How can each contender make the College Football Playoff? Plus, more Walkthrough entering Championship Week.
Baylor coach Art Briles probably won’t say much before Saturday night about his team’s worthiness for a College Football Playoff spot. A visit from a wizard named Bill Snyder and his 9-2 Kansas State team should keep Briles from counting his briskets before they’re smoked -- or whatever Texasism he’d choose to describe lobbying for a playoff berth before winning the game that would cinch an 11-1 record and a Big 12 title that may or may not actually make the Bears the league’s “One True Champion.”
Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw does not have to coach a game, though, and he has launched the PR offensive to remind playoff selection committee members of something they should already know but clearly do not. If two teams have identical records, similar résumés and play in the same conference, then there is really only one good way to decide between them. Take the team that won when they played head-to-head. In the case of TCU (10-1) and Baylor (10-1), that team is Baylor. But the committee has ranked TCU ahead of Baylor for six consecutive weeks, and this Tuesday committee members stretched the gap between the teams to three spots. TCU, at No. 3, can likely lock down a spot in the playoff by beating lowly Iowa State in Fort Worth. Baylor, meanwhile, should get a bump if it beats the Wildcats, but the Bears will need chaos above them to crack the four-team field unless the committee radically shifts its thinking.
This irritates McCaw for obvious reasons. “If we have [Big 12] co-champions the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, and I think that makes obvious sense,” McCaw said. “If you have two teams go 8-1 and you have to determine what is the tiebreaker it is -- which team defeated the other team. That is what we have in the Big 12. I think if you look at a national standpoint that is why we have gone to a playoff. People were irritated with the BCS because computers and polls tried to determine who the two championship teams were and the reason we changed is we wanted to determine on the field in a playoff, the same way you would want your conference determined.”
This situation should infuriate anyone who understands that teams play games on the field and not on paper for a reason. If head-to-head results don’t matter in this situation, stadiums should be shuttered and computers should take each roster and simulate each matchup 100 times to produce the most statistically significant result. The numbers suggest TCU should have beaten Baylor? Tough. The Horned Frogs lost 61-58 on Oct. 11, though the lead they coughed up in the second half probably gave committee members all the Game Control they needed to see.
Maybe Kansas State will beat the Bears and validate the committee's ranking. But if Baylor wins this could get ugly. Obviously, they aren’t politicking very hard in Fort Worth. They don’t have to. “All you can do is control what you can,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “For us, it's Iowa State. That's what we've done all year. We now need to celebrate Senior Day and hopefully get a win against Iowa State. We're playing here and have a chance to be 11-1."
With ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasting from Waco, expect more stumping from McCaw, and more quotes like this one: “With a win over Kansas State we would be 11-1,” McCaw said this week. “We will be the Big 12 Conference champion based on the tiebreaker and winning the head-to-head against TCU. We would be the only school among the top six that will have a win against another top-six team and we would have three top-15 caliber wins at that point. I think we would make an incredible case and be very hard to keep out in that circumstance."
Except the committee might still keep the Bears out, especially if all five teams ranked above them win. Given the matchups on Saturday, that might be the least likely scenario. Let’s take a look at what each team in the committee’s top 10 needs to do to make the playoff.
1. Alabama (11-1)
If the Crimson Tide beat Missouri in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, they’re in and headed to a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl. Even though the Tide are ranked No. 1, a loss probably knocks them -- and the SEC -- out of the playoff.
2. Oregon (11-1)
The Ducks would head to a semifinal in the Rose Bowl if they can avenge a 31-24 home loss to Arizona on Oct. 2 by beating the Wildcats in the Pac-12 title game on Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.
3. TCU (10-1)
The Horned Frogs should be in with a win over Iowa State. A Baylor victory over Kansas State would give the Bears the Big 12 title that counts (even though both teams would get trophies), but given the way the committee has treated those two teams, it’s highly unlikely the Bears close the gap unless some of the committee members completely waffle.
4. Florida State (12-0)
Committee chair Jeff Long said on Tuesday the Seminoles should be in with a win over Georgia Tech in the ACC title game in Charlotte. Still, the way the committee keeps dropping the only undefeated FBS team should give the ‘Noles pause. They should be in with a win, but they probably won’t believe it until they see themselves slotted into a semifinal on Sunday.
