TCU’s run, Oklahoma’s struggles mark Big 12’s change


NORMAN, Okla – Change is afoot in the Big 12 – even before Oklahoma and Texas leave for the Southeastern Conference.

Fourth-place TCU has replaced the Sooners as the Big 12 team in the race for a College Football Playoff spot. Oklahoma won the conference and made the playoffs in 2015 and 2017-19. This year, the Horned Frogs (11-0, 8-0 Big 12) secured a spot in the conference title game and are positioned to make the league’s playoff team. TCU will host Iowa State in the regular season finale on Saturday.

No. 15 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) is a surprise contender for the other spot in the championship game after being picked to finish fifth in the league. The Wildcats would make it to the title game if No. 24 Texas loses to Baylor on Friday. If Texas wins, Kansas State would have to beat rival Kansas on Saturday night to qualify.

Meanwhile, frequent contenders Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have been knocked out. The championship game, to be played on December 3, will be the first since the game returned in 2017 without an Oklahoma team. And defending champion Baylor can only play spoiler by knocking Texas (7-4, 5-3) out of the title fight.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes said the changes are a sign of the Big 12’s strength. The Horned Frogs are playing in the title game for the second time.

“Sometimes people dismiss it as, ‘Well, the competition stinks,'” he said. “Well, if the league stank, it seems like it would be the same team that was there every year. I remember a time in the Big 12 where Oklahoma was in the championship game almost every year.

Oklahoma won the title every year from 2017 to 2020 and was in contention to reach the championship game all the way to the regular season finals last season under coach Lincoln Riley. But the Sooners – picked to finish second in the league – are 6-5 under Riley’s replacement, Brent Venables.

Oklahoma has three conference losses by seven or fewer points. Venables said there are no easy games in the league.

“The quality of the coaching, the quality of the game don’t allow that,” he said. “Right now we just don’t have that margin of error on our side of the ball. It was a challenge, that goes without saying. But for me, I like a good challenge. And every week was a good challenge.”

Oklahoma State reached the title game last year and looked poised to bounce back after opening the season with five consecutive wins. But quarterback Spencer Sanders suffered a shoulder injury and the Cowboys’ season began to tumble. Playing behind a broken offensive line, a less-than-healthy Sanders threw four interceptions in a 28-13 loss to Oklahoma last Saturday.

“I mean, I could be very clear and say if we don’t get guys injured, that would help,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. “Yeah, but I mean try to be nice. I just beat up some guys. So unfortunately we lost a few guys.”

Even Texas making it to the title game would be unusual. The Longhorns have reached the championship game only once since the event’s return, and they have not won the league title since 2009.

Whatever happens, the second-place team will have at least two losses, and possibly three. In an example of the Big 12’s depth, Iowa State — TCU’s opponent on Saturday — is in last place in the standings, but leads the conference in scoring defense and total defense and ranks eighth in both categories.

“It says exactly what this league is… that it’s really good from top to bottom and there’s a ton of equality, and it’s really, really hard with the schedule that you have to go through in this league to come through unscathed.” said Dijks.

AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, contributed to this report.

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