Ever since it was conceived back in 2013 and launched in 2014, the College Football Playoff, FBS football’s cash volcano of a postseason, has been perfect in nearly every way. Every way except the math.
In a college football world that is run as much like the New York mob as it is a branch of the higher education tree, with five power conferences controlling the direction in which the money flows, a four-team playoff guaranteed an annual game of high-stakes musical chairs that would leave at least one of the five power conferences jilted, with no seat at the playoff table.
In 2014, that jilted conference was the Big XII, so in April 2015, at a College Football Playoff meeting in Dallas with the ten conference commissioners, Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick and College Football Playoff chairman Jeff Long all present, Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby wanted answers. Why was the Big XII, with two one-loss teams — Baylor and TCU — in the top five of the CFP rankings heading into the final weekend of the 2014 season, both of whom won their games in that final weekend, ultimately snubbed in favor of other one-loss schools like Alabama and late riser one-loss Ohio State?
Long’s answer was simple: “All things being equal, 13 data points are better than 12 data points,” he told Bowlsby.
The Big XII, of course, is the only one of the five power conferences that doesn’t conduct a true conference title game in the first week of December, which is, in actuality, an additional 13th game for those teams that do participate in them. Instead, the Big XII plays a full round-robin regular season schedule, nine conference games in all, no conference title game and just beats people over the head with a slogan that reads “One True Champion.”
Long’s advice to Bowlsby made it very clear which method of deciding a conference champion made a greater impression on the playoff committee. The committee likes the existence of conference title games. In fact, it was that 13th game, a 59-0 thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, that sent Ohio State sailing past Baylor and TCU that final weekend and onto its magical playoff title run.
While the Buckeyes were planning parades after the playoffs, though, the Big XII was left planning a crisis prevention and Bowlsby was left to deal with a minor civil war among the conference’s constituents.
The apparent reason for the exclusion of Baylor and TCU from the playoff divided the conference. Some schools wanted to stand pat with ten schools and let the College Football Playoff play out a few more years before kneejerking into the addition of a 13th game. Some schools, though, most notably Oklahoma, wanted to immediately explore expansion to 12 schools and add a title game. Ultimately, the league decided to stand pat, but it didn’t change the bottom line — heading into 2015, the Big XII was, by far, the shakiest and most dysfunctional of the power five conferences. Hell, back in September, we devoted an entire cover feature to the conference’s potential disintegration.
Now, fast-forward to the final weekend of November this season. Empirically, the scenario could not have been more similar to the same weekend in 2014. Atop the standings was an undefeated ACC team (Clemson this time, as opposed to Florida State in 2014), one-loss Alabama was in the top four, and a one-loss Big XII school was ranked third. This time it was Oklahoma, not TCU. One-loss Baylor even lurked right outside the top four, just as it did in 2014.
In theory, concern should have been high that the Big XII could suffer a fate similar to the one it did in 2014, right? After all, Oklahoma was operating without that coveted “13th data point” of a conference title game just as TCU and Baylor had the year prior, and that game is the supposed be-all and end-all in helping the committee make its final playoff decisions, per Long. Also, further stacking the odds against Oklahoma, unlike Baylor and TCU in 2014, which at least had regular season games scheduled that same weekend the other conferences had title games, Oklahoma’s season ended on November 28. The Sooners were off the weekend of December 5, with no chance to make an equally recent final impression for the committee as teams like Clemson, Alabama, Iowa, Michigan State or, yes, Ohio State.
In other words, all the variables that made TCU and Baylor playoff-expendable in 2014 and seemingly put the entire Big XII on a bed of quicksand this offseason were still quite evident as Oklahoma’s 2015 season was winding down, evident enough to compel Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops to do a little campaigning for the committee after the Sooners trounced Oklahoma State 58-23 in their final regular season game on November 28.
“If you’re [ranked] third and you go to a game [against a quality opponent] away from home…and win by 30-something points, you can only move up, possibly,” Stoops said. “You sure wouldn’t move back.”
As it turned out, Stoops was right. When the four-team playoff field was announced on Sunday, Oklahoma was comfortably in the top four, as it had been for the previous three weeks. The Big XII had made it, and done so rather easily.
So why, with so many similarities to last season, did this regular season end happily for the Big XII? Why did that 13th data point that was deemed so essential in 2014 get rendered moot in 2015? Well, in evaluating the whole picture, there are a few reasons:
Oklahoma’s out-of-conference scheduling
The committee has made it very clear that teams need to be scheduling at least one challenging game outside of their conference. Last season, TCU’s best non-conference game was mediocre Minnesota. Baylor’s non-conference schedule was a joke, a joke the school unapologetically tried to justify at every turn. This could easily have been an even bigger reason than the lack of a conference title game that both TCU and Baylor were left out in 2014. Oklahoma in 2015, on the other hand, beat Tennessee, a fringe top 25 team, in Knoxville. That’s a quality win. Additionally, Oklahoma has a reputation as a team that will accept bold challenges outside of the Big XII. To wit, next season it opens with Houston and plays Ohio State in the third week of the season.
Big XII’s conference schedule backloading
If you’re not going to stage a conference title game, then perhaps the Big XII did the next best thing with the way it constructed the conference’s schedule in 2015. None of the top four teams — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor — played each other until the weekend of November 7. This allowed all four teams to run up impressive won-loss records for the first two months and made every game involving any pairing of them in November seem like a massive event. Specifically, this allowed Oklahoma to say it had knocked off one undefeated (Baylor) and two one-loss (Oklahoma State, TCU) teams in November, which sounds very impressive and looks fantastic on paper to, say, a committee of 12 people poring over stats in a conference room on a Monday night.
“Blue blood” bias
This last one is not meant as a slap in the face to TCU or Baylor, but when it comes to their college football “brands,” neither is in the same universe as Oklahoma, and we must remember that, first and foremost, the rights to these semifinal games are being paid for by Disney. Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid. Above all else, the College Football Playoff is a television product, so if a school like Oklahoma, with a rabid fan base and decades of tradition, is in the top four and keeps winning, it’s staying in the top four. Simply put, replace TCU with Oklahoma in the final week of the 2014 season — do you really think Oklahoma would fall from third to sixth in the final weekend after beating Iowa State 55-3, the way TCU did? Never.
Ultimately, regardless of the outcome of these playoffs, the Big XII will be wise to do the same introspection following the conference’s inclusion in these playoffs as it did following its omission in 2014. It will likely realize that the status benefit of staging a conference title game varies from season to season, and that no one season confirms that there’s a right answer to the question “Does the 13th data point really help?” Some years you could use it; others you don’t need it.
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Long said as much as he lauded Oklahoma’s season down the stretch. “Last year is no indication of how things are happening this year,” he said. “Oklahoma has performed at a high level since (the Texas loss), so they’ve overcome that loss with their play on the field and the success they’ve had and the wins they’ve accumulated.”
The bylaws of college football state that a conference must have 12 members to stage a conference title game, so one ripple effect from the squelching of the Big XII’s need for such a game is that conference expansion talk will likely cool to a deep freeze. This is bad news for the University of Houston, which has done everything necessary to doll itself up for the day that the Big XII decides to actually live up to its name and consist of 12 member schools. The new stadium, the multimillion-dollar raise for its red-hot head coach, the national ranking — these are all cosmetic enhancements Houston has undergone that ultimately mean nothing to the Big XII if it decides to stay at ten teams.
For now, the Big XII seems to have steadied its spot on the landscape, riding on the back of one of its marquee programs. The house is in order, the mutiny on the back burner.
Now if the Longhorns could just get their act together…