TCU-Baylor debate: Who most deserves Big 12’s playoff spot?

WACO AND FORT WORTH, Texas — A purple billboard on University Avenue a couple of blocks north of TCU’s campus serves as an ironic monument to the thorniest debate of the 2014 college football season. Below an enormous version of the Big 12’s familiar logo are the words: “Big 12 Conference” and “One True Champion.”

The 10-1 Horned Frogs will be Big 12 champions if they beat 2-9 Iowa State on Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium. But contrary to the conference’s ill-conceived slogan, TCU will be one true champion for only about eight hours. That’s because the winner of Saturday night’s game between 10-1 Baylor and 9-2 Kansas State also will become co-champion.

And if both TCU and Baylor prevail, the College Football Playoff selection committee likely will have to address once and for all a dilemma that’s been looming since the panel released its first set of top 25 rankings on Oct. 28. It likely would have to pick between the two co-champions. Would it give an 11th-hour bump to the currently sixth-ranked Bears for beating the Horned Frogs straight up, 61-58, on Oct. 11? Or would it reward third-ranked TCU for taking on and beating an 8-4 Minnesota team out of conference and arguably playing better as a whole against the two Big 12 teams’ shared schedules?

Two football-crazed campuses separated by a roughly 90-mile stretch of I-35 anxiously await that possibility. In the meantime, though, every commentator on sports television and every desk jockey with a Twitter account has his or her opinion.

“You have people talking to, from, for and against, and you have to remember, those are 18- to 22-year old kids and they’re playing their hearts out,” TCU AD Chris Del Conte said. “Every great comment you feel good about, every comment that they try to find a chink in the armor, you go, hey wait a minute, that’s not the case. You find yourself constantly debating back and forth to the television on the virtues of your program.”

It’s become a Tuesday ritual on both campuses that at around 6 p.m. CST, students stuck in classes begin glancing at their phones. This week there were smiles in Fort Worth and frustrated grimaces in Waco when it came down that TCU had jumped over undefeated Florida State for No. 3 in the selection committee rankings while Baylor remained stuck at No. 6.

“It’s very frustrating because we did beat TCU,” Baylor running back Shock Linwood said. “But we did lose [41-27] to West Virginia [on Oct. 18] and so, that was our fault right there. But it’s frustrating, like I said, because we beat them.”

It’s also become a Tuesday ritual that Rece Davis, and then a teleconference full of reporters, asks committee chairman Jeff Long why the 12-member panel continues to discount the teams’ head-to-head meeting. Long has remained steadfast in his position that the Horned Frogs’ superior body of work renders that unofficial tiebreaker moot.

“We all recognize that TCU lost to Baylor,” he said Nov. 18. “Once again, strength of schedule is an important factor that came into play, and [Baylor’s] body of work is not quite comparable in the view of the committee.”

Long said this week, “TCU has five wins over teams with winning records or .500 records and above, and Baylor has three, if you include Texas at 6‑6 … We believe TCU is better and deserving of that No. 3 rank over Baylor.”

COMMON OPPONENTS

Opponent TCU Baylor
Kansas W 34-30 (road) W 60-14 (home)
Oklahoma W 37-33 (home) W 48-14 (road)
Oklahoma State W 42-9 (home) W 49-28 (home)
SMU W 56-0 (road) W 45-0 (home)
Texas W 48-10 (road) W 28-7 (road)
Texas Tech W 82-27 (home) W 48-46 (neutral)
West Virginia W 31-30 (road) L 41-27 (road)

At this point, TCU and Baylor have played seven of their 11 games against common opponents. After the Horned Frogs play Iowa State and the Bears play K-State, the final tally will be nine. And of course, Baylor would add one of the most important pieces of its résumé if it beats the committee’s ninth-ranked team. TCU’s biggest games are behind it.

“It would be hard to find a better résumé without question," Bears coach Art Briles said. “Look at our schedule, look at our results."

“I would tell you the most even playing field was the West Virginia game,” TCU’s Gary Patterson said. “We both had to go there, we both had to play a team that’s tough to beat in Morgantown, and we were able to get it done.”

Those quotes were the closest either coach came to campaigning over the course of in-person interviews with each of them this week. Patterson mostly stuck to his script about “finishing the journey” against Iowa State. Briles kept coming back to some variation of “doing the best job we can” against Kansas State.

