The non-conference is supposed to be about preparing your team for the rigors of conference play. Each program is trying to schedule games that fit some sort of need for the upcoming years. Some teams look for challenging opponents to improve playoff positioning. Others look for easy wins to boost confidence and increase bowl chances. Even more try to find challenging games that will help answer burning questions about their team before the games matter for conference standings.
However, across the country, college football fans use the non-conference for something far more important. They use them for bragging rights on whose conference is the best.
While the majority of college football automatically seeds that crown to the SEC, the Big 12 has followed the trend of requiring its members to schedule Power 5 opponents in order to help position itself as the best among the rest of the conferences.
As the season is set to begin, we take a look at the five most important non-conference games for the Big 12’s reputation.
West Virginia’s Entire Slate – The Mountaineers are replacing quite a bit this year. However, despite all the questions surrounding the team, there are still many who think this is a top-half of the conference team. They received votes in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll.
Their non-conference is going to go a long way in showing just who this team is. They face a top-tier FCS team that has their eyes on a huge upset, and two middle-of-the-road Power 5 teams in Missouri and NC State. How the Mountaineers perform will likely be used as a barometer for the “average” program in the conference, whether that is fair or not.
Texas Tech vs Arizona – The Wildcats are looking to bounce back after starting the year with a loss at Hawaii in week zero. Texas Tech is again expected to have a potent offense. So, Matt Well’s ability to get this defense to perform better than years past will be huge in setting the tone for the season. This is one of those games that will affect how the Big 12 is seen nationally. Especially, if Texas Tech falls to a Pac-12 team.
5. Oklahoma State vs Oregon State (Week 1)
This appears to be a mismatch on paper. Oklahoma State is a heavy favorite to win this game. However, we’ve seen Big 12 teams unexpectedly lose in season openers before. (As much as Texas fans would like to forget ever playing Maryland)
Oregon State is expected to be a bottom-of-the-barrel team in the Pac-12 this year. If the Cowboys stumble out of the gate, it will taint any dark horse hopes this team has for the rest of the season
There is also the whole Pac-12 after dark, week night madness to worry about that always seems to take place under the lights out west.
4. Oklahoma vs UCLA (Week 3)
The Sooners are ranked 4th in the preseason AP poll. UCLA is still struggling to meet expectations after Chip Kelly’s hiring. It would seem that this should be an easy win for Oklahoma.
However, there are enough questions about the Sooner’s defense, and it isn’t a given that a new quarterback can come in and keep the offense humming for the third year in a row.
Add in the facts that UCLA improved greatly as the season went on last year and that this game is in Los Angeles, and suddenly, Oklahoma might not be an overwhelming favorite. Lose this game, and the entire conference’s reputation will take a huge hit.
3. LSU vs Texas (Week 2)
I suspect that many of you would argue that this game should be number one on the list. After all, this is a marquee SEC-Big 12 matchup. There is no doubt that this will be a phenomenal opportunity for the conference to flex on what most crown the king of all conferences.
The reality is though, LSU is ranked higher than the Longhorns and is currently a 3-1 favorite to win this matchup. It would be fantastic for Texas to pick up where they left off in the Sugar Bowl, but this is not the same team as last season, and LSU is favored for a reason.
While this would be a nice feather in the cap of the conference, a victory here isn’t critical to maintaining the Big 12’s status in the conference hierarchy. If this is the only loss on Texas’ schedule, it shouldn’t be enough to keep them out of the playoff at the end of the season.
2. Houston vs Oklahoma (Week 1)
Lincoln Riley and the Sooners make another appearance. Just like the UCLA game, Oklahoma is the superior team on paper. However, this game is more important because this is at home. It is also the first impression for the team that is expected to be the standard-bearers of the conference.
This is also a Houston team led by former Big 12 coach Dana Holgorsen. You can also never underestimate just how bad Houston wants to win this game. As pointed out above, there are other, bigger games on the Sooner’s slate. For Houston though, this is it. This is the game where they can shock the world. Just like they did a few years ago.
Losing this game would be a black mark for the entire conference.
1. Iowa vs Iowa State (Week 3)
I realize that this ranking will surprise a lot of people, but there is good reason for it. Iowa State is widely regarded as one of the top teams in the Big 12 this season.
We know that the Cyclones are a team no one should take lightly, but most people outside of the Big 12 still don’t take them seriously. Beating Iowa would go a long way for their national reputation.
These teams are right next to each other in the polls. Both are on the fringe of national relevance. Lose this game, again, and the Big 12 is still just Oklahoma and Texas. The conversation starts to change with a win, though. You now have three nationally relevant programs that could make some noise. That elevates the perception of the entire conference.
Plus, Iowa State hasn’t won this game since 2014. It’s about time that they show the Big Ten who’s boss.