Before the season I held the opinion that 2017 was the year the Big 12 would return to the playoffs with a dominant team. The likely candidates being Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. However, two things need to happen for that to come true.
First, the conference needed to show that it could hang with the rest of the Power 5. Consider that box checked as non-conference schedule was largely successful. Big wins over Ohio State, Arkansas and Pitt helped change the perception of the conference. Even a couple of close losses to USC and Virginia Tech helped show how competitive the Big 12 is.
The second thing is that the conference needs a clear-cut, and relatively unscathed champion. It is here that I have growing concerns. The return of the Big 12 Title game will ensure a decided champion, but will that champion be unscathed, or at least relatively unscathed? Can the Big 12 put forward an undefeated or one-loss champion?
The first week in Big 12 play raised some serious concerns as TCU knocked off Oklahoma State and Oklahoma struggled to put away a suddenly game Baylor squad. West Virginia required a late surge to distance from Kansas who featured a newly minted ground attack.
And then there is K-State. They lost to Vanderbilt last week, who took the biggest beating I have ever seen at the hands of the finest team in the country at present. That may mean nothing, but it does give some color to Kansas State’s loss.
What I see at present, which is subject to week by week change, is a league poised to produce weekly upsets and wound the national profile of the eventual champion. On the upside is the possibility that the survivor, and perhaps the runner-up, delivers a strong profile to the committee and forces themselves in to the picture due to the strength of the Big 12.
Each favorite has their concerns, though.
The Sooners have the best win on the season, and then struggle on the road against 0-4 Baylor. Oklahoma appeared to have solved their defensive leaks, but a few holes were opened up. In last year’s undefeated campaign, Oklahoma received challenges from Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech. A test has been passed, but there is work to do and achieving another undefeated season will be an accomplishment of note in 2017. Oklahoma is best positioned to survive the “gauntlet”, but a loss will not shock or surprise.
The season is far from over for Oklahoma State, but they can’t afford another loss or two. The good news is that TCU is well-respected and the loss occurred early in the season. A marquis matchup in Bedlam and a potential championship game slot can repair the damage to their playoff resume. The Cowboys are a handful for any team. TCU survived three fumbles of their own and picked up three turnovers from OSU. TCU dominated time of possession and were a model of efficiency, yet, the Pokes were within an ill-conceived play call of gaining a late lead in the contest. Oklahoma State can beat everyone in the league, and may still do so.
Speaking of TCU, The Horned Frogs played a fabulously schemed game, on the road, to shock Oklahoma State. This, just two weeks after dominating SEC west member Arkansas on the road. Now a top ten team, TCU has sent notice that they are championship contender. However, the team utilizes youthful key contributors and is quarterbacked by a player that is known for regression as a season moves forward. If TCU continues to threaten quarterbacks with their front four and succeeds in their limited offensive scheme, then they too have the ability to run to the end of the season in undefeated fashion.
West Virginia has a non-conference loss to what may be a ACC championship contender (we will find out this weekend). They would need an unblemished Big 12 season to put them squarely in contention for a playoff spot. The quarterbacks expansion of the offense and the running back’s All-American performance bode well for their ability to compete offensively with every team in the league. However, Kansas found a running game against them to an almost absurd level. There are at least five teams in the Big 12 who will bring high level running attacks to bear against that defense. West Virginia will win a game they shouldn’t by outscoring someone, and likely lose a game they shouldn’t due to their exposed weaknesses.
The Red Raiders are a team we can’t yet rule out. They just keep winning. They have also gained an ability to make stops on defense. If Tech can continue to make stops, then their offense can be overwhelming. Are they a contender for the title? Probably not. Can they beat any team in the league on a given Saturday? Absolutely. At the very least they will be a tough out on a weekly basis, and we may be seeing a team retrenching itself and bolstering itself for a run to the top of the second tier of the league. I don’t think we know yet, but the picture should be more clear after this weekend.
The last contender is Kansas State. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that the Wildcats make a championship run. It is dangerous to ever write off a Snyder-led K-State team. They have an experienced quarterback who is mobile, but struggles when forced to carry the team with his arm. Defensively they seem to be a half a notch below last year’s stellar unit. How does that come out? Probably more wins than losses and an upset along the way. Again, a very hard team to beat, even though flawed, dangerous every week.
As a Big 12 proponent, I believe the champion of the league belongs in the College Football Playoff. But, as league play kicks in to full swing, there is enough vulnerability at the top, and enough weapons below, to put crippling losses on everyone’s resume. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a fun season.