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Baylor Should Oppose Expansion: Part 1- Playoff Chances

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first in a three-part look at why Baylor would be harmed by expansion. Part 1 discusses Baylor's playoff chances in an expanded Big 12. Part 2 looks at the revenue side of things in an 12 team conference. Part 3 closes by discussing how expansion will leave Baylor in a worse spot when the next round of realignment begins in 2025.

As the Big 12 ponders expansion, all the realistic targets would leave Baylor in a worse situation. Although other Big 12 institutions may benefit from expansion, Baylor would be worse off with a 12 team conference. The Bears would face a tougher road to the college football playoff, lost revenue, and be in a worse spot when the next round of realignment begins.

In recent weeks, a number of teams have been mentioned as expansion candidates. These teams include: Cincinnati, BYU, Connecticut, Colorado State, Temple, Houston Memphis, UCF, and USF. Each team presents some unique benefits and problems. However, any combination of those teams would leave Baylor in a worse situation.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Pro-Expansion Models rely on limited data

A Big 12 with the number of teams the name implies, would form two divisions and play a championship game. This is the impetus for expansion. The theory, paraded by the analytics firm(Navigate Research) the Big 12 hired, determined the Big 12 is 5% more likely to have a team in the playoff with 12 teams, 8 conference games, and one true championship game.

Even if the firm is correct, this is not a huge increase. A 5% more likely outcome implies the Big 12 would have a playoff team one additional time over 20 years with a championship game. That is a marginal benefit, and as explained below, there are serious reasons to doubt that 5% conclusion.

The firm's conclusions rest on some difficulties. The sample size this data draws on is from just two years. In reality, the 2015 playoff was obvious because four one loss teams: Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma, were ahead of the two-loss teams, which really leaves one year of data to use. In statistical modeling, a limited sample makes it hard to extrapolate. Nate Silver blamed his inability to forecast Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination partially on drawing conclusions from a limited sample of modern primaries. Over that time, it looked like someone opposed by the party elite and out of step with many positions of the party would be unable to win the nomination. Yet, Donald Trump is now set to be the Republican nominee and has shown someone opposed by the party elite and out of step with many positions of the party can be the nominee. In a similar scenario, from the limited data we have from the first year of the playoff, it seems a team with a championship game win is preferred to a team that does not play in a championship game. Ohio State and Florida State jumped TCU and stayed ahead of Baylor in the final week of the 2014 season, despite TCU absolutely mauling Iowa State in the final weekend. One conclusion is to feel the championship game, or what then Playoff Committee Chairman Jeff Long calls the 13th data point, is the reason why. Ohio State and Florida State both played in a championship game while TCU and Baylor did not.

However, there are other explanations for why those teams jumped TCU and stayed ahead of Baylor. First, TCU may have been jumped because the committee wanted Ohio State and Florida State in the playoff over Baylor. Once both TCU and Baylor finished 11-1, the Committee was obligated to consider head-to-head. Once the Committee had to weigh head-to-head, Baylor was almost assured of being ranked above TCU. This left the final spots between Florida State(undefeated so almost certainly in), Ohio State, and Baylor.

The Committee may also have a number of reasons outside of a championship game for leaving the Big 12 out of the original playoff. Many of the Committee members were former coaches in traditional offenses, like Barry Alvarez and Tom Osborne. These coaches may have had less faith in Baylor winning games against traditional teams like Alabama. Another popular theory was that the Committee wanted a trusted brand. Baylor had less of a football tradition, while Ohio State was a well-known and popular brand. While I doubt the Committee seriously considered how popular a team was, these explanations are seemingly possible. In total, these explanations cast doubt on establishing a model with any certainty that says a conference championship game is the reason Ohio State made the playoff instead of Baylor or TCU.

The new members of the Committee make this even more difficult. Over a few cycles, we may start to understand how some people think or what they value. However, the makeup of the Committee changes. Art Briles mentioned, "When Archie Manning went off, I said we’re in trouble." Briles felt Archie Manning was likely a favorable Committee member because he suspected he watched more Southern teams. This season, the Committee no longer has Mike Gould, Pat Haden, Tom Osborne and Mike Tranghese. In their place are: Jeff Bower, Lloyd Carr, Herb Deromedi and Rob Mullens. If someone felt confident they could predict how the Committee worked in 2014 and 2015, it's possible the new members will view the teams or weigh certain factors differently. We really don't have any idea what matters.

Ed Feng, one of the top sports data analysts, showed how the championship game decision is fraught with uncertainty. I'd encourage everyone to read his article. If one slightly downgrades the potential boost from a championship game from 75% to 50%, then the championship game actually harms the Big 12.

Big 12 champs
Baylor may have a tougher road to winning more championships with a title game

The Division Format is a Huge Issue for Baylor

In an expanded Big 12, the conference would have to split into two divisions to have a championship game. The NCAA allows a Championship game in two situations: a) everyone in the league plays everyone, and the top two teams meet in a rematch championship game- think the 10 team Big 12 with Baylor v. TCU 2014 or OU-OK State 2015; b) teams are separated in two divisions, everyone in the division plays everyone else in that division, and the two division winners play a title game- think the Big 12 with the North & South from 1996-2010.

The Big 12 has a huge geographic imbalance. The six teams in Oklahoma and Texas are far stronger collectively than the other six teams. Kansas State has been great some seasons, and I do not want to doubt Bill Snyder, but that still leaves the rest of the North far weaker than the South. West Virginia has been a good team, but even KSU and WVU have been weaker than the modern Big 12 South(with TCU swapped for A&M) the last two years. KSU and WVU also have weaker recruiting classes than Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. That also says nothing of Kliff Kingsbury's' abilities and Tech's run in the middle of the last decade. And then there's Oklahoma State with impressive resources, a Big 12 title in 2012, and a team that was just in the Sugar Bowl.

