Mailbag: Two theories why the Big 12 has suddenly collapsed

For nearly the entire aughts, there were few bigger games played all season than Oklahoma-Texas (or Texas-Oklahoma). Six times in 10 years (2000-09), one of the Red River participants went on to play in the BCS championship game. Which, with a little distance now, seems staggering, given that Saturday’s edition at the Cotton Bowl will pit a pair of 2-2 teams.

On the bright side, at least Oklahoma is ranked at No. 20 in the AP poll. On the downside, not since 1999 has neither team gone in ranked higher than that.

Which pretty well sums up the 2016 state of not only those programs, but also their entire conference.

Stewart: The Big 12 appears to be in a steep decline. Is the cause lackluster recruiting and if so, has conference instability been a factor? Can the Big 12 recover, or is the demise inevitable?

— David Smalley, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Oftentimes over the years, usually when discussing the SEC and/or Big Ten, I’ve used the phrase “conference strength is cyclical.” In the Big 12’s case, though, there’s an added variable that may preclude it from the typical ebbs and flows – that four programs left the conference in 2011-12 and only two replaced them.

Not coincidentally, the conference has been in decline ever since.

If you go back to the 2011 season – the league’s first with 10 teams (after Nebraska and Colorado left but before Texas A&M and Missouri did) – the Big 12 was still very strong. It finished the year with the No. 3 team in the country (Oklahoma State), three others in the top 16 (Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma) and a Heisman winner (Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.) Four of its quarterbacks that year (Griffin, Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones) have started in the NFL.

Furthermore, Jeff Sagarin’s computer ranked the Big 12 the nation’s No. 1 conference that season. It was No. 2 the next. Since then, though, it’s ranked fourth (2013), fourth (2014), third (2015) and, so far this year, fifth in central mean (which reflects depth) and seventh in simple average (which puts more weight on teams at the top).

In January, Jon Solomon of CBS Sports compiled some interesting data reflecting the league’s post-realignment talent drain. Both its recruiting rankings and number of NFL exports are way down. End of day, though, as Oklahoma and Texas go, so go those numbers. And both have seen declines since peaking around 2010.

But I’d like to offer up one alternative theory for the conference’s larger struggles that goes beyond respective talent: Has the conference’s near-universal move to hurry-up spread offenses had a negative effect? Texas’ and TCU’s continued defensive struggles under two long-proven defensive coaches, Charlie Strong and Gary Patterson, may be the strongest indicator yet that practicing against those offenses every day lends itself to “soft” defenses. Patterson made that change in 2014, Strong this season. Poor tackling and coverage busts have been a hallmark for Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Baylor for years.

The nation’s premier programs – Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, etc. – play good defense. And none of them run the Air Raid or Baylor-style offenses.

— John M, Fort Worth, Texas

Definitely not the last one. The only realistic way a non-champion is going to reach the playoff is if it comes from the same division as the champ. I can’t imagine a scenario where the committee would pass on Team A in favor of Team B, which Team A beat head-to-head and finished ahead of in the standings.

The scenario that would most benefit Louisville is for Florida State to beat Clemson, but then for Clemson to turn around and win out. Which may sound counterintuitive, but based on the rationale the committee has emphasized so far, the Cardinals will need as many marquee wins to stand any chance. Beating an undefeated Houston on Nov. 17 would certainly be one. But that 63-20 win over the ‘Noles back on Sept. 17 will carry a lot more value if FSU finishes 10-2 and in the Top 10 or 9-3 and in the Top 15-20 than 8-4 or 7-5.

Mind you, Louisville’s other remaining games are against Duke, NC State, Virginia, Boston College and Wake Forest, so it may be that FSU and Houston wind up being its only two Top 25 wins all season. None of the eight playoff teams to date have had fewer than three such wins. So it would behoove Louisville if its two are both against highly ranked teams, and its sole loss a close one on the road to a 12-1 conference champ.

Stewart: In your most recent playoff projections you imply that Washington could make the playoff even with a loss in regular-season play as long as they win the Pac-12 title game. Do you really think a one-loss UW team would be higher than an undefeated Houston or a one-loss Louisville? Does winning a conference compensate for the lack of a non-conference schedule?

— Robert Madel, Seattle

It’s really hard to try to predict that without seeing how the respective schedules play out. The Huskies’ extra light trio of non-conference foes — Rutgers, Idaho and FCS Portland State – could definitely come back to haunt them. But just as I played out with Louisville in the last question, how many Top 25-caliber foes would Washington beat on its way to 12-1? Stanford, barring a total implosion, will be one, but No. 24 Utah is the Huskies’ only other currently ranked foe. Presumably the Pac-12 South champ would be another.

