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The Big 12: A Mad Scramble Towards the College Football Playoff

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This Thanksgiving weekend, two in-state Big 12 rivalry games mean more than just bragging rights. 

The one-loss Oklahoma Sooners will face the one-loss Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Bedlam series in Stillwater. In Fort Worth, Texas, one-loss Baylor looks to make a statement on the road against TCU, 9–2 and coming off of a one-point loss to Oklahoma. 

What are already important games for each team have become significant nationwide, as the winners of these two games will have a huge impact on who makes the second annual College Football Playoff. 

Since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996, Texas, Nebraska (now in the Big Ten), and Oklahoma dominated the conference. They won all but five conference championships and participated in all but one of those title games. Ever since the Cornhuskers bolted for the Big Ten in 2011, the Big 12 has seen a power shift from these programsto the “little brothers” of the conference: Baylor, TCU, and in some respects, Oklahoma State. 

The Horned Frogs, of course, played in the Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl in 2010 and ’11, yet being in Conference USA and the Mountain West had held them back from being considered a threat to win a national championship. The Bears endured 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1996 to 2009. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, remained overshadowed by in-state rival Oklahoma. 

All three programs are now contenders on the national scene. 

What’s next?

Before last weekend, the Big 12’s Playoff picture seemed to be in focus: Undefeated Oklahoma State went into its home match-up against Baylor with the clearest path to the Playoff of any team in the conference. The Cowboys then managed to lose to Baylor’s backup quarterbacks, setting up potential chaos in the last two weeks of the season in the Big 12.

The Bears, with only a narrow loss to Oklahoma on their record, now head to Fort Worth, where they will face the Horned Frogs in another hostile environment. If the Bears win at TCU — which may be without starting quarterback Trevone Boykin —  and then at home against Texas, they’ll force the Playoff committee to consider them as a one-loss team with two quality road wins late in the season.

While the Cowboys squandered a big opportunity at home last week, the Sooners squeezed out a one-point victory against a banged-up TCU team in Norman. Now the Sooners head to Stillwater for Bedlam. For Oklahoma, a win means a Big 12 title. If the Cowboys win, they’ll need a Baylor loss against TCU or Texas to claim their second ever Big 12 crown. 

The Big 12 and the Playoff

What was once a predictable race has turned into a more balanced scramble to the top. The Big 12 is seeing more parity from top to bottom than ever before, but in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee, the competition hasn’t been strong enough to put one-loss Big 12 teams ahead of schools from other Power Five conferences. 

Last year, the 11-1 TCU Horned Frogs’ only loss was to 11-1 Baylor. Heading into the Playoff selection, TCU was ranked third, and Baylor fans were irate, questioning how a team that they beat could be ahead of them. TCU’s argument was simply that it was a better team than Baylor. 

Having only 10 teams meant the Big 12 was the only Power Five conference without a championship game. (Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Colorado left for other conferences in 2011 and ’12, and the Big 12 added West Virginia and TCU.) 

With no title game, and no tiebreaker in place, Baylor and TCU were named co-champions. The conference’s slogan, One True Champion, was tested. 

Although the Big 12 was at a disadvantage without a championship game, it’s the only league in which everyone plays everyone. There’s no avoiding the best teams in the conference. Still, no championship game and no true champion proved to be crucial in keeping the Big 12 out of the inaugural Playoff. 

To avoid a recurrence of the situation, the Big 12 implemented new tiebreaker rules before the 2015 season. Under the new rules, Baylor would have been last year’s outright champion because the Bears won the head-to-head game against the team with whom they tied. 

The Home Stretch

For both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Bedlam is the final game of the regular season. Baylor still hosts Texas after visiting TCU. Some wacky scenarios would have to play out, but the Big 12 could put two teams in the College Football Playoff after having zero last year. The question will be if the committee will value one-loss Big 12 teams over other potential one-loss teams such as Notre Dame, Ohio State, or Iowa.

Whether or not the Big 12 sends a representative to the Playoff, the conference has become much more competitive in the last four years. The days of only Oklahoma and Texas reigning supreme are gone. Now that it’s more competitive, the next step for the Big 12 is to find a way into the College Football Playoff, and it’ll come down to a crazy final two weeks. 

Photos: Tom Pennington/Getty Images (Baylor/TCU), Brett Deering/Getty Images (Oklahoma/Oklahoma State)

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