By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — Baylor’s 52-42 loss to Central Florida in Wednesday’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl may have been an upset. It might even have been a knock against the Big 12 Conference, which saw one of its flagship teams fall to the up-and-coming American Athletic Conference.
But the Bears’ offense scored 42 points in a closely contested game Wednesday. The Fiesta Bowl provided plenty of entertainment in a bowl season that early on saw 13 different games won by at least 15 points.
Overall this postseason, the Big 12 has held its own.
Four of the six bowl-qualifying Big 12 teams have already played, going 2-2. Baylor lost to UCF and Texas lost to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, but Kansas State dominated Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and Texas Tech did the same to Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.
The Big 12 has basically played its four opponents even, with opponents scoring a combined 119 points and Big 12 teams scoring a combined 117.
The Big 12 featured six bowl-eligible teams this season. Oklahoma played Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday and Oklahoma State plays Missouri in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic tonight.
The Cotton Bowl may not be a BCS bowl like the Fiesta or Sugar bowls, but it’s still a 78-year-old bowl respected enough to keep the name virtually intact since it started in 1937. Big 12 teams faced ranked Southeastern Conference opponents in both the Fiesta and Cotton bowls, giving the Big 12 a huge opportunity to show its mettle.
The SEC didn’t lead the country in bowl-eligible teams this year, its 10 teams coming in second behind the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 11. But the SEC has gone 5-1 through its first six bowl games, and the ACC has gone 3-6.
Even if Clemson wins Friday’s Orange Bowl and Florida State wins Monday’s national championship, the ACC will still finish the bowl season with a losing record, and at worst the SEC will finish 5-3.
The Pacific-12 conference went 6-3 in its nine bowl games, but Stanford’s 24-20 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday meant an 0-1 showing in BCS bowls. If the SEC can even split its four remaining bowls, it’ll finish with the winningest record among all conferences this season.
Other notable conference records include 3-3 performances from the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, though neither conference qualified a team to a BCS bowl. The Big 10 went 2-4 this postseason, but it won the Rose Bowl — the conference’s first win in that bowl since 2010 — and has a chance at a 2-0 showing in the BCS if Ohio State can knock off Clemson in tonight’s Orange Bowl.
Many fans and analysts knock the Big 10’s slower, run-based, more traditional style of football for both its lack of excitement and its inability to hang with the faster, high-flying teams of the Pac-12 and the SEC. But with an Orange Bowl victory, the Big 10 would at worst tie the SEC for most BCS wins this season.
So with the bowl season nearly over, which conference is the best? Based on current bowl records, it’s hard to argue against the SEC being the best conference in America, even if Florida State wins the championship.
From top to bottom, the SEC just seems to have the most quality football teams, dominating both the BCS rankings and the biggest bowls year in and year out. The Pac-12, meanwhile, seems like the second-best conference, with three-quarters of its teams qualifying for bowls and half its teams winning this year.
Had Pac-12 standout Oregon not lost to Stanford on Nov. 7, the Ducks might very well have earned a spot in the national championship.
That puts the Big 12 in the mix for third. The Big 10, Mountain West and C-USA also qualified for at least six games, and the AAC qualified for five.
The AAC, 2-2 with one bowl left, is the latest reiteration of the Big East — a conference known for top-tier basketball programs but definitely not football. C-USA has some classic teams such as Marshall University, Rice University and the University of Tulsa, but like the AAC this conference just has too many cellar-dwellers to be ranked among the best.
The Big 10 usually sees several of its teams ranked each year, but its 2-4 showing this postseason is part of a general losing trend. The Big 10 entered the 2013 bowl season having gone 30-51 over its previous 10 postseasons, its only winning postseason coming in 2009.
The Big 12 seems to rest squarely as the third-best conference in the nation. Its best teams often rank among the nation’s top five, and its worst teams still provide better competition than their equivalents in the Big 10 or C-USA.
And if Oklahoma State can knock off Missouri in the Cotton Bowl tonight, the gap between the best and third-best conferences in the nation might shrink just a little bit more.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.