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Live Life Deliberately

The Big 12’s newest teams are used to winning. Just not in the Big 12.

Every college football Saturday gushes too many sagas for a sound mind to follow, but a curious one cropped up last week in the Wasatch Mountains. That’s where BYU hoarded five turnovers and decked Texas Tech, 27-14, and that’s where one of the four first-year Big 12 programs finally claimed a win without a Hail Mary ending over the 10 older Big 12 grinches.

Otherwise, this strand of the mass realignment has showcased a halting path uphill. It looks like cause for patience in a college football land that has none.

The four newbies — BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston — stand 2-12against the harrumphing 10. The standings have dumped the foursome to the dungeons, with Cincinnati (0-4 in conference) and UCF (0-4) tied for 13th on the 14-team list, Houston (1-3) sitting 12th and BYU (2-2) in a four-way tie for sixth. One of BYU’s two conference wins came against Cincinnati. Houston’s one conference win came on a closing 49-yard heave from Donovan Smith to Stephon Johnson for a 41-39 win over West Virginia, although its matter against Texas on Saturday showed how ascent might be afoot.

The upshot: Four fan bases that don’t do losing seasons all that much have faced losing seasons, even as BYU (5-2, 2-2) nears escape from the possibility. BYU has had one losing season in the past 18, Cincinnati three in the past 17, UCF three in the past 13 and Houston four in the past 18. Cincinnati, of course, graced the 2021-22 College Football Playoff.

“You know, this program’s had such great tradition,” Cincinnati first-year coach Scott Satterfield told reporters this week, “and won a ton of games over the years and are used to winning. And I hate it for our fans that come out, support us, fill that [excellent] stadium, and they’re loud and into it.”

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The trek uphill began Sept. 23, when Cincinnati began its Big 12 life; welcomed Oklahoma; lost, 20-6; and had Satterfield notice the empire: “They come in here, and it’s an entourage when they travel. I don’t know how many planes and buses they took here and how many people they have on a sideline. It’s a boatload of people because they have won a lot of championships. They’ve been around a long time.”

A gaze at the numbers doesn’t make the four seem hopeless, even as it does provide a funny little puzzle that seems an inverse of the standings. UCF stands sixth in the country in total offense per game (499.6) and yards per play (7.21). Cincinnati comes in at 25th (444.9) and 59th (5.88), Houston at 55th (407.9) and 61st (5.85), and BYU at 122nd (301.9) and 113th (4.94).

Apparently the sport is based on more than offense. Apparently turnover margin can determine mirth or misery on a campus Saturday night: BYU is third in the nation (plus-9), Houston No. 23 (plus-5) and Cincinnati tied for 108th (minus-4) in a somber eight-way logjam that includes UCF.

When Houston opened the Big 12-ness it had craved a good while on Sept. 16 against visiting TCU, the Cougars got a 36-13 pasting and a stalling of recent progress on offense. “The opponent makes a difference,” said Houston Coach Dana Holgorsen, who knows some offense. “It’s Big 12 football. It is.” He reminded of TCU: “This opponent played in the national championship last year.”

The concept of moving up among college football’s weird strata has gotten a fun reading this season in the case of Colorado, where stars Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter have thrived after arriving from the Football Championship Subdivision, in their case Jackson State. After Colorado opened with a 45-42 upset at TCU, Sanders said, “The only difference between FCS and this level is the D-line gets off blocks faster if you try to scramble.”

Holgorsen, fielding a question about whether first-team line talent or depth mattered more, went for the latter. “It’s more depth,” he said. “I’ve been saying this for two years. The biggest difference in Group of Five and Power Five is the second team and the third team. Look, man, we all know this is going to take some time. Nobody wants to hear it, and I’m disappointed how we played today offensively, and we have to get better, and it’s unacceptable, and we expect to line up and play better and win every game. But for the depth and the recruiting, it’s going to take time.”

That ought to appear on the dollar bill.

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Speaking of depth, there were indications early on that the newbies suffered especially in second halves. Houston went from a 20-13 halftime deficit to TCU to a 36-13 loss and a 35-28 halftime deficit to Texas Tech to a 49-28 loss. BYU went from 17-14 ahead to 38-27 behind at Kansas, and Cincinnati scored three points apiece in the second halves of losses to Oklahoma and Iowa State. UCF had the nightmare of all: not its 44-31 loss at Kansas State (which went 23-14 the wrong way in the second half) but its 36-35 loss to Baylor, during which Baylor won the second half 29-7 and the fourth quarter 26-0.

“This was a big moment,” UCF Coach Gus Malzahn said of that Big 12 home opener, “and we didn’t seize the moment.”

When Houston lost that 49-28 game to Texas Tech, Holgorsen said: “I just told the team, this is Big 12 football. This is the second Big 12 football game where we competed, and the first half was good, competitive. We do things better defensively and on special teams in the first half and we get a lead. Now, can we sustain that lead? Hopefully at some point we’ll be able to figure that out.”

Houston never got a lead Saturday in its 31-24 grimace to Texas, but it erased a 21-0 deficit to gain 21-21 and 24-24 ties, and it commenced a suffering that could wind up eternal over a botched officiating spot of a ball on a third and one from the Texas 10-yard line with 63 seconds left.

That might have showed a wrinkle of change for the four greenhorns, and so might UCF’s visit to Oklahoma, which wound up 31-29 after Sooners defensive back Kendel Dolby thwarted a two-point conversion try with 1:16 left. “We’re getting a little better. I think that’s fair to say,” Malzahn told reporters, before he said: “We did wear down a little bit. I think that’s fair to say.”

Here comes another hard weekend: BYU visits Texas, which it stormed with a 41-7 win in 2014, long before the arrival of Texas Coach Steve Sarkisian, that former BYU quarterback from that gilded 14-1 season of 1996-97. Houston goes to Kansas State, Cincinnati goes to Oklahoma State, and UCF stays home against West Virginia.

“You look at these conference games,” BYU Coach Kalani Sitake said after losing, 44-11, at TCU on Oct. 14, “you just can’t predict anything.” Maybe that’s inching toward true.


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