5. Ohio State (11-1)
The Buckeyes are an interesting case. Committee members are supposed to take significant injuries into account, and quarterback J.T. Barrett’s broken ankle suffered last week against Michigan certainly qualifies. Would that keep Ohio State out even if a team ahead of the Buckeyes loses and Ohio State beats Wisconsin for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis on Saturday? We don’t know, because this is the first time the committee has had to ponder such an injury.
6. Baylor (10-1)
All the Bears can do is win and hope committee members decided to read their own media guide this week.
7. Arizona (10-2)
The Wildcats are likely the first two-loss team on deck for the playoff. If they can notch a second win over Oregon on Friday night, they might need only one more loss from a contender ranked ahead of them to rise above the cutline.
8. Michigan State (10-2)
With losses to Oregon and Ohio State and no division title, the Spartans would need all manner of chaos to move into the top four.
9. Kansas State (9-2)
A win at Baylor would give the Wildcats a share of the Big 12 title, and it would have TCU changing its tune when arguing about the integrity of head-to-head wins. A Kansas State victory and a TCU loss to Iowa State would give the Wildcats the conference title outright. Would the committee then consider that Kansas State’s other loss is to Auburn, which could've been avoided by scheduling a creampuff?
10. Mississippi State (9-2)
The Bulldogs, with losses to Alabama and Ole Miss, are likely in the same boat as Michigan State.
• UCF at East Carolina: The American Athletic Conference can have its own “One True Champion” argument if the Knights win in Greenville on Thursday. UCF would then have a 7-1 conference record, but so would Memphis. Since the two didn’t play this season, the question of which team would actually win head-to-head would never be answered. Next year Navy will join the American, giving it 12 teams and allowing it to split into divisions and stage a championship game.
• Northern Illinois vs. Bowling Green (MAC championship game): The Falcons beat the previously undefeated Huskies by 20 points in last year’s MAC title game, but they enter this matchup as losers of three of their last five. Northern Illinois, meanwhile, has won six in a row, and quarterback Drew Hare has thrown only one interception in 250 pass attempts this season.
• Arizona vs. Oregon (Pac-12 championship game): Vegas is 10 points more confident in Arizona than it was when the Wildcats went to Eugene and beat the Ducks on Oct. 2. Of course, that means Oregon is still a two-touchdown favorite heading into a game that could seal a playoff spot for the Ducks or might -- with some help -- vault Arizona into the top four. Oregon center Hroniss Grasu told The Oregonian he is “day-to-day” with an injured ankle. Arizona receiver Samajie Grant, who was cited on a charge of driving under the influence this past weekend, is not starting for Arizona, but it’s unclear how long his suspension will last.
• Iowa State at TCU: The Horned Frogs don’t need to score style points on Saturday. The committee has made it clear where TCU stands. If the Frogs win they stand a very good chance of making the playoff. Fortunately, Iowa State has never crushed a Big 12 opponent’s dream of playing for the national title. Oh, wait.
• Louisiana Tech at Marshall (Conference USA championship game): The Thundering Herd fell from the selection committee’s rankings after losing to Western Kentucky in overtime, but Marshall still might have a slim chance of making a big-money bowl. The Herd will need to solve a Bulldogs’ defense that former Texas coordinator Manny Diaz has revitalized. Then they’ll have to hope another set of Bulldogs -- the ones from Fresno State -- upset Boise State.
• Oklahoma State at Oklahoma: Bedlam doesn’t have nearly the stakes it did last season, when Oklahoma ruined the Cowboys’ Big 12 title hopes with a 33-24 win in Stillwater. Cody Thomas will start his third game at quarterback for the Sooners as Trevor Knight continues to recover from a neck injury. Oklahoma tailback Samaje Perine should be rested after a week off following his FBS single-game record 427 rushing yards against Kansas. Quarterback Daxx Garman has been cleared for Oklahoma State after missing the Baylor game with a concussion, but expect true freshman Mason Rudolph to start after showing promise in the loss to the Bears.
