“I could care less”. The frank response from star quarterback Baker Mayfield came when asked about the importance of winning this week two showdown for the good of his conference.
When the Oklahoma Sooners travel to Columbus to take on Ohio State in Saturday’s marquee matchup, a certain amount of buzz will revolve around the game’s importance in revitalizing the image of the Big 12.
Some are arguing that the Big 12 needs a big-time, non-conference win to get themselves back up in the conversation with their power five counterparts, and while I understand the sentiment behind it, I can’t imagine a Week 2 matchup swaying the balance so much as to impact the perception of an entire conference.
A win would be an enormous boost for Lincoln Riley’s squad going forward, of course, as the current #5 team in the nation looks to cement their spot in the College Football Playoff race. After being picked apart at home by the Buckeyes in a 45-24 loss last season, a road victory this year would certainly do wonders for the Sooner’s image among college football’s elite programs. As Ohio State found out, an early non-conference win can be an enormous help going forward, as the quality of their wins pushed them into the top four at the end of last year despite not being crowned Big 10 champions.
Such a victory for Oklahoma would likely help them in the same way, taking away a bit of the pressure of beating a conference rival for the second time for the Big 12 championship. Even with a tightly contested loss this weekend, their playoff hopes would still be well afloat as a one-loss Big 12 champion would have a decent shot at making the field, especially if the one loss was to Ohio State. Coming into today as 7 point underdogs, losing this game (by a reasonable margin) wouldn’t come at a huge detriment to Oklahoma, as college football fans and committees alike are understandably high on the well-oiled machine that is Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes.
As I’ve said before, the Big 12 scheduling harder out-of-conference teams and having a championship game puts them on the path to getting back up with football’s premier conferences, and avoiding another 2014 TCU-Baylor scenario. However, actually changing the public perception of the conference won’t be happening in early September (especially after people watched Texas last week). It’ll come on January 1st when these two titans could conceivably end up as the #2 and #3 seeded teams, battling it out again for a shot at the National Title.
Hypothetically, Oklahoma could win this matchup on Saturday, make the playoffs as the undefeated #2 seed, and proceed to get absolutely shelled by Ohio State, completely killing any progress they had made “for the good of the conference”. The Sooners will continue to be “the team that made the playoffs once just to get smacked by Clemson”, regardless of whether they can beat Ohio State or not. While people love to talk about the huge impacts of early-season clashes like this, in the end they’ll always fall back on what a team or conference can do once December rolls around. Those looking to trash and badmouth the Big 12 still have the lone, disappointing, playoff appearance to their advantage, which they’ll firmly hold onto until Oklahoma, OK State or whoever else goes to the Playoff to change that.
Technically, Mayfield saying he “could care less” means that he at least somewhat cares about winning for the good of the conference, but we (probably) knew what he meant. He, like many of us, know that we’ll have to wait for New Year’s Day (and a potential rematch) to see the Sooners start to really impact the image and perception of the Big 12 conference.
Images via: NewsOK, Sports Illustrated, Cleveland.com