For the majority of the teams in the Big 12, we're just past the halfway point of the season and for Baylor, the bye week couldn't have come at a better time. Earlier this week, I was perusing the Big 12 standings after last week's chaotic slate of games, and reacted thusly:
These conference rankings though ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/IibUcWNVkA— Peter Pope (@pbpope) October 19, 2014
Of course, this standings table looks as weird as it does because two teams, Kansas State and TCU, have only played six games apiece, whereas the rest of the conference have all played seven at this point. That puts TCU beneath West Virginia and Oklahoma State because they're only 2-1 in conference play.
Since I tweeted that, there have been plenty of different sports outlets looking at "who's the favorite" to win the Big 12. Jake Trotter of the ESPN Big 12 Blog tells us that ESPN's FPI Index (however that's calculated) gives TCU and Baylor each a 31% chance of winning the Big 12. EJ Holland over at Dave Campbell's Texas Football would have us believe that "TCU is in prime position to win the Big 12." SB Nation's own Bill Connelly sees the race as Kansas State, TCU, and then Baylor. Essentially, if you ask a different expert, you'll get a different answer. Shoot, ask the same expert the same question a week from now and you'll probably get a different answer. That's what makes the Big 12 so much fun for outsiders, and so stressful for us.
Instead of calling one or two teams the "favorites," I've decided to look at the schedule for each of the teams considered a contender to see how they match up. Let's take a closer look. (Since I began writing this,
ODB Traitor BearsIllustrated.com site owner Tim Watkins wrote a similar post that is absolutely worth a read. LOVE YOU TIM)
Oklahoma State Cowboys (5-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: WVU, @ K-State, Texas, @ Baylor, @ OU
I said on the podcast before last weekend's games that I wasn't convinced that Oklahoma State wasn't overrated, and the Cowboys proved my concern to be well founded. At this point in the season, Oklahoma State looks to be the weakest of the contenders, but at 3-1 in conference they are still in the race for the Big 12 title, if not the College Football Playoff. If we've learned anything from the Big 12 race thus far this season, it's to expect the unexpected. That being said, the Cowboys were thoroughly unimpressive against TCU last weekend, having been held out of the end zone by the Horned Frog defense for the entire game. The Cowboys have probably the toughest schedule remaining, playing host to West Virginia and Texas and then having to head to Manhattan and Waco, two of the toughest road venues in the Big 12, before heading to Norman to close out the season with the Bedlam game. I see a 2-3 finish as the most likely outcome, but losing out is entirely within the realm of possibility for the Cobwoys.
Oklahoma Sooners (5-2 overall, 2-2 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: @ Iowa State, Baylor, @ Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma State
Despite their record being at just .500 in conference, the Sooners have one of the easier schedules remaining of the contenders. Oklahoma has three home games remaining and two road match ups where the Sooners should take care of business. Fortunately for the crimson and cream, they get the Bears and the Cowboys at home. The most difficult game on the schedule is still clearly the Baylor game on November 8, but the Bears' road woes are well-documented. Though the Sooners' dreams of College Football Playoff glory are all but extinguished, don't count them out of the conference title hunt just yet. They'll need some significant help to retake the top spot in the conference, but if the teams above the beat up on each other, the Sooners just might slide back into this thing. I see the Sooners finishing out the season 4-1 or 5-0 (and we all hope the Bears deal that loss).
West Virginia Mountaineers (5-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: @ Oklahoma State, TCU, @ Texas, K-State, @ Iowa State
With their surprise victory over our Bears last Saturday, the Mountaineers have vaulted into the Top 25 polls and into the conference title hunt. At two losses, they're on the outside looking in on the Playoff discussion at this point, but their close loss to Alabama speaks well for the Mountaineers. That being said, West Virginia definitely has the meat of its schedule ahead of it, with three tough road games as well as hosting TCU and K-State. Personally, I'll be surprised if the Mountaineers do better than 3-2 over this stretch, especially if they struggle on the road like they did at Texas Tech two weeks ago. If they lose on Saturday to the Cowboys, it could be a long rest of the season for the suddenly high-flying Mountaineers. Saturday's matchup should tell us quite a bit about both the Cowboys and West Virginia's team.
