Something's up with the Big 12. It hasn't been itself lately.
Nearly a month into the season, we've seen some lower-scoring games—save for Baylor and Oklahoma State—than we've generally seen before.
Nonconference games are one thing. Big 12 teams have still managed to put up some big numbers and a lot of points against soft opponents. But the early returns on conference games? It's been far more of a defensive struggle.
In three Big 12 conference games this year—West Virginia vs. Oklahoma, TCU vs. Texas Tech and Kansas State vs. Texas—the average final score was 22-13. Collectively, those six Big 12 teams averaged about 13 points less in their first conference game than they have in nonconference games so far.
It's a small sample size, and there's still plenty of football to be played that can reverse those numbers, but it's still interesting considering the Big 12 has made a name for itself based on offense.
The reasons why Big 12 teams have been scoring fewer points against each other vary to some degree. West Virginia, for example, is practically breaking in an entire new starting offense, and the Mountaineers' struggle to score points was reflected most in a shutout loss to Maryland last Saturday.
But in that vein, there is a consistent trait among several Big 12 schools: young quarterbacks. Six Big 12 teams are starting new quarterbacks in 2013; two more—Oklahoma State and TCU—have QBs who started games last year but did not begin the season as starters.
That inexperience has lent itself to some lower numbers against familiar opponents. Texas Tech's freshman Baker Mayfield was one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country through two games, ranking third nationally at the time in total passing yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
In an ugly and bizarre game against TCU two weeks ago, though, Mayfield tossed three interceptions (not all his fault, mind you) and completed just over 50 percent of his passes.
The opposing quarterback that night, Trevone Boykin, had a pair of picks of his own and looked uncomfortable in his first full start of the season.
Similarly, Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight took about five steps back in his development in Week 2 during a 16-7 win over West Virginia by throwing a couple of costly interceptions when the Sooners were on the verge of scoring. The Mountaineers' defense has been much better in 2013 than it was a year ago (31st in the country in total defense, 33rd in scoring, according to NCAA stats), but it's far from an elite unit.
The closest thing the Big 12 has to a shutdown defense is Baylor (!!!), which ranks third nationally in turnover margin, scoring four times directly off of turnovers, and second nationally in scoring defense. In all, five Big 12 teams—Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Kansas—rank among the top 25 scoring defenses in the country.
Competition factors into those numbers, to be sure. But interestingly enough, few Big 12 teams rank that high in other major defensive statistical categories, such as turnover margin or total defense.
Deductively, it would seem opposing teams can move the ball well enough against defenses in the Big 12 but have a harder time scoring. That's usually a sign of youth and/or inexperience.
Not coincidentally, that's something most of the Big 12 teams who have played in conference games so far are facing, especially at the quarterback spot. So while there's improvement on the defensive side of the ball for many Big 12 teams, offensive inexperience plays an equally big role in some of the low-scoring games we've been seeing so far in the league.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.