It’s definitely possible that 11-1 Louisville would finish with a similar resume to 12-1 Washington’s, given it would have defeated Houston out of conference. But remember, the committee’ protocol says a non-champion must be “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.” We haven’t seen it applied yet, but I take that to mean, basically, anything close to a tie goes to the champion.

Should Houston beat Louisville and go undefeated, it may have a more “unequivocal” case than would 11-1 Louisville. But it also would not get to play the schedule card against Washington after playing Lamar, Texas State, Tulane and Tulsa, among others.

I’ll be honest, I’m kind of rooting for a non-champion and/or Group of 5 team to be in the mix this year just to see how the committee handles it. We just don’t have a good sense yet how they would. But it’d have to a pretty compelling case for that team to beat out a one-loss Power 5 champ.

Mr. Mandel: It seems to me that every season produces a team that, despite little-to-no preseason hype, catapults into the stratosphere of the Top 5 in the first few weeks of the season. Last year it was Utah after beating Michigan in Khaki Pants’ first game and embarrassing the Ducks 62-20 on their home field. Who is this year’s team that has us fooled and may ultimately crash back down to earth?

— Dan Aubrey, Salt Lake City

So you’re asking me which of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Michigan and Washington is going to fall on its face first? I would say none of the above. All inspire more confidence than 2015 Utah, which earned its high ranking based on merit but certainly seemed like it was overachieving. The Utes ultimately finished the regular season 9-3. As of today I can’t see any of those teams finishing worse than 10-2.

If you expand to the Top 10, however, I do believe No. 10 Miami’s time there will be short-lived. I’m not sure what the ‘Canes have done to reach such a lofty status other than wear a “U” on their helmets. With all due respect to Mark Richt, his 4-0 team has beaten Florida A&M, FAU, Appalachian State and Georgia Tech. This week, though, it takes on Florida State, which may be 3-2 but has been tested plenty by facing Ole Miss, Louisville, USF and UNC. The ‘Noles should rebound and thump Miami, which has to then turn around and face the red-hot Tar Heels and visit Virginia Tech on a short week.

It may be that 9-3 is the best-case scenario for Richt’s team, though there’s no shame in that. It’s better than what I expected from a rebuilding program.

Which secondary looked worse this weekend, Texas or the Kansas City Chiefs?

— El, San Antonio, Texas

Not sure you’re aware, but I’m currently writing seven articles a week, co-hosting two podcasts, traveling every week, going on live video shows and TV segments and caring for a 7-month old. I couldn’t tell you who the Chiefs played last week, who’s in their secondary or how said secondary looked against said opponent.

But I still bet Texas’ looked worse.

Hi Stewart: If the coaching carousel this year includes Texas, Auburn, USC, Oregon, Notre Dame, LSU and Penn State, how would you rank them? And most puzzling, where would these blue-chip programs fill all the high-profile jobs, as there are not that many candidates qualified to fill positions of this caliber?

— Ken, Hollywood, California

I don’t believe those will all come open, unless a couple of those guys leave on their own volition. Notre Dame isn’t firing Brian Kelly, for one. And Oregon would likely have to be 3-9 bad for it to fire Mark Helfrich (though he’d certainly be on the hot seat going into next year).

But you raise an interesting point. I had a feeling this would happen once a playoff came to the sport, but we’re now seeing the college coaching carousel move ever-closer to NFL-level impatience. Which means the sport’s 15-20 most rabid programs – the ones that now expect to be regular playoff contenders – are going to start churning through coaches like pro franchises. There are only so many Tom Hermans in a given year. If in a given year both Texas and LSU or both USC and Notre Dame are open, one will land a star and win big, while the other will hire a dud and wind up firing that guy three years later.

I don’t like it, but there’s no going back now.

And now I’ll take you up on your offer to rank those jobs, because … duh, page views.

1)    Texas

2)    USC

3)    LSU

4)    Auburn

5)    Notre Dame

6)    Penn State

7)    Oregon

Is this the year Ohio State breaks their streak of not winning Big Ten Coach of the Year since 1979?

— Matt, Las Vegas

Nah. Kevin Wilson’s getting things cranked up.

Stewart, who is a bigger surprise: Oregon or Colorado? And is there anyone in the Pac-12 South you would bet the farm on to win the division?