The league could try and split the teams in an East-West alignment, but that's tricky. Our friends from our Oklahoma State sister site have suggested an interesting alignment. However, I have some doubts about a 12 team conference splitting up the Southern schools. An expanded Big 12 will create an incentive for the schools outside Texas and Oklahoma to push for a North-South division where the South has all the Oklahoma and Texas schools because it would be easier to make the title game from that weaker North division . Several Southern schools would also want to stick together. Oklahoma and Texas are rivals and will probably want to play yearly. If Oklahoma has to stay with Texas, Oklahoma also probably has to stay with its in-state rival in Oklahoma State. While no other Southern school is probably looking to be devoid of a traditional football rival(yes Baylor and TCU are rivals). Given that scenario, at least a few of the would be Big 12 South teams have an incentive to stick together. This leads to an easier coalition for agreeing to a North-South split than a geographically odd but preferable division. Maybe one can craft an example of a different coalition, but I do not see it how the league approves one.

Iron Throne Briles
I had to use this image

If the old Big 12 South comes back, Baylor would be left playing what have historically been, and are likely to be, the best teams going forward. If Baylor wins the Big 12 South, it will often play a Big 12 North opponent who is not a playoff contender. Beating this Big 12 North opponent would not give a boost to the Bears because they would not be a great opponent. From the Big 12's perspective, the worse division winner would often just have a chance to knock its better team out of the playoff.

A useful exercise is a breakdown of the Big 12 from 1996-2010. Below is that breakdown of the Big 12 title games from 1996-2010 under the 12 team, two-division format. The goal is to be top 4 at the end of the season to make the playoff. I estimate if the title game helped, hurt, or was neutral. Many others might look at the championship game in a situation like 2007 and assert the title game as negative because Mizzou and Oklahoma did not play for the national title. However, OU went up to #3 and would have made the playoff. All rankings are from the A.P. poll. As discussed below, some years are open to interpretation, but I think almost any interpretation of these 15 seasons leans against a Big 12 championship game.

1996: Unranked Texas upset 10-1 Nebraska, knocking Nebraska from #3 to out of the top 4. Title game hurts- Nebraska makes the playoff without the Big 12 championship game but would be left out of the playoff by losing.

1997: #2 Nebraska beat #14 Texas A&M. Title game is neutral- Nebraska makes playoff with or without championship game.

1998: #2 Kansas State loses to #10 Texas A&M. Title game hurts- KSU is knocked out and A&M only moves up to #8.

1999: #2 Nebraska beats #12 Texas. Title game is neutral- Nebraska makes playoff with or without.

2000: #1 Oklahoma beats #8 Kansas State. Title game is neutral- OU makes playoff with or without.

2001: #9 Colorado beats #3 Texas. Title game is neutral- Texas is knocked out, Colorado does not move up enough to make the playoff. However, Nebraska went up to #2 and makes BCS Championship Game. The Big 12 was probably locked with one team getting in under any scenario in 2001. With a Longhorn win in the championship game, Texas and Nebraska may have both made the playoff, but Colorado also would have been a less stellar loss(the four-team playoff leads to some weird terms) for Nebraska, and it would have made putting a non-conference champion like Nebraska in the playoff difficult.

2002: #8 OU beats #12 Colorado. Title game is neutral- nobody makes the playoff regardless.

2003: #13 KSU beats #1 Oklahoma. Title game is neutral- Oklahoma still makes playoff. However, this gets into a discussion about the randomness of the playoff. Oklahoma made the BCS Championship Game where they went on to lose to LSU. OU may not stay in the top 4 in the modern era with a blowout loss like they had to KSU because a team blown out in its championship game may have a tough time making the playoff again. However, the computers loved OU and they stayed top 2, so I leave this as neutral instead of harmful.

2004: #2 Oklahoma beats Colorado. Title game is neutral- OU makes either way.

2005: #2 Texas beats Colorado. Title game is neutral- UT makes either way.

2006: #8 Oklahoma beats #19 Nebraska. Title game is netural- OU doesn't makes in either scenario.

2007: #9 Oklahoma beats #1 Missouri- Title game is netural- Although Mizzou drops down, OU moves up to #3 in the AP and probably makes the playoff.

2008: #4 Oklahoma beats #19 Missouri- Title game is netural- Oklahoma makes title game.

2009: #3 Texas beats #21 Nebraska- Title game is neutral- Texas makes title game.

2010: #10 Oklahoma beats #13 Nebraska- Title game is neutral- neither team makes playoff.

Over 15 championship games, I estimate the Big 12 would have cost itself a playoff spot two times, in 1996 and 1998, while the Big 12 would have had no impact on its playoff shot the other 13 times. The Big 12 would have received a playoff boost in zero of those 15 seasons. 15 is still a small sample size, but it's worth remembering that the data we do have shows the division format, especially in the Big 12 where the North had a wonderful run from Nebraska and KSU early, and then had a great run from the South at the end, produces a 13th game where a loss by the favorite would ruin its playoff chances, and a winning underdog cannot leapfrog into the playoff because their resume will be too weak.

If the Big 12 can manage to reformulate the divisions in a new manner, then maybe the title game could have some benefit. In Part 3, I'll explore how a title game with 10 teams could benefit the Big 12. However, the Big 12 has to understand its divisional imbalance. The Big 12 South has incredible coaches and recruiting advantages right now. As long as those continue, the Big 12 South seems likely to dominate the conference landscape until the end of the Big 12's television deal. If those imbalances persist and the Big 12 still wants a title game, a Big 12 South Champion Baylor is more likely to face a 13th data point that can cost them than a 13th data point helping them. The Bears quest for a playoff spot is probably hurt by expansion.