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College Football 2011: Power Ranking the Big 12's 10 Most Important Showdowns

David LutherFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2011

College Football 2011: Power Ranking the Big 12's 10 Most Important Showdowns

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    As the start of the season inches closer at a frustratingly slow pace, the talk has turned from preparation to anticipation.

    Team rosters are shaping up, depth charts are being formulated and coaches are preparing for the opening of fall camp just a few short weeks from now. In the meantime, fans around the nation begin to look ahead to their teams' schedules.

    In the era of the BCS and expanding conference championship games, every conference game takes on new importance.

    Here are the 10 most important showdowns for the 2011 season in the Big 12.

10. Missouri at Oklahoma, September 24

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    We get under way with Oklahoma hosting Missouri on the opening weekend of Big 12 play. The conference has a new look this year, and with the loss of the season-ending Big 12 Championship Game, every game takes on greater significance.

    Oklahoma will be coming off a top-10 showdown against the Florida State Seminoles the week prior, and win or lose, that could spell trouble for Missouri.

    Should the Sooners beat the Seminoles, Bob Stoops' team will be flying high and feeling pretty invincible after disposing of one of their most difficult challenges in 2011. Should the Sooners lose, however, Missouri will be facing a very ornery Sooners squad that will be looking to take some frustration out on whomever steps onto the field.

9. Texas at Missouri, November 12

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    Missouri enters the 2011 season with a whole host of returning starters, including nine on offense. Had Blaine Gabbert elected to return to the Tigers in 2011, Missouri's offense might have been rated right up there with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.

    Without Gabbert, the Tigers will still be fielding a talented group of players, but you're only as good as your weakest link—especially if that link is at quarterback.

    By this point in the season, Missouri will have already taken on Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. It's possible that the showdown with Texas could be more about bowl eligibility for both teams than it is about trying to compete for the Big 12 championship.

    On the other hand, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Missouri could find itself right in the think of things in the conference come mid-November.

8. Texas at Texas A&M, December 3

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    To say the Longhorns had a trying year in 2010 would be a Texas-sized understatement.

    Finishing 5-7 wasn't on anybody's agenda, and the shocking record surprised even the most ardent of Longhorns haters.

    This season will definitely be viewed as a year of redemption for the Longhorns—if they can be successful, that is. One just can't ignore the fact that Texas returns most of the players that were part of the problem in 2010. Seven starters return on each side of the ball, and that includes most of the skill position players.

    Texas has a real quarterback battle on its hands, and that could end up being the catalyst that propels the offense back into some form of decent production. Between Garrett Gilbert, Connor Wood and Case McCoy (yes, Colt's younger brother), someone has to be a decent quarterback, right?

    Even if very little changes, you'd have to expect that the added experience from last season would benefit Texas, at least a little. As well, the last time Mack Brown had five or fewer wins prior to 2010 was 1989 at North Carolina. His worst pre-2010 finish in Austin was 9-3.

    While Texas may not be back in the form of winning 10 or more games this season, it's unlikely it'll pull another no-show when it comes time for bowl games. But a season-ending win against a darned good Texas A&M team would go a long way towards which bowl game the Longhorns attend, to say nothing of Longhorn confidence.

7. Texas A&M at Texas Tech, October 8

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    With all of the preseason talk surrounding Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Texas A&M is managing to fly slightly under the radar in the Big 12—pretty odd considering A&M is a legit Top-10 or Top-15 team to begin the year and has a realistic shot at the Big 12 title and a BCS berth this season.

    The Aggies return 10 offensive starters, only losing center Matt Allen from the top row of the depth chart. Ryan Tannehill is a better-than-decent quarterback, and his senior year should be his best yet as he looks to improve upon last year's numbers (1,638 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions).

    While his 1,600 yards aren't exactly eye-popping, his 7.0 yards per pass attempt should reassure any coach that he can get the job done when needed. His 137.0 passer rating is decent, and you can expect both his yardage, touchdown and QB rating numbers to increase this season.

