Tramel: Big 12 football status rises during the COVID-19 pandemic
Ten summers ago, Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12. A year later, Missouri and Texas A&M fled, too.
The conference was in tatters. In its early days, the Big 12 was on the same prestige plane as the Southeastern Conference. But a decade ago, the Big 12’s future was in jeopardy and its status had cratered.
Fast forward to last week, when Big 12 presidents met with the fate of college football in its hands. The Big Ten and Pac-12 had scrapped the autumn season. The SEC and ACC had declared their intentions to keep forging on.
The Big 12 was the swing league. If the Big 12 had packed up the shoulder pads, some say all of college football would have had to surrender to the coronavirus.
That’s a hard concept to consider. I personally think the SEC would find a way to play in nuclear winter. But better college football minds than mine had the season sitting in Big 12 hands.
If three of the Power 5 Conferences had set sail for spring football, the SEC and ACC might have had to acquiesce also. Appearances as much as anything. The Pac-12 and Big Ten are the high brows of the major conferences; if they had been joined by a league outside the snobbish circle, the pressure on the SEC and ACC would have been mighty.
The Big 12 voted to try to play. It might not stick. The virus could spread across campuses to where not even Alabama will try. Crimson Tide athletic director Greg Byrne tweeted out a photo of Bama students congregating en masse unmasked over the weekend.
“Who wants college sports this fall??” he wrote. “Obviously not these people!! We’ve got to do better than this for each other and our campus community…”
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But Alabama and the SEC have a chance at a season, perhaps because the Big 12 said let’s go.
What a transformation. A league left for dead has not only stabilized but climbed past the Pac-12 and ACC in revenues and conferences status, reaching a position of influence. Clemson has turned into Alabama’s lone peer and carries the entire ACC, but the Tigers’ roar is offset by a variety of schools that have limited football interest.
The Power 5 Conferences showed some solidarity early in the pandemic, but not much late. Still, it would be difficult for just one or two leagues to be playing, when most every other college sport and level has said no go.
“Anytime anybody at any level has decided they weren't going to play or that they were going to do something different, it affects us,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “I don't know that we would want to be the only college football conference playing.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said much the same thing when asked by al.com about potentially playing solo as a Power 5 league.
“I don’t think that’s the right direction, really,” Sankey said. “Could we? Certainly. (But) there’s a difference between can you do something and should you do something in life.”
The SEC is the unquestioned king of college football. The Big 12’s recovery from the intensive care unit was helped by its association with the conference that pilfered Mizzou and A&M. The Big 12 and SEC went partners on the Sugar Bowl back in 2012. That was a sign of status. The Big 12 was hanging out with the cool kids.
The Big 12’s rising prominence has been slowed by a lack of College Football Playoff success. The Big 12 has qualified for four of the six playoffs, all by the Sooners, but OU has lost all four trips to the semifinals.
That must change for the Big 12 to stand even taller.
But the conference that almost self-combusted is indeed standing. Even to the point that it might have saved the college football season.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.