Big 12 needs one more week of chaos to have viable playoff shot

Joe Mixon and Oklahoma have won seven straight since starting 1-2, with double-digit losses to Houston and Ohio State.
Joe Mixon and Oklahoma have won seven straight since starting 1-2, with double-digit losses to Houston and Ohio State. AP

The temptation, after an upset-filled week forced Tuesday’s reshuffle in the College Football Playoff rankings, is to peek at upcoming games, ponder the possibility of additional chaos and wonder what it would take for a Big 12 team to sneak into the four-team bracket when it is unveiled Dec. 4.

The honest answer: Probably more upsets than circumstances will allow over the final three weeks of the regular season.

Although we’ve reached the point that only top-ranked Alabama (10-0) has a chance to emerge as an undefeated champion from a Power 5 conference, the Big 12’s national reputation took a pounding during its subpar September against nonconference opponents. The hits were justified, particularly the ones levied against No. 8 Oklahoma (8-2, 7-0 Big 12), the league’s top-rated team in The Associated Press poll heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 10 West Virginia (8-1, 5-1).

Yet the Sooners, No. 9 in this week’s CFP rankings, have the chance to do something no team has done since the Big 12 adopted its nine-game, round-robin schedule in 2011. OU could finish undefeated in league play by taking down West Virginia and No. 13 Oklahoma State (8-2, 6-1), the league’s other long-shot playoff “hopefuls” if you use the term loosely.

But using the term loosely is an upgrade over completely ignoring the possibility. That has been the case for OU in the eyes of most observers since the Sooners lost by double-digit margins to Houston (8-2) and No. 2 Ohio State (9-1) in September.

In the CFP’s brief history, no two-loss team has earned a playoff berth. It’s hard to imagine that changing this season. But enough high-profile matchups remain to raise that possibility if more upsets surface in other leagues while the OU-West Virginia winner wins out.

Or, possibly, if Oklahoma State wins out. But with losses against Central Michigan (6-5) and fast-fading Baylor (6-3), it’s hard to see the Cowboys climbing into the top four by Dec. 4.

But Saturday’s winner in Morgantown might do some late-season climbing. During Tuesday’s news conference, CFP selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said committee members like the Sooners’ seven-game winning streak and view OU as “deserving” of a No. 9 ranking.

As for West Virginia, perched at No. 14 in the CFP rankings?

“Still looking at West Virginia to get a quality win,” Hocutt said.

Based on Hocutt’s comment about OU, the Sooners would check that box on the Mountaineers’ résumé. And the Pac-12 champion, by Dec. 4, might not have more than one “quality” win on its ledger, either. Stay tuned.

Tuesday’s rankings identified Oklahoma as the Big 12’s preferred playoff option among CFP officials. But the case for an Oklahoma playoff berth rests entirely on the assumption that a Sooners’ 9-0 record in Big 12 play would trump an 11-1 overall mark posted by a non-champion in another league. There are potential flaws in that logic.

If that 11-1 team without a title is Ohio State, which thrashed OU 45-24 on Sept. 17, the Sooners’ chances disappear. If OU, at 10-2 overall but unbeaten in Big 12 play, is compared to another team, the situation changes.

That is why the league’s strongest playoff case could rest with an 11-1 team from West Virginia. If the Mountaineers win out and OU beats Oklahoma State on Dec. 3, West Virginia would be the Big 12 champion based on a head-to-head win over OU. For playoff purposes, WVU would not carry the baggage of a potential two-loss CFP participant.

Without question, the Mountaineers play the best defense among the league’s remaining playoff options. All that’s lacking is a statement win, which could come Saturday night against OU (7 p.m., WFAA/Ch. 8).

“We’ve been off the radar for a long time,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “And we’re OK with that. We use that as motivation.”

For OU, Saturday’s game marks the season’s final road trip and the most logical place to stumble as the Sooners seek to become the first Big 12 team since Texas in 2009 to post an undefeated record in league play.

If OU runs the table, it deserves to carry the sagging banner for Big 12 playoff hopes. But the task, as league coaches understand, is a tall one.

“It’s tough to get 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds to focus enough each week, especially on the road,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose team won the 2011 Big 12 title but lost a national championship opportunity with a November loss an Iowa State team that finished 6-7. “In our league this year, there’s so much parity. There’s seven or eight teams that are pretty much the exact same, and the outcome depends on where the game is played.”

In reflecting on last week’s rash of high-profile upsets, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said: “Anyone can get anyone on any given day. It boils down to who prepares the best. That’s the nature of the game today.”

From a Big 12 standpoint, it’s going to take another round of outrageous upsets to pump any meaningful life into the league’s near-dormant playoff hopes. But don’t rule out that possibility because last week proved it can happen.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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