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This Week, The Real Games Begin

The 2016 season is entering the home stretch, but the action in the Big 12 is just starting to heat up!

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In 2015, it was a four team race. Baylor and TCU were coming off a controversial end of the 2014 season and were prepared to leave no doubt the following year. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma appeared to be the biggest threat to the offensive juggernauts in Waco and Fort Worth.

Without a 13th data point, The Big 12 bet big on scheduling in an effort for the conference’s best to meet at the end of the year. The plan worked. Oklahoma won the conference and in doing so, earned a trip to the College Football Playoffs.

The Big 12 needs help to make the playoff this year, but like last year, the conference won’t be decided again until late in the year. And the fun begins this weekend.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State remain the lone returning-contenders from the previous year. This is a lost season for TCU, and Baylor, while not mathematically eliminated, is a team in turmoil. That doesn’t mean it is just between Bedlam foes, though. West Virginia is the new main character in the drama that is Big 12 football.

Thus far, West Virginia has been the most complete team. A stifling defense combined with an efficient offense that doesn’t ask quarterback Skyler Howard to do too much. Although the Mountaineers’ biggest advantage may be their home stadium, which will see the Oklahoma Sooners and Baylor Bears in the next four weeks.

The Mountaineers won their impressive non-conference slate. From October on, West Virginia has completely shocked the conference with its fantastical notion that defense can be played at a high level in the Big 12. For the most eastern member to win the conference, it has to continue to win with defense.

However, a bad day in Stillwater was the perfect example of what can go wrong for West Virginia. Three turnovers by Howard led to the defense giving up points deep in their territory. The offense is geared to not make mistakes and keep opposing offenses off the field. The lone blemish on the Mountaineer schedule could possibly be damming for the Big 12’s Playoff hopes, but not for their goal of conference superiority.

Even with the mid-season loss to Oklahoma State, Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia appear to have the proper schedule to propel the program to its first conference crown since their arrival in 2012.

The Sooners are the wildcard in the equation. Oklahoma’s two early season losses to Houston and Ohio State derailed many of the playoff hopes for the conference. To his credit, Bob Stoops has kept his team focused on winning the Big 12 and they have done so with a hyper-efficient offense.

Baker Mayfield has become the conference’s best quarterback with the emergence of Dede Westbook at receiver, and if that wasn’t enough, the Sooners al have two of the best running backs in the conference in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. The tragic flaw in this Oklahoma team is that the offense has had to be earth shattering in order to win games. Even over inferior opponents.

The defense has been abysmal, and it seem they are routinely surrendering record-breaking performances on a weekly basis. For as exceptional as Mayfield and company have played, the defense has had to hold on for dear life against Iowa State, Texas Tech, TCU and Texas. Average performances against Kansas State and Kansas have done little to improve the perception of the defense.

If Oklahoma wins the conference, it will be because their offense is on a different level of existence than the rest of the Big 12. So far it has been, but again, the fun begins this Saturday.

Oklahoma State has had an odd season where they have continued to win but remain in the shadows. To call the Central Michigan loss controversial is an insult to controversy. The Cowboys also had the unfortunate task of playing Baylor early in the season — we will get to that later. Regardless the Cowboys have shown the most improvement from week to week and played their way back into contention.

The Cowboys remaining schedule comes down to one game. A showdown in Norman for the annual Bedlam game. If the Sooners and Cowboys win out — a task much easier for Oklahoma State — the Big 12 will again run through the Sooner State.

Who will emerge as the Big 12 champion? Oklahoma and West Virginia are set to throw down next week, but first the Sooners have looking to take care of business against Baylor, while West Virginia has to travel to Austin where Texas has found some life and the Pokes face a dangerous Texas Tech team led by Patrick Mahomes. If you thought it was fun before, prepare yourselves.

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