Oklahoma State: Can the Big 12's Gunslingers Go All the Way? - Rolling Stone
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Oklahoma State: Can the Big 12’s Gunslingers Go All the Way?

The Cowboys are 10-0, but with Baylor and the Sooners looming, they’re fighting for their College Football Playoff lives

J.W. Walsh

Can J.W. Walsh and the Oklahoma State Cowboys rush to the College Football Playoff?

Justin Hayworth/AP

The most fascinating anthropological document of the 2015 college football season is in fact a fourth-grade decision-making worksheet that was completed by J.W. Walsh, the part-time Oklahoma State quarterback who specializes in running the read-option.

It is a thing of pure Texan splendor, this paper, a chronicle of football obsession that feels like something straight out of Friday Night Lights. Asked about the kinds of decisions that are hardest for him, Walsh responds, “When I have to choose which way to run the veer.” Asked about the kinds of decisions that are easiest, Walsh replied: “When I can throw the football down field and complete the pass.” Asked about what decisions he disagrees with his parents on, Walsh – the son of a renowned high-school football coach in Denton, Texas – replies, simply, “Football.”

What else is there to disagree upon in the great, football-crazed expanses of this country? This week, Walsh’s 10-0 Oklahoma State Cowboys host Baylor, in what could be their toughest test of the season. Roughly 80 miles away, Oklahoma will host TCU, and if both Oklahoma teams manage to win those games, they play each other in a season-finale that may wind up becoming both a de facto Big 12 Championship game and a potential College Football Playoff qualifier. But it’s also possible that the Big 12 could devolve into chaos, as it did last season; it’s also possible that the Big 12 will once again find itself on the outside looking in, largely because of the way it is perceived.

At the moment, Oklahoma State is ranked sixth in the CFP standings, and Oklahoma is seventh. The Sooners are marred by a loss to a terrible Texas team; the Cowboys are the kind of squad who are perennially intriguing, a program with a fabulously wealthy oil-baron benefactor and a coach who enjoys tinkering with the very notion of what an offense can be. But the Cowboys also have a knack for collapsing in on themselves down the stretch. And that’s the thing about the Big 12, as it currently stands: It is one giant fascinating mess, an orgy of offensive production that feels almost like a guilty pleasure to watch. It is a conference that is often its own worst enemy, producing great big gobs of points and touchdowns and Heisman-worthy numbers while managing to pick itself clean of any real national-championship contenders in the process.

Nowhere is football bigger in America than in Texas and Oklahoma – witness J.W. Walsh acknowledging that the hardest thing about making decisions is “which way to throw the ball” – and yet the Big 12 doesn’t possess the cachet of the Southeastern Conference. There is a sense, given the massive scoring binges that the conference produces each week, that Big 12 teams are inherently soft; there is a sense that this is a league that no longer cares much about defense, and therefore, even if a Big 12 team did make the playoff, it would be exposed as the paper tiger that many believe it is. Baylor’s 44-34 loss to Oklahoma last week didn’t aid this argument: The Bears are yet another team that seems to gear us up every year before collapsing at the end.

I have no idea how this is going to shake out; with Notre Dame in the mix, its very easy to imagine that a one-loss Big 12 team, whoever it may be, could potentially be left out of the four-team playoff mix. And stylistically, I think that would be a shame. Stylistically, I want to see what happens when the Big 12 collides with the remainder of the college football universe.

All those years ago, when J.W. Walsh filled out that worksheet, his teacher dared to write back, “J.W., there is more to life than just football.” (This, I believe, is a fireable offense in the state of Texas.) But just as Walsh did back then, this playoff committee has a decision to make, and I hope they decide that their four-team bracket will be richer and weirder and more interesting with a Big 12 team penciled into one of its branches. Sure, there’s more to life than football, but in late November in Oklahoma and Texas, who really gives a shit about anything else?

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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