TCU’s run, Oklahoma’s struggles highlight changing Big 12

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NORMAN, Okla. – Change is afoot in the Big 12 – even before Oklahoma and Texas depart for the Southeastern Conference.

Fourth-ranked TCU has replaced the Sooners as the Big 12 team in the running for a College Football Playoff spot. Oklahoma won the conference and made the playoff in 2015 and from 2017-19. This year, the Horned Frogs (11-0, 8-0 Big 12) have clinched a berth in the conference title game and are positioned to be the league’s playoff team. TCU hosts Iowa State on Saturday in its regular-season finale.

No. 15 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) is a surprise contender for the other spot in the championship game after being picked to finish fifth in the league. The Wildcats would make the title game if No. 24 Texas loses to Baylor on Friday. If Texas wins, Kansas State would need to beat rival Kansas on Saturday night to qualify.

Meanwhile, frequent contenders Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are out. The championship game, to be played Dec. 3, will be the first since the game returned in 2017 without a team from Oklahoma. And defending champion Baylor can only play spoiler by knocking Texas (7-4, 5-3) out of title contention.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes said the changes are a sign of the Big 12’s strength. The Horned Frogs will be playing in the title game for the second time.

“Sometimes people dismiss it as, `Well, the league stinks,”‘ he said. “Well, if the league stunk, it seems like it would be the same team that was there every year. I do remember a time in the Big 12 where Oklahoma was in the championship game almost every year.”

Oklahoma won the title each year from 2017 to 2020 and was in the running to reach the championship game all the way until the regular-season finale last season under coach Lincoln Riley. But the Sooners – picked to finish second in the league – are 6-5 under Riley’s replacement, Brent Venables.

Oklahoma has three conference losses by seven or fewer points. Venables said there are no easy games in the league.

“The quality of the coaching, the quality of the play, doesn’t allow for that,” he said. “Right now, we just don’t have that margin for error on our side of the ball. It’s been challenging, that goes without saying. But for me, I like a good challenge. And every week has been a good challenge.”

Oklahoma State reached the title game last year and looked ready to return after opening the season with five straight wins. But quarterback Spencer Sanders suffered a shoulder injury and the Cowboys’ season started to tumble. A less-than-healthy Sanders, playing behind a banged-up offensive line, threw four interceptions in a 28-13 loss to Oklahoma last Saturday.

“I mean, I could be real obvious and say if we don’t get guys injured, that would help,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “Yeah, but I mean, try to be nice. Just got a few guys beat up. So unfortunately, we’re down a few guys.”

Even Texas making the title game would be unusual. The Longhorns have only reached the championship game once since the event’s return, and they haven’t won the league title since 2009.

No matter what, the second-place team will have at least two losses, and possibly three. In an example of the Big 12’s depth, Iowa State – TCU’s opponent on Saturday – is in last place in the league standings, but leads the conference in scoring defense and total defense and ranks eighth nationally in both categories.

“It says exactly what this league is … that it is really good from top to bottom and there’s a ton of parity, and it’s really, really difficult with the schedule that you have to go through in this league to go through unscathed,” Dykes said.

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. returning for 2023 season

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SEATTLE – Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. said Sunday he will return to the school for his sixth and final season of eligibility in 2023.

Penix announced his decision on social media and it was a surprising one at that. Penix was the national leader in passing this season, throwing for 4,354 yards and led Washington’s turnaround. The No. 12-ranked Huskies went 10-2 in the regular season, finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and will face No. 21 Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

Penix will have a chance at setting Washington’s single-season record for yards passing in the bowl game. He also threw 29 touchdowns this season. Because of his performance this season, Penix saw his NFL draft stock rise to where he was being expected to be a second-day pick at the latest.

In his announcement, Penix wrote, “As I look back on this special season we had, I realized there were so many great moments and things to celebrate, but I KNOW there is so much for out there for this team and the job is still not finished. I can’t wait to be playing in Husky Stadium for the 2023 season!”

Penix started his career at Indiana and showed flashes of stardom while also battling injuries. He transferred to Washington after the 2021 season, a move that reunited him with new Huskies’ coach Kalen DeBoer, who was Penix’s offensive coordinator for one season at Indiana.

North Texas fires Littrell after .500 record over 7 years

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DENTON, Texas – Bowl-bound North Texas has fired coach Seth Littrell, who went 44-44 over seven seasons.

University president Neal Smatresk said Sunday night that the decision to make the move came after a thorough assessment of the program.

The Mean Green are 7-6 this season after losing 48-27 to UTSA in the Conference USA championship game Friday night.

Phil Bennett, their defensive coordinator the past two seasons, was named interim head coach. North Texas plays Boise State in the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 17.

The 44-year-old Littrell had one year left on his contract in what was his first head coaching job. He was the youngest coach in Conference USA and one of the youngest at the FBS level when he arrived after two seasons as offensive coordinator at North Carolina with UNT coming off a 1-11 season at the time.

While the Mean Green are going to their sixth bowl since Littrell first got there, they haven’t won any of those yet. The bowl in his debut season came after only five wins since there weren’t enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all of the slots. Consecutive nine-win seasons followed in 2017 and 2018, but they then had three consecutive losing records before this year.

North Texas also has an interim athletic director after Wren Baker was named as West Virginia’s AD last week.

Smatresk said Jared Mosley, the chief operating officer of UNT athletics, will serve as interim AD. The university is working with a search firm to find Baker’s successor.