It’s put up or shut up time for the Big 12 Conference.
In arguably the biggest weekend of single-game matchups for the league since it contracted to 10 teams in 2011, the Big 12 probably needs to have a handful of exceptional performances on Saturday just to break even.
National respect is on the line, though probably not much more than that. The future of the league probably won’t be determined by a random Saturday in mid-September.
But an historically bad outing — 1-7, say, or 0-8 — would further cast the Big 12 as a featherweight pretender trying to compete with heavyweight leagues like the SEC, the ACC and the Big Ten.
Of course, as weak as the Big 12 may appear overall with a soft performance this weekend, it does have big brother Oklahoma looking out for it. The rest of the conference may find its reputation on the line this week — and may be unable to adequately defend that reputation — but the Sooners can still rumble with the biggest and toughest kids on the college football block.
Unfortunately, OU doesn’t even have a conference game to fortify the league’s standing this week. Instead, the Sooners start league play at Iowa State.
Interconference home games in Stillwater, Austin, Lubbock, Waco and Lawrence and a nearby neutral-site game in Arlington are the ideal showcases for the Big 12 to prove it belongs. Imagine the national rhetoric if the Big 12 sweeps its eight-game slate, or comes out 7-1 or even 6-2.
The reality, however, is that each one of those games also is a potential pitfall. The home team could lose any or all of them. Now imagine that narrative come Monday morning.
Even a home game in Manhattan, where Kansas State is a three-touchdown favorite over UTSA, could be cause for the concern based on how the Wildcats performed in their first two games.
And who knows how history would have recorded the outcome of the Big 12’s game-that-never-was? West Virginia is riding high and was eager to prove something at North Carolina State, but Hurricane Florence cancelled that game and now we’ll never know. Was it an opportunity lost? Or a bullet dodged?
Here’s a quick look at each of this week’s games:
No. 17 Boise State (2-0) at No. 24 Oklahoma State (2-0)
Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: OSU by 2 ½
Breakdown: Both teams have played a manageable schedule so far, though Boise’s trip to Troy is way more difficult than anything OSU has done, and the Broncos handled the Trojans 56-20. While Taylor Cornelius has tried to grow into the job of running the nation’s No. 1 offense (all of last year and so far this year), Mike Gundy has given Justice Hill just 19 carries. Hill’s excellence will be needed against Boise State, but the O-State offensive line hasn’t been good so far. Except for two long runs, the Cowboy offense is averaging only 4.4 yards per carry against two bad teams. Boise brought back 10 starters from last year’s defense that ranked 22nd nationally, so this will be the Cowboys’ toughest challenge until their killer November finishing stretch of OU-WVU-TCU. Boise State QB Brett Rypien — major college football’s most experience and one of the FBS’s most accomplished quarterbacks — is the x-factor. Since 2000, Boise State leads the nation in scoring (39.48) and wins (199), and Rypien fits the mold. In two games, the Broncos have produced three 100-yard receivers. Is OSU’s defense up for that kind of test?
Prediction: Boise State 43, Oklahoma State 42
Rutgers (1-1) at Kansas (1-1)
Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports Net)
Line: Kansas by 2 ½
Breakdown: Who cares, right? It’s Kansas. But coming off a shocking upset at Central Michigan last week (the Chippewas were 5-point favorites), this KU team suddenly could have a pulse. It would behoove the Jayhawks to not lose at home to arguably the worst team from the Big Ten Conference. Although KU has been historically bad as of late, this is a matchup of like programs. Winning this game would show real proof of progress and could even be a step toward saving David Beaty’s job. That opening loss to Nicholls State will linger, but last week ended a 46-game road losing streak — dating back to September 2009 — and KU’s 31-7 victory may have revealed something we haven’t seen from KU in years: a little talent and a lot of grit. LB Joe Dineen was named Big 12 defensive player of the week and freshman RB Pooka Williams Jr. had 125 rushing yards and two touchdowns to earn Big 12 newcomer of the week. Rutgers rushed for 312 yards against KU in a 27-14 victory last year in Piscataway, and the ground game still looks formidable. But coming off a 52-3 loss to Ohio State, the Scarlet Knights are wounded.
Prediction: Rutgers 31, KU 24
Duke (2-0) at Baylor (2-0)
McLane Stadium, Waco, 2:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Line: Baylor by 6
Breakdown: Baylor is coming off a 1-11 season in which new coach Matt Rhule was forced to either adapt his power offense to Art Briles’ spread players, or force the players into his system. It didn’t work, but so far in Rhule’s second season, things have been smoother. Baylor’s defense was underwhelming against two cupcakes (a 55-27 win over Abilene Christian and a 37-20 win over UTSA), but Duke QB Daniel Jones (broken collar bone) went down in the Blue Devils’ 21-7 win at Northwestern last week and is out indefinitely. Untested backup Quentin Harris replaces Jones, who had started 27 games in a row. That looks like a huge break for Baylor, although one thing David Cutcliffe knows how to do is prepare quarterbacks. Expect Harris to be ready. Duke, which returned eight starters from a defense that ranked 21st nationally last season, hasn’t allowed a fourth-quarter point in seven straight games. Sophomore QB Charlie Brewer (283 yards per game, 12 TDs, four INTs in his six career starts) had both Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims go over 100 yards receiving last week against UTSA, but the Bears’ passing attack will be challenged by the Blue Devils, who had four QB sacks and 14 pressures last week in Evanston.
