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Baylor’s Path to the Playoff: It’s Real and Could be Spectacular

The dream lives on; the cause endures

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff-Selection Sunday Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If Baylor wins next week, they’ll be one of, at most, six teams competing for the four playoff spots.

Before turning to if Baylor will earn a playoff selection, it’s important to break down how the playoff actually works. Also, I will add the usual point that I understand that Baylor needs to focus on Oklahoma. I don’t play for Baylor. I don’t think James Lynch and Bravion Roy will read this article and suddenly forget when they’re supposed to rush Jalen Hurts.

The playoff is made up of 13 members. Their protocol says:

Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree (treat final determination like a tie-breaker; apply specific guidelines).

The criteria to be provided to the selection committee must be aligned with the ideals of the commissioners, Presidents, athletic directors and coaches to honor regular season success while at the same time providing enough flexibility and discretion to select a non-champion or independent under circumstances where that particular non-champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.

There are three important considerations to take away from that.

Committee members change:

First, the members of the committee. We have several new members of the committee this season. We often like to cite, “Well, the committee picked Ohio State over Baylor and TCU in 2014,” therefore, this will happen. But that leads to the question: why does what happened in 2014 have any impact on the voters in 2019?

Precedent can matter because it creates predictability. We can know that similar situations will lead to similar results, and when things are predictable, people might feel better because they can understand the outcome based on past situations.

Precedent doesn’t always matter though. Let’s turn to the legal context, an area where precedent is often given more gravitas. Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito seem unlikely to find the precedent of Roe v. Wade persuasive because they believe it was wrongly decided. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor believe that Citizens United was wrongly decided. That duo would likely vote to overturn that precedent. Similarly, Ray Odierno or Rob Muellens—two members of the 2019 committee—may not care about the precedent that top 25 wins mattered to Kirby Holcutt’s group in 2017. They may just default to what they think matters this year.

Are the teams comparable?

The selection process states:

The committee will select the teams using a process that distinguishes among otherwise comparable teams by considering:

• Conference championships won,

• Strength of schedule,

• Head‐to‐head competition,

• Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory), and, • Other relevant factors such as key injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season or likely will affect its postseason performance.

If it comes down to Baylor v. non-champion LSU, non-champion Ohio State or non-champion Clemson, Baylor would have the advantage of a conference championship won. But the committee could determine that the teams are not, “otherwise comparable.”

The 2017 committee did not feel like 11-2 Big 10 Champion Ohio State was “otherwise comparable” to 11-1 non-SEC Champion Alabama. Kirby Holcutt, the then chair, said, “In this case, the margins weren’t close enough for us to look at those matters.” That committee determined the teams were just not comparable.

Anyone that wants to argue about conference championship or another category has to remember: those metrics only matter if the teams are comparable. The 2017 precedent doesn’t matter because it binds the 2019 committee; it matters because it shows that at least one group of voters thought otherwise comparable wasn’t triggered between two teams with major flaws in their resumes.

The limited value of the weekly rankings:

The weekly rankings are entertaining, but they have two big limitations. First, the rankings are supposed to be, “interim rankings.” They can change week-to-week. TCU moved from No. 3 to No. 6 in 2014, despite their dominant win over Iowa State. Baylor jumped five spots last week, despite beating the mediocre Texas Longhorns. Things can change quickly.

Second, the weekly rankings don’t tell us how close the vote is. Take the 2000 election, George W. Bush won Florida over Al Gore by less than 600 votes. In an election that close, nearly anything could be explained as the deciding factor in that election. For this committee, we don’t know how close Utah and Oklahoma/Baylor are. If Utah’s preferred by all 13 members over Baylor, then the Bears might not be able to make up ground on the Utes just by beating Oklahoma. But if Baylor already has several members that favor them over Utah, then they might be able to flip a few votes in the final ranking by beating Oklahoma, a better team than Oregon, Utah’s opponent in the PAC 12 Championship Game.

Okay, where are we:

Baylor’s resume with a win over Oklahoma would be: 12-1 with the Big 12 title. The Bears are in top 25 limbo. Oklahoma State, ranked No. 21 this week, and Iowa State, ranked No. 23, both lost. Each could drop out of the top 25. Kansas State could enter as well. Let’s say Kansas State enters the rankings and the other two drop out. Maybe Oklahoma State stays ranked, but we’ll say one non-Baylor or Oklahoma team in the Big 12 is ranked. That would leave the Bears with two top 25 wins.

Nothing is certain in life, and certainly not with the playoff. I think LSU is in regardless of how the SEC title game goes. The Tigers have wins over: Florida, Auburn and Alabama. All of those teams will be ranked in the top 15. Their only loss would be to Georgia, a team that would be in the top four. They’d have 12 wins, which would equal Baylor’s win total. Although not SEC champs, I think the committee would determine that Baylor would only have one comparable win to those three (Oklahoma), and that LSU would make it over Baylor.

