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By STEPHEN HAWKINS | AP Sports Writer
The Big 12 was on the endangered list again two summers ago when the only remaining conference members with national championships set off another round of realignment when they said they were switching leagues.
With Texas and Oklahoma going into their final season in the Big 12, the conference is bigger than ever with 14 teams, including BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF making their league debuts. Even more teams – four now in the Pac-12 — are coming in next year when the Red River rivals join the Southeastern Conference.
Until then, the 11th-ranked Longhorns and No. 20 Sooners will try to win another Big 12 trophy as a parting gift. No. 16 Kansas State is the defending league champion even though No. 17 TCU was the national runner-up last season. Texas Tech enters coach Joey McGuire’s second season with a four-game winning streak.
“I think that we have the most exciting conference right now, because it wouldn’t be fair for any of us to say that we actually know what’s going to happen in Big 12 Conference play this year,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, the league’s longest-tenured coach in his 19th season.
The Cowboys have had 17 consecutive winning seasons, but quarterback Spencer Sanders was among at least eight starters that left in the transfer portal after a 7-6 mark. They added more than a dozen players from the portal.
TCU had an undefeated regular season in coach Sonny Dykes’ first season, and still made the four-team College Football Playoff after losing in overtime to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game. The Horned Frogs beat Michigan in the national semifinal, but lost 65-7 as Georgia won its second consecutive national title.
“We played well enough to win 14 of the 15 games,” Dykes said. “We just played really bad in the national championship game.”
LAST GO ROUND
With receiver Xavier Worthy among 10 starters back on offense, linebacker Jaylan Ford still leading on defense after not turning pro, and key transfers adding depth on both sides, Texas is considered by most as the overwhelming preseason Big 12 favorite in coach Steve Sarkisian’s third season.
The Longhorns were the Big 12’s last national champion, in the 2005 season with quarterback Vince Young. But they have won only three Big 12 titles, none since 2009.
Oklahoma has won a record 17 (of the 27) Big 12 titles, but is coming off its first losing season since 1998. The Sooners had four three-point losses, and another by a touchdown, in Brent Venables’ 6-7 debut as head coach.
Venables was co-defensive coordinator for the Sooners’ 2000 national championship, then was part of two CFP titles as Clemson’s DC before returning to Norman to replace Lincoln Riley.
TCU and West Virginia, with fifth-year coach Neal Brown on the hot seat, were the newcomers in 2012 after the Big 12 survived a transformative two-year period when it lost four teams to three different leagues – among them Colorado, which returns next year from the Pac-12. That is when the conference went from its original 12 schools to a 10-team configuration playing round-robin schedules that are now impossible.
The Horned Frogs no longer have Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Max Duggan, 1,399-yard rusher Kendre Miller or 1,000-yard receiver Quentin Johnston. Chandler Morris is the starting QB going into the season, just like the former Oklahoma transfer was last year before getting hurt in the opener against the Buffaloes. TCU has added six transfer receivers from Power Five schools, including local receiver JoJo Earle from Alabama, along with former Tide running back Trey Sanders.
“What we want is to be a program that’s respected. I think the way you get respect is you do something consistently,” Dykes said. “Everybody can have a good year every now and then. We want our program to be consistently in the Top 25 … in the conference race in November, late November. If we do those things, then you’re going to be in the College Football Playoff conversation.”
West Virginia is 22-25 under Brown, the worst four-year stretch since the Mountaineers went 17-27 from 1976-79.
TCU opens Sept. 2 at home in Deion Sanders’ debut as Colorado coach a year before the Buffaloes join the Big 12. No. 14 Utah, another Pac-12 team moving to the Big 12 next season, is at Baylor on Sept. 9, the same day Texas is at fourth-ranked Alabama. The Frogs have the earliest Big 12 opener, at newcomer and former Southwest Conference rival Houston on Sept. 16, and their Big 12 title game rematch is Oct. 21 at Kansas State.
Texas and Oklahoma play their last Red River rivalry game as Big 12 members on Oct. 7. There are also the final scheduled games in two series that are more than a century old: Baylor at Texas on Sept. 23, and Bedlam when the Sooners play at Oklahoma State on Nov. 4. The Longhorns play their last regular-season game in the Big 12 the night after Thanksgiving against Texas Tech, after Oklahoma’s finale at home earlier that day against TCU.
Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State, UCF, Kansas, Iowa State, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, West Virginia.