With the Big 12 conference going 7-3 in opening weekend, the kickoff to the college football season was overall a pretty solid showing for the Big 12. However, with those wins mostly against FCS competition, we really have not learned much about the strength of the conference. One thing we did learn is how much our fans have to learn about college football as a whole in the College Football Playoff (CFP) era.
Despite the early season annual prop-in-pimp in the rankings by ESPN, the Tom Herman-led Longhorn-era began with a loud thud against ACC team Maryland. Matt Rhule’s first game with Baylor did not fare much better as an FCS school, Liberty University of the Big South Conference, came into McLane Stadium and put up 585 yards of offense on a team rebuilding in the wake of the Art Briles’ saga and strutted away with a victory. West Virginia looked solid against Virginia Tech but couldn’t find the defense it needed to stop Virginia Tech down the stretch, nor the offense to drive home the tying score with less than a minute left.
As a TCU grad, two of my three favorite games every season are against the Longhorns and Bears. This goes back to the Southwest Conference (SWC) struggles and journey TCU traveled from a mid-major program to a strong member of the Big 12. As with any former rival, Texas A&M’s 34–point collapse against UCLA brought me joy. Not so with the loss of the Longhorns and the Bears. The Aggies are not in the Big 12 and their failure does not directly or indirectly impact TCU’s journey towards the National Championship. The Aggies’ loss doesn’t impact the image of the Big 12 conference, rather the image of the SEC. The Longhorns’ and Bears’ loss does.
In a perfect college football world, every team in the Big 12 would win every game on their schedule but TCU. All Big 12 fans should feel the same way about their respective teams. When Big 12 fans cheer for the failure of their conference foes during non-conference games or bowl season no matter how much we dislike them is counterproductive to the goal of a national championship. Every game counts. Every non-conference loss by a Big 12 team hurts the image of the conference in the eyes of the fans that pay attention to the media, the eyes of the media that drive the narrative, and ultimately the decision makers in at the CFP Committee. The overall process of the semi-subjective nature of the CFP Committee does not allow for much failure during non-conference play. It does not allow for more than a loss or two during conference play. Both speak to the overall strength of the team and the conference in the eyes of the media and ultimately the CFP Committee.
Anyone who pays attention to the CFP knows the importance of “the eye test” to the committee and their hand, ESPN. If a highly ranked team beats everyone on their schedule and at the end of the year everyone on their schedule has one loss, the playoff committee would have no reason to exclude that team as long as they “pass the eye test.” The eye test is terminology ESPN coined during the inception of the CFP Playoff to justify schools like TCU dropping three spots to #6 out of playoff contention despite beating Iowa State with Ohio State taking the #4 spot in 2014, and Ohio State earning the spot over Penn State last year despite not winning the Big 10 Conference and losing the head-to-head match to the Nittany Lions.
If TCU (#Go Frogs!) beats UT and Baylor later this year, their victory looks that much more insignificant in the eyes of the playoff committee as a result of their early season loss. That isn’t to say both teams can’t rebound from their early season bump. But even if UT and Baylor go undefeated between now and then and finish with one loss, most would rather their team beat an undefeated UT and Baylor team. Both having only one loss by season’s end is unlikely. But the point remains the same: Victories over teams with better records at the end of the year helps catapult the victor into the CFP, (see Ohio State 2014 and 2017 season). So why did the majority of the Big 12 fans cheer for the failure of Texas and Baylor during opening weekend? That mentality during non-conference play is counterproductive to unity of purpose and any Big 12 team’s journey to the national championship and it needs to change.
A few suggestions going forward for the Big 12 Conference and their fans:
- Take a lesson from the SEC. The SEC consistently markets the entire strength and unity of the conference and the media and the SEC fans consistently buy into the narrative despite the SEC only having Alabama and maybe one (LSU?) or two (Georgia?) flagship teams year after year. After the #4 LSU vs. $3 Oregon Cowboys Classic at Jerry World to kick off the 2011 college football season, the Tigers won 40-27. As the final minutes of the game came to a close, the 87,000+ predominantly LSU-clad fans didn’t chant “LSU! LSU! LSU!” They chanted, “SEC! SEC! SEC!” That’s the power of marketing and product placement and more importantly, unity. Each conference school needs to market the Big 12 as much as they market their respective schools. I can only speak for TCU and Baylor home games and TCU does this well.
- As the strength of the conference emerges as the year goes along, cheer for those teams in addition to your team. Those are the teams that give us the best chance to make the CFP. The SEC, Big 10 and ACC each have one championship in the first three years of the Playoff. It is the Big 12’s turn. This year, it will probably come down to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State or TCU. Cheer for an undefeated non-conference schedule and bowl season for every Big 12 team. If every Big 12 team goes undefeated going into conference play, most would start their season 4-0. That’s two wins away from bowl eligibility.
- Let go of the pre-playoff mindset. It’s a new era in college football and the Big 12 teams, outside of Oklahoma and Texas, very little room for error if they hope to win a National Championship. The eye test is directly related to wins and wins over teams with wins. Admission to the CFP is indirectly (at least publicly) related to the strength of the portfolio the team brings to the table (i.e. value of the program, how the team travels, licensing, ticket sales, attendance, etc). However, all those factors are minimized with an undefeated or one-loss team that controls what they can (see University of Washington 2016).
We will learn a little more about the strength of this year’s Big 12 in week two. With Oklahoma traveling to the Horseshoe to play Ohio State, and TCU playing Arkansas in Fayetteville, those are the only two statement games for the conference this coming week. At the end of the day, a team controls its own destiny. Texas has a chance to rebound in week three against USC and Texas Tech against the Sun Devils of ASU. As a fan of the Frogs and the Big 12, it is in my best interest to be a fan of the Sooners, Red Raiders, and every other Big 12 team…until the play the Horned Frogs.
The views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.
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