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What's at stake & keys to Saturday's Big 12 Championship Game

No. 9 Baylor faces No. 5 Oklahoma State for the second time this season. This time, a conference championship is on the line.

ARLINGTON, Texas — For just the second time in program history, the Baylor Bears will play in the Big 12 Conference Championship Game on Saturday.

The Bears snuck into the game, needing a win and an Oklahoma State against Oklahoma on the final day of the regular season to get a shot at redemption against the Cowboys. Now, the 9th-ranked Bears and 5th-ranked Cowboys face off at 11 a.m. Saturday inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

But this game represents opportunity. It's the first Big 12 Championship Game to not feature either Texas, Texas A&M or Oklahoma.

Since its reincarnation in 2017, the Big 12 Championship Game has dubbed itself as the only true 1 vs. 2 in major college football, guaranteeing a rematch each year. Let’s rewind to Oct. 2, 2021, when Baylor walked into Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, OK.

With potential College Football Playoff implications in this game, the Bears know what opportunity they have in front of them.

“With the season they had last year, a lot of outsiders didn’t think that we’d be having the season that we’re having right now,” grad transfer wide receiver Drew Estrada said.

The Bears have played in the Big 12 title game just once before: a double-overtime loss to Oklahoma in what turned out to be an unofficial quarterfinal in the College Football Playoff in 2019. But the Pokes have never been on this particular stage, with neither having won a title since Baylor’s in 2014. OSU’s drought extends to 2011.

The opportunity in front of the Bears and Cowboys on a national stage is remarkable, especially when you consider both teams underachieved in 2020.

OSU had its eyes on a Big 12 title game but missed out. Meanwhile, Baylor went a dismal 2-7 on the heels of a 10-3 run to the Sugar Bowl.

“I think it proves that hard work pays off,” conference defensive player of the year Jalen Pitre said. “This group, this team has been through a lot, we’ve seen a lot.”

When these teams first met this season, the Bears finished with their fourth-worst game passing this season, just 173 yards through the air. It was one of just two games in 2021 Baylor didn’t score on a pass. Yes, both teams are run-centric on offense, but they have both continued to build confidence through the air as the season has rolled along.

More than that, and something Baylor will absolutely have to address in a second go-round with OSU, the Bears spotted the Pokes a 14-0 lead at halftime.

“They will literally sit on a lead,” OSU radio announcer Dave Hunziker told 6 Sports of the Cowboys’ approach in games. “If they get a lead like they did at West Virginia, they’ll just try to get a couple first downs and punt. They’re so confident in their defense, they don’t want to do anything to put their defense in harm’s way.”

OSU failed to score in the second half of back-to-back games in September (at Boise State and against Kansas State at home), yet managed to win in both games.

Against West Virginia, a 24-3 OSU win, the Cowboys took a 10-3 lead in to the half and slowed the game down from there to seal the win.

The best equivalent for Baylor would be its 45-20 win over the same West Virginia team, exactly a week after its loss in Stillwater.

There is one thing, though, that is arguably Baylor’s biggest advantage Saturday: the return of Terrel Bernard.

The Bears’ leading tackler missed the OSU game after an injury he sustained against Iowa State the week before. He’ll play Saturday, a massive win for the Baylor defense no matter the status of quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who coach Dave Aranda said would practice this week in hopes of playing but who’s status remained questionable as of Aranda’s Monday press conference.

For the Cowboys, it’s a much different story on injuries, as Hunziker explained.

The game comes just 136 days after the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma pulled the rug out from under the rest of the Big 12, when Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle first reported the two schools had reached out to the SEC about potentially joining the league, a move that became official shortly after and sparked a massive domino effect in college sports’ realignment.

The Longhorns went a forgettable 5-7 this season, their first under new coach Steve Sarkisian, while Oklahoma finished 10-2 before losing its head coach to the Pac-12 less than 24 hours after losing Bedlam for the first time since 2014.

The Big 12 voted to add four schools, currently-independent BYU, and Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American Athletic Conference. Those four teams finished, in order, 10-2, 12-0, 11-1 and 8-4, with Houston and Cincy facing each other for the AAC title on Saturday.

Hunziker said the future of the Big 12 seems fine, if talking strictly quality of play.

“I think the only concern I have moving forward is television money,” Hunziker said. “I think if everybody’s able to stay somewhat where they are, from a television revenue standpoint, I honestly think in an expanded playoff, which I think we’re headed in that direction, I think we’re fine.”

Hunziker continued that the only thing which might hinder the new-look Big 12 is if the per-school TV payout dropped at a rate equal to or greater than the increase of schools in conferences like the SEC might get.

The storylines in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game are aplenty. We haven’t even discussed, yet, two Broyles Award finalists facing off in Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

We haven’t yet discussed the Bears’ continued growth in an offensive scheme they’ve only started using in the 2021 calendar year.

Saturday promises to be one for the ages, especially for two fan bases that have needed something of the sort for a while. SP+ projections have the Cowboys as a one-point favorite and the past two Big 12 Championship Games have both come down to the wire.

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