Welcome to the Big 12, ‘a brand-new conference all over again’

Deion, parity, shifts in playing styles and recruiting strategies are all part of the league’s new look.

That rainy night in Stillwater, Okla., last October still lingers for Cincinnati head coach Scott Satterfield. The Bearcats were on the road, losers of five straight, looking for the program’s first-ever Big 12 conference win.

Oklahoma State led only 10-7 at the half, with Cincinnati doing well to contain Cowboys star running back Ollie Gordon II, who had 60 yards on 13 carries but had yet to shake loose.

Things changed in a hurry in the second half. Gordon kept pounding away, and the eventual Doak Walker Award winner broke through, finishing the game with 271 rushing yards and two touchdowns as the Pokes splashed to a 45-13 romp. The physicality, and how it dictated the tenor of that game and the whole season, resonated with Satterfield.

“Oklahoma State might have started out the year a little shaky, but they ended up getting us pretty good and then went on to make the conference championship (game),” said Satterfield. “What really stood out was how tough the league was from top to bottom. You have to show up every week in this league or you’re going to get beat.”

The Big 12 is a league in transition, on and off the field. The conference has grown from 10 to 16 teams over the past year, molting its Texas-and-Oklahoma identity while bringing in eight new schools — BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston last year, plus Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah this summer. For the initial four newcomers in 2023, that change was defined by the growing pains of better competition, evidenced by a combined record of 8-28 in Big 12 matchups in year one, and how they have responded to it. For the schools joining from the Pac-12, their moves will be marked by notable shifts in play style and recruiting footprints.

This fall, it will take some getting used to when the Red River rivalry departs for the SEC and UCF treks to Arizona State or Utah visits Iowa State. But the upshot should be a claim as one of the deepest, most competitive leagues. Not to mention all the eyeballs on Deion Sanders and the Buffs.

Last year’s additions were baptized in those waters. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake was an assistant at Utah in 2011 when the Utes jumped from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, versed in the grind of a conference schedule and upgrades to talent and physicality. But he compared BYU making that leap from independence to a power conference — now featuring a back-loaded schedule as opposed to the other way around — to the experience of becoming a first-time parent.

“It was a hard thing to prep everyone for,” said Sitake. “How do you explain it to someone else? You kind of have to go through it.”

UCF and Cincinnati were the class of the Group of 5 in the AAC but were quickly humbled in the Big 12. The Bearcats, who had to deal with a coaching change as well, finished 1-8 and dead last in the conference standings, their lone win coming over fellow newcomer Houston. Satterfield acknowledged that “we didn’t look like a lot of the teams we played in the league,” and focused on increasing length and strength when building the roster for year two, adding more than 45 new players this offseason.

Two of UCF’s three league wins came against Cincinnati and Houston, and the Knights lost five in a row to open conference play last fall, including a humiliating 36-35 home loss to Baylor in which they blew a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter.

“We had to upgrade our roster this season. Our overall depth, overall quality of depth (was lacking),” said UCF head coach Gus Malzahn. “You get into the thick of it, get some guys banged up and some of the other programs have better quality depth. We lost some really close games, which was uncharacteristic for us.”

The league’s shift toward a ground-and-pound style exposed that lack of power-conference depth. The Big 12 had five of the top 15 rushing offenses in 2023 in terms of yards per game, and that doesn’t even include Gordon or Tahj Brooks at Texas Tech, the league’s top two individual rushers in 2023. BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston often had enough top-line talent to hang with teams like Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and West Virginia early, but as games and the season wore on, their depth charts wore thin.

“We didn’t stop the run very well,” said Malzahn. “The perception people had in the past of a seven-on-seven league isn’t true anymore. It’s a physical league.”

This is not your cool older uncle’s Big 12. TCU and Texas Tech still have some Air Raid elements, but the days of every offense spreading it out and putting up 50 points are gone. Which makes the four Pac-12 additions, from a league littered with quarterback-centric, air-it-out offenses last season, even more fascinating.

