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Midweek Musing: The road to Arlington still goes through Norman

To be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Championship-Baylor vs Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma may be just 1-2 in Big 12 play so far this season, but that doesn’t mean that Gary Patterson and the rest of the conference don’t see them as a contender.

Sure, programs like Iowa State and Kansas State, who sit 3-0 in conference play and have already knocked off the Sooners in comeback fashion, and Oklahoma State, who many say has the best talent in the league, look like the favorites to take home the title in December. But to be the champ, you have to beat the champ — and in this case, you might have to do it twice.

You would be naive to think that the Sooners don’t have “it” this season; sure, Lincoln Riley is breaking in a developmental QB for the first time in his tenure as the head of the Sooners, and sure, COVID-19 has led to several high-profile players electing to opt-out of the 2020 campaign and others just not looking quite as locked-in as you might expect in a “normal” year. But that doesn’t mean you can sleep on the Sooners — even with two losses. In fact, TCU wide receiver told reporters Tuesday that he expects the team that wins the conference to have exactly that. “You know, in the Big 12, each week anybody can get beat. So I think the [program] that’s going to win this conference is going to have two losses.”

Gary Patterson certainly respects his Saturday opponent, and relishes to line up against one of the country’s brightest offensive minds once again. The chess match between the wiley old defensive genius and the upstart offensive mastermind has been a good one over the years, with the teams having met four times over the past three seasons and Riley pulling the clean sweep. But last year’s one score victory in Norman reminded fans that GP still has a few tricks up his sleeves, and the Frogs were one fourth down call away from having a chance to pull one of the biggest upsets of the season. “You want to win the conference the last few years, it’s gone through Norman. Want to win the conference title, you’re going to have to beat them,” Patterson said Tuesday. And he knows that to beat them, he’s going to have to be on his toes. “It’s always an interesting ball game. You better come with an open mind so that you can change.”

Change is something that Patterson’s teams have done well through the years, with their second half adjustments being something of a legend. You can go back to the 31-0 deficit of halftime of the Alamo Bowl or even the 2019 matchup between these two teams — when TCU was down 14-0 after one and 21-10 at the half — to see that GP knows how to find a way to get stops. But Riley has clearly had his number, and TCU hasn’t beaten the Sooners since 2014, a year they finished 8-5 and out of the rankings.

And Trevor Knight isn’t walking through that door.

In conversations with friends that attended K State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, there has been one very prevalent theme: if you’re one of those lesser heralded programs that wants to take a leap, you better do it this year.

The Clones, Cats, and Cowboys (say that five times fast) sit alone atop the conference standings, with unblemished 3-0 records in league play. West Virginia is the only other team with a winning mark, at 2-1, four teams have won once, and Texas Tech and Kansas are looking forward to playing each other. Regardless of how strong their starts, none of the league’s top teams are going to earn any respect if they can’t make it to Arlington and upend the five year championship streak of the Sooners, the only team to win the conference since that ill-fated 2014 season. In fact, Oklahoma’s 13 titles dwarf its competition: Texas is in second place with just three since the league formed back in 1996, and only Kansas State (and they shared that one with the Sooners) and Baylor have more than one among active members.

That’s something that has to change, and that’s why coaches not wearing Crimson & Cream or Burnt Orange complain annually that the conference is only taken seriously when Oklahoma and Texas are good.

“It really bothers me that we base whether our league is good or bad or not, on whether Oklahoma and Texas are good,” Patterson told reporters earlier this month. “To be honest with you, we have a lot of good football teams and we always have had a lot of good football teams. Going forward, we just need to keep improving our league from top to bottom and keep doing the things that we need to do.”

Since the Big 12 added an actual conference title game to their round-robin format in 2016, OU has been the constant, facing TCU, Texas, and Baylor — and vanquishing them all on their way to the College Football Playoff. Baylor and TCU, as we well know, shared the crown in 2014, and the Bears won it outright in 2013. But few teams have truly challenged Oklahoma, and that’s something that needs to change.

TCU dropping the Sooners to 1-3 in conference play wouldn’t help things nationally, but it would give a hand to some of their conference brethren. And it would be a lot of fun.