Kansas State Wildcats (5-1 overall, 3-0 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: Texas, Oklahoma State, @ TCU, @ West Virginia, Kansas, @ Baylor
Fresh off their second win in Norman in as many trips, the Wildcats are riding high as the only undefeated in-conference team and are on the cusp of the Top Ten. But K-State, along with TCU, has only played six games thus far, meaning they have half of their schedule remaining where the rest of the conference have open dates on their schedules. K-State may be in the driver's seat at present, but the Wildcats sport one of the toughest remaining schedules in the Big 12, with each of its toughest match ups coming on the road. K-State gets TCU and West Virginia in back-to-back weeks before a bit of a tune-up against Kansas before heading to McLane Stadium to wrap up their regular season. K-State truly controls its destiny for an outright conference title, and if they were to do so they would almost certainly be in the College Football Playoff. But, with those three road games looming large at the back end of their schedule and as much respect as I have for the Bill Snydercats, I don't see them winning all three of those games. If they do win against TCU and West Virginia, the December 6 showdown at McLane Stadium could be absolutely epic.
TCU Horned Frogs (5-1 overall, 2-1 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: Texas Tech, @ West Virginia, Kansas State, @ Kansas, @ Texas, Iowa State
Like the Wildcats, TCU has half of its schedule still ahead of it as a result of a couple of early bye weeks. After their upset win over Oklahoma two weeks ago and having their upset bid against Baylor stopped short in the final seconds (fun fact: Baylor led exactly no time of that game, having hit the winning field goal as time expired), TCU proved it deserves to be mentioned in the top tier of the conference by absolutely destroying Oklahoma State at home. While not the most difficult schedule remaining in the conference, the Horned Frogs also don't have the most favorable schedule either, having to face off against West Virginia and Texas on the road. A week after facing West Virginia in Morgantown, TCU has to face Kansas State at home, a game which all Baylor fans will be watching closely. A Longhorns squad that has been improving lately (with some stumbles against Iowa State last Saturday aside) could be a tough test late in the season, but at this point TCU looks like the strongest team in the conference according to the eye test. If TCU were to win out, that could set up some incredibly interesting conversations that we'll peer into in just a moment.
Baylor Bears (6-1 overall, 3-1 in conference)
Remaining Schedule: Kansas, @ Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, vs. Texas Tech, Kansas State
The Bears are coming off an absolute gut punch of a loss against West Virginia last Saturday; a game that has left many Bears fans searching for answers to questions they didn't know they had before Saturday. In a conversation with Craig Smoak earlier today, Briles said that the Bears weren't in sync and just couldn't execute. That much is certain, and the coaching staff will work to overcome those issues and get creative. Most concerning for the Bears at this point, though, is the loss of RT Troy Baker, making that two OL from the right side to go down for the season with injuries. If Baylor can overcome those injury woes and solve the other issues facing its offense, it has one of the easiest schedules remaining, with only one true away game (and a neutral-site game against Texas Tech). If Bears can find a way to beat Oklahoma on the road, the team can retreat to the friendly confines of McLane Stadium where they can hold court against Oklahoma State (BLACKOUT!) and Kansas State. The Bears still have the inside track to at least a share of the conference title if they can win out.
Here Comes The Interesting Part
It would appear that four teams currently control their own destinies in the league, at least from the perspective of winning a share of the conference title: West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State, and Baylor. If Baylor wins out and either West Virginia or TCU do as well, Baylor will win a share of the conference title. Kansas State, though, could control its own destiny by remaining undefeated in conference. Given the difficulty of the remaining schedules, though, I don't believe it's likely that either West Virginia or Kansas State go undefeated the rest of the way. The possibilities at this point are almost too many to count, but here's the one at which I want to look more closely:
Let's say TCU wins out and continues to climb in the rankings. Baylor also goes undefeated the rest of the way, finally figuring out their road woes and beating Oklahoma in Norman. Despite the "One True Champion" moniker, each team wins a share of the Big 12 title. Now, in years past, the team that would attend the BCS bowl game would be decided by the BCS rankings - the highest ranked team won the honor of attending the game. By virtue of Baylor's loss coming a week later than TCU's, it would almost certainly have been TCU to attend the Fiesta Bowl. That said, the BCS is no more. If we're just talking about the Sugar Bowl (or equivalent) and not the Playoff, the team who won the head-to-head matchup goes in. For the playoff, though, we don't know what the Selection Committee will do.
Suppose for a moment that the chaos that has gripped this college football season continues, and the Big 12 is primed to send one team to the College Football Playoff. TCU is playing some of the best football in program history; Baylor, having stumbled and struggled in the middle of the season, righted the ship and is looking stronger and stronger each week. The Selection Committee looks to put one of the two teams into the Playoff. Who goes in? Does TCU go in, on account of the fact that the team is playing to unparalleled heights and having only lost to Baylor on a last-second field goal? Or do you put Baylor in, who beat TCU on that last-second field goal, struggled a bit, but then overcame those struggles to win the rest of its games? It's a fascinating question, one to which I do not have the answer.