For the second time in four weeks, No. 3 TCU is in college football’s projected playoff pool. For the sixth time in as many opportunities, No. 6 Baylor is out.
But in the latest round of College Football Playoff rankings, delivered Tuesday in Grapevine, TCU (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) widened its margin of separation from Baylor (10-1, 7-1) by doing something unexpected but significant:
TCU became the third one-loss team to pass No. 4 Florida State (12-0), the defending national champion, in the last set of weekly rankings issued before the playoff field is announced Sunday.
The rankings that set the four-team bracket will consider Saturday’s results from six weekend games loaded with conference championship ramifications. But Tuesday’s message should be clear to football fans throughout the nation.
TCU is on the fast track toward a playoff berth if the Frogs take care of business Saturday against Iowa State (2-9, 0-8), the league cellar-dweller that looms as the final hurdle between the Horned Frogs and a share of their first Big 12 title.
Baylor, meanwhile, needs to secure its share of a Big 12 title by knocking off No. 9 Kansas State (9-2, 7-1) in Saturday’s showdown in Waco. Beyond that, the Bears probably need losses by Florida State and No. 5 Ohio State (11-1) in their conference championship games for Baylor to have any realistic shot of punching a playoff ticket.
Nothing is certain. All six of the playoff frontrunners are eligible to stumble Saturday in pressure situations. But Tuesday’s rankings made it clear that CFP committee members have a much higher opinion of TCU than Baylor, despite the Bears’ 61-58 victory in the teams’ head-to-head meeting Oct. 11.
“We’ve analyzed statistical data. We’ve contrasted them. We’ve looked at the facts, the quality of the wins,” Long said, citing TCU’s five victories over teams with records of .500 or better against Baylor’s mark of three victories against similar teams. “It’s a number of things we look at, and we believe TCU is better.”
Because of the timing of the Frogs’ two-spot improvement over last week’s perch, Tuesday marked a night to celebrate for TCU fans. For Baylor, it’s time to shift into pursuit mode after the Bears squandered an opportunity to impress the committee in last week’s 48-46 escape from Texas Tech (4-8, 2-7) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
To further any realistic playoff aspirations, Baylor needs No. 11 Georgia Tech (10-2) to upset Florida State in the ACC title game and No. 13 Wisconsin (10-2) to defeat Ohio State and claim the Big Ten title. Both results are possible, and Wisconsin will enter as the favorite because of last week’s season-ending injury to OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Long stressed that Barrett’s injury “played no factor” in Tuesday’s rankings. He also said FSU finds itself “in a strong position at No. 4” when compared to pursuers outside the projected playoff pool.
From all indications, any input from the public relations firm Baylor hired to further its cause fell on deaf ears. The Bears continue to suffer from negative feelings about their soft nonconference schedule and the committee’s perception that their comeback win against TCU was more about momentary flash than meaningful substance.
The upside for the Bears is that, with a victory over K-State, they would be knocking off a top-10 opponent to bolster their season résumé. And they would be earning a share of a conference title, a distinction CFP officials value but a commodity neither FSU or Ohio State could claim if those schools lose Saturday.
During Monday’s news conference in Waco, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw expressed optimism about the Bears’ playoff chances. He also made it clear that he expects a fair shake Sunday when the merits of his small private school are weighed against teams from larger, blue-blood programs with longer histories of football success.
“Baylor doesn’t have the same historic brand as Alabama in regard to national championships. But that’s not what we’re analyzing right now,” McCaw said. “We’re analyzing the 2014 season, and we’re trying to identify who the four best teams are. Really, history and tradition shouldn’t play into that.”
In McCaw’s estimation, the victory over TCU should mean more.
“That’s the whole reason why we’re having a college football playoff,” McCaw said. “To determine the champion on the field, rather than using polling and computers.”
Tuesday night, CFP officials used statistical data and the input of former coaches and players to send a message that Baylor’s victory over TCU was a fluke. And, therefore, it is less valid than performances they have witnessed from the two schools in their 10 other games.
“Certainly our coaches and others in the room look at the way the game is played, evaluate the games, evaluate the competition,” said Long, whose committee includes college football notables Tom Osborne, Barry Alvarez, Tyrone Willingham, Pat Haden and Oliver Luck. “Only the performance of the teams impact the committee.”
Tuesday night, the committee gave TCU reason to celebrate. Baylor, meanwhile, remains frustrated because its victory over TCU does not create a meaningful impact on committee members.