The Big 12 football season is comprised of 120 games, 90 of them head-to-head contests within the conference. Out of all those games, there are a select few that truly stand out above all the others and are deserving of special attention.
I have singled out five games I believe will have the greatest impact on the outcome of the Big 12 championship chase in 2014.
Baylor at Texas, October 4
This will be an important road test for Baylor, one of the conference favorites in 2014 and a strong indicator of how good this Texas team really is under new head coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns will have had a couple of difficult nonconference games with BYU and UCLA, which will help prepare them for the tough competitive battle they can expect from the defending conference-champion Bears. Texas can ill afford, however, to look ahead to its following week Red River Showdown with Oklahoma. The winner of the Baylor-Texas game will have an early leg up on the Big 12 2014 race and a quality win under its belt going forward.
Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, October 11
This game will take place just one week after the Longhorns have hosted Baylor. Getting through the Baylor game without any serious injuries will be important for Texas. This will be Texas coach Charlie Strong’s first Red River Showdown game. Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops will have a huge advantage in that area, with this being his 16th game coaching against the Sooners’ biggest rival. Stoops is 9-5 against Texas. Records and rankings mean absolutely nothing in this game. It is not at all unusual for the underdog coming into the game to walk or even run away with the victory. And it is entirely possible that both teams will be nationally ranked coming into the game, which has pretty much been the case since 2000. A number of times in the Bob Stoops era, the winner of this game has gone on to win the conference championship. The Sooners cannot afford to stumble here if they expect to remain in the running for one of the four national playoff spots. From Texas’ perspective, wins over Baylor and Oklahoma would put them comfortably in the driver’s seat on the road to a fourth Big 12 title.
Baylor at Oklahoma, November 8
This is the matchup that in the preseason many of the so-called college football experts have pointed to as the game that will decide the Big 12 championship for 2014. On paper and, importantly, before even one single game has been played in the new season, it certainly may seem that way. But temper that with a big if. Both teams have big games and potential trap games to get behind them before this weekend if this game is to live up to the big-game billing that everyone seems to be giving it in advance. The Sooners will still have the memory of the terrible horse whipping they suffered a year ago in Waco fresh in their minds. And it is likely the Baylor players will be reminded a time or two during the week of this game that they have never won a game in Norman (although they came very close on a couple of occasions, including the last time they played there (in 2012). Another compelling fact worth noting to anyone handicapping this game: Coming into the 2014 season, the Sooners have lost just five times in 92 games at home in the 15 seasons Bob Stoops has been the head coach.
Kansas State at Baylor, December 6
Kansas State played Baylor closer last season than any team but Oklahoma State (which handed Art Briles’ team its only conference loss). The Wildcats actually led the Bears going into the fourth quarter, but couldn’t hold on as quarterback Bryce Petty led Baylor to two fourth-quarter scores for a come-from-behind 10-point victory. The year before, in 2012, the last time Kansas State visited Baylor, the Bears handed K-State its only conference loss and prevented the Wildcats from winning the league crown outright. What do these previous encounters have to do with the 2014 game? Just that Kansas State may be the only thing standing between Baylor and a second consecutive Big 12 championship, or it could also be the Bears’ last chance for a shot at defending its 2013 title. Either way, this matchup will feature arguably the two best quarterbacks in the Big 12 in 2014 in Baylor’s Petty and K-State’s Jake Waters.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, December 6
This is another one of those fiercely fought rivalry series in which neither school cares much for the other. The Sooners have won nine of the last 10 meetings, including last year’s stunning upset at Oklahoma State that cost the Cowboys a share of the Big 12 championship and the conference’s automatic bid to the BCS Fiesta Bowl. This is a huge trap game for the Sooners, especially if their hated in-state rivals are the only ones standing between OU and an eighth conference championship under Bob Stoops. It won’t matter how close or far apart these two teams are in the standings by the time this game rolls around, both squads will go at each other as if their lives depend on it. OU has won three of the last five games (against the Cowboys) as the underdog. OSU will likely be the underdog coming into the Dec. 6 game, and that isn’t really a good thing for the Sooners, even if it is being played in Norman, where OU has been virtually unbeatable under Stoops. Something else to consider about the timing of this game. It takes place the same day as the Kansas State-Baylor game, so we could have another conference championship being decided on the final day of the regular season.