• Alabama vs. Missouri (SEC Championship Game): Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday that linebacker Denzel Devall is the only Alabama regular who is questionable for Saturday because of injury. That means left tackle Cam Robinson, who sprained his shoulder against Auburn, will play against Missouri. That should help as the Tide face the SEC’s best pass-rushing tandem (Shane Ray and Markus Golden).
• Kansas State at Baylor: Bears quarterback Bryce Petty said he expects to play even though he suffered a concussion last week in a 48-46 win over Texas Tech. Baylor will have to avoid giving the ball to the Wildcats, who boast a +11 turnover margin in their past seven games.
• Florida State vs. Georgia Tech (ACC championship game): As USA Today’s Dan Wolken points out, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson would love nothing more than to prove the triple option can carry a team to the playoff -- or at least ruin the playoff chances of a conference rival. Florida State’s defense has faced three consecutive power-running teams (Miami, Boston College, Florida) and will now face a team that runs 79 percent of the time and averages six yards a carry. Will the ‘Noles crack? Or will the superior athleticism of defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman allow Florida State to blow up plays before Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas gets the choice to hand off, keep or pitch?
• Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Big Ten championship game): It’s easy to think Buckeyes’ playoff hopes ride on whether redshirt sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones can lead the offense after being pressed into action following Barrett’s ankle injury. But Jones has enough playmakers around him to succeed. It’s more likely the way Ohio State’s superb defensive line performs against Wisconsin’s offensive line and tailback Melvin Gordon will determine who wins the Big Ten and whether Ohio State remains in the playoff picture.
• Fresno State at Boise State (Mountain West championship game): If the Broncos win this one, the three-time BCS busters will lock down the Group of Five’s automatic berth in one of the big-money bowls.
|Dec. 4 (7:30 p.m. ET)||UCF at East Carolina||ESPN|
|Dec. 5 (7 p.m. ET)||NIU vs. Bowling Green||ESPN2|
|Dec. 5 (9 p.m. ET)||Arizona vs. Oregon||FOX|
|Dec. 6 (Noon ET)||Iowa State at TCU||ABC|
|Dec. 6 (Noon ET)||La. Tech at Marshall||ESPN2|
|Dec. 6 (Noon ET)||Houston at Cincinnati||ESPN|
|Dec. 6 (3:30 p.m. ET)||Okla. State at Oklahoma||FOX Sports 1|
|Dec. 6 (4 p.m. ET)||Alabama vs. Missouri||CBS|
|Dec. 6 (7:45 p.m. ET)||Kansas State at Baylor||ESPN|
|Dec. 6 (8 p.m. ET)||FSU at Georgia Tech||ABC|
|Dec. 6 (8:17 p.m. ET)||Wisc. vs. Ohio State||FOX|
|Dec. 6 (10 p.m. ET)||Fresno State at Boise||CBS|
Vintage video of the week
Why doesn’t the Big 12 play a conference championship game? One reason may be that its teams were knocked out of national title contention multiple times by its championship game -- including the very first one in 1996. If you’re a fan of Baylor, Ohio State or any other team that needs someone in the top four to lose to keep its playoff hopes alive, your patron saint is the hero of that first Big 12 title game. His name is James Brown.
Up three points against favored Nebraska with 2:28 remaining, Brown’s Texas team faced fourth-and-one from its own 29-yard line. Longhorns coach John Mackovic made the borderline insane decision to go for it. (That choice doesn’t seem so insane when remembering how devastating Nebraska’s offenses of that era were.) Mackovic ordered a play called “Roll Left.” The Cornhuskers thought the speedy quarterback Brown would try to run for the first down, so the entire defense chased after him. That allowed Brown to loft a pass down the left sideline to a wide-open Derek Lewis for a 61-yard gain. Nebraska’s 37-27 loss to Texas knocked the Huskers out of a Sugar Bowl matchup against undefeated Florida State, and it started the Big 12 down a path of championship game loathing.
On the menu
I’m doing the Texas two-step on Saturday. I’ll be at Iowa State-TCU in Fort Worth, and then I’ll hop on Interstate 35W and head for Waco to see Kansas State-Baylor. Forget the playoff. The most pressing question concerns how many apricot kolaches I’ll consume from The Czech Stop in West, Texas, on my drive to and from Waco.