    The Aggies also have a decent run game at their disposal. Last season, as a team, A&M averaged just over 4.1 yards per rush, and combined with their passing game, the Aggies averaged 5.6 yards per play. Add another year of development and experience, and Texas A&M's picture as a top Big 12 contender begins to come into focus.

    Texas Tech is more of an enigma this season. While they weren't the topic of much discussion last year, there's enough turnover to instill a little new life into the Red Raiders locker room while still maintaining a solid core of experience.

    The entire offensive line returns, as does the defensive secondary. With some talented new youngsters, the Raiders are in a position to improve on 2010. An early-season win over A&M would certainly turn a number of people onto the Red Raiders.

6. Missouri at Texas A&M, October 29

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    There's only one conference with more preseason Top 25 teams than the Big 12, and by the time October 29 rolls around, the Big 12 may be atop the conference list.

    Both Missouri and Texas A&M will begin the season in most Top 25 polls, and Missouri will probably turn out to be a lot better than a lot of people currently think.

    By the last week in October, every team should be in that glorified “midseason form,” and with the possibility of two unbeaten or once-beaten Big 12 teams coming together, this game will likely be the game of the week in the conference.

    With no conference championship game, winning on October 29 becomes just as important as winning on December 3. The team that emerges from this clash will definitely have the inside track over the loser. If you divided the 2011 Big 12 into three groups of teams, you'd probably place OU and OSU at the top, A&M and Missouri in the middle and everyone else below those two groups.

    The winner here will be left with OU and OSU for rights to the conference crown. Even going 1-1 against the Oklahoma programs with this contest in the win column could still place a team in a position to earn a very, very nice bowl trip—possibly even a BCS invite.

    Depending on how the season shakes out to this point, the October 29 clash between A&M and Mizzou could turn out to be a pretty important game.

5. Oklahoma State at Texas, October 15

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    If Texas isn't supposed to be that great in 2011, and Oklahoma State is, why is this game No. 5 on the power rankings?

    Well, this game is important for two intertwined reasons. First off, Texas isn't supposed to be that great, but those who discount the Longhorns do so at their own peril. Something tells us that Mack Brown will have his team ready to play, and Texas won't be losing seven games this season.

    Secondly, Oklahoma State is supposed to be that great, and when you have a top-three FBS offense returning virtually unchanged from a year ago, big things are expected. When was the last time the Cowboys began the season ranked in the Top 10? Exactly.

    Thus, this game has implications for both teams, and based on the national rankings involved and the expectations placed on each program, this game is a very big early-season Big 12 showdown.

    A win for Texas would be a very big signal that 2010 was in fact an aberration. A win by Oklahoma State over Texas for the second straight year (even a Texas program in a slump) would be a signal that the Cowboys are truly an emerging power and are no longer the “other” program in Oklahoma. A loss by OSU might force a “win out” scenario for the Cowboys—not an easy task this season in the Big 12, especially when it's only October 15.

4. Oklahoma vs. Texas, October 8 (Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX)

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    For what seemed like forever, this game seemed like the only Big 12 regular-season game that mattered to anyone outside of the Big 12.

    The Red River Rivalry still has loads of passion behind it, but with Oklahoma's recent dominance of the Big 12 (seven of the last 11 conference titles), and Texas' inability to claim titles of its own (only two over the same span, and just four appearances in the CCG), this game has lost a bit of its luster outside of the states of Texas and Oklahoma.

    Perhaps with the era of Big 12 divisions in the rear-view mirror (for now), this game may take on added significance. Both Texas and Oklahoma will have to live with the results of this game into the bowl selection process.

    Oklahoma should crush Texas. It's just the way things should work themselves out this season. After all, OU is the top team in the nation, and Texas is decidedly not. But even a Texas loss wouldn't be the end of the world for the Longhorns. A good showing against the nation's top program in 2011 would be a moral victory and an important steppingstone.