“The commitment to run the ball is high in this league,” said Arizona State head coach Kenny Dillingham. “The Big 12 play style right now — 12 and 21 personnel, run the ball, play-action — it’s definitely interesting because seven years ago it was the opposite.”

Dillingham, entering his second season at the helm for the Sun Devils, said his defense has already gotten more work against 12 and 21 personnel sets in spring practice. It was a similar deal for the offense, with Arizona State working against three-high safety looks that have been more common in the Big 12, though Dillingham wonders how much longer that might be the case.

“The three-high safety defenses combatted the Air Raid, and now the league has responded to that offensively, so it will be interesting how much that stuff continues,” Dillingham said. “You already hear Kansas State is supposedly moving away from three high safeties and the odd fronts and will go back to four-down (defensive linemen).”

There’s no obvious talent disparity for the Pac-12 schools to deal with, but there is a give-and-take to those differing styles. Teams like Colorado and Arizona — with considerable pop at quarterback and receiver — could benefit from their change of pace entering the league, but may also labor defensively against more physical rushing attacks. Whereas a team like Utah with a hard-nosed, defensive-minded reputation, more closely resembles the existing Big 12 and might make for a smoother adjustment.

“We’re a good fit for this league in that regard,” said Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s something we’ve subscribed to for a lot of years, being able to run the football effectively and defend the run on defense.”

Whittingham had to mind those transition gaps back in 2011 when navigating Utah from Mountain West to the Pac-12 but said the only tailoring he’s done thus far is scaling the program’s recruiting footprint into ever-expanding Big 12 country.

“More (recruiting) manpower in Texas and into Louisiana and over into Florida,” said Whittingham. “Nothing really schematically or roster-wise in terms of what we look for in players. That all remains constant.”

Dillingham has done the same, focusing ASU’s recruiting more heavily in Texas, where he’s culled upwards of 20 players on the current roster between transfers and high school recruits. Yet with expanded reach comes expanded travel. The conference now spans four time zones, stretching from Orlando to Daylight Savings-averse Arizona. UCF felt that distance last year when it traveled 15,000 miles in 2023, the most of any power-conference program.

“The schedule was a monster,” said Malzahn, “but it was also a learning experience, and now we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”

The Big 12′s scheduling matrix was developed to limit cross-country trips as much as possible, and alternates between four and five road games every other year for each team. The Knights do travel to Arizona State in November, but get Colorado, BYU, Arizona and Utah at home this season. And even though adding the Pac-12 schools means rekindling the Holy War rivalry between Utah and BYU and reintroducing Colorado (and the Coach Prime experience) to its former Big 12 foes, a 16-team league means more uncommon opponents and less intra-conference familiarity, too.

“We only play two of the same Big 12 opponents that we faced last season,” Malzahn added. “It’s almost like a brand-new conference all over again, which is bizarre.”

Bizarre, but also distinctive, even amid the latest wave of conference realignment. All of the transitioning and adjusting is fueling a much-needed parity subplot within the sport, one the Big 12 was already leaning into at spring meetings back in May.

“What’s going to unfold this upcoming season is the parity and depth of this conference,” said Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark. “I think it’s going to be critical, and I’m not sure you’re going to see that everywhere else. But in this conference, every game is going to matter.”

As the league reckons with the reality of losing its traditional bellwethers alongside eight new schools, amorphous geography and no obvious national title contenders, that nose-to-toes competitiveness can become the Big 12′s identity — one that benefits holdovers and newcomers alike and bolsters outside perception. The 12-team Playoff essentially guarantees the league champ a top-four seed in the bracket, and leaves open the possibility of a second team making the field.

For the New Big 12 — Allstate 12? — rebranding itself as the most exciting conference race in college football isn’t a bad place to start.

“The parity is going to be unbelievable,” said Dillingham. “Any team can win any game on any week, and that’s what will make it such a fun league to be in. Because not all of them are like that.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.