In dog-eat-dog Big 12, road to playoff fraught with peril
BY DAVE SKRETTA
Nov. 02, 2017
Gary Patterson remembers quite keenly the controversy that swirled around the playoff rankings a few years ago, when TCU dropped from third to sixth in the final release.
The Horned Frogs were coming off a 55-3 win over Iowa State the day before the final rankings in 2014, but wound up behind Big 12 co-champion Baylor and the four teams chosen for the semifinals. It kicked off a heated discussion over not only whether the Horned Frogs deserved a spot but also why the Big 12 had missed out altogether.
Well, TCU and the Big 12 are in a sticky situation again.
The first playoff rankings were unveiled this week, and the league can rightfully beat its chest for placing four in the top 15. But with Oklahoma the top-rated team at No. 5, and plenty of games yet to play, the road to getting a team in the top four of the final poll is fraught with peril.
For one thing, a two-loss Big 12 team is certain to be excluded — nine one-loss teams have made the playoff in its first three years but no teams with two or more losses. For another, unbeatens such as Miami and Wisconsin or one-loss teams such as Ohio State and Penn State could easily leapfrog the best of the Big 12 into the semifinals with undefeated finishing stretches.
So don't blame Patterson, whose Horned Frogs debuted at No. 8 following their loss to Iowa State last weekend, for caring not a bit about the initial rankings.
"I wouldn't have looked at them if we won or lost," Patterson said. "Remember, I'm the team that went from third to sixth. ... I wouldn't have paid any attention to it."
There are plenty of routes for the Big 12 to get into the playoff picture, too.
They begin this weekend with Bedlam.
The fifth-ranked Sooners visit No. 11 Oklahoma State in a matchup of one-loss teams hanging onto playoff hopes. Oklahoma has won 12 of the last 14 meetings, and could consolidate its position ahead of other one-loss teams with another signature victory in Stillwater.
"People might have thrown us in the trash after the Iowa State game, which is not true," Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We play well late in the season and we take care of business on the road, and that's one thing that's been important for us."
It's also important for the playoff selection committee. Big wins down the stretch seem to carry more weight, though the Sooners' landing one spot ahead of Ohio State in this week's CFP rankings was in large part due to their head-to-head win in the Horseshoe earlier this season.
"Ohio State has been playing exceptionally," committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. "The head-to-head win was significant in our eyes on the road at Ohio State, knowing these teams will continue to have an opportunity to build and enhance their résumé in the weeks ahead."
Mayfield is also right on another point: That Oklahoma loss to the Cyclones that seemed so shocking a few weeks ago looks a lot less damaging now. Iowa State's win over TCU catapulted the long-downtrodden team to No. 15 in the initial playoff ranking, behind only Auburn among the two-loss teams.
The Horned Frogs, who play Texas on Saturday, and the winner of Bedlam have the best chance of crashing the playoff party. And the reality is TCU has the easiest remaining schedule of one-loss Big 12 teams with games remaining at Oklahoma and Texas Tech and winless Baylor at home.
Meanwhile, the Sooners have tough games back-to-back with the Cowboys and Horned Frogs, and the Cowboys still have a trip to Iowa State looming.
Oh, and there's still that Big 12 title game, another wrinkle that could help or harm the league.
If a one-loss teams gets through the next four games unscathed, it would have to navigate another tough test that didn't exist a year ago. A win there could lock up a playoff spot or, depending on how things shake out, a loss by the wrong team could eliminate the league entirely.
"There's a lot in this next four weeks. There's a lot of football to be played by a lot of people," Patterson said. "There's a good chance, a really good chance, that the second team in the (Big 12) championship game will have two losses, and the way it's all going maybe three."
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