The SEC faces a shootout

Step aside, Southeastern Conference, there’s a new sheriff in town. It came riding in this weekend in the form of a band of Cowboys and a longhorn named Bevo.

After the No. 5 Texas Longhorns nipped No. 1 Oklahoma 45-35 in the “Red River rivalry,” and the No. 17 Oklahoma State Cowboys stormed into Columbia and upset No. 3 Missouri 28-23 — the secret was out. The Big 12 is the best conference in football, not the SEC.

Before the season began, college football pundits proclaimed the SEC as not only the best in the nation, but perhaps the best in college football history. However, with the success of the Big 12 teams this season, SEC fans have been looking over their shoulders while fumbling for their “best in the nation” tag as it started slipping from their grasp.

On Saturday, the Big 12 had its coming-out party, lassoing that tag away.

Not only did Texas jump to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, but with Oklahoma State’s victory, the Big 12 has six teams ranked in the top 16. What is more unbelievable is that the Big 12 South Division has four teams ranked in the top eight. It’s the first time that has happened since the conference championship game evolved in the early ’90s — when conferences were split into subdivisions.

The SEC was supposed to be the deepest conference in the history of the game this season. Two key SEC matchups were supposed to decide who would represent the conference in the national championship. Those were “the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” on Nov. 1 between preseason No. 1 Georgia and No. 5 Florida, and the game between preseason No. 7 LSU and No. 24 Alabama on Dec. 11. It was a given that those four teams would work themselves into a playoff, and one would show up to the BCS national championship game in January.

The hype soon fizzled, however.

Alabama rolled over Georgia on Sept. 27. Florida lost at home to a dismal Ole Miss team. Then LSU turned around and got stomped 51-21 by the Gators. All the while, recent top 25 teams like Auburn and Vanderbilt have faded — with Auburn firing its offensive coordinator. By the way, where has perennial power Tennessee gone? The Volunteers are 2-4 overall and in danger of not playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2006.

Ultimately, the Big 12 is where the real matchups lie — ones that will change national championship implications.

The last eight weeks in the Big 12 season are going to resemble the opening weekend of the California Gold Rush, which is fitting considering that mascots like Sooners, Cowboys, Raiders and Longhorns will all be taking part.

You’ve got No. 16 Kansas at No. 4 Oklahoma. You’ve got No. 11 Missouri at No. 1 Texas. Then there’s No. 8 Oklahoma State at Texas, and No. 7 Texas Tech at Kansas. And it’s all capped off in the final weekend with the “Bedlam Series,” Oklahoma at Oklahoma State.

Oh my, I’m getting dizzy. So are SEC fans.

Sure, the SEC is still one of the premier conferences in college football. I mean, at least they’re not the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big East or the Big Ten.

Remember when the Miami-Florida State rivalry game would decide who would play for a national championship seemingly every year? Miami was in the Big East, while FSU was in the ACC. Take Virginia Tech as well: Michael Vick led the Hokies to the 1999 National Championship game to face — surprise — FSU.

All three of those teams are together now in the ACC, and all three are far from national title contenders. Miami is last in the Coastal division.

When Virginia Tech and Miami left the Big East, it shattered the conference. Since the split, the Big East has had one team finish in the top five (West Virginia in 2005). South Florida was close last year, before its three-game collapse, as was West Virginia. The team was one win away from playing in the national championship, but fell short to Pittsburgh at home.

The Big Ten conference has been represented in the last two national championship games by Ohio State. But Florida and LSU have ransacked the Buckeyes by a combined score of 79-38.

In the midst of all these connections, between conferences and collapses — could it mean the same fate awaits the SEC conference?

Nobody can be certain. The only thing we know for sure is that the power pendulum in college football is swinging toward the Big 12.

Yes, the SEC is still strong. In fact, head-to-head between the two conferences in last three years the series is knotted at 5-5.

But, in a conference that has graduated personalities like Cowboy Troy, L.Q. Jones, Davy Crockett and Zorro, it’s safe to say that the Big 12 could challenge the SEC for its “best-of-the-best” badge. Whether the SEC likes it or not, the tumbleweed has rolled across the barren street.

And let’s face it: this nation ain’t big enough for the both of them.