There is a theory within evolutionary biology that seeks to explain how species change over time. For much of a species' existence, overall, the fossil record will not exhibit any great changes, remaining locked in an extended period of stasis. Then, all of a sudden, wholesale changes are seen in a phenomenon known as “punctuated equilibrium.”
For much of its existence, the Big 12 has existed in a similar state of near-stasis, with competition dominated by Texas, Oklahoma, and at times, Nebraska. However, over the past two seasons, the status quo has been upset.
Off the field, the defections of Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri have left the conference teetering on the brink of collapse before being stabilized by the arrival of TCU and West Virginia. On the field, the changes have been more subtle, but the result is no less astounding. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the Big 12 might now be a better conference, at least in football. With two teams (West Virginia and Kansas State) in the top six of the most recent AP top 25 and three in the top 20, the Big 12 is indeed a conference of change.
At the very least, it's no longer a duopoly dominated by Texas and Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas State and West Virginia’s victory over Texas demonstrates as much. In fact, the Red River Shootout, for so many years the primary determinant of conference supremacy, may in fact be relegated to the third- or fourth-most consequential contest this season.
The irony in all of this is that Texas’ actions in maintaining uneven revenue sharing and individual television channels, designed to keep the Longhorns at the top of the conference, may have actually created a harder road to hoe each season. Indeed, instead of merely needing to conquer Oklahoma and survive the rest of the conference slate, Texas must now contend with a perennial power in WVU and a newly ascendant TCU (though now without starting quarterback Casey Pachall).
Last season, for the first time since 2003, a team other than the Sooners or Longhorns claimed the conference title. Furthermore, the growth of old standbys like Kansas State and Baylor, just one season removed from Robert Griffin’s Heisman campaign, has helped to bridge the competitive gap between Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of the conference. In fact, with Geno Smith having the best season of his career, it’s entirely possible for the conference to boast back-to-back Heisman winners -- and for neither hail from Austin or Norman.
Though it is far too soon to declare that we are witnessing a changing of the guard at the top of the conference, it is clear that the status quo has changed. At least, the rise of the rest, coupled with the new arrivals and down seasons from traditional powers, has punctuated the delicate equilibrium in which the conference existed for so long.
Perhaps now the conference, as a whole, may evolve.
Chuck Perry mostly tweets about basketball, but if you'd like his thoughts on evolutionary biology, you can get those as well. By following him on Twitter at @TheChuckP.