Saturday’s upsets damage Big 12 football playoff hopes

A morning of dream-killing upsets, followed by Saturday afternoon’s session of expose-the-title-pretender at Amon G. Carter Stadium, has carried us to this juncture in the Big 12 football race:

This league is fresh out of candidates to earn a slam-dunk spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. After Saturday, if a Big 12 team lands one of the four berths, it will be because some other school with control of its playoff destiny fumbled away its dream season … just like No. 4 Baylor did in Saturday’s 41-27 loss at West Virginia.

But fans should buckle their seat belts for one heck of a finish in the race to decide the Big 12 championship. No. 12 TCU will be a big part of that race, based on what we witnessed in Saturday’s 42-9 beatdown of No. 15 Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys (5-2, 3-1) began the day with a chance to take a solo lead in the Big 12 standings by taking down TCU (5-1, 2-1). But OSU never was in the game, surrendering touchdown plays of 34, 77 and 84 yards on three of the Horned Frogs’ first four possessions.

The OSU offense lived down to coach Mike Gundy’s pregame proclamations of being “just very average.” The Cowboys were held without a touchdown for the first time since a 27-0 loss to Oklahoma in 2009 and were outgained 676-258 in total yards.

“We just got our butts kicked,” Gundy said. “They made all the plays and we couldn’t move the ball. They’re better than we are.”

By Saturday night, OSU became the ninth league team to lose at least one conference game this season. Only No. 14 Kansas State (5-1, 3-0) remains undefeated in league play after the Wildcats’ 31-30 upset of No. 11 Oklahoma (5-2, 2-2). And no team has an undefeated record after Baylor (6-1, 3-1) fell to unranked West Virginia (5-2, 3-1).

When the updated polls are released Sunday, do not be surprised if TCU emerges as the Big 12’s highest-ranked team. K-State also will be in the discussion. But there is no guarantee that either will be a top-10 team.

And that is the problem, from a playoff standpoint. The Big 12 is too balanced for its own good. There are weekly upsets, which makes for great drama and will trigger a spectacular November stretch run.

It would not be surprising if the league champion, or co-champions, winds up with two losses in league play. Realistically, that is one loss too many for playoff consideration.

Another reality check: among the one-loss playoff candidates remaining in the Big 12, none are named Oklahoma or Texas. The lack of on-field production by the league’s traditional heavyweights will hamper the eventual champion in playoff deliberations by selection committee members.

At this point, the best chance for the Big 12 champion to wind up with a playoff berth would be for K-State to run the table in league play, post an 11-1 record and hope for some train wrecks by teams ahead of the Wildcats in the polls. TCU may be the better team. But the Frogs already have a loss in league play, which will be difficult for any Big 12 team to overcome if it wants to be one of football’s Final Four.

But in a balanced Big 12, TCU is only a victory over K-State away from controlling its destiny in the league title race. Those teams meet Nov. 8 in Fort Worth, where the Frogs spent Saturday making an impression on an OSU team that took No. 2 Florida State to the wire before falling 37-31 in its season opener.

Asked if it would be stretching things to consider TCU on a comparable level to FSU, based on his personal experience, OSU defensive tackle James Castleman shook his head.

“I don’t think it’s silly to put anybody in anybody’s league right now,” Castleman said. “With the wins and the losses that are going on, you cannot predict anything anymore.”

For the Cowboys, the margin of Saturday’s loss was both humbling and stunning. It marked OSU’s most lopsided loss since falling to Texas Tech 56-20 in 2008.

Asked about TCU’s improvement since posting a 4-8 record last season, OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said: “All I know is what they did against us. And this was a woodshed day. They’ve got talent in all the right places to be explosive on offense. We were in position to make some plays and just couldn’t make them.”

That may or may not make TCU the Big 12’s best team. The Frogs, without question, are on the short list. OSU, meanwhile, erased itself from the discussion with Saturday’s showing.

“I have a good feel for who we are and the direction we’re going,” Gundy said. “We’re a little limited on big-play capability … and we’re young. Sometimes it’s hard to recover when you have a bunch of youth and you’re playing on the road. It snowballs.

“But I can’t remember the last time we had a game like this. The good thing about this is, it just counts as one loss.”

It came as part of a topsy-turvy day that, in all likelihood, signaled the end of Big 12 playoff hopes this season.

But it also helped to jump-start a title race that should have lots of fans, including the ones from TCU, on the edge of their seats from now until the final week of the regular season.

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