— David Wallace, Maseru, Lesotho

Definitely Colorado.

While very few of my notable preseason predictions have come to fruition, I did see the Ducks’ downturn coming. That defense wasn’t going to get fixed overnight, and in fact Oregon’s rushing defense is even worse than a year ago. And the program’s inexplicable dearth of capable quarterbacks in the pipeline was bound to catch up at some point. Injuries to key players like running back Royce Freeman (against Nebraska and Colorado) and tackle Tyrell Crosby (lost for the season after Nebraska) have only compounded matters.

But even if, like me, you believed Mike MacIntyre’s Buffs have been gradually getting better the past few years, I’m guessing you didn’t see them cracking the Top 25. Who would have imagined redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Montez – who might have been a third-stringer had grad transfer Davis Webb stuck to his initial CU pledge – would complete 70-plus percent of his passes in his first two starts, or a long-dismal defense would currently be tied with Ohio State for No. 1 in the country against the pass (4.5 yards per attempt)?

I’m not yet ready to anoint the Buffs as Pac-12 South champs – they beat what may be the two worst teams in the North in Oregon and Oregon State – but no, there’s no one else I’d feel confident picking, either. UCLA and USC haven’t shown me anything. Utah could easily be 2-3 right now. Arizona is a mess. Arizona State is an enigma. The only prediction I’d confidently make is that a team from the Pac-12 South will not appear in the College Football Playoff.

Stewart: I love the Mailbag, keep up the great work. I have had the chance to see games in some great environments like Madison, Ann Arbor, Neyland, etc. Since you were there in person, does Clemson deserve the hype all the commentators pour on during recent broadcasts? Is it worth the trip?

— Robert G., Naples, Florida

I can’t speak for the average Clemson game, but Saturday night’s was a tremendous atmosphere from start to finish. Driving into that tiny little town, you start seeing the tailgaters seemingly miles from the stadium. The venue itself is picturesque, the fans are loud and of course, the anticipation leading up to the Clemson players running down the Hill is electric.

Is it worth the trip? Put it this way: I flew five hours from San Francisco to Atlanta, a two-hour drive from Clemson. By the time we got home from the game Saturday night they were setting up breakfast at the hotel. Then I got up and flew five hours back. So, yeah.

I would call attention to one oddity, though. After the game it’s tradition that fans are allowed on the field to celebrate and mill around. I’m sure it’s tamer after a run-of-the-mill game, but this one seemed dangerous. I saw one clearly inebriated woman injure herself trying to jump over a fence, and, later, watched an older gentleman get drilled in the face by someone trying to kick a field goal. This part of the festivities may need some work.

Stewart, You did a similar analysis last week for Florida State (now moot), but is there a way that Stanford can get back into the playoff conversation.

— Adam Kohler, somewhere

Yeah, by fixing its offense. Fast.

Stanford’s 3-0 start, which came against three generally respected opponents (Kansas State, USC and UCLA), masked some issues that existed even before last Friday’s Washington debacle. The Cardinal have scored eight offensive touchdowns in four games. Christian McCaffrey did his part pre-Washington, exceeding 150 yards from scrimmage in all three games, but Stanford got minimal production from anyone else.

Still, I believe the Washington game will prove an aberration. For one thing, Stanford’s offensive line had not performed anywhere near as poorly the first three games as it did against the Huskies. A preseason injury to speedy running back Bryce Love, who coach David Shaw had big plans for all offseason, definitely played a factor – he’s had just 17 carries so far – and blocking back Daniel Marx missed last week’s game. QB Ryan Burns, to no one’s surprise, has not performed at the level of four-year starter Kevin Hogan before him, but he’s had enough moments to believe he’ll get better.

Remember, Stanford’s offense could not have looked much worse in last year’s opener against Northwestern, but by season’s end was one of the most explosive in the country.

The Cardinal’s best hope is to win out and hope Washington loses twice. Its upcoming schedule is not a cakewalk but hardly murderer’s row, either, with a 2-2 Washington State at home, a trip to 2-3 Notre Dame, a visit from red-hot Colorado, at 2-3 Arizona and 1-3 Oregon State at home. A second conference loss would be tough to overcome, even if Washington and Washington State implode, because then Stanford wouldn’t finish with many Top 25 wins (if any).

Sounds insane. But would Texas deep six expansion or at least not include Houston because it would give them a better shot at Tom Herman?

— Eric Welsh, somewhere

That’s insane all right, but it’s the Big 12, so don’t rule anything out.