Non-conference play turned into a disaster for the Big 12 on the whole in 2016. For every step forward such as Texas’ season-opening win over Notre Dame, a giant leap backwards, such as Ohio State throttling the conference champs, popped up.
The tenor of the conversation surrounding the conference could change with a solid showing in non-conference play this fall. That has to sound like a nice prospect to commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who must be so tired of defending the Big 12’s honor whenever there’s a microphone in his face.
Give this to the conference members, however: They don’t run from challenges. Two of their non-conference games involve some of the best teams in the country. Even Baylor got in on the act, setting up a game against a Power 5 program for the first time since the pre-Art Briles era.
1. Oklahoma at Ohio State (Sept. 9)
A year ago, the anticipated clash of the titans between the Sooners and Buckeyes fizzled. OU got pounded on its home turf, which puts a damper on the hype for round two.
The two squads finished last season heading in opposite directions, though. If the underdog Sooners can get a win in Columbus, it will go a long way to re-establishing the perception of OU as a heavyweight.
2. Texas at USC (Sept. 16)
At the very least, this rematch of the epic 2006 Rose Bowl will command the country's attention leading up to kickoff. After that, a rebuilding Texas squad might have trouble keeping up with the Trojans. Whether or not the game gets away from the Longhorns, Tom Herman will have a better idea of what he's working with after squaring off against one of the West Coast's premier teams.
3. West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 3 – Landover, MD)
The Hokies and Mountaineers will face off inside the antiseptic confines of FedEx Field in a matchup that would carry infinitely more juice as a home-and-home series. Dana Holgorsen might prefer the setting in this case, though, given the number of fresh faces taking the field for WVU. They include heralded transfer QB Will Grier, who can make a hell of a first impression in a primetime showcase.
4. Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 16)
The Cowboys won a wild shootout versus the Panthers in Stillwater a season ago. As the year wore on, the victory started to look even better for the Pokes. Pitt will want revenge against Mike Gundy’s team, which will be coming off another long road trip to South Alabama the week before.
5. Iowa State vs. Iowa (Sept. 9)
This in-state rivalry doesn’t sound sexy – because it isn’t. It’s still a top non-conference game for the Big 12 because a win for the rapidly improving Cyclones would really benefit the perception of the league as a whole. ISU is probably still smarting from the 42-3 beating administered by the Hawkeyes in 2016.
6. TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
TCU fell in double overtime to the Razorbacks last year in a game that the Horned Frogs should have won. With a combined 17 starters back, Gary Patterson’s veteran team has a good shot at knocking off the Hogs in Fayetteville. The last time a Big 12 team visited Arkansas, Bret Bielema’s outfit got demolished by Texas Tech.
7. Kansas State at Vanderbilt (Sept. 16)
The Wildcats should handle Vanderbilt in their week three tilt, but it’s really a no-win situation for the Big 12’s rep. If KSU wins, it’s just Vanderbilt. If the Commodores win, the story will be that one of the more respected squads from the Big 12 lost to an SEC bottom-feeder.
8. Texas vs. Maryland (Sept. 2)
New head coach Tom Herman will face a tougher than usual test in his first game at Texas. The Terrapins made a bowl game last season and stand to improve in the second year under DJ Durkin. That should keep the Longhorns motivated for their 2017 debut.
9. Baylor at Duke (Sept. 16)
This game makes the list for the novelty of it alone. The Bears were shamed into scheduling a Power 5 non-conference game for the first time since 2009, so they’re gracing Duke with their presence in the third week of the season. Consider this Matt Rhule’s first major test as BU’s head coach.
10. Texas Tech vs. Arizona State (Sept. 16)
Last year, these two teams combined to score 123 points. They might do it again this time – both allowed more than 39 points per game in 2016.
In light of Kliff Kingsbury’s scorching seat, the Red Raiders could use a win here to help start the season off right.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.