Ohio State is also probably in regardless of how they do in the Big 10 title game. They have 12 wins and top 25 wins over: Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Cincinnati. The Bearcats might drop out with another loss to Memphis in the AAC title game, but even still, it’s an impressive collection of wins. The Buckeyes have also exercised game control, eviscerating every opponent by at least 11 points.

Clemson is an interesting case. They’re certainly in with a victory. That would make them 13-0. But with a loss? They’d finish with zero ranked wins. The ACC is clearly the worst of the power five leagues. They would not have a conference title. But the Tigers are the defending champion and dominated 11-of-12 games. They won every non-North Carolina game by at least 14 points. And I think most people in their hearts believe this is one of the four best teams. But the resume has to have some value, and if Clemson can’t beat Virginia—a team that lost to hapless Miami and will have zero top 25 wins when Virginia Tech leaves the rankings this week—then it’s hard to place them in the field. My guess is that Clemson will get left out with a loss.

Georgia makes it with a win. They’d be 12-1 and the SEC champs. They’re already ranked No. 4. But what about with a loss? I don’t see it. The Bulldogs would have their horrendous loss to 4-8 South Carolina and another loss to overcome. They wouldn’t have a league title. Sure, they have wins over: Auburn, Florida and Notre Dame, but that trio lacks a team as good as Oklahoma. At the very least, the catastrophic South Carolina loss would make them comparable to Baylor. Add in that Georgia won four games by a touchdown or less, and the Bulldogs don’t have the game control to say they are unquestionably one of the four best teams. I don’t see a two loss Georgia making it.

Two loss Wisconsin isn’t making it over Baylor. Wisconsin has a non-competitive loss to Ohio State—a 31 point shellacking. They lost to non-bowl eligible Illinois. While their four wins: Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State, would be impressive, they have overwhelming issues. A two loss team, and a second Big 10 team, would have a tough time making it over a conference champion Baylor. That Illinois loss is brutal. The noncompetitive loss ruined Ohio State in 2017. Again, precedent doesn’t bind, but it does show what a group of voters in a similar position once felt. And with the committee now ranking every one loss team above every two loss team, I don’t see a two loss Wisconsin—with their major blights—jumping Baylor.

That leaves what we’re setting up as the real debate: Baylor v. Utah. The Utes play Oregon on Saturday in the PAC 12 title game. If Utah wins, they’ll have one top 25 win: Oregon. Oregon already has two losses and is ranked below Oklahoma. Baylor’s best win (Oklahoma) would be better than Utah’s best win. At least one of Kansas State or Oklahoma State figures to be ranked, and both might be. That means Baylor would have a better win, Oklahoma, and more top 25 wins. The Bears also have a better loss (Oklahoma) than Utah (USC). Now, the committee has mentioned that Utah was without their running back in that game. But USC won starting their 3rd string QB.

Despite Baylor’s seeming advantage vis-a-vis Utah, the Bears have a problem: everything but the Oklahoma win v. the Oregon win exists now. And the committee currently thinks Utah is better than Baylor. That means Baylor either needs the Oklahoma win to overtake Oregon or for member’s of the committee to dig into Baylor’s case and change their votes. My concern is that Utah has been so dominant—and that must be what matters to them now—that I don’t feel certain that a win over Oklahoma would be enough to leapfrog the Utes.

The Utah-Baylor debate is what this could really come down to. It’s one thing for Baylor to be ranked below them now, but if the final spot comes down to Utah-Baylor, then the committee will likely spend hours parsing their resumes. Each played a pathetic nonconference schedule. Neither played a power five opponent, and 7-5 is the only team with a winning record on either’s schedule. Admittedly, Utah’s nonconference schedule is still better. BYU, Northern Illionis and Idaho State beat the SFA, UTSA and Rice trio. But the spot isn’t coming down to which team had a more pathetic slate in September. It will likely come down to a judgment call about which team is better. With a dominant win, Baylor might be able to flip enough votes.

We really don’t know for sure what the committee will do if it comes down to Baylor and Utah. I think Utah would edge out Baylor, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in that prediction. I also don’t have a lot of confidence that Utah will beat Oregon.

Baylor seemed doomed to miss the playoff after the Oklahoma loss. But on Saturday, Auburn’s victory over Alabama eliminated the Tide, and Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota eliminated the Gophers. If Baylor can win and get help in two more games next week—LSU over Georgia and Oregon over Utah—then two years after being 1-11, the Bears will almost assuredly be in the playoff.