The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism—at least one Power 5 conference champion is left on the outside looking in every year, and in 2016 Western Michigan learned that for many teams even an undefeated regular season is no guarantee of a shot at a national championship.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, SI.com will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. We covered the ACC on Monday. Up next: The Big 12.
Big 12 Conference
2016 champion: Oklahoma
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Three
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Four
Kansas State: A pair of elite teams with star quarterbacks, Oklahoma (Baker Mayfield) and Oklahoma State (Mason Rudolph), is set to lord over the Big 12 this season, which makes it the perfect time for Kansas State to beat both of them and win the conference with an underrated signal-caller (Jesse Ertz). While the Sooners and Cowboys will shred opposing defenses by flinging the ball all over the field, the Wildcats’ bread and butter should be their ground game. Ertz led the team in rushing last season with 1,012 yards, and sophomore running back Alex Barnes flashed in a limited workload, recording an average of 7.9 yards on 56 carries. There’ll be weapons on the outside, too, like junior Byron Pringle and California transfer Carlos Strickland, although Ertz has to improve on the 57.6% completion percentage that placed him last among qualified Big 12 quarterbacks last season. Kansas State will miss conference defensive player of the year Jordan Willis’s knack for flying off the edge to blow up protections, but junior cornerback D.J. Reed is the just the sort of back-end difference-maker Kansas State needs to slow down Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s go-to attacks. Regardless of when Bill Snyder’s run in Manhattan draws to a close, this could be his best shot at a playoff bid.
Oklahoma: The Sooners reached the end of a long, fruitful era this offseason when Bob Stoops stepped down. But whereas many new head coaches need at least a year to change the program to their liking and implement a different system, Lincoln Riley should waste no time vaporizing Big 12 opponents and competing for national championships while getting situated in the throne of a college football blueblood. The offensive whiz kid will have a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Baker Mayfield; all five offensive line starters back, including mammoth left tackle Orlando Brown; and enough perimeter playmaking juice to make up for the departures of top running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and ace wideout Dede Westbrook. Leading returning receiver Nick Basquine’s season-robbing Achilles injury won’t help in that regard, but there’s nothing wrong with going to tight end Mark Andrews a little more often to compensate for that loss. Plus, Oklahoma will reload with a pair of transfers in Jeff Badet, from Kentucky, and Marquise Brown, from juco College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif. The Sooners’ season will turn on two road games, though they may be able to get into the playoff even if they drop one of them: Ohio State on Sept. 9 and Oklahoma State on Nov. 4.
Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State is not the best team in the country, but it’s probably the one you’ll have the most fun watching this fall, and the one most likely to cause major FOMO if you change the channel to another game. The likelihood of frequent sideline pans to Mike Gundy’s party in the back should be convincing enough, but the on-field draw is even more compelling. The Cowboys are going to make scoreboard operators work for 60 minutes. For Big 12 defensive coordinators trying to save their offensive counterparts from having to hang half a hundred just to keep up with the opposition, Oklahoma State’s array of weapons scans like a roster of Marvel villains. Senior James Washington, assuming a reported hernia injury doesn’t hold him back, is Rudolph’s go-to target on deep throws, but defenses who hone in on him are courting disaster elsewhere. Rudolph can turn to wideouts Jalen McCleskey, Marcell Ateman and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, or just hand the ball off to Justice Hill, who led all FBS freshmen with 1,142 rushing yards last season. Oklahoma State won’t be as formidable defensively, but that won’t matter if it’s hitting pay dirt most of the time it gets the ball. And fortunately for the Cowboys, their showdown with Big 12 favorite Oklahoma on Nov. 4 will be at Boone Pickens Stadium.
TCU: In order to have faith that TCU can snag a spot in the national semifinals, one must believe that two things will return to the way they once were. The first is quarterback Kenny Hill, who had a rocky debut in Fort Worth last season but hinted at greatness with a 511-yard, three-touchdown showing at then-No. 9 South Carolina three years ago. Hill almost definitely won’t reach that level again, but if he can become the third member of an elite Big 12 quarterbacking trio, along with Mayfield and Rudolph, it could supply TCU with the requisite horsepower to hang with conference big boys Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The second factor is the Horned Frogs’ defense, which has finished outside the top 50 in Football Outsiders’ S&P + ratings in consecutive years. Even if TCU can’t return to its pre-Big 12 peak on that side of the ball, it has the potential to roll out a unit that could credibly counter most of the high-powered offenses around the league. Should the Horned Frogs fail on either count, they’ll fall out of the CFP race before the midpoint of the season: By the middle of October, TCU will have faced Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State on the road.