By Stephen Hawkins
The Associated Press
NORMAN — Mack Brown’s team at Texas is feeling much better after getting into Big 12 play.
After ugly non-conference losses to BYU and Mississippi, a win over Kansas State in their league opener provided a fresh start for the Longhorns.
“I do feel a difference sense,” Brown said Monday. “Everybody has got new hope, so it’s really like two different seasons.”
Once the Big 12 gets through this last weekend in September, there will be no more non-conference games in the regular season. Then at least league teams will be beating up on each other.
There have already been eight non-conference losses, twice as many as the Big 12 had throughout the regular season last year. Big 12 teams are 19-8 against non-conference opponents with three such games left to play this weekend.
“Not only the Big 12, but across the country, there’s a very huge amount of parity and I’ve mentioned that over the last three or four years,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said during the weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference. “It’s great for the fans, it’s great for everybody other than the coaches. There will be challenges week to week.”
Last year, the Big 12 was 26-4 in its non-conference games played during the regular season — the mark was 27-3 in 2011, the league’s first season with 10 teams and a round-robin schedule. Even in 2010, when the league still had 12 teams and each played four non-conference games instead of three, the Big 12 was 40-8 in the regular season against outside competition.
No. 11 Oklahoma State, coming off an open date after winning its three non-conference games, plays its Big 12 opener Saturday at West Virginia (2-2).
West Virginia suffered its first shutout loss since 2001, losing 37-0 last weekend to Maryland when the Mountaineers had only 175 total yards. West Virginia lost its Big 12 opener at Oklahoma more than two weeks ago and will be the first to play two conference games already.
“You want to put your best foot forward when it comes to conference games, there’s no question,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Last week against Maryland, that meant something too. Unfortunately we didn’t play very good, I didn’t coach very good. ... Now that we’re in Big 12 play, each and every one of them count.”
Iowa State (0-2) plays Thursday night at Tulsa to wrap up its non-conference slate. On Saturday, No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) travels to No. 22 Notre Dame and TCU (1-2) is home against SMU.
No. 19 Baylor (3-0), the nation’s highest-scoring team at 69.7 points a game, and No. 24 Texas Tech (4-0) have the weekend off. So do Texas, Kansas State and Kansas before it’s all Big 12 games through the first weekend in December.
“It’s really a lot more exciting now than in the preseason or out-of-conference games,” Brown said.
This is the second open date in three weeks for the Bears, whose next game is Oct. 5 at home in its Big 12 opener against West Virginia in a rematch of that wild game last year the Mountaineers won 70-63.
“We’d like to keep rolling along, but maybe on the flip side, we need a little down time and settle down and then get ready to get up and go into conference play,” Baylor coach Art Briles.
The Bears have the league’s longest winning streak at seven games. That includes their final three conference games last season, a bowl victory over UCLA and the three lopsided wins to start this year. They seem better prepared for conference play than a year ago, when they lost their first four Big 12 games.
“There’s some validity to that, without question,” Briles said. “I think our mindset is certainly different than it was a year ago going into Big 12 play.”
TCU is in a 15-day gap between games following its 20-10 loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 opener for both teams. The Horned Frogs opened their season with a 37-27 loss to sixth-ranked LSU.
“Everybody’s talking about us being 1-2,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “I don’t think there’s a situation where everybody should be panicking.”