 touchdowns against 8 interceptions, compiling 2,699 yards and completing 67.3 percent of his passes. The Longhorns outscored opponents by an average of a little over 6 points per game, and beat Oregon State 31-27 in the Alamo Bowl. Drink it in, Texas fans — this is the best team the Longhorns have had since 2009.

Meanwhile, in that weird year where Collin Klein finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, Kansas State won its first 10 games before getting its doors blown off against Baylor. The Wildcats split the Big 12 title with Oklahoma, but Kansas State beat the Sooners 24-19 early in the season and was ranked higher, so the Wildcats got the Big 12’s bid to the Fiesta Bowl, where they got trounced by Oregon. Oklahoma went to the Cotton Bowl and lost to Texas A&M, which was in its first season after leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Some kid named Johnny Manziel torched the Sooners in that game.

All in all, the Big 12 put nine out of its 10 teams in a bowl game in 2012. (If you guessed Kansas as the odd one out...well, yeah.) The conference didn’t have a one-loss team, which pretty much eliminated it from national championship discussion, but it was a strong conference top to bottom, featuring the best Texas team in years.

2013: Texas goes 8-5, 11-2 Baylor wins Big 12 title

Case McCoy couldn’t channel any magic for the Longhorns this season, with an 11-13 TD-INT ratio. Texas beat No. 12 Oklahoma 36-20, but got ran over by BYU 40-21 and lost to Ole Miss 44-23 at home in non-conference play. The Longhorns went back to the Alamo Bowl, where they lost soundly to Oregon.

Down in Waco, Bryce Petty was putting together an incredible season under Art Briles as the Baylor Bears started the year 9-0 and finished the regular season 11-1. Baylor reached as high as No. 3 in the polls before losing badly to Oklahoma State. Six Big 12 teams made a bowl, and three finished the year ranked.

Florida State was undefeated, and Auburn was in the midst of its Kick-Six season in which everything was going right for the Tigers, so those two teams were clearly the best in the nation. Even if Texas had won 10 games and given Baylor another quality opponent on the schedule, it’s unlikely the Big 12 would’ve factored into the national title scenario.

2014: Texas goes 6-7, TCU (12-1) and Baylor (11-2) split Big 12 title

Texas had an abysmal offense this season, scoring just 21.4 points per game, the 109th most in the nation. The Longhorns lost to BYU by an even greater margin (41-7) than the year before and also dropped a game to UCLA in non-conference play. TCU drubbed them 48-10 at Darrell K. Royal Stadium on Thanksgiving, and the Longhorns went on to lose 31-7 to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

As far as the overall Big 12 goes, TCU fans are all too familiar with this story. The Horned Frogs and Bears split the conference title and both narrowly missed out on the inaugural College Football Playoff. It’d be wrong to say a down-on-its-luck Texas was the reason — if Oklahoma had been in either TCU or Baylor’s spot, there’s a good chance the Sooners could’ve snuck into the Playoff (if you believe the conspiracy theories). But two small Big 12 private schools with identical resumes weren’t getting in over eventual champion Ohio State.

2015: Texas goes 5-7, 11-2 Oklahoma wins Big 12 title

The Longhorns missed a bowl, got shut out 24-0 by Iowa State and lost 50-7 to TCU. They also beat No. 10 Oklahoma 24-17 and No. 12 Baylor 23-17. It was a weird year.

The Sooners still managed to win the Big 12 title, the first of three in a row (and counting) for Oklahoma. That year, Oklahoma became the conference’s first College Football Playoff entry, and promptly lost 37-17 to Clemson.

So — Oklahoma managed to make the CFP, even though the Sooners lost to a Texas team that couldn’t even earn bowl eligibility. Doesn’t seem like a bad Longhorns squad affected the rest of the conference, does it? Four Big 12 teams finished ranked in the Top 25, and seven made a bowl game.

2016: Texas goes 5-7, 11-2 Oklahoma wins Big 12 title

Texas lost to Kansas and fired Charlie Strong, but still beat No. 8 Baylor. That’s all you need to know.

Oklahoma lost to Houston and Ohio State in non-conference play, but finished the season on a 10-game win streak and beat Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Again: a two-loss Big 12 team will never make the College Football Playoff. This had nothing to do with Texas being bad and losing to Kansas, which, as a reminder, Texas lost to Kansas that year. (And still beat Baylor! What a world.)

Six Big 12 teams made bowls, and three finished the season ranked. There was a general malaise about the conference that season — Oklahoma ran the Big 12 table, but it’d be hard to classify any 2016 Big 12 team as elite.

2017: Texas goes 7-6, 12-2 Oklahoma wins Big 12 title

The Longhorns were fine last season. They beat every team they were supposed to beat (with the exception of Maryland) and lost to every team they were supposed to lose to (with the exception of West Virginia). Texas was never a factor, but its defense was stingy enough to cause some teams problems.

Oklahoma had a Heisman Trophy winner and made the College Football Playoff. The Big 12 had three teams ranked at the end of the year, but all three were inside the Top 15. The conference was strong.


I get where Ian is coming from, which is why I’m taking his argument seriously and evaluating it instead of mocking it. But it’s hard to look back at any season since 2009 and see how a bad Texas team kept a good Big 12 team from a chance at a national title. If the argument is that the Longhorns being bad gives the conference one less team with a chance at the CFP, well, yeah — but the Big 12 also has Kansas, which means the conference essentially already starts with only nine chances at the CFP.

Ian specifically says the post-2009 Big 12 champions would have had “a lot more benefit of the doubt” if they were beating good Texas teams. But as we’ve seen above, many of those teams had two losses, which is a death sentence for national title chances. In other years, there were clearly better teams or mitigating circumstances that prevented a Big 12 team from having a national title shot. If you want to say that 2011 Oklahoma State didn’t earn a title game bid because Texas was bad, go ahead. I don’t agree, but that’s just one season.

Texas being bad probably isn’t good for the Big 12. But saying it delegitimizes conference champions just ain’t true. And, sadly for the Longhorns, there’s plenty of years of evidence to support that.