It’s Early, But The Field Has Already Narrowed
Some of you might reflexively be thinking that it is too early to talk about the title game, but the reality is that the field has effectively narrowed to 4 teams (with a couple of others—Texas and TCU—who technically are still in it, but would need to win out which is extremely unlikely). Those 4 teams are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, both of which are undefeated (OU is 4-0, OSU is 3-0), along with 3-1 Baylor and 2-1 Iowa State.
Since the Big 12 went to a round-robin in 2017, the conference championship game has always featured a 1 loss team vs a 2 loss team, with the exception of 2019 in which both Baylor and OU each had one loss (but everyone else had more than 2 losses). Thus, 2 losses is a reasonable cutoff for evaluating title game odds. 3 losses could do it, and I think especially so this year, but at that point you are almost assuredly dealing with tie-breakers and nothing is guaranteed at that point.
With 0 losses apiece and 6 games remaining (really 5 if you eliminate Kansas as a potential loss), OU and OSU are probably safely in if they win 4 out of their 6 remaining games.
4-0. 9th in SP+ (2nd O, 49th D). 11th in FEI (6th O, 50th D)
Here is OU’s remaining schedule:
After handling TCU at home and Caleb Williams showing that he’s the real deal in his first game starting, OU has a couple of easy games against Kansas and Texas Tech before they finish with 3 tough games at Baylor, home vs ISU, and at OSU. That’s a tough finish to the schedule. But given what we’ve seen from OU this year, and given how Williams at QB elevates them, I think it is a safe bet that they are gonna win at least 2 of their last 4 games. I hesitate to call anyone a lock with this much left in the season, but OU is pretty close to that. I think the only way they don’t make it is if they get to 2 losses and they lose in a tie-breaker situation.
OU’s defense still remains incredibly suspect. They have a lot of talent on their DL, but haven’t been able to put together a coherent style which plays consistently from drive to drive. But their offense is just that good. They rank 2nd in offensive SP+ and 6th in FEI, and that’s largely with Spencer Rattler data in there. With Caleb Williams playing QB now, they’re easily a top 5 national offense and the most dangerous offense in the Big 12.
3-0 in conference. 32nd in SP+ (80th O, 10th D), 13th in FEI (44th O, 7th D).
Here is OSU’s remaining schedule:
OSU’s win at Texas this past weekend was a massive flexion point. If they had lost they’d be in a similar place to Baylor and ISU where they could only lose one more game against a tough remaining schedule, but now sitting at 3-0 they can safely take 2 more losses. For Baylor specifically, Baylor needs OSU to lose 3 games (unless Baylor were to win out and only finish with 1 conference loss).
I know OSU fans will call me a hater, but I think they are massive underdogs against both Iowa State and Oklahoma. I think ISU is going to smother their offense and am hard-pressed to see them scoring more than 14-17 points. OSU performed well last year, but they really leaned on Tylan Wallace in the passing game and he ain’t gonna be on the field this year. I have zero trust in Sanders to have an efficient game without turnovers here. Oklahoma State’s defense is verified-nasty. They’re a veteran unit that trusts their eyes and absolutely gets after you. They’ll perform well against Iowa State, I just think that Breece Hall proves to be the best player on the field and breaks off enough big runs to win this one going away, something like 23-13.
OSU was able to get their run game going against Texas in the second half, and Jaylen Warren is definitely very good, but that was in large part due to them holding Texas to like 6 straight 3 and outs which wore down an already bad Texas defense. They’re not gonna be able to do that against ISU. OSU fans will call me a hater, but whatever, I think it’s an honest appraisal of their team. But, needless to say, if OSU beats Iowa State, they come very close to virtually locking up a title game appearance. If they lose, they’d have to run the table against Tech, TCU, and WVU to make it. Quite possible, but I wouldn’t want to count on it. When your QB is bad and your offense isn’t good, no game is a sure thing.
