Also known as “a way too early look at the College Football Playoff”
Last Saturday brought with it one of the most prolific and entertaining days of college football we’ve seen in many years — from top-five matchups in the Big Ten to upsets of top-ranked teams to downright absurdity in endings, the day did not disappoint.
Big 12 fans will point to the battle between No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 21 Texas as an example of this bedlam, and some (cough, ESPN) will desperately try to make the Red River Showdown a thing — even snubbing the aforementioned top-five showdown in the Big Ten to travel, instead, to the Cotton Bowl.
Sure, the game itself was as entertaining as they come: First, Texas stormed ahead against Oklahoma. Texas fans began stomping their feet and clapping their hands and tweeting about how Texas was back. Spencer Rattler, the Heisman frontrunner of the summertime, got benched while freshman Caleb Williams came in relief for the embattled Sooners. Oklahoma came back and beat Texas in a rivalry that no one outside of Texas and Oklahoma gives a hoot about. Because it doesn’t matter.
Yes, it was an entertaining game with absolutely no relevance. Texas fell to No. 25 in the latest AP Poll (a very generous position IMHO). Oklahoma might not lose a game, but it’ll finish the season with the weakest schedule of any of the likely Power Five champs — something we can, absurdly, nearly mathematically call now. The Sooners’ best possible win looks to be Oklahoma State, who Oklahoma will face in the regular season finale (their best non-conference win came in unimpressive fashion over Nebraska). Lincoln Riley’s squad can’t expect much help, either, from the Big 12 title game when it comes to strength of schedule, since just three Big 12 teams are ranked in the AP Poll. And the Big 12’s biggest non-conference win of the season came from Kansas State’s early win over Stanford.
Sure, an undefeated Oklahoma will probably make the College Football Playoff. A one loss Sooner squad? No chance. Neither Oklahoma nor Texas will probably ever have a shot again in the foreseeable future after moving to the SEC. We’ve seen what Alabama has done against much better Oklahoma teams. Congrats, Lincoln Riley — you get to deal with that in the regular season now.
Texas and Oklahoma have sealed themselves into irrelevance in an attempted coup in much the same way West Virginia did when it jumped ship from the Big East to the Big 12 in 2011. And now the Big 12 itself is irrelevant, with anyone who could making their exit when the stakes were more favorable and the moves less desperate. Nebraska came to the Big Ten in 2011. Colorado went to the Pac-12 in 2012.
As it stands, there are only two conferences in college football. The polls make that much apparent, but because it’s fun to repeat as a Big Ten fan, we have:
But that’s just one conference. We can say almost unequivocally that the Big Ten is the best top to bottom conference in the sport, but the SEC remains the most top-heavy conference in the game. Georgia probably has the best defense in the nation (yes, even compared to Iowa). Alabama is wounded from the Tide’s loss to unranked Texas A&M last week, but I don’t want to be Mississippi State this weekend. Nick Saban’s team is still one of the top teams in the country.
Looking at the remainder of the top-10, Oregon looks destined to fall, though, at this point, that does nothing to further impact Ohio State’s loss to the Ducks. A host of unfortunate injuries at key positions mean Oregon is not the team we saw impress in the Horseshoe in September. The Pac-12 is effectively eliminated from Playoff conversation, with Arizona State the only other member of the conference represented in the AP Poll at No. 18.
And then there’s the ACC — perhaps the biggest conference to surprise this season. Does anyone truly believe that Wake Forest is going to make the College Football Playoff? The big brands of the ACC are down this season in the same way the big brands of the Pac-12 have been down for years. The Demon Deacons are sitting at 6-0 and have the No. 16 spot in the latest AP Poll — the lowest-ranked undefeated team from a Power Five conference. Wake Forest is joined only by NC State at No. 22.
…and we’ve already talked about the Big 12.
Sure, it’s nice to be on top, but we really can’t jeer too much as Big Ten fans. There are years where we’ve been in the same boat as the Pac-12, with only Ohio State representing on the national stage and the rest of the conference shuffling among itself. We’ve seen it when bowl matchups stack the top-five in the Big Ten and SEC against one another, with the Big Ten scraping with maybe a single win.
That’s why we like to hang our hats on seasons like 2017, when the Big Ten went 7-1 in bowl games, including three wins in New Year’s Six bowls from Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin (the lone loss coming from Michigan).
We also have to celebrate now, with five teams in the top-10, because it’ll all end very soon. Iowa is the only team from the Big Ten West represented in the group. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all still have to play one another in a round robin for control of the Big Ten East. Heck, the Nittany Lions — who are very good regardless of what happens the rest of the season — could end up with four losses at the end of the regular season. If a team emerges from the East unscathed and beats a presumed Iowa champ in the West, that team will have perhaps the best resume in all of college football.
Looking ahead to the Playoff, the SEC and Big Ten champs are all-but guaranteed a spot. Notre Dame doesn’t have a shot at the group of four after its loss to Cincinnati, which itself looks to be slipping among a strengthening group around it, but which should still get in if the Bearcats can stay undefeated as impressively as they have to this point.
And that fourth spot? Yes, it’ll probably go to Oklahoma. It’ll be a fine sendoff to the Big 12.
Because the Big Ten and SEC have a lot going for them, and will likely stay on top for a minute. While we could anticipate that the ACC will be back with some combination of Clemson, Florida State and Miami (FL) making a resurgence, and since the Pac-12 will always have the fertile West Coast recruiting bed right in its backyard, we can’t say the Big 12, the final Power Five conference, has anything going for it.