We have reached the crossroads weekend in Big 12 efforts to produce a College Football Playoff participant after the league was shut out of last year’s postseason bracket.
On the positive side: The conference heads into Saturday with four teams in the playoff mix. In order of current attractiveness to the CFP selection committee, the list includes No. 8 Oklahoma State (10-0), No. 12 Oklahoma (9-1), No. 6 Baylor (8-1) and No. 15 TCU (9-1). League teams also will benefit because the Pac-12 should be out of playoff candidates following losses by No. 7 Stanford (8-2) and No. 10 Utah (8-2) that saddled every team in that Power 5 league with at least two setbacks, one too many for any playoff candidate other than Alabama, the CFP’s perpetual blind spot.
On the negative side: The Big 12’s list of candidates will be cut in half, theoretically, after Saturday’s showdowns between TCU-Oklahoma (7 p.m., WFAA/Ch. 8) and Baylor-Oklahoma State (6:30 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4). More important, the diminished Pac-12 playoff candidacy is more than mitigated by the presence of No. 4 Notre Dame (9-1), a blue-blood independent, ahead of all league hopefuls in this week’s CFP rankings.
That is not likely to change Tuesday when a fresh round of rankings will show Baylor and TCU how steep their respective playoff climbs have become following the Bears’ 44-34 loss to Oklahoma and the Horned Frogs’ 23-17 escape from winless Kansas (0-10). Expect both to be buried more deeply by the CFP selection committee than they were Sunday by Associated Press poll voters, who had Baylor at No. 10 and TCU at No. 11.
For all four playoff hopefuls in the Big 12, the team to track is Notre Dame, which closes with games against Boston College (3-7) and Stanford (8-2). Reeling in the Irish at 11-1 will not be easy for any Big 12 playoff hopeful, even an undefeated Oklahoma State.
Closer to home, the playoff hill probably became insurmountable Saturday night for Baylor, where players and coach Art Briles talked more about winning or sharing a third consecutive Big 12 title than about CFP hopes after the loss to OU. They realize a soft September schedule, coupled with a high-profile November loss, does not play well with CFP decision-makers.
But a Bears’ victory Saturday in Stillwater, Okla., would move the Big 12 title race into a multi-team tie for first place (among once-beaten teams) heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. That’s the new goal.
“There’s nothing to hang our heads about,” Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango said. “We lost at home and that sucks. But we can still win the conference, so that’s what our goal is.”
Asked how his team, which has professed a plan to play-it-perfect since fall drills, will adjust to its first defeat, Briles shrugged.
“We’re going to see. I can’t predict the future,” Briles said. “But I have a lot of confidence in how we’ll prepare and how we’ll play. The good thing is we can still control our own destiny, try to finish out and do right and see where it all ends up. There’s a few of us banging around with one loss. We’ll just see where it ends up.”
Baylor’s chances were not helped by a first-quarter back injury to quarterback Jarrett Stidham, which impacted subsequent play calls. But the freshman from Stephenville finished the game, with Baylor running it 44 times and throwing 27 passes.
I can’t predict the future. But I have a lot of confidence in how we’ll prepare and how we’ll play.
Baylor coach Art Briles on how his team will respond to its first loss of the season
Asked about the extent of Stidham’s injury, Briles said: “He battled throughout the whole game with some pain. He’s in pain right now. Hopefully, it’s just muscular and he’ll be ready to go next week.”
Stidham downplayed the ailment more than Briles, saying he took a hit on the first series but fought through it and plans to play against OSU.
“It was one of the first hits I took, but I don’t know exactly what happened,” Stidham said. “I’ll be fine. This team’s resilient. We’re going to bounce back from this. This doesn’t define our season.”
But it sure clouds the playoff picture for a team that has no victories over a ranked opponent on its November ledger. Baylor has victories over two teams with winning records, Texas Tech (6-5) and West Virginia (5-4), and struggled defensively to contain a balanced OU offense that produced 511 yards and six touchdowns.
4 Teams in mix to win Big 12 title heading into a significant Saturday of head-to-head showdowns
Oklahoma center Ty Darlington called the Sooners’ triumph “a definite legacy game … to turn the tide back and restore things to their rightful order” in the Big 12. Oklahoma, understandably, harbors playoff hopes if the Sooners can close with victories over TCU and OSU.
For Baylor, the goal is a bit different after Saturday night. What drives these Bears at this point?
“Just knowing that we’ve got another shot at being Big 12 champions or co-champions,” receiver Jay Lee said. “That’s one of our goals. We might not have sealed the deal for our hopes at a national championship, but just knowing we can still be Big 12 champs and hold that trophy up in front of our fans would be great.”
After Saturday, it’s the most tangible goal remaining on Baylor’s preseason list.