1 Loss, But In It
Two teams fit here, Baylor and Iowa State. Baylor has the advantage of the head-to-head if they finish with the same number of losses. Both need to either win out or only lose 1 more to probably make the title game. Let’s start with the team Baylor beat to open Big 12 play, Iowa State.
2-1 in conference. 12th in SP+ (21st O, 15th D), 7th in FEI (12th O, 14th D).
Baylor opened up conference play with a terrific and important win over Iowa State, a very good team who national commentators forgot about after their largely unlucky loss vs Iowa (ISU lost despite giving up something like 3.3 yards per play, that’s very hard to do). Iowa State is a veteran, balanced team who knows their identity. They feature one of the best players in the conference in RB Breece Hall, and when Brock Purdy doesn’t turn the ball over they are pretty good on offense (though he loves to do so). The defense is stout and as reliable as ever.
For them, they either need to A) win out if Baylor finishes with 2 losses (since Baylor has the head to head) or B) lose only 1 more game and have Baylor finish with at least 3 losses. I’ve been screaming to high-heaven ever since they lost to Baylor that this was still a very good team and very well could make the title game. I wouldn’t put it past them to win out. They need Purdy to rein himself in and they will have a great shot in every game. As I wrote in the Oklahoma State section, I think they smother OSU this weekend in what will be a great atmosphere in Ames, a night game for their homecoming.
3-1 in conference. 22nd in SP+ (47th O, 16th D), 17th in FEI (24th O, 26th D).
Baylor’s path to the title game is pretty clear — they either need A) to win out (a realistic but tall task) or B) lose 1 remaining game and have OSU lose 3. There are other, less likely situations which involve OU dropping a few games and such, but I’m not gonna go over every scenario here.
Baylor is a very good team. As I’ve written ad nauseum by this point, most fans expected very good defense and hopefully average offense to get them to bowl eligible this year. After 7 games, they’re already bowl eligible and have a very good shot of getting to the title game. The offense is very good, I think they’re actually better than the defense at this point (though the units are very close).
As Peter Pope pointed out on twitter a few weeks back, Baylor’s schedule broke up interesting in that they’ve already played the toughest defenses on their schedule, and now get to play all the best offenses.
Interesting to look at these numbers through the lens of the schedule:— Peter Pope (@pbpope) October 12, 2021
In the rear view mirror: really great defenses.
Coming up: really good offenses. https://t.co/onvhTsocwC
In the two games where Baylor’s offense has even slightly struggled—Iowa State and Oklahoma State—they struggled to consistently block wide zone against extremely good defensive fronts. Those are two top 15 defenses no matter which metric you look at it. The best defense left on Baylor’s schedule is probably Kansas State, which is a tougher game than most probably realize. They’re 0-3 in conference (against OSU, OU, and Iowa State) but played OSU without Skylar Thompson, one of the 3 best QBs in the conference.
Anyway, given Baylor’s remaining schedule, it’s probably a safe bet that they’re gonna drop at least one game. Their next 4 games are all very tough, even if they’ll be favored in 3 of them. And even if TCU is reeling, you know that Patterson will pull out all the stops to ensure that Baylor doesn’t embarrass them at home. Suffice to say, every week you win keeps kicking the can down further—a win at home vs Texas in two weeks would make finishing with 1 or 2 losses MUCH more likely.
Baylor will be favored against Texas, and I love the matchup for Baylor. Texas has been a woeful tackling team and is struggling to set the edge in the run game. I think Abram Smith likely gets another 25 carries in this game. But more on that next week.
For Baylor to be in this situation halfway through the year is awesome. They are certainly ahead of schedule. And it’s important to remember that making a Big 12 title game isn’t the measure of success for this year’s team—most fans just wanted bowl eligibility this year. For them to be in the thick of it, and not be outmatched by anyone in the conference is an awesome step in year 2 under Aranda. Having a great QB gives you a chance in every game, and Gerry Bohanon gives Baylor just that.