College football is back…finally, and with the return of the season comes the return of everyone’s favorite one-year old tradition, rampant and wild playoff speculation. At the moment, there is some kind of consensus around the idea that the Big XII cannot be excluded from consideration for two consecutive seasons. Given the fact that the ACC seems unlikely to produce an undefeated champion, there appears to be little doubt that Baylor, TCU, or perhaps Oklahoma will emerge victorious from the round robin terror that is the Big XII and make their way to either the Cotton or Orange bowl. However, I think this certainty may be fleeting. Consensus in college football is fickle thing, and I have little confidence that the current position of the Big XII will last all season.
For reasons to worry we need only look back to last year. Since the committee made its final decision on that ominous day in December there has been, as one should expect, considerable speculation about the selection of Ohio State over both Baylor (the rightful one true champion) and TCU. The most popular of the theories I have seen have been name brand bias, general cowardice, and Big XII structural issues. Though the first two of these could conceivably be true and certainly feed my instinctual need for indignation, they are not terribly helpful. If the committee has no intention of letting a start-up in over a blueblood or is inherently afraid of controversy, there is nothing that can be done.
If, however, there is an issue with how the Big XII is organized, there is progress that can be made. However unlikely it may seem, the Big XII can change. It has done so in the past (unwillingly, but still) and can do so in the future. I am sure most of you reading this are familiar with the usual complaint about the lack of a Big XII championship game, and this is definitely an issue. I will touch on it only briefly here. Much ink has been spilt on this concern and I don’t see a point in rehashing the arguments. Furthermore, I think the problem is deeper than this. A round robin system is inherently flawed in comparison to the two division set-up used by every other P5 conference for three reasons.
All three relate to a statistic I believe may have been pivotal in the committee’s decision last year, total bowl-eligible teams played. Last year Baylor played 6 such opponents, while Ohio State played 10. This may seem like an insignificant fact to keep tabs on, but it’s a reasonable measure of mid-level strength of schedule (something I think the committee takes very seriously). Basically this can tell you how deep a team’s schedule was. Number of ranked opponents may tell you how many good or great opponents a team played, but number of bowl-eligible opponents indicates how many not-bad opponents a team played. The knock on Baylor’s schedule last year was inherently linked to the idea that we played a great team, a few good to okay teams, and large number of bad teams. Regardless of whether or not this attack was accurate; as Baylor fans we should be concerned with this figure as a counter to that claim.
1. Additional Non-conference Game
As may be obvious, in a round robin system each team must play every other team in the conference. When you have two divisions, a team only plays some of the teams in the conference. For example Ohio State did not have to play Nebraska, Iowa, Purdue, or Northwestern last year. Not having to play each conference team has two separate benefits.
First, free of a nine-game conference schedule, Baylor could schedule a fourth non-conference game. Obviously, it is unclear that given this opportunity Baylor would schedule a bowl-eligible opponent. This does not, however, change the fact that at the moment this opportunity is not available to Baylor. Looking back to last year, Ohio State was able to schedule 3 bowl-eligible non-conference games (Navy, Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati) as well as 1 cupcake (Kent State). Baylor, in contrast, had zero bowl eligible non-conference opponents. Given one more game, it is at least possible that Baylor could have found one bowl eligible opponent from its non-conference schedule.
Second, each of Baylor’s conference opponents would have had an additional non-conference game as well. If you give a conference opponent one more non-conference game to schedule a cupcake, it can put them over the bowl-eligibility threshold (winning at least 6 games). This benefit may not be obvious at first, but it could be a fairly significant factor. Last year, it was hard to see in the Big XII since the conference’s three bowl-ineligible teams (Texas Tech, Kansas, and Iowa State) were not one game away from 6-6. The effect is more obvious in last year’s Big Ten. Both Penn State and Illinois ultimately went 6-6 in the regular season making them just barely bowl-eligible (and boosting Ohio State’s number by 2). Given their in conference records that year (2-6 and 3-5) it is highly unlikely that forced to play a ninth conference game they would have made it to that 6 game threshold.
2. Avoiding "Bad Teams" in the Conference
Last year 5 of 7 teams in the Big Ten West division were bowl eligible (71%). However, 100% of Ohio State’s Big Ten West opponents (Ohio State is in the Big Ten’s other division, Big Ten East) were bowl eligible. Since Ohio State did not have to play every team in the Big Ten West they were able to avoid playing Purdue and Northwestern improving their bowl eligible opponent percent along the way. If the Big XII were organized into two divisions it is possible Baylor could have avoided playing Iowa State, Kansas, or Texas Tech last year. Instead Baylor would have had a fourth non-conference game as mentioned above.
3. Championship Game
I think everyone has touched on this, but yes one more game means one more opportunity to play a bowl eligible opponent.
As was mentioned above Ohio State played 10 bowl eligible opponents last year, Baylor played 6. Let’s, however imagine a year in which the Big XII was structured like the Big Ten. Here is what Baylor’s schedule may have looked like:
4th Non-conference game (bowl eligible)
Division Games (based on a North/South division set up)
Texas (bowl eligible)
TCU (bowl eligible)
Oklahoma (bowl eligible)
West Virginia (bowl eligible)
Kansas State (bowl eligible)
Oklahoma State (bowl eligible)
Conference Championship Game
Kansas State (bowl eligible)
In this schedule Baylor plays 8 bowl-eligible teams. This is still short of Ohio State’s 10, and Baylor’s non-conference schedule is still its own fault, but this schedule would have made the committee’s decision between the two much harder than Baylor having 40% less bowl-eligible opponents.
What To Do?
This is frankly what is most unclear to me. I think it would be best for Baylor if the Big XII merely divided itself into divisions and adopted the system described above. Unfortunately, this is disallowed by the NCAA at the moment. This is why there was so much conference expansion or implosion talk over the off-season. It is possible that the NCAA could change its rule on this matter (on this matter the Big XII could have an ally in the ACC which wants to get rid of divisions all together), but this seems fairly unlikely. For now, it looks like Baylor will just have to live with this imbalance. Live, play, and hopefully win.