The Big 12's oddball round-robin schedule has created one of the more intriguing story lines of the College Football Playoff's first year. With Baylor and TCU in position to finish the year tied atop the league standings, it raises the question of who the league's "one true champion" is.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has been at his prevaricating best when asked to clarify the conference's position on determining the champion. The pat response is that the league would have co-champions, with the head-to-head result between the two teams determining who receives the conference's marquee bowl bid.
But wouldn't that kinda make BU more the champ? That's typically how sports work, right?
If you want, sure. But let's game theory this out a little to see if there's a method to the Big 12's madness beyond intra-conference politics. (For the sake of this exercise, assume that Baylor and TCU both win their final games.)
What is the Big 12's objective?
Get as many teams into the playoff as possible.
What are the (realistic) potential outcomes for the Big 12?
- Zero teams qualify for the playoff.
- One team, Baylor or TCU, qualifies for the playoff.
- Two teams, Baylor and TCU, qualify for the playoff.
What decision does the Big 12 face?
- Submit Baylor as the conference champion to the selection committee; or
- Don't name a champion.
What do we know about the playoff selection process?
When picking teams for the playoff, the committee has to consider, and I quote:
- Championships won;
- Strength of schedule;
- Head-to-head competition (if it occurred);
- Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory).
What can we infer about the selection committee's thinking based on their rankings to date?
*The committee clearly respects TCU's body of work.
The Horned Frogs moved ahead of undefeated Florida State into No. 3 in the penultimate edition of the playoff rankings, and TCU has consistently ranked among the top one-loss teams in the committee's rankings.
*The committee is penalizing Baylor for its weak non-conference slate.
Conversely, the selection committee has put the Bears near the bottom of the one-loss group. That's even after Baylor beat TCU in October. The only explanation is that the committee doesn't want to reward the Bears for cupcaking through September, which is overriding Baylor's head-to-head win.
*Ohio State is a problem for Baylor.
Need more evidence that the committee has it in for Baylor? The Bears still trail the Buckeyes, a team that lost to a pedestrian Virginia Tech squad in Columbus. The Big Ten hasn't exactly offered up a bunch of world-beaters for OSU to take down, either. What are the chances that the committee would treat a Baylor win over Kansas State that much differently than OSU taking down Wisconsin in Indianapolis this weekend?
In light of all that, what would the Big 12 gain by pushing Baylor as its champion?
One true champ would make Baylor's case stronger, but it would necessarily hurt TCU's argument. It would greatly increase the likelihood that the committee would move the Horned Frogs behind the Bears in the rankings. More importantly, if TCU fell from the top four, it would dramatically raise the chances that Ohio St., currently ranked No. 5, would jump into the top four with a win in the Big Ten title game. That would leave the Big 12 outside the playoff.
So, why is abstaining the optimal strategy for the Big 12?
Put simply, this appears to be about protecting a spot in the playoff field. Based on the committee's signals, Baylor is a weak candidate. Moreover, trying to bolster the Bears' candidacy can only be accomplished by hurting TCU's position.
A co-championship would also boost the chances of sneaking both Baylor and TCU into the playoff field if OSU and FSU both stumble this weekend.
As such, Bowlsby's best play is to continue to play coy on the championship question.