The possible playoff participants are dwindling in number. The Pac-12 doesn’t have any viable candidates. The ACC and SEC are down to two each; the Big Ten has three. The conference with the most candidates is the Big 12, with four. One is undefeated, and three have only one loss. They will all play each other during the last five weeks of the season. Despite that depth, the conference may be left out of the playoff.
The Big 12’s schedule is different than the other conferences. The early weeks of the season are filled exclusively with out of conference games. Then, all of the marquee games in conference are at the end of the season. It would seem this is done on purpose. Without the benefit of a conference championship game, having your big name teams play one another at the end of the year should garner interest, ratings and rankings. At least that is the idea.
Another perceived benefit of having this schedule is that it increases the depth of the league, whether real or perceived. If a team makes it through the first 10 weeks of the season undefeated or with one loss, that reflects well on that team. If a conference has multiple teams with one loss or fewer, it reflects well on the conference. No one know if that reflection is a true indicator of depth or an anomaly based on scheduling.
There are four teams still alive in the Big 12, with Oklahoma State leading the way. If the Cowboys win out, they are clearly going to the playoff. If Oklahoma wins out, they will finish 11-1 with wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State. Combine that resume with an out of conference win over Tennessee and the Oklahoma brand, and the Sooners will probably be going to the playoff.
Then there are two teams who have a deep an unwavering love for the committee: TCU and Baylor. Last season’s one loss resumes were not enough to qualify either team for the playoff, and it could happen again this year.
Take TCU. Were they to win out they would have wins over Oklahoma and Baylor. A loss on the road at Oklahoma State would not be a black eye, but the Frogs would still need some help. Barring 2007 like chaos the Big 12 isn’t getting more than one team in the playoff. If Oklahoma State keeps winning, it’s going to be the Cowboys. Imagine the angst in Fort Worth if the Horned Frogs finish 11-1 with wins away versus Oklahoma and at home against Baylor only to be left out again.
As bad as that scenario would be, there is a worse one for TCU. TCU could win out, get help from an Oklahoma State loss and still be left out of the playoff. Notre Dame and a one loss team from another conference could be problems for them. There’s no reason to assume that the committee will choose Notre Dame or perhaps a one loss Big Ten team over them, but there’s no guarantee the committee won’t.
Then there’s Baylor. They could share the same fate as TCU, except they don’t need Oklahoma State’s help. The Bears could finish the season with two marquee wins, at Oklahoma State and at TCU. The only blemish on their schedule would be a home loss to Oklahoma. That resume should be strong enough to get them into the playoff, but the Baylor would be in the same position as TCU: their fate in the hands of a committee.
Expand or Die
Despite backloading their schedule, the Big 12 teams are still operating at self-inflicted disadvantage. The lack of a championship game means one less big game for one of its teams to win. Imagine if there were a championship game, even it was a rematch. Can you imagine any of the teams mentioned above finishing 11-1 and then beating another 11-1 or a 10-2 team to win the championship? That team would be a shoe in. It would make it easy for the committee. Something that didn’t happen last year.
The Big 12 knows it is hampered by the lack of a championship. It has tried to brand its way around it (“One True Champion”) and to get an NCAA waiver to allow it to have a championship, but neither has worked. If the conference doesn’t want to risk being left out every year, it needs to expand. It doesn’t matter who they add. It really doesn’t. The Big 12 is now being penalized more for having no conference championship than it would be if it added two FCS teams to its league.
How crazy is that? Go add Houston and SMU. They’d be happy to come. Want to expand your geography? Go get Central Florida and Cincinnati. It doesn’t have to be two AAC teams. It could be anyone, and it will resolve the issues with the championship game.
Oklahoma State is the only sure bet for the conference. If they win out, they make it easy for the committee. They could be like Clemson and Ohio State/Iowa, the undefeated champion of a power 5 conference. If they are, it’s easy for the committee; let them in. Then the committee can pick between the one loss teams, which will probably include Alabama and Notre Dame.
If the conference has a one loss team to put forward as its champion, things could get dicey. There will be more one loss teams from power conferences than places for them to go. The Big 12 is owed one by the committee for last season, but will the committee see it that way? Don’t bet on it.