OSU is picked to win the Big 12 in 2013. That’s what the experts believe. The Cowboys are a 15-point favorite over Mississippi State in the Aug. 31 season opener in Houston. That’s what the public believes.
Both have good reasons for such confidence. The Cowboys have produced in such a way to elevate their program beyond what we might think without research. Lack of tradition is a hard thing to overcome, but once it’s overcome, sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the perseverance.
Here’s an example. OSU-Mississippi State at first glance, for some, seems like a good matchup. Solid Big 12 program. Solid SEC program.
Except it’s not any shape or form a matchup of equals. Even giving Mississippi State credit for playing in the superior SEC, these programs aren’t anywhere close in production.
OSU is 30-12 in Big 12 games over the last five years. THIRTY AND TWELVE. That’s six games better than Kansas State (24-18). Nine games better than Texas Tech (21-21). Four games better than Texas (26-16).
The Cowboys have had a winning conference record in each of the last five years. Only five other major-conference programs have done that. And it’s a who’s who of college football tradition. Alabama, OU, Southern Cal and Nebraska, plus upstarts OSU and Oregon.
Sure, it’s tough to have a winning conference record in the SEC year after year. But it’s apparently tough elsewhere, too. No ACC school has done it. No Big Ten school has done it, except Nebraska, which has been in the league two seasons (I counted the Huskers’ winning record in their final three Big 12 seasons). No Big East school has done it.
Conference records are a great barometer, because they eliminate the manipulated schedules of college football. Conference schedules eventually even out. Everyone gets the same number of home games. You don’t pick your opponent. You line up and play. Conference play is the nearest thing college football has to the NFL rigors.
So I like to look at conference records, over an extended period. Five years is a good window to examine.
In fact, let’s compare Big 12 and SEC conference records. See who’s similar. Granted, the SEC is the tougher league. But what Bob Stoops meant when over the summer he referred to SEC “hype” is that the SEC isn’t that much better than the Big 12. Heck, we saw that with Texas A&M and Missouri, moving into the SEC. Missouri had been faring fairly well in the Big 12 but laid a major egg in the SEC, going 2-6 last season. But the Aggies had been mediocre in the Big 12 (15-18 from 2008-11) but took the SEC by storm in 2012, going 6-2. And before you chalk it all up to Johnny Football, remember that the Aggies in 2011 went 4-5 with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was a first-round NFL draft pick and last season started for the Miami Dolphins.
So it’s nonsensical to say a 4-4 SEC record is equal to a 6-2 Big 12 record. Over five years, a 20-20 SEC record isn’t better than a 25-15 Big 12. If it’s close, sure, the SEC gets the nod. So let’s compare, over the last five years:
OU 32-10. Closest SEC equivalent: Florida, 29-11. Alabama is 35-5 over the last five years; the Big 12 does not have an Alabama, which might have been Stoops’ point all along. I’d say OU and Florida have been fairly equal the last five years. The Gators beat the Sooners in the memorable 2008 national title game and, like OU, has had some ups and downs since.
OSU 30-12. Closest SEC equivalent: LSU, 28-12. Or Florida. Either one. LSU in the last five years played in the national title game that OSU came within a whisker of reaching. Over those five years, both OSU and LSU have played in one BCS game. Both have one conference championship. OSU is 2-2 in non-rumdum bowl games (sorry, Heart of Dallas doesn’t count); LSU is 2-3 in bowl games. Their success rate has been very similar. Which goes to my point. If LSU and Mississippi State played on a neutral field, the Bayou Bengals would be favored by 15 points or so. LSU has beaten Mississippi State 13 straight years; the last five scores have been (going backwards) 37-17, 19-6, 29-7, 30-26, 34-24.
Texas 26-16. Closest SEC equivalent: South Carolina, 24-16. The success rate of the these programs ends up near the same spot, but while Texas has been up (two fabulous seasons, 2008 and 2009) and down (11-15 in the Big 12 the last three years), the Gamecocks have gradually been improving. If you’re looking for a boom-and-bust similarity, maybe Arkansas, which starting in 2008 has gone 2-6, 3-5, 6-2, 6-2, 2-6 in the SEC.
Kansas State 24-18. Closest SEC equivalent: South Carolina, 24-16. Actually, it’s a very close likeness. The Gamecocks have gone 6-2 in each of the last two SEC races; K-State has gone 7-2 and 8-1 the last two Big 12 races.
Texas Tech 21-21. Closest SEC equivalent: Arkansas, 19-21. Quite alike, really. Tech had a breakout year in 2008, when it was a national title contender. Same with the Razorbacks in 2011, when Arkansas finished fifth in the national polls and went to LSU on Thanksgiving Saturday with a chance to forge the same kind of three-way tie that the Big 12 South endured in 2008.
Baylor 17-25: Closest SEC equivalent: Mississippi State, 15-25, or Auburn, 17-23. Mississippi State is the better likeness, since the Bulldogs appear to be getting better, with two 4-4 records in the last three years. Auburn has cratered, after winning the national title in 2010. The Tigers were 4-4 in 2011 and 0-8 last season. Of course, this makes Mississippi State seem stouter; if OSU played Baylor on a neutral field, it wouldn’t be any kind of a pushover game. Neither should OSU-Miss State.
Iowa State 12-30. Closest SEC equivalent: Vanderbilt, 12-28, I suppose. Ole Miss has gone 13-27. But the difference is consistency. Iowa State has been 3-5 or 3-6 in all four of Paul Rhoads seasons coaching the Cyclones. Vandy’s five conference records starting in 2008 have been 4-4, 0-8, 1-7, 2-6, 5-3. Mississippi’s have been 5-3, 4-4, 1-7, 0-8, 3-5.
Kansas 6-36. Closest SEC equivalent: Uh, Kentucky, 9-31. Pretty obvious, although UK has been better than KU. Kentucky at least won a couple of games most years before last season.
So we mentioned 10 of the 12 pre-expansion SEC schools. The missing?
* Georgia has gone 27-13. The Bulldogs are an example of the SEC’s depth. It has more good teams at the top than does the Big 12, even accounting for the now 14/10 split. Remember, we’ve had that only one year. The SEC has five schools with a winning percentage of at least .600 in conference games the last five years — Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. The Big 12 has two — OU and OSU. If we picked a Big 12 likeness for Georgia, OSU would be the choice.
* Tennessee has gone 12-28. There’s really no equivalent for the Volunteers, though Colorado would have been if the Buffs still were in the Big 12. CU and Tennessee each won a national title in the 1990s, each has fallen on hard times in recent years. Tennessee has much more tradition and a much stronger fan base, but their success rate is about the same. Colorado was 2-6 in each of its last three Big 12 seasons.
Here are the cumulative conference schedules of the Big 12 and SEC over the last five years:
Kansas State 24-18
Texas Tech 21-21
West Virginia 4-5
Texas A&M 15-18
Iowa State 12-30
Texas A&M 6-2
South Carolina 24-16
Mississippi State 15-25
Ole Miss 13-27