    As bad as Texas was in 2010, this game was still a close one. OU won, but the 28-20 final score wasn't as lopsided as it could have been or likely should have been.

    Only once since 2000 has one of these teams not been ranked nationally at the time of the game (2005). It's entirely possible that Texas will find itself ranked if it can avoid an early non-conference loss, giving this game more of the flavor of a real showdown—something this game truly deserves.

3. Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, September 24

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    As we get to the top three games on our power rankings rundown of Big 12 clashes, it's only natural to see the top three teams in the conference.

    The Aggies, as previously mentioned, are keeping a low profile so far this offseason. Were it not for the lofty expectations and preseason rankings for both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, it's very possible that all of the Big 12 talk would be centered on the Aggies.

    Alas, OU and OSU are the top two teams in the Big 12, at least according to preseason polls and media pundits. But A&M will have a very early opportunity to show that the Aggies deserve just as much attention.

    A Big 12 opening-weekend visit from the Cowboys will provide Texas A&M with the perfect opportunity to gum up the works, both in the conference and nationally, by beating what will be a favored Oklahoma State squad. A win would also propel the Aggies well into the Top 10 and set them up nicely for a shot at the conference title.

    An OSU win, on the other hand, would validate the Cowboys' lofty preseason ranking and show everyone that they can beat anyone, including the really good teams.

2. Texas A&M at Oklahoma, November 5

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    After taking on Oklahoma State in September, the Aggies will have quite a lot of schedule to push through before arriving at their November 5 tussle with the Sooners in Norman.

    Regardless of A&M's result against Oklahoma State, the November 5 game against the Sooners will still loom large, as any hope of winning the conference will now hinge on being able to pull out a victory in one of the most difficult locations to do just that.

    Oklahoma looks to have all of the talent and experience necessary to go wire to wire as the top team in the nation. It's certainly a rare feat, but Oklahoma may have a rare combination of talent this season that may surprise even itself.

    A loss to A&M would force the Sooners into a must-win against Oklahoma State to keep their BCS hopes alive (although it will likely be the end of the national championship dreams). A Sooners win would possibly set up a de facto Big 12 championship match between OU and OSU on December 3.

1. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, December 3

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    That brings us to that December 3 showdown just mentioned between the Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys as the No. 1 most important 2011 showdown in the Big 12.

    These two programs have met in the Bedlam Series since 1904, and as far as rivalries go, this one is definitely one of the more lopsided series. OU currently leads 81-17-7.

    Since starting in 1904, the series has only missed two years: 1905 and 1909. The last Oklahoma State victory came in 2002 in a stunning upset of the then-No. 3 Sooners in Stillwater, with unranked OSU winning 38-28.

    In 105 meetings, only 10 were between two ranked teams (four since 2003). It's probably a foregone conclusion that 2011 will be the 11th. Both teams are absolutely stocked with experienced talent. Both offenses know how to score, and they do it with seeming ease. Last season ended in a 47-41 shootout win by Oklahoma, which faced a higher-ranked Oklahoma State squad for just the third time. As prolific as both offenses are, expect another wild one with plenty of points to go around.

    If everything goes according to the plans in both Norman and Stillwater, this game will remind many of the November 24, 1984 classic between No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Oklahoma State. Oklahoma's 21-14 win gave it a share of the Big 8 title, and although both teams finished the year in the Top 10, fans in Stillwater still look back on what might have been.

    Will 2011 be viewed in the same manner? And in which Oklahoma city will it be viewed with fondness and in which with resignation and disappointment?

    This game will likely decide the 2011 Big 12 champion and the automatic BCS berth that goes along with it. If that wasn't enough, it's also possible, given both teams' preseason positions, that this game could amount to a BCS championship game play-in.

    Should both programs endure until December 3, the winner could likely be staring a Top-Two BCS ranking squarely in the face. That's more than enough reason to place the 2011 Bedlam game on December 3 at the top of our list of the Big 12's most important showdowns.

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