Halfway through the college football season, the playoff picture is starting to become a little more clear.
That picture is not a pretty one for two major conferences, including the Big 12.
Of course, college football is chaotic and unpredictable – as long as Alabama isn’t playing – and that makes midseason declarations about playoff hopes feel short-sighted. Every year, at a certain point, analysts and writers look at the national picture and debate what would happen if all the remaining unbeaten teams stayed that way. That never happens in college football.
However, judging by the current top teams’ likelihoods of staying unbeaten or earning big wins, the Big 12, along with the Pac-12 (which is still suffering, and will suffer all year, from Washington’s loss to an Auburn team that’s struggling on offense) appear on the outside looking in.
Alabama and Georgia are on a collision course for a showdown in the SEC championship game, which will probably see both teams enter unbeaten. Even if one or both of them suffer a loss, the winner of this game will still be a lock for the College Football Playoff.
Then there’s arguably the biggest surprise in the country this year, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish already have impressive wins over Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech, their three toughest games of the season. The rest of its schedule isn’t a cakewalk, as Notre Dame faces Pittsburgh, Navy, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC. But the Irish are strong favorites to finish the season 12-0, which would certainly result in two Power Five leagues missing the playoff.
If the Irish slip up somewhere, that would certainly make things interesting, but they would still have some impressive wins to soften the blow of an ill-timed loss.
The Big 10 champion also seems like a lock at this point, especially if it’s an undefeated or one-loss Ohio State, which has already beaten both TCU and Penn State on the road and still has a home game against Michigan remaining, as well as a potential date with a one- or two-loss Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Michigan and Wisconsin would both also have strong arguments should they end up as 12-1 Big Ten champions with a close non-conference loss (Michigan to Notre Dame, Wisconsin to BYU).
Clemson might be the shakiest of the four teams that are favored to receive the committee’s approval in December, as it has won a couple of close games and freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s health is a real red flag. But if the Tigers beat NC State next week, they’ll be heavily favored to end the regular season as 13-0 ACC champions. An unbeaten record, along with its recent track record – three playoff appearances, two title game appearances and one title – would be more than enough to earn the benefit of the doubt once again.
However, there is still hope for the Big 12, and that hope rests with an unbeaten West Virginia.
The Mountaineers have had a strong 2018 thanks to their Heisman candidate gunslinger Will Grier, a seemingly endless arsenal of weapons and a surprisingly solid defense.
However, the best team West Virginia has beaten so far is Texas Tech, and the team could be impacted by something out of its control – the game at (currently ranked) NC State that was canceled because of Hurricane Florence – should it fall in November.
And oh man, does West Virginia have a tough November: at Texas, vs. TCU, at Oklahoma State, vs. Oklahoma.
If the Mountaineers come out of that stretch unbeaten and then win the Big 12 title game over Texas or Oklahoma while also getting the benefit of a loss by any of the top four that aren’t Alabama, they’re a lock for the College Football Playoff, no matter how good a case a 12-1 Clemson, 12-1 Big Ten champion or 11-1 Notre Dame may have.
As for the rest of the Big 12, however… it may be for the best to not get your national championship hopes up. The only others teams in the league with even an outside shot at the field of four are Texas and Oklahoma, but both of them are held back by strength of schedule compared to other playoff hopefuls.
Even if Texas wins out and wins the Big 12, it still lost to Maryland. Even though it was early, a national title hopeful has no business losing to a team like that, and the committee won’t forget it. Sorry, Longhorns.
Oklahoma’s resume as a 12-1 Big 12 champion would be slightly stronger because its win over West Virginia would come in Morgantown in the last week of November and Texas isn’t nearly as bad of a loss as Maryland is (which is weird to say because Maryland beat Texas, but the resumes of both don’t lie). But the Sooners lack a marque non-conference win and had to fire their defensive coordinator halfway through the season. Not great signs if the Sooners get hot.
The Big 12 outside of West Virginia finds itself in a difficult position, and West Virginia itself may not survive November without a loss.
Look on the bright side, though, Big 12: the Sugar Bowl is still there for you.
Reach Nathan Deal at (918) 684-2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nathan on Twitter at @NattyD13.