Prediction: Duke 28, Baylor 27
UTSA (0-2) at Kansas State (1-1)
Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan, 3 p.m. (Fox Sports Net)
Line: Kansas State by 21 ½
Breakdown: The Roadrunners were blown out 49-7 at Arizona State in the opener, then fell 37-20 at Baylor last week. This is not a good team and K-State is favored by three touchdowns for good reason. Through two games, UTSA has the 126th-ranked offense in the country (out of 130). But the Wildcats’ offense is ranked just 115th. The Wildcats also have been bad, rallying late with a punt return TD and a game-winning TD catch against FCS South Dakota in the opener, and then losing 31-10 at home to Mississippi State last week. Neither starter Skylar Thompson nor reliever Alex Delton have been effective QBs. Bill Snyder has lamented lousy offensive line play for two weeks, and that’s the biggest letdown: all five starters are back from last season, when they combined to start every game (65 total).
Prediction: Kansas State 27, UTSA 17
Houston (2-0) at Texas Tech (1-1)
Jones AT&T Stadium, Lubbock, 3 p.m. (Fox)
Line: Houston by 1 ½
Breakdown: The Red Raiders were shown how to play “Big Boy Football” in their 47-27 season-opening loss to Ole Miss in Houston. They got things going in a 77-0 victory over Lamar last week, but Houston is a lot closer to Mississippi than it is Lamar. The Cougars pounded Rice in the opener, then routed Arizona 45-18 last week. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver might be the best overall player in the country, and the Tech offensive line will have its hands full blocking him. Don’t expect much pass rush — Tech gets the ball out too quick to produce sacks — but Oliver and his crew will make life hard on Kliff Kingsbury’s RBs. Tech won last year’s game in Houston 27-24, but this Red Raiders offense may be missing high-level QB play. Starter McLane Carter was injured against Ole Miss and backup Alan Bowman replaced him. Bowman has completed 69 percent for 555 yards with three TDs and no INTs so far. That’s huge because since 2013, Houston leads the nation with 150 takeaways. QB D’Eriq King accounted for four TDs in the opener and five last week, and receiver Marquez Stevenson leads the nation with three plays of 50-plus yards.
Prediction: Houston 35, Texas Tech 31
No. 22 USC (1-1) at Texas (1-1)
Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, 7 p.m. (Fox)
Line: Texas by 3 ½
Breakdown: Texas lost its opener 34-29 at Maryland, then survived 28-21 at home last week against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane dropped two TD passes in the end zone and missed field goals on two other possessions (three missed FGs in all), leaving 20 points on the board in what should have been a 41-28 Tulsa victory. Tom Herman’s team has issues, from QB (Sam Ehlinger has thrown two INTs and fumbled twice) to offensive line play (4.6 yards per carry) and a lack of breakaway talent at receiver and running back, to a defense that’s not that dominant up front and not that fast in the back. It’s UT’s 1,300th game, and the Longhorns are looking for their 900th all-time win. USC also has problems in opening with a 43-21 home win over UNLV and a 17-3 road conference loss at Stanford last week. Freshman QB J.T. Daniels graduated a year early from high school and enrolled this fall at USC as the Gatorade national player of the year after going 15-0 at Mater Dei, and he’s been predictably uneven so far: a .536 completion percentage, 497 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs. He sustained a bruised hand early last week but played through it. The Trojans returned four starters up front but have averaged only 4.4 yards per carry and rank 73rd nationally in rushing yards.
Prediction: USC 31, Texas 28
No. 4 Ohio State (2-0) vs. No. 15 TCU (2-0)
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, 7 p.m. (ABC)
Line: Ohio State by 12 ½
Breakdown: Aside from Alabama, no team has looked as strong as the Buckeyes. They demolished Oregon State 77-31 in the opener, then obliterated Rutgers 52-3 last week. That’s two weak teams, but two teams from Power 5 conferences. That means something. TCU pounded FCS Southern 55-7 in the opener, then crushed SMU 42-12 last week. Both teams are breaking in new QBs who have been good, though Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (.792 completion percentage, 546 yards, 9 TDs, 1 INT) has been much better than TCU’s Shawn Robinson (.623 completion percentage, 336 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, plus a team-best 112 rushing yards and three TDs) has been a little better. Ohio State ranks second in the nation in total offense (650 ypg) and scoring offense (64.5 ppg). Mike Weber leads the Buckeyes with 217 rushing yards and three TDs (7.8 average), but the Buckeyes bring back only four starters on defense (big-play DE Nick Bosa is a standout). Ohio State, which just joined Michigan (944) as the only schools with 900 all-time wins, hits the road for the first time this year, and they’ll play their final game without suspended head coach Urban Meyer, so things could get interesting for interim coach Ryan Day. But the Buckeyes probably will have a bigger crowd than TCU even though Jerry World is only 19 miles from Amon G. Carter Stadium in Forth Worth.
Prediction: Ohio State 34, TCU 23
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.