But Briles’ boss, AD Ian McCaw, went on the offensive for him this week, beginning with an uncharacteristic appearance at the team’s weekly news conference. Baylor’s marketing department hired a PR firm to assist him, though McCaw says the company’s job is to deal with media, not lobby the selection committee.

Whatever the case, he clearly has his talking points down, playing up prospective wins over the committee’s current No. 3 (TCU), No. 9 (K-State) and No. 20 (Oklahoma) teams.

“If we can beat Kansas State, we’re 11-1, we’re Big 12 champions, we have the tiebreaker over TCU — despite the interesting discussion about that — and we feel like we’ll have three top-15-caliber wins, including a win over one of the other five top-six [teams],” McCaw said. “We feel our résumé stacks up as strongly as anybody’s.”

Notice the part about an “interesting discussion” regarding the Big 12’s tiebreaker. On the Big 12’s weekly teleconference Monday, commissioner Bob Bowlsby reiterated the conference would recognize both teams as champions and would not recommend one over the other to the selection committee. McCaw said he was surprised to hear that interpretation when the league first addressed the scenario earlier this season.

“My assessment was, if you had two teams that were 8-1, the teams would be co-champions, but the [head-to-head] tiebreaker would determine who the ‘one true champion’ would be … and the team who would be advanced by the committee as the champion of the conference,” he said. “I would say that whether it’s TCU and Kansas State that ended up tied, or Baylor and TCU that ended up tied. With the tiebreaker in our bylaws, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head.”

That tiebreaker, though, is specific only to when a Big 12 team does NOT make the playoff. It determines which co-champion gets the league’s automatic berth to a New Year’s Six bowl. And it’s hardly new. In 2012, the conference’s first as a 10-team league, Kanas State and Oklahoma both went 8-1 in the conference and were named co-champions, but the Wildcats, having beaten the Sooners 24-19, earned the league’s automatic berth to the Fiesta Bowl in the old BCS system.

“We’ve always known that,” Del Conte said. “[McCaw]’s known that, I’ve known that, because everyone in the Big 12 knew that.”

McCaw also downplays criticism of the Bears’ soft non-conference schedule of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, noting that Mississippi State previously earned the committee’s No. 1 ranking, and then remained in the top four after its first loss, despite playing four such cupcakes out of conference.

“Our non-conference schedule was set about seven years ago,” he said.

But Del Conte gives himself a pat on the back for having the foresight to add a power-conference opponent to this year’s schedule on a relatively short turnaround. TCU announced a home-and-home with Minnesota in May 2013 and beat the Gophers 30-7 in the first leg Sept. 13 in Fort Worth.

“That was the criteria that was laid out to us two years ago,” Del Conte said. “…I attended a class where those directions were passed out. They said non-conference schedule counts. We made sure to abide by the instructions that were given.”

There’s a certain contingent, though, that believes none of that matters. That if the two do wind up competing for the last playoff spot — and mind you, both also are contending with No. 5 Ohio State — that 61-58 should be the only relevant set of data.

“It was one of those ballgames at Baylor where it wasn’t like we caught up and barely lost,” Patterson said. “We played and it came down to a couple [officiating] calls and a field goal.”

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To this point the committee has sympathized with Patterson. And while Long says the committee starts from scratch every week, it does seem hard to imagine Baylor jumping four spots with just one game remaining, against a Kansas State team that TCU beat 41-20 on Nov. 8.

But consider the dominos that might fall this weekend. If No. 4 Florida State beats No. 11 Georgia Tech to complete a 13-0 regular season, it’s logical to surmise the ‘Noles may move back ahead of TCU. And No. 5 Ohio State, playing without star quarterback J.T. Barrett, is a four-point underdog Saturday against No. 13 Wisconsin. Take the current Nos. 4 and 5 teams out of the buffer area and suddenly the two Big 12 teams would be right next each other.

At which point the committee might decide they’re finally close enough to invoke head-to-head. But would it really drop TCU from No. 3 to No. 5 on the last day of the season if the Horned Frogs handle Iowa State?

“I’ve got to trust that if we win the way we’re supposed to win, if we can do that, that we would stay where we’re at and get an opportunity to be part of the playoff,” Patterson said. “If not, we’ll have a chance to be part of a great bowl game, a New Year’s game, and go from there.”

Briles, for his part, seems to have the calmest perspective of anyone involved in the whole entanglement.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “if we take care of business on the football field, I believe in America."

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.