By LUKE MEREDITH
The health of the Big 12 has been a topic of debate since Nebraska and Colorado kicked off a four-team exodus a few years back.
Judging by the results in 2012, the league is stronger than ever.
No Big 12 team was able to survive through Thanksgiving with a shot at the national title. But nine of the 10 teams, including newcomers West Virginia and TCU, are already bowl eligible.
The league’s 90 percent success rate is by far the best in the country — and that’s with an extra league game for each school and a week left to play.
No. 7 Kansas State can win the league title with a victory at No. 23 Texas on Saturday, while No. 12 Oklahoma needs a victory by the Longhorns and to beat TCU to win the Big 12.
Everyone except Kansas will be playing beyond this weekend.
“I would say it’s probably as strong and there’s probably as much parity as I’ve seen,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who has coached in the Big 12 for all but three years of its existence. “You’ve seen the conference kind of fall out of the national spotlight gradually over the season. But at the end of the day, it’s because you’re playing such tremendously talented football teams week in and week out. Having a nine-game schedule like that is quite difficult.”
Perhaps the biggest reason why the league is so deep is because West Virginia and TCU have fit seamlessly into the league in place of Missouri and No. 10 Texas A&M, now in the SEC.
The Mountaineers and Horned Frogs have discovered that things are a lot tougher in the Big 12 than their old homes.
West Virginia won the Big East’s BCS berth in its final season there and hung 70 points on Clemson in winning the Orange Bowl. But after a 5-0 start in 2012, the depth of the Big 12 began taking a toll. West Virginia (6-5, 3-5) needed a late TD to beat Iowa State 31-24 and simply reach bowl eligibility.
“It’s a tough league, and each and every week the same thing happens. It doesn’t matter who’s playing who. It’s going to be a battle,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
TCU went unbeaten in its final season in the Mountain West in 2011. The Horned Frogs have taken their lumps in the Big 12, but they’re coming off their biggest win yet as a member of the league.
TCU (7-4 4-4) fell flat in its home opener, losing 37-23 to Iowa State in quarterback Trevone Boykin’s debut. The Horned Frogs also dropped a wild, triple-overtime affair to Texas Tech, 56-53, and lost to Kansas State at home.
But the Frogs, in place of A&M as Texas’s Thanksgiving night opponent, thumped the Longhorns 20-13 for their first win over a ranked opponent this season.
“The thing that everybody said, we’d hear on the recruiting trail before we joined the Big 12 was, ‘Well, they win ballgames. But they don’t play good competition every week.’ And now, we’ve been in every ballgame and we’ve won our share of ballgames,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “We’ve got to raise our level of athletic ability at a lot of positions. But I think our kids play hard.”
Texas Tech will also return to the postseason after a brief dip in 2011. Despite losing four of their final five regular season games, the Red Raiders are 7-5 after winning just five games last season.
Perhaps no team epitomizes the depth of the Big 12 better than Iowa State. The Cyclones could wind up in ninth place at 3-6 in the league, but they’re still going bowling because they swept their nonconference slate.
Iowa State didn’t play three cupcakes, either. The Cyclones beat Tulsa, which is 9-3 and playing for the Conference USA title this weekend, and won at Big Ten rival Iowa for the first time in a decade.
“I went on record early, even back in the summer stating that I thought the Big 12 would be the deepest conference in the country this year,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “Very proud of our league, very proud of our accomplishments in the league this year.”