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Into the Unknown: On Baylor vs TCU, the Big 12 and the Fight for Football Survival

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The goal of a college football program is not to win a national championship.

My most fervent wish for Baylor football is not that they host the Crystal Ball Golden Parenthesis Trophy in Glendale, Arizona on January 11th, 2016. Nor should it be yours. Nor should it be the highest aim of our (chrome) purple brethren to the north.

Power 5 Conferences and Private Schools

A look around the Power 5 Conference landscape quickly reveals how unorthodox the current Big 12 hopes for college football glory are.

The Big 10 has one, Northwestern. The SEC has one, Vanderbilt. Neither are models that portend well for Baylor and TCU.

The Pac 12 has two, Stanford and USC…sort of. USC has more students than TCU and Baylor combined and is historically the premier program of that conference.

The ACC is…complicated. Depending on your thoughts of Notre Dame as an ACC school and whether Pitt is a public or private, there are 5-7 private schools in the ACC. It would perhaps not surprise you then that the ACC is the only conference that has been considered as unsteady as the Big 12.

Despite all of the history of these conferences, I can’t recall any of them attempting to do what the Big 12 will attempt as we head into the 2015 season.

There are some great series, even rivalries, between private schools. Notre Dame and USC. Notre Dame and Miami. The only intra-conference private school rivalry that has consistently mattered in crowning a conference champion is USC and Stanford.

This year, the Big 12 must argue that one of the most important games in college football will be Baylor and TCU. Given that neither program has the history of USC or OU, this game can’t be sold as a battle of David vs Goliath. So it’s in the conference’s best interest then to sell this game as a rivalry. With UT unlikely to return to its former glory in the next few years, OU’s bipolar yearly product and the impending departure of Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, establishing Baylor and TCU as primary rivals are among the best bets for the Big 12 in the near future.

But for Baylor and TCU to go along with this plan represents a huge gamble – a risk that likely plays into the hesitance that seen from both teams on this.

David vs Goliath

College football is built on narratives. With over 60 Power 5 conference teams that are constantly in flux due to graduations, new recruits and the coaching carousel, narratives are often the only means by which average fans can make sense of the college football landscape. Narratives allow for new unknowns to be connected to a well-known, historical past. The small town QB now vying for Heisman. The failed coach/player now succeeding in his second chance. The plucky mid-major that could beat a playoff contender on the right day.

When it comes to famous rivalries, there are generally two types: David vs Goliath and Goliath vs Goliath. Baylor itself has benefitted from this as RG3’s Heisman campaign was built on the underdog taking down  in OU and UT. Even Art Briles latest book is called Beating Goliath. There is a safety, a known quality, to playing the role of the underdog, and we Bears know it well.

I know of no conference that has be able to succeed with a David vs David rivalry as the premier game each season over a multiple seasons. The vitriol between TCU and Baylor over the past few years, so often misunderstood by outsiders, is not just for wins, bragging rights, and championships. It is a battle for the mantle of David. The vitriol stems less from hatred for the other side as it does from fear of what losing could mean. Whether it’s a decade spent as the punching bag/Homecoming game for the conference or the doomsday scenario of not making it into a Power Conference during the next round of realignment, these programs and its fans are intimately familiar with the consequences of missing out on this opportunity. This is not Rudy or Remember the Titans. This is Hunger Games. This is the Game of Thrones.

Herein lies the essential conflict of embracing the Baylor and TCU as primary rivals. It is logical from most angles – proximity, history, current quality and excitement of the games. However, historically speaking, there is more to be gained from being The Underdog to historic programs like UT and OU.

The Solution

My most fervent wish for Baylor Football is not to win the 2015 National Championship. It is, instead, for Baylor to become one of the historic programs with all of the benefits, accommodations, and inherent benefits that come with it. I want Baylor to get the benefit of the doubt, to have media attention naturally drift back to it even after a down year, to win big recruiting battles and have it seen as natural as opposed to chicanery. As fun as it is to be David, the college football world favors Goliath.

And make no mistake, winning a championship in 2015 would go a long ways toward that. Historic status is built on Championships and Heisman contenders and we’re doing fairly well on those counts. But it’s also built on being elite for many years in a given timeframe. Oregon has not won a national championship, but they currently receives most of the perks of being a historic program due to their long run of success.

The best bet for the long term health and success of Baylor Football, or TCU Football, is not to win the 2015 National Championship. It’s to become Notre Dame, Miami, or USC. Achieving such heights allows for picking whomever you want as your primary rival. Also, it’s virtually impossible. Roughly as impossible as a small Baptist school suffering a decade of terrible teams, making a few great hires, and then winning a Heisman and consecutive conference championships.

I do not believe Baylor has yet reached its peak. I do not believe that TCU has yet reached its peak, either. It is possible that one, or both, of these programs are able to entrench themselves among the historic programs in the coming years. Only at that point would embracing each other as primary rivals come without risk.

For 2015, that option is not available to us. Instead, we must bet big on this series, this rivalry, and hope for a game that is hugely consequential to the CFB Playoff Race. It is in the best interest of both programs for the other to be excellent and then play another historic game on Black Friday.

So here’s to this rivalry maturing and blossoming into a great and wonderful thing this year. With less fear of impending doom for the losing team, may this rivalry be more good natured than vitriolic, more clever than bloody-knuckled, and more recognized for the quality of the teams playing than the surprise at the logos on their shiny helmets.

Let the Revivalvry recommence. Just don’t call make them The Rival…yet.