By STEPHEN HAWKINS
There are some early surprises in the Big 12 Conference, which is still setting up as the expected wide-open race.
The league’s only undefeated teams are 12th-ranked Baylor (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) and No. 16 Texas Tech (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) with new coach and former quarterback Kliff Kingsbury.
And Texas, after going 1-2 in nonconference games with big losses to BYU and Mississippi, is 3-0 in the Big 12 after a season-shifting victory over Oklahoma last weekend in the Red River Rivalry that the Sooners had dominated recently.
“We’re so fortunate to be in a conference,” Longhorns coach Mack Brown said. “Teams that are independent, after they have some problems early don’t have a chance to rebound and still save their season and have something to play for.”
With eight weeks left in the regular season, the top five teams in the league standings still have to play each other, except for that 36-20 win by Texas (4-2) over the 18th-ranked Sooners (5-1, 2-1).
“Our league is exciting this year because there is not ‘A’ team that everybody can pick,” Brown said. “It’s already changed two or three times.”
Meanwhile, defending Big 12 champion Kansas State is 0-3 in conference play going into an open date.
“It’s a strong belief of ours that anybody can defeat anyone else on any given day,” coach Bill Snyder said. “I think that’s proving out right now.”
When Big 12 coaches submitted their preseason ballots back in July, six different teams got first-place votes. Texas Tech wasn’t one of them, and was picked to finish seventh.
“I think it’s the same way if we had looked at it in August, you look at it and say it’s a wide-open race,” Baylor coach Art Briles said during the weekly teleconference with Big 12 coaches. “Nothing has changed as we’re into October. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody.”
Except maybe the early order of the teams.
Baylor, which averaged more than 70 points is first four games, survived its first road test. They Bears won 35-25 Saturday at Kansas State, which was intent of avenging the lopsided loss from last season when the Wildcats got to Waco as the No. 1 team in the BCS standings.
No. 21 Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1) was the preseason favorite by the coaches to win the league, just ahead of the Sooners. The Cowboys had an early loss at West Virginia (3-3, 1-2), which has alternated wins and losses all season.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league. I’ve said this for a number of years now,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “It’s increasing each season.”
Consider that in the past seven years, only Texas in 2009 went undefeated in Big 12 play, and that was on the way to playing in the BCS national championship game. Kansas State and Oklahoma State shared the league title with one Big 12 loss last year, when six other teams were either 5-4 or 4-5 in league play.
The Cowboys, coming off an open date, host TCU (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday. Texas doesn’t play this week before going on the road to play the Longhorns.
TCU coach Gary Patterson would prefer the Big 12 play its conference games in consecutive weeks without open dates.
“I think it’s an unfair advantage when people have off weeks,” Patterson said. “The thing I’d change about what we do in the league, once we get into it, we play, we don’t have any off weeks. ... So it’s all even.”
Patterson, who will get an extra week to prepare for Baylor in late November, knows television helps dictate the schedule. And there could be some high drama with late-season games having potential Big 12 championship implications.
While there are a lot of games left before then, Texas Tech plays at Texas on Thanksgiving night. The regular season ends the first Saturday in December with the Longhorns at Baylor, and Oklahoma going to Oklahoma State.
The Sooners have to quickly get over the Red River Rivalry loss. They are at Kansas on Saturday before games against Texas Tech and Baylor.
“Our season, win or lose through (the Texas) game, isn’t the end-all,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “We always play (Texas) about the same time every year so it’s the same message every year. We’ve got to keep playing, keep trying to get better and keep pushing each week to try to make improvements.”