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The Big 12 could be headed towards a fascinating, historic conference championship game

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Assuming you weren’t alive in 1912, that is.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

Since the Big 12 started playing a conference championship game in 1996, only two of the 18 editions didn’t have either Texas or Oklahoma participating. The Sooners have notched 11 appearances, the Longhorns six, and the rest of the current conference membership combined takes third place with five total berths. There’s a six-year stretch from 2011 to 2016 where the Big 12 didn’t have a championship game, but if it had, the matchups would have looked like this:

  • 2011: Oklahoma State vs. Kansas State
  • 2012: Kansas State vs. Oklahoma
  • 2013: Baylor vs. Oklahoma
  • 2014: TCU vs. Baylor
  • 2015: Oklahoma vs. TCU
  • 2016: Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State

That’s 48 real and hypothetical Big 12 Championship Game spots in 24 years of league play, 21 of which go to Oklahoma or Texas. (Longhorns, don’t read this: Look, Oklahoma, we know you’ve shouldered the load and lumping you together with Texas is kind of nonsensical. Just be cool, we’re doing a thing here.)

But with roughly a month to go, Iowa State and Oklahoma State occupy the top two spots in the Big 12 standings, with Kansas State (whom the Cowboys just narrowly beat and the Cyclones play next) tied with OU and Texas for third. Don’t jinx it or anything, but we could be looking at a Big 12 title game that’s equal parts fascinating and rare.

Iowa State has the clearer path right now – no really, that’s a true sentence; 2020 is absolutely wild – if only because they’ve played one more conference game than any of their Big 12 colleagues. Their sole conference loss was to Oklahoma State, which doesn’t matter right now since the Cowboys are currently in the top two, and Iowa State’s already got a victory over Oklahoma, giving the Cyclones the tiebreaker over the Sooners if it comes to that.

The remaining road is not without peril, however. Kansas State’s next up for the Cyclones, and while the Wildcats have lost two straight, a win here would more or less give Chris Klieman’s team control of its own destiny. Iowa State’s also got Texas (the only team to beat Oklahoma State so far) and an uneven-but-capable West Virginia left to play.

If they pull it off, it will be Matt Campbell’s greatest accomplishment in Ames by far. The Cyclones haven’t taken the silver medal in their conference since 1977, when they finished two games behind Oklahoma in the Big Eight standings. They haven’t won a conference title since 1912, when they split the Missouri Valley Conference championship with Nebraska on the strength of … a 2-0 conference record for both teams. Just getting to the Big 12 Championship would make this one of the most successful Iowa State seasons ever.

Stillwater’s seen a conference title much more recently than Ames. The 12-1 Cowboys won the league in 2011 and narrowly missed a BCS Championship spot thanks to a loss to yup, you remembered, Iowa State. But Oklahoma State’s never played in the Big 12 Championship itself, and the 2011 title remains the only one the program’s snagged since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996.

Oklahoma State’s due to play two opponents near the bottom of the conference standings (Baylor and Texas Tech) and .500 TCU. But first they’ll have to face Oklahoma in the accurately-named Bedlam rivalry on November 21st. An Oklahoma State win would end a five-year winning streak for the Sooners, give Mike Gundy his third win in this series in 16 tries, and basically knock Oklahoma out of conference contention for good.

And while they missed a chance to take a commanding hold on a championship game spot after losing to Oklahoma State by two points on Saturday, Kansas State could beat the Cyclones in two weeks and put themselves back in the conversation. (The tiebreakers are complicated and I refuse to figure them out. That’s what Bob Bowlsby gets paid $3.3 million to do, and you know I’m right because you can’t come up with any other reason to pay Bob Bowlsby $3.3 million.)

The Wildcats played in the last Big 12 title game that didn’t feature Oklahoma or Texas, a 1998 double overtime loss to Texas A&M that kept Kansas State from playing for a national championship. Bill Snyder’s the only coach to lead this team to a Big 12 Championship Game appearance, losing twice and winning in 2003. If they played for the conference this year, it’d be a great early feather in Klieman’s cap and give lots of Kansas State fans new reasons to get mad at my pal Steven Godfrey about this entirely reasonable article he wrote in September!

I mean, yes, Texas and/or Oklahoma could still claw back into the top two, but that wouldn’t be novel or interesting. Give me some combination of Iowa State/Kansas State/Oklahoma State instead, with the winning coach being immediately considered for whichever doomed SEC job opens up. But why struggle somewhere else when you can build a consistent program in the Big 12 and just flip that interest into a nice little pay bump without leaving?

Granted, it’s not like that would be particularly novel or interesting for Mike Gundy, either.