In a conference known as much in recent years for in-fighting and turnover as on-field product, it would make sense that the Big 12 conference continues to solidify its reputation as the conference that eats its own. In 2011, an improbable Iowa State overtime win over Oklahoma State kept the Cowboys out of the national title game by a couple of decimal points. In 2012, a Baylor romp of Kansas State did the same. And on Saturday, OSU exorcised some demons, administering a 49-17 destruction of a Baylor team that hadn't lost since destroying KSU a year ago.
This isn't new, of course. No conference title game was as damaging to national title hopes as the Big 12's now-defunct finale, from Texas beating Nebraska in 1996 to Texas A&M beating Kansas State in 1998 to Colorado beating Texas in 2001 to Oklahoma beating Missouri in 2007. (Two other title games also almost knocked out title contenders: KSU's whipping of an Oklahoma team that still made it in 2003, and Texas' near-miss against Nebraska in 2009.)
But without a title game, the self-immolation has continued. Nothing was more fun than watching the pre-game jockeying -- OSU fans saying "No, we're the conference upstarts" to Baylor, and KSU fans chiming in with "Um, guys, we were first, and don't you forget it" -- turning into "Now you know how it feels" post-game empathy.
Welcome to the Big 12, where we'll wreck your dreams, then shake your hand.
The best teams are the ones that are great in September, October, November, and beyond. Obviously. But if you can't be one of those teams, there is certainly value in peaking late. Oklahoma State was somewhere between shaky and mediocre early in the season, showing minimal offensive upside against Mississippi State, allowing 35 points to UTSA, and looking truly inept in a 30-21 road loss to West Virginia that featured three OSU turnovers, two missed field goals, five three-and-outs, a 43-percent completion rate, and too many dropped passes to count.
But the rally began when the calendar flipped to October. The Cowboys survived two home games, beating Kansas State and TCU by a combined 18 points, then went on the road and walloped Iowa State (58-27) and Texas Tech (52-34). They plodded through an easy, 42-6 win over Kansas, then took things to a different level.
OSU quarterback Clint Chelf looked thoroughly overwhelmed against Mississippi State, completing three of six passes for 11 yards and getting benched just two series into the season. After some backup work, he replaced his replacement, J.W. Walsh, in the starting lineup and completed just 57 of 122 passes (47 percent) against TCU, Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Kansas. But in the last two weeks, Chelf is 35-for-47 (74 percent) for 567 yards, five touchdowns, and one pick.
Chelf was incredible on Saturday night, picking apart Baylor's strongest defense in years (decades?) and throwing perfectly accurate, aggressive passes downfield to receivers who are no longer dropping balls. His first incomplete pass came with about 90 seconds left in the first half, and his second and third incompletions were sandwiched by a 56-yard touchdown to Tracy Moore and a 48-yard reception on a pass-back from Josh Stewart. OSU passed to open up the run (Jeremy Smith, Desmond Roland, and Rennie Childs combined for 142 yards on 27 carries), and the play-calling was a step ahead of Baylor's defense all night.
Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel brought up an interesting point about how a late-arriving OSU team might be treated by the Playoff committee next year and beyond.
[T]he proper placement of a team like Oklahoma State could be extremely significant at this time next year, when the sport moves to a four-team playoff. By then, a selection committee will have replaced pollsters and computers as the evaluators of choice, and if it does what it's supposed to, it will likely treat a team such as the Cowboys much differently than does the BCS. […]
Of course, the early-season version of the Cowboys is the one that suffered the team's lone defeat, a ghastly 30-21 loss at West Virginia (now 4-7) on Sept. 28. The Mountaineers losing record certainly distinguishes them from the foes that knocked off Auburn (8-3 LSU), Clemson (11-0 Florida State) and Missouri (9-2 South Carolina). It's another hallmark of the typical voter methodology: Teams are judged based more on the quality of the opponents to whom they have lost than the quality of the ones they have beaten. [...]
There, too, it makes sense to wonder whether the selection committee might operate differently. Just as the NCAA basketball committee takes factors like injuries and personnel changes into account when assessing a team's résumé, college football's playoff committee might be inclined to view Oklahoma State's loss to West Virginia as an aberration in light of the Cowboys' play since their lineup overhaul. That's not to say the game never happened. It did. But discerning evaluators might recognize that the result isn't representative of the current Oklahoma State team.
This raises an interesting (and evergreen) question. If Oklahoma State wins out and takes the Big 12 title at 11-1, would the Cowboys get extra credit for finishing so strong or still get extra punishment for playing so poorly (and suffering a terrible-looking loss) early on? And is a lineup overhaul a worthy reason for ignoring (to an extent) early-season play, especially when the new starting quarterback was himself benched for playing terribly as the Game 1 starter?
I don't know the answers here. It's a lot easier to just pass along questions. All I know for sure is that Oklahoma State is at this moment playing the best football of anybody in the Big 12. And this is the only moment that matters.
It's inevitable. Non-Traditional Upstart plows through a good portion of the season putting up video-game numbers, typically against lesser opponents. Non-Traditional Upstart gets put in its place later in the year. We decide Non-Traditional Upstart has been EXPOSED as a FRAUD and was never the team some considered them to be.
Saturday's result in Stillwater doesn't have to expose Baylor as a fraud of any sort. Saturday's result showed us that a) it's hard to beat a smoking hot team on the road, and b) it's even harder to beat a smoking hot team on the road without your top two running backs, top receiver, and starting left tackle.
Baylor would have easily beaten Oklahoma State in September and would have probably survived a trip to Stillwater in October as well. But in late-November, because of both OSU's rapid improvement and Baylor's injuries, OSU is the superior team.
The final margin was plumped up by two devastating turnovers, too. Midway through the first quarter, Shock Linwood (again, Baylor's No. 3 running back when everybody is healthy) was stripped while reaching the ball toward the OSU goal line. And early in the fourth quarter, on third-and-goal from the OSU 2, a bad snap got past Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, and Tyler Patmon eventually scooped it up and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. That score made it 42-10, OSU; without the turnovers, the Cowboys would have still been in control, but the score could have easily been something more like 35-24.
Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer knew he had the athletes and experience to hang with this version of Baylor's offense. As a college football fan, though, I'd have loved to see what (and how) he'd have done with Baylor's full-strength offense. October Baylor vs. November OSU might