TCU’s CFP title game run came at a perfect time for Big 12

Published 11:55 pm Monday, January 9, 2023

By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer

LOS ANGELES — TCU’s unlikely run to the College Football Playoff championship came at a most fortuitous time for the Big 12.

“If you think about where this conference was 18 months ago, and the uncertainty and the lack of stability and you fast forward to today, it’s a game changer for us,” Commissioner Brett Yormark told AP at Saturday’s CFP media day.

The third-ranked Horned Frogs were routed 65-7 by No. 1 Georgia on Monday night at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California, for the CFP title.

Just getting there was a welcome step for the Big 12, which seemed in real danger of falling apart or being relegated to second-tier status during the summer of 2021. That’s when it was revealed that flagship members Texas and Oklahoma — the only schools to win football national titles in the Big 12 —- planned to leave for the Southeastern Conference.

Oklahoma had been the only Big 12 team to make the four-team playoff before this season. The Sooners went 0-4. Texas was the last Big 12 team to play for a national championship, when it lost to Alabama in the 2010 BCS title game.

The Horned Frogs jumped to the front of the conference this year, but didn’t even win it. After an unbeaten regular season, TCU fell to Kansas State in overtime in the Big 12 championship game.

It was the second consecutive season that neither Oklahoma nor Texas was involved in a thrilling Big 12 title game. Baylor beat Oklahoma State last season, but neither made the CFP.

The Horned Frogs, who were picked to finish seventh in the conference before the season, had built enough of a resume that, despite the loss to K-State, they earned the program’s first CFP berth and the Big 12’s first since 2019.

“We’re in the conversation today in a positive way, which I think is incredible for the conference and all of our member institutions,” Yormark said. “It’s enabling us to really engage with new fans. It’s enhancing our national profile, which obviously is something that is critically important to me.”

Yormark is only six months into his tenure of Big 12 commissioner. The former executive at talent agency Roc Nation and CEO of Barclays Center in Brooklyn was a nontraditional pick to replace the retiring Bob Bowlsby.

The 56-year-old has stressed brand-building, creating innovative and new revenue streams and trying to make the Big 12 Conference cooler.

As he told AP back in October, nothing replaces winning.

“So we’re doing everything we can to reap the benefits and rewards from a great TCU season and very excited about it,” Yormark said.

TCU played with the full support of its rivals. Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire said he told Red Raiders fans who are concerned a TCU national title will add strength to a conference rival that he was pulling for the Frogs.

“It helps us,” he said.

The growing narrative that the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten, fueled by their monster media rights deals, will pull away from the rest of the Power Five leagues is a bigger problem for the Big 12, McGuire said.

“I don’t think people understand how good of a conference this is,” McGuire said.

The Big 12’s strength was its depth. Eight of its 10 teams played in bowl games and the conference produced competitive games from top to bottom every week.

TCU went 9-0 in the regular season in conference play, with seven victories by 10 points or fewer. The Frogs, with their Hypnotoad vibes and mind-bending celebratory memes, also qualified as the hip team of this playoff.

“They epitomize where this conferences is going, we’re a gritty conference, we work hard,” Yormark said. “And despite the noise around us, we just charge forward.”

The Big 12 will charge forward next season with four new members — BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston — along with Texas and Oklahoma.

The Sooners and Longhorns aren’t scheduled to depart until after the current media rights contract between the Big 12 and ESPN expires in 2025. Yormark and the Big 12 have already agreed to an extension with the networks.

Still, Oklahoma and Texas remain contractually bound to the Big 12 for two more years.

“I just look at the reality that there’s a relationship, a grant of rights between Oklahoma, Texas and the Big 12,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “And we’ve told our folks, could the date change? Sure, but that’s not in my control. And if it does, we’ll be prepared to adjust.”

Getting out of those deals would be complicated and costly for the schools, but the Big 12 at least appears willing to consider the possibility of an early departure by Texas and Oklahoma.

“If there’s interest in leaving early and there’s opportunities for us all to win in that scenario, I’m open to explore it,” Yormark said. “But as I sit here today, nothing has changed.”