The Vengeance of the “12”

History is full of stories involving scorned partners, whether it's in love, business, or crime. Sports are no different. Some of the world's biggest feuds begin in cordial (or necessary) cohesion.

Many partnerships don't last long, though, and the fallout from the breakup can be brutal. I don't know if this has been more apparent than in the cycles of college conference realignment. Over the last decade-plus, the movement of schools to different leagues has turned collegiate sports upside-down. In my last column, I talked about the effects this seems to have had on college hoops. This time, it's all about how hurt feelings can provide an extra boost (and possibly even sustain it).

Just over a year ago, Oklahoma and Texas announced that they would be shunning the Big XII for the greener grass of the SEC. In the moments, days, and weeks after, amateur and experts pundits alike started counting down the seconds until the Plains-based (and West Virginia) league's demise. The same thing could be said about, and after, the decision USC and UCLA made this summer to leave the Pac-12 and head to the Big Ten.

For the two Division I conference that sport a "12" in their name, the last few years have been rough. Save one program here or there, many believe both leagues have fallen from power broker status to irrelevancy. Oklahoma State and Oregon just don't move the meter when it comes to big-time football. However, does it mean that the "leftovers" are also-rans?

Pride is a funny thing. Too little of it can bury your psyche. Too much of it can make you fly too close to the sun. The right amount, though, can surprise a lot of folks. Over the existence of the Big XII, the Sooners and Longhorns filled 18 spots of the first 19 conference title games. In the initial go-round, the two programs dominated the league's South Division. From 1996-2010, they won 13 of 15 bids, with the final 12 coming consecutively. Once the game returned in 2017, the dominance continued. OU and UT made a combined 5 appearances up to 2020, including both spots in the 2018 contest.

For years, the league tried to find some way to knock these two monarchs off their perched thrones, having little success. However, last year might a been the turning point the conference hoped to reach. For the first time since 1998, neither Oklahoma nor Texas made it to the title game. The Sooners won their first six Big XII matchups last season, but ultimately tripped up enough to lose two out of their last three. The Longhorns, ranked when they met OU at the Cotton Bowl, lost that epic Red River point barrage to start a woeful stretch. A six-game losing streak involved defeats at the hands of Iowa State (blowout), Kansas (at home), and a middling West Virginia.

Things had to look up as the clock started to tick towards the "loving" arms of the Southeastern Conference, right? So far, not so good. Kansas State topped OU in Norman last Saturday night. UT, a team that pushed Alabama near the breaking point, fell at the gun in Lubbock.

Now, the season's long from over. Both programs still have a decent shot at getting to Arlington on December 3rd. That is, until they face each other in Dallas a week from Saturday. And that doesn't even count potential snares against top-10 Oklahoma State, top-20 Baylor, surprisingly undefeated Kansas, and more ready to pluck meat off the decomposing relationship's carcass.

I think teams in the Pac-12 are taking notes. Sure, USC and UCLA have not cast quite the same shadow over the last decade that Oklahoma and Texas did. The Trojans and Bruins have combined to make 5 of the 11 conference championship games. But over the history of the league, you'll find USC (first in championships) and UCLA (T-2nd) at the top of the heap.

Both the Trojans and Bruins are off to 4-0 starts. However, these two programs may begin to find out how much pride the rest of the league has. USC held Stanford at bay a couple weeks ago, but they barely got out of Corvallis unscathed. Oregon State held the USC offense at bay for nearly 59 minutes. Unfortunately for the Beavers, their defense couldn't keep Caleb Williams from throwing the game-winning TD pass with under 1:15 to play. Can Lincoln Riley guide his new squad through a couple seasons of backlash?

On UCLA's side, the Bruins began their conference slate with a victory over hapless Colorado. But to stay undefeated, Chip Kelly's team will need to survive a pretty brutal three-game stretch that includes Washington, Utah, and Oregon. With less than two years to go until packing up and heading out, how many league opponents will find "retribution" for the Bruins' course of action?

And while the hunted try to evade the venom of their to-be past contemporaries, could this provide a lifeline to the damaged, to-be diminished leagues? Did they trade top-end talent for growth of depth? Kansas is 4-0 for the first time in 15 years. Washington hopes to end a season as a ranked team for the first time since 2018. Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oregon, and Utah are top conference contenders.

Vengeance might be a dish best served to a parting guest. But can a mass of it lift all conference spirits? For Oklahoma, Texas, USC, and UCLA, I bet they don't want to stick around long enough to find out.

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