The Big 12 now has a bona fide national title contender, as Baylor’s 41-12 win over Oklahoma on Thursday night eliminated any doubts that many–myself included–had about the Bears’ worthiness for being in the BCS National Championship discussion.
Baylor can’t just think about the national picture though, because there in the midst of a hot race for what would be their first conference championship since 1980, when the program was still in the old Southwest Conference. The Big 12 also has a good shot at gaining a second bid into the major bowls, and finally there’s a race for the league’s top non-BCS game, the Cotton Bowl, which offers the opportunity to play a high-level SEC opponent.
The conference race right now is pointed squarely to December 7 in Waco. That’s when Texas pays a visit to Baylor. The Longhorns have overcome a poor non-conference showing (bad losses to Ole Miss and BYU) and season-long rumors about Mack Brown’s job security and the possible coming of Nick Saban to Austin next season.
Texas is unbeaten in Big 12 play and along with Baylor, controls its destiny to create a de facto conference championship game on December 7, the same day when the four other power conferences (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten) all play official league title games.
Before we just start prepping for Longhorns-Bears though, let’s not forget about Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are close in the rearview mirror, with their only loss all season being a tough one at West Virginia. Okie State has a game at Texas coming up, along with a visit to Baylor and the Cowboys can win out and win the conference.
Oklahoma State is also ranked 12th in the BCS rankings and are in prime position to grab one of the four at-large spots to the major bowls (the spots reserved for league runner-ups, qualified midmajors and independents).
And before you write off Oklahoma after their poor showing in Waco on Thursday, remember that the Sooners are 18th, have two manageable games ahead and then get a crack at Oklahoma State head-to-head. With Oklahoma State having a difficult schedule, TheSportsNotebook’s current BCS bowl projections currently have Oklahoma picking up a bid to one of the big bowl games.
Thus, we have three teams that control their destiny for a conference championship, a possible winner-take-all battle in the season finale and a fourth team that has a legitimate chance at being in one of college football’s showcase bowl games, and several head-to-head matchups ahead over the next four weeks. Yeah, I’d say the Big 12 is looking pretty interesting right now.
The league is contracted for seven bowl spots, and if they grab an at-large spot in the BCS, that number swells to eight. Kansas State’s decisive 49-26 win over Texas Tech might have continued the expose of the Red Raiders as a team that was a fraudulent 7-0 a few weeks ago and can’t stop the run (Tech is now 7-3), but it also all but secured a bowl spot for Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. K-State is 5-4, and still has a game against Kansas in their back pocket to pick up the one win they need for bowl eligibility.
Two more teams–West Virginia and TCU–are at 4-6 and need to sweep their two remaining games. It looks good for the Mountaineers, who play Kansas and Iowa State, the conference cellar-dwellars who are both long out of bowl contention. TCU, not so much–they go to Kansas State and then play Baylor. Even winning one game will be difficult and a sweep is all but impossible.
If that projection holds the Big 12 will have precisely seven teams available for bowls, something that will leave them short if they get a second BCS bid. No one in the conference will complain about a double payday in the big bowls at the expense of the Pinstripe Bowl, where their last spot is tied to, and it opens up a berth for teams in conferences who have a glut of eligible teams.
I think we’re going to get the Baylor-Texas conference championship battle, but I’m not so sure that both will make it through undefeated. Texas gets Oklahoma State at home this Saturday, and I think the Longhorns will survive. Even though I’m sold on Baylor, I’m not quite as confident they win in Stillwater.
The problem for Okie State is that their earlier conference loss to West Virginia means they have no margin for error and can’t play the angle of splitting the two games and creating a circular three-way tie. The Cowboys have to sweep, and while they’re offense has started to round into form as of midseason, that’s an awful lot to ask, particularly when we tack on the finale against Oklahoma.
Oklahoma State’s more realistic goal is to win two of their three showdown games. At 10-2, they would still have a crack at the BCS at-large spot, and would be in very strong position to at least secure the Cotton Bowl invite, which looks likely to be against Texas A&M or LSU.
CURRENT BIG 12 BOWL PROJECTIONS
Conference Champ: Baylor (Fiesta, vs. Central Florida)
BCS At-Large: Oklahoma (Sugar, vs. Auburn)
Cotton: Texas (vs. Texas A&M)
Alamo: Oklahoma State (vs. UCLA)
Buffalo Wild Wings: Texas Tech (vs. Nebraska)
Holiday: Kansas State (vs. Arizona State)
Meineke Car Care: West Virginia (vs. Iowa)
Pinstripe: Unfilled (vs. Houston)
If the conference does not get a BCS at-large spot, everyone from that point in the ladder drops down a rung.