Tablet Sports

Rising tides for SEC, Ohio State threaten Big 12 playoff hopes

For the first time this season, the College Football Playoff rankings unveiled Tuesday caused tremors to the heart of every fan who does not support a team from the SEC or Big Ten, the 14-team leagues with the nation’s most influential commissioners and a large percentage of its television viewers.

Perhaps this will be a one-week aberration. And there is no doubt that No. 5 TCU (9-1), which backslid one spot after Saturday’s 34-30 escape against Kansas (3-7), deserved what it got from members of the selection committee after two days of meetings in Grapevine.

Some would suggest No. 7 Baylor (8-1), which was idle last week, has limited reason to quibble because the Bears remained in their same spot for a second consecutive week. Until the final rankings are released Dec. 7, these weekly updates should not severely elevate the blood pressure of die-hard fans because they are temporary.

But it should raise eyebrows in every Big 12 precinct that the league’s two primary playoff hopefuls find themselves in pursuit of two SEC teams (No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Mississippi State) in the race to climb into the projected playoff mix. Baylor even finds itself behind No. 6 Ohio State (9-1), which passed the Bears in this week’s rankings on the “strength” of Saturday’s 31-24 victory over No. 25 Minnesota, a team TCU throttled 30-7 in September.

Local fans focused on their in-fighting about whether TCU or Baylor projects as the more playoff-worthy team need to wake up, smell the coffee and understand the real message delivered Tuesday:

You’re both long shots if the selection committee continues to reward frontrunners from the SEC and the Big Ten in the disproportionate manner that unfolded in the fourth edition of the CFP rankings.

As always, chairman Jeff Long harped on the significance of each team’s “body of work.” He offered a ray of hope to the Big 12 tandem by saying the difference between teams No. 4 (Mississippi State) and No. 7 (Baylor) remains “very narrow” in the minds of committee members.

Long also emphasized, for a fourth consecutive week, that Baylor’s body of work “is not quite comparable” to TCU’s in the estimation of committee members despite the Bears’ 61-58 victory in the teams’ Oct. 11 meeting. But several of Tuesday’s significant actions trump any explanations Long offered in his weekly teleconference:

• Alabama (9-1) climbed from No. 5 to No. 1 in the rankings on the strength of its 25-20 victory over then-No. 1 Mississippi State (9-1). Although Long preached “body of work” during the teleconference, both SEC teams in the projected playoff mix have only one victory over a current Top 25 team in the CFP rankings (Alabama beat MSU; MSU beat No. 14 Auburn). TCU has beaten three Top 25 teams (No. 12 Kansas State, No. 21 Oklahoma, No. 25 Minnesota). Baylor has beaten two (No. 5 TCU, No. 21 Oklahoma). Such numbers shoot holes in the “body of work” argument, although SEC teams do pass the eyeball test.

• A much bigger slight is having Baylor jumped during its bye week by an Ohio State team that lost to Virginia Tech (5-5) on its home field by 14 points. Long cited Ohio State’s “two impressive road wins” over conference rivals Michigan State and Minnesota as the impetus behind the Buckeyes’ climb. Really? Ohio State beat teams ranked No. 11 (Michigan State) and No. 25 (Minnesota). Baylor’s best wins came against No. 5 TCU and No. 21 Oklahoma. Also, Baylor is undefeated at home. That is more than Ohio State can say after falling by double-digits to an ACC also-ran that has yet to become bowl-eligible.

Yet Ohio State jumped Baylor in Tuesday’s rankings. And, worse, Ohio State is positioned to pass TCU next week if the committee continues doling out the Buckeye love.

In the four weeks of the CFP rankings, only two schools have climbed each week: No. 9 UCLA (8-2) and No. 6 Ohio State. That’s something to monitor next week when TCU learns if it, too, can be jumped during its bye week if Ohio State wins Saturday against Indiana (3-7).

A cynical mind might suggest Tuesday’s rankings could be tied to the fact Ohio State would bring a lot more viewers to the table for a playoff telecast than a small private school from Texas (TCU or Baylor). The same would be true for a double-dose of SEC playoff entries.

But, surely, the CFP and its network partner, ESPN, would not be thinking in those term$ while evaluating teams … would they? Based on the first three weeks of the CFP rankings, my answer would have been, “Absolutely not.”

After Tuesday, I’m starting to wonder if Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney made a cameo appearance in the committee room via speaker phone, imploring the decision-makers that his league must be included in this season’s playoff mix if they want it to succeed financially.

I’d rather not think that way. But answer this question: If the Big 12 playoff candidates were Texas and Oklahoma, instead of TCU and Baylor, would they have received the same treatment Tuesday?

For now, I’ll write it off as a one-week aberration. But Tuesday’s rankings were more than goofy, to say the least.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram