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For now, TCU and Baylor can still rule I-35

It’s a simple stretch of highway about 370 miles long that can be traversed in less than six hours, traffic permitting.

But that one north-south stretch of Interstate 35 that extends from central Oklahoma to central Texas might be the most important one in all of college football, as it is there that perhaps the four schools crucial to not only determining a conference championship but the national championship in 2015 lie.

What is even more amazing about the I-35 connection in the Big 12 is that at the moment, it’s not the two schools at the very ends in Norman and Austin where the power really lies but the two in between. Two small, denominational schools that are only part of the conference to keep it together have, for now, displaced the two huge state schools as the powerhouses of football in the Big 12 Conference.

Not only was it TCU and Baylor fighting for a spot in college football’s first top-level playoff and, to many, getting unjustly denied, but many have said the poor seasons that Texas and Oklahoma endured on their own ends contributed to the Horned Frogs and Bears getting left out, Yes, UT and OU are currently bringing the Big 12 down.

Can TCU and Baylor continue shifting the balance of power in the Big 12, and can their Big State competition find a way to get back on top? Let’s look at what each of the I-35 schools have looking forward:

TCU – The biggest thing about Gary Patterson and his program is they did not complain about getting snubbed for the college football playoff; they let the reporters and bloggers do that. Instead, the Horned Frogs proved themselves on the field with a thorough thrashing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, with the only piece of excessive bragging being the makeshift championship belt that Trevone Boykin wore in the postgame celebration. And given that TCU only had 10 seniors on its two-deep roster, 2014 should not be a fluke. The Horned Frogs have depth, talent and a chip on their shoulders whether they want to admit it or not, and that should be trouble for all who want the title taken out of Fort Worth. The two biggest games in college football next year could be at Amon Carter Stadium when Baylor and Texas face the Frogs.

Baylor – At the moment, it looks like the only ones who can really stop the Bears are themselves. Baylor did the most complaining about getting left out of the playoff and had a chance to make the same statement as TCU, only to see a 20-point lead wither away against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Art Briles wanted to talk the talk, but next year, the Bears are going to need to walk the walk if they don’t want to come off as a paper tiger.

That alone, though, should show just how much things have changed in Waco. A program that just a few years back was thrilled to win two conference games a year now can’t be satisfied with two straight conference championships. With a new stadium and moony coming in from boosters like Texas Rangers owner Bob Simpson, Baylor can’t really tout the “little man” argument anymore. They’ve shown it can be done; the question now is if/how long they can sustain it.

Texas – The many haters of the Burnt Orange should enjoy kicking them while they’re down now, because it’s not likely that Texas will be down for very long. The Longhorns’ season may have ended in an embarrassment in the Texas Bowl, but Charlie Strong has only started building the type of program he wants. And with a surprisingly good recruiting class that includes top rated linebacker Malik Jefferson as well as his Mesquite teammate DeAndre McNeal, the questions as to whether his tough disciplinary attitude is a detriment have been assuaged for now.

As long as Strong and new athletic director Steve Patterson can keep the meddling boosters out of their business, Strong can build a program in Austin much like the one Patterson has in Fort Worth, and those boosters could see what happens when a tough coach brings in tough players as opposed to a glad-hander bringing in entitled blue-chippers. Texas may soon no longer be known as the team that only wins the big battles in February.

Oklahoma – Who would have thought that the weak spot in this chain would be u pin Norman, Oklahoma? An 8-4 season might not seem as embarrassing as what their Texas rivals endured, but a similar humiliation in the Russell Athletic Bowl (embarrassing enough that the Sooners had to take a game with only a corporate name) has left more than a few Sooner faithful wondering if Bob Stoops has overstayed his welcome. Had OU not beaten Texas – barely – this season, the grumbling might be worse. The one good sign is the surprising news that five-star quarterback recruit Kylar Murray might rescind his commitment to Texas A&M and come to Norman. It would be a big coup for Stoops to silence those who want to see the bleeding end quickly. OU hasn’t won an outright Big 12 championship since 2010, and for the pampered OU fans, that’s too long.

The worst part is that it’s not just on the field where Oklahoma is having problems. The “Pride of Oklahoma” marching band did not have a ton of pride to begin the season, as a student revolt almost broke out over the lack of faith in new band director Justin Stolarik and the new styles and themes he was incorporating into the program. It got so bad that numerous band members put out an ad in multiple newspapers calling for the director’s resignation – which they had to do anonymously due to a band bylaw that threatened expulsion of any member that spoke ill of the organization. Fortunately, Stolarik did step down in October and was replaced by former director Brian Britt, and the school has taken steps to remove that bylaw.

OU appears to have the pride of its band back; the next step is restoring the pride of its team. But that will not be an easy task in the Big 12 – especially with just the teams they have to deal with along that one stretch of I-35.