No conference -- or at least no Power FIve conference -- with College Football Playoff hopes has more to gain in Week 3 than the Big 12.
Before diving into why, a disclaimer: Sweeping, conference-wide narratives early in the season can be overblown. Remember the Big Ten's all-time low showing in Week 2 of 2014? When Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all lost, and both Nebraska and Iowa had to rally to beat McNeese State and Ball State? You know, when half the conference basically didn't show up? Well, Ohio State went on to win the national title that season, and the only thing of substance that Week 2 produced was the iciest Freezing Cold Take in history of social media.
All it takes is one team to make those lowly nonconference showings a thing of the past, though it is a tall order. Still, no conference yearns to be embarrassed on that level because it says something about the state of the football being played. It doesn't have to eliminate anyone from the playoff, but it can put them behind the eight-ball and paint the conference as a whole in a negative light.
To its credit, quality hasn't been as big of an issue in the Big 12 as it sometimes sounds. Oklahoma has some hardware with two playoff appearances, but the Power Five's smallest conference produced eight bowl-eligible teams last season and nine in 2012. Half of the league won at least eight games last year, too. Thanks to Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Big 12 has as many Heisman Trophy winners since it went to 10 teams in 2011 as the ACC and SEC
Still, Saturday remains is a rare opportunity for the Big 12 because it generally only gets a statement weekend once every couple of years.
Naturally, this is first and foremost referring to Rutgers-Kansas.
OK, not really, but the Jayhawks are a slight home favorite (-2.5) against the Scarlet Knights, and KU hasn't won back-to-back games since the first two games of 2011. So, yes, there are stakes at every level on Saturday.
Take Baylor, for example. The Bears moved to a six-point favorite over Duke after the game opened as a pick 'em. That would be a big win. Conversely, Kansas State has looked bad in its first two games. Blowing it to a three-touchdown dog like UT-San Antonio might signal an actual decline in the Bill Snyder tenure.
There's plenty of meat in the middle, too. No. 24 Oklahoma State is a mere 3.5-point favorite over visiting No. 17 Boise State. Houston is now favored by a point over Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, but that line has already swung once. Texas is a field goal favorite over No. 22 USC at home. And had it not been , No. 14 West Virginia had a test against NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Of course, the crown jewel is No. 15 TCU hosting No. 4 Ohio State. Colleague Dennis Dodd breaks down just how a win over the Buckeyes could of college football. TCU has been a program on the rise under coach Gary Patterson, from mid-major player to Rose Bowl champion to Big 12 title contender. A playoff appearance, no doubt aided by a win on Saturday, would mark one of the most incredible ascensions in the modern era of the game.
The storylines write themselves, but a good showing turns a corner for a conference that could use it.
The most recent example of a similar weekend was Week 1 of 2016. That's when Oklahoma played Houston, which was coming off of a Peach Bowl win; Kansas State played Stanford, which had a Heisman contender in Christian McCaffrey; and Texas faced Notre Dame as two blue-bloods tried to restore some glory. The Big 12 went 1-2 in those games. Texas, as the sole victor, eventually finished 5-7 and ... lost to Kansas. (Oh, and it turned out Notre Dame stunk, too.)
Week 1 of the 2014 season also had meaning with West Virginia facing No. 2 Alabama and Oklahoma State facing top-ranked Florida State. Both teams lost, but they were also underdogs against two eventual playoff semifinal participants.
Though the odds weren't always in its favor, the Big 12 nevertheless went 1-4 in those key games, and the 1 deserves an *. This time around, Big 12 teams are favored in five of the seven nonconference games and would have been six of eight with WVU-NC State. Houston-Texas Tech may as well be a pick 'em.
A face plant will produce a black eye for the Big 12 but probably mean little relative to No. 5 Oklahoma, the conference favorite and primary playoff candidate. The Sooners are an 18.5-point favorite at Iowa State. (However, a loss by Oklahoma in conjunction with an abysmal day around the Big 12 changes the dynamic.)
Big wins, though, have implications. What about TCU if it upsets Ohio State? Would beating USC get Texas on track or at least something close? By Sunday, there could be real challengers to the Sooners and other names to talk about nationally besides Oklahoma and West Virginia. That, above all else, would be a great message for the Big 12 to send.