Is the Big 12 Poised To Re-Enter the Playoff Picture?
Can the Big 12 Conference reenter the CFB Playoff picture in 2017? That answer might lie within the non-conference slate.
The 2017 college football season is too far off for my tastes. Yet, the call of the siren beckons and I am driven to ruminations about unknown results of known contests. In particular, I am drawn to a discussion of the Big 12 as a whole, its place on the national stage, and how the league can raise its status.
There have been three national playoffs to date, meaning 12 potential slots for the Big 12. Yet, the conference has garnered only one. The SEC, Big Ten, and ACC have occupied a slot each year and the Pac-12 has earned two.
I propose that the national reputation and perception of conference strength are in alignment with the positions earned in the playoffs. The SEC, Big 10, and ACC are perceived in a vein that the champion of such is granted admittance. Doubts and qualifications must be hashed in order to admit a member of the Pac 12. The Big 12 seemingly must submit a flawless resume that is still questioned even then; based on the perceived weakness of its programs.
One might say that this is a foolish statement, because participation is based on the quality of the season the four entrants have, without regard to conference affiliation. One might be right. However, invariably the strength of the conference and the associated reputation play in to the backroom discussions of the committee.
There are only four slots available and five Power Five conferences. Each year there must be an odd man out, and, at present, that odd fellow is the Big 12 when all things are equal. This leads me to my primary point of inquiry…how does the Big 12 raise its perception of quality to a level that its champion or team of highest quality should be considered an “automatic” entrant into the College Football Playoff?
I proffer that the most assured method for raising the perception of the Big 12 is through its non-conference schedule.
The Conundrum of Scarcity and Misperception
The Big 12 has several commonly discussed strikes against it.
- It has but 10 members.
- It has a championship game now, however, it remains to be seen whether it will be fraught with controversy (though that is both good and bad).
- There are two “blue blood” members which is on par with other conferences, but the “non-blue blood” members have failed to rise to elite status as others have — Clemson, Oregon, Florida, Stanford, arguably Wisconsin.
- It has a round robin schedule that provides maximum opportunity for an upset.
It is difficult to overcome these negative perceptions until it is recognized that the round robin schedule is inherently the toughest format in college football. Familiarity, tough home venues, and weather advantages create a significant challenge in running through clean.
In a divisional league, it isn’t that you can’t be upset, but you are able to gear up for those high-profile games. There will be two, maybe three of those a year depending on who you play in the other division that year. In a round robin setting, you will certainly have two or three easy wins and two or three marquee games, but you also have three or four other games against high quality opponents that do not allow for off weeks. In other words, Big 12 teams don’t just play number two and maybe number four in the conference, they play number one, two, three, four and so on. This also makes it much harder to have multiple one-loss teams. Which, in turn, furthers the Big 12’s weaker reputation, but it isn’t the only thing.
The round robin schedule also limits the dates available for easy, non-conference games. There is a scarcity of games available to gain confidence or resume building wins.
Therein lies the conundrum, a difficult conference schedule with limited opportunities to achieve marquee wins. Without a change in national perception of the quality derived from the conference structure, the Big 12 will remain a nectarine in a bowl full of peaches.
Raising the Profile
The opportunity for the Big 12 to create interest and raise the profile of league quality rests almost entirely in the non-conference schedule. The non-con provides early opportunities to stake a claim to contender status by gaining wins against quality opponents from other conferences in marquee positions on the TV schedule.
Big non-con wins challenge the perception of the Big 12 as the weakest of the Power Five conferences. Big non-con losses cement that perception. To illustrate the point, Texas achieved a win against a highly regarded opponent in a premier time slot and vaulted to playoff contention with a #10 ranking in the following week. Texas enjoys a blue blood advantage, but it is evidence of how closely and widely watched the early season non-con games are.
Last season, in week 2, 15th-ranked TCU dropped a close one to Arkansas, Texas Tech was beaten by Arizona State, and Oklahoma State was robbed by Central Michigan. Then, in week 3, Oklahoma is handled by Ohio State at home and Texas is beaten by a middling California team. TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State lose their top 25 slots and Texas is relegated to an also-ran ranking ( falling to No. 22 where it is hard to leapfrog their way in to the top 4).
At this point, the perception is set and the mountain to climb to get back in the playoff picture is significantly steeper. Oklahoma does the near impossible by surviving the entire Big 12 schedule, but comes up short due to the early non-con losses.
To raise the conference profile, it is essential to have early season success — league wide — in the non-conference weeks. For the Big 12 to be in the playoff picture, it takes more than conference success. Early season wins set the tone, set the ranking, and set the stage for conference match-ups to grab the buzz required to muscle one’s way in to one of the four prestigious slots.
How Does the 2017 Schedule Stack Up?
The 2017 schedule for the Big 12, as it does in most years, has some substance to it and can start the process of changing perceptions. It is this writer’s opinion that the Big 12 is filled with improving teams. Kansas and Iowa State have legitimate reasons to be optimistic about their upcoming season. Though Baylor is hamstrung, they will be dangerous and even though Texas Tech loses a talented QB, they may be improved in enough other areas to be a very tough out. However, that tone will need to be set throughout the league early and often.
The entire league needs to perform well to raise the profile of the league to the level I would like it, but the most important games are those where there is a “real” playoff contender playing a quality opponent in a premier, highly publicized spot.
For instance, Iowa State plays Iowa in the second week of the season. A league win against a quality opponent from the Big 10 is a solid step forward. However, this game is discounted a bit due to the rivalry and the history of upsets. Also, it isn’t widely televised or considered a high-profile game.
Here are the games I think are the most important for raising the profile of the Big 12.
Virgina Tech vs West Virginia (SEP 3)
This is a Sunday game in the first weekend much like the Texas/Notre Dame game from last year. It is a huge perception game. Premier time slot with a top end ACC and top end Big 12 team.
West Virginia has some key replacements to make, but so does Virginia Tech. West Virginia can set the tone for their season and for the Big 12 with a win here. A win will move them up in the rankings and put them on the radar for the playoffs. BURN THE COUCHES!!!!
Maryland at Texas (SEP 3)
This Saturday game kicks off the highly anticipated Tom Herman era with one of the Big 12’s premier programs, and for that fact alone, it will garner significant attention. Is Herman for real? We will find out quickly.
Maryland is a Big 10 team on the rise coming off of a better than expected initial year under D.J. Durkin and one of its best recruiting classes in the last decade and a half. While a win here does not vault Texas in to the rankings, it will create a lot of itchy trigger fingers for the voters.
Oh yeah, Iowa State cannot lose to FCS UNI again in week 1. Same to you Kansas — both of you need to roll.
Oklahoma at Ohio State (SEP 9)
Here we go. The most high profile game on the slate for 2017. OU was beaten soundly last year. However, the game was marred by turnovers from OU and was closer than the final score indicated.
OU is switching to a 4-3 defensive scheme with an emphasis on pressure. Ohio State re-loads in the secondary and at the skill positions (other than QB). I expect Ohio State to be a solid favorite in this game, but watch out.
I think OU is riding a wave of confidence and fits the underdog role well here. Stoops isn’t known for winning his biggest tests, but I will be touting them in this game. A win here raises the profile significantly and, most importantly for this article, would make OU an expected entrant into the playoffs.
TCU at Arkansas (SEP 9)
A close contest a year ago and I expect the same this year. TCU has a ton of highly regarded youth, especially on the defense, that should begin to matriculate on to the field this year. Following their two 10 win seasons, TCU recruited to an expected talent level on par with Oklahoma and Texas. They are third in the conference in composite talent ratings.
A win by TCU will establish them as a contender in the Big 12. Any win over an SEC opponent will be well received, highly noticed, and highly viewed. It will convey strength and depth in the conference and TCU will have an opportunity to build on the success.
Oklahoma State at S. Alabama (SEP 9)
What? Really? South Alabama was a bowl team last year who beat Mississippi State. They are sneaky good and at home. Oklahoma State does not get a net gain from a victory here, but they avoid the annual inexplicable loss that mars their seasons. This game is not on par with the others, but is just as important in the league wide scheme.
Arizona State at Texas Tech (SEP 16)
This game is important because Tech will be perceived as a step below Arizona State in their respective leagues. Last year’s game was entertaining or sickening depending on if you like defense or not. Tech is touting an improvement on defense and this will be a chance to show it.
A win over the Pac-12 only bolsters the Big 12 profile. If Tech is able to achieve some perceived defensive improvement here, then that will aid the profile of their conference games.
Oklahoma State at Pitt (SEP 16)
Pitt is expected to be down this year and OSU should be a heavy favorite. But, the game is on the road and is another opportunity for Oklahoma State to show that this season will not be like others. A 3-0 Oklahoma State team should be ranked solidly in the teens and put them on the watch list for playoff contention.
Texas at USC (SEP 16)
If Texas is 2-0, this will be the non-con game of the week. Clemson and Louisville clash as does Tennessee and Florida, but this game will be featured in its time slot.
Calling 2005. Are you there? I think the expectation here should be for a competitive loss against another playoff participant that does not hurt the perception of Texas at the end of the year. USC was embarrassed by Alabama in the non-con last year and yet they received playoff buzz with 3 losses at the end of the year. A competitive game here for Texas can do the same for them.
A win here, well, the Longhorn fans will grow about 2 feet and the Red River Rivalry will take its place as THE game for its weekend. Frankly, if Texas and OU pull off upsets in the non-con, the Big 12 will be viewed completely differently and there will be a spot waiting for them at the end of the year.
Who Can Contend?
Realistically, the Big 12 won’t win all of these games, though they have the potential to do so. They need to win these games in order move up the hierarchy of the P5 conferences. But, even then, there are only a handful of teams that will be considered should they be in position (remember TCU/Baylor in 2014/15).
Oklahoma – Of course. They are a FBS blue blood and can endure a stumble along the way and still be a legitimate contender. Their schedule, with Ohio State, lends itself to the most legitimate shot of the Big 12 teams should they perform on par with last year.
Texas – I do not know if Tom Herman can do his thing in year 1. But, having studied most of their game film from last year, there is an opportunity to win 10 plus games. Their non-con schedule is championship level and if they are successful we will all again fall in line behind the big dog of the Big 12.
Oklahoma State – They are good. Playoff good? The non-con will reveal whether or not that is the case. They have arguably the most dynamic offensive trio in Rudolph, Washington, and Hill. One of those may garner Heisman hype. Pitt and South Alabama may not seem to be “good” wins, but they will be if those teams won’t tank down the stretch and sully an otherwise championship resume.
West Virginia – There isn’t as much natural cache with the Mountaineers, but they established themselves with a fine season in 2016. With Spavital and Wickline in the coaching fold and a Newcomer of the Year candidate in QB Will Grier, they can climb high enough to be a contender. The game against Virginia Tech will be HUGE for their prospects.
Kansas State – Everybody loves the Wizard and he will lead them down the yellow brick road should he engineer a playoff worthy record. The non-con is less than stellar, but features the potential to pick up a win against Vanderbilt, a bowl eligible SEC team from 2016. It will take some cards falling right for K State, but they are well respected and double-digit wins will place them in the mix.
TCU – TCU needs their young talent to take a step forward and play to their potential, in addition to more consistent QB play. If TCU finds their former defensive prowess, the impact of the offensive issues is reduced. A win over Arkansas on the road will push them forward in the national discussions and if they are the breakout team, I believe they are also capable of gaining the respect needed to grasp a top four spot.
Sum it Up
Six of the Big 12’s ten members have the ability to contend for a playoff spot. They all have to play each other. That alone should raise the perception of its champion, but instead, it creates a minefield for the conference in its bid for a playoff spot.
A playoff spot is IMPORTANT.
One word, MONEY.
The conference participants in the playoffs get a paltry $6 million pay out. However, there is a lot more money attached to that pay out. Merchandise, game tickets, and donations benefit. In addition, the higher profile of the conference provides leverage with advertisers and in television contract negotiations. This is a separate article and Chris Smith from Forbes does a much better job than I will at describing it.
The higher conference profile garnered by participation in the playoffs also sets up the conference runner-up and other contenders for bigger bowl assignments. Those bowl assignments carry large dollars for the conference with them as well.
In addition, a presence in the playoffs raises the recruiting profile for each member team. The opportunity to play on that stage is a recruiting factor and the Big 12 lags in that perception among recruits. A higher conference profile raises all the ships and checks a box. This factor, more than the others, allows the conference to sustain its success and push ahead of the other power five conferences in profile and perception.
2017 sets up well in the non-conference for the Big 12 to make a return to the College Football Playoffs. Here’s hoping this article becomes reality versus fiction.