For a moment, close your eyes and imagine the Big 12 as the Ivy League. The conference champion does not advance to any sort of national playoff, so the conference title race is all that matters.
In this scenario, it’s hard to dream up a more exciting race. Almost midway through the conference slate, TCU is 4-0, but four teams are close behind at 3-1. The Horned Frogs have already beaten two of those teams (Oklahoma State and West Virginia) but play on the road against each of the other two (Oklahoma and Iowa State). The odds of a slip-up are reasonably high — despite ranking TCU sixth overall, S&P+ gives the Frogs only a 22 percent chance of winning out.
Within this conference race, then, drama is still a distinct possibility. And thanks to the conference’s tendency to play all non-conference games early, we have five conference games to look forward to for each of the next five weeks.
Plus, only two teams have been completely eliminated from the title race because, at the end of those five weeks, the top two teams in the standings will play in the title game! Remember that the Big 12 has a title game now?
A battle royal with a one-on-one title match at the end! Fantastic!
Of course, since the Big 12 would presumably like its champion to reach the College Football Playoff, this quickly becomes a doom scenario. But we’ll get to that.
First, some basics:
- TCU is the conference’s only remaining unbeaten team, obviously, but Oklahoma (which lost to Iowa State) and Oklahoma State (which lost to TCU) each have just one overall loss.
- The CFP committee’s selection of Ohio State (11-1 with a loss to Penn State) over Penn State (11-2 Big Ten champion) suggests that the committee isn’t just dying to choose a two-loss team for its four-team bracket. There’s always a chance that chaos dictates it, but for now we’ll say that means that TCU, OU, and Oklahoma State are the conference’s three remaining playoff contenders. Iowa State and West Virginia are on standby.
- Per S&P+ win probabilities, TCU has a 64 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or better, Oklahoma State has a 24 percent chance, and Oklahoma, with games against both TCU and OSU remaining, has just a 9 percent chance.
- In all, there’s a 78 percent chance that at least one of these three teams gets to championship weekend at 11-1 or better.
Okay, now that we’ve got that all laid out, let’s make some projections!
Who makes the title game?
Using on my S&P+ ratings, I did the good old “simulate 10,000 times” trick to lay out the most likely scenarios moving forward. Based on those simulations, here’s who makes it most frequently. Baylor and Kansas are technically the only teams eliminated from contention, but obviously a few teams are in better shape than others.
- TCU: 88 percent
- Oklahoma State: 53 percent
- Oklahoma: 33 percent
- Iowa State: 15 percent
- West Virginia: 10 percent
- Texas: <1 percent
- Kansas State: <1 percent
- Texas Tech: <1 percent
S&P+ likes TCU (sixth) and OSU (eighth) a hair more than Oklahoma (14th) at this point, so combined with TCU’s record and key tie-breaker advantages, the Horned Frogs are very well positioned. But what’s glorious about these numbers is the team that comes after the big three.
Grab two dice and roll them. Did you get a 10, 11, or 12? There’s about a 17 percent chance that you did — about the same odds as ISU reaching the title game. See? This world isn’t all bad at the moment! Matt Campbell’s Cyclones are rolling, and their win over OU could end up serving some serious tie-breaker advantages for them.
The 10 most likely title games
This plays out about as you would expect it:
- Oklahoma State vs. TCU: 44 percent
- Oklahoma vs. TCU: 24 percent
- Iowa State vs. TCU: 10 percent
- TCU vs. West Virginia: 9 percent
- Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State: 6 percent
- Iowa State vs. Oklahoma State: 3 percent
- Iowa State vs. Oklahoma: 2 percent
- Oklahoma vs. West Virginia: <1 percent
- Oklahoma State vs. West Virginia: <1 percent
- Oklahoma State vs. Texas: <1 percent
Sadly, there wasn’t an Iowa State vs. Texas Tech result in any of the simulations. I should have done a million simulations instead.
Of these simulations, 36 percent produced a win-and-you’re-in title game pitting either a 12-0 or 11-1 TCU vs. an 11-1 OU or OSU. (Most of them are OSU-TCU, as you would probably guess.) This is the dream scenario for the Big 12, as the winner would obviously have an excellent résumé and a tremendous chance at landing a playoff bid.
No matter who plays whom, however, here are the most important odds:
- There’s a 39 percent chance that a 13-0 or 12-1 TCU finishes as Big 12 champion.
- There’s a 14 percent chance that a 12-1 Oklahoma State wins the conference.
- There’s a four percent chance that a 12-1 Oklahoma wins the conference.
In all, that’s a 57 percent chance of a playoff contender emerging from this ridiculous gauntlet.
That’s less than 78 percent, though.
Remember how there was a 78 percent chance of one of these three teams reaching championship weekend with zero or one loss? The Big 12 decided that, despite (or because of) dubious math and a torturous history, having a conference championship game at the end of a perfect nine-game round-robin schedule was the best way to get a team in the CFP.
If the conference were once again the weakest of the five power conferences, maybe this would perhaps be a strong choice. If there were only two or three good teams in the conference, then tacking on another win against a good one would burnish the résumé enough to justify the drop from 78 percent to 57 percent.
The Big 12 is damn strong now, however — perhaps the second-best conference in FBS. And since each of the three CFP contenders has a power conference pelt from unbeaten non-conference play (Oklahoma’s win over Ohio State being the most impressive, obviously), you’re looking at three pretty strong résumés no matter who were to finish 11-1 or 12-0.
You’ve got fewer easy outs than ever, and now you’re decreasing the odds of a playoff-acceptable record with only marginal effect on the résumé.
Now that the conference is actually quite good, this title game seems even more foolish than before.
Who wins the title game?
CFP aside, there are still a lot of teams with “so you’re saying there’s a chance...” level odds here.
- TCU: 51 percent
- Oklahoma State: 27 percent
- Oklahoma: 14 percent
- Iowa State: 4 percent
- West Virginia: 3 percent
TCU is in the driver’s seat, but there are plenty of obstacles left to dodge. And roll those dice again. If they came up snake eyes, ISU just won the Big 12.
Week 9 games
- TCU at Iowa State (Projection: TCU by 8.2, win probability 68 percent)
- OSU at West Virginia (Projection: OSU by 8.2, win probability 68 percent)
- Texas Tech at Oklahoma (Projection: OU by 12.1, win probability 76 percent)
- Kansas State at Kansas (Projection: KSU by 17.5, win probability 84 percent)
- Texas at Baylor (Projection: Texas by 10.0, win probability 72 percent)
Again, the schedule couldn’t be more exciting when it comes to week-to-week drama. This week, your No. 1 and No. 4 favorites face off, as do your No. 2 and No. 5 favorites. Next week, it’s No. 2 vs. No. 3 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. The week after that, No. 1 vs. No. 3.
This could obviously cause the odds to shift a good amount from week to week. And if ISU were to keep its hot streak going and take down the Horned Frogs in Ames this coming Saturday, then the conference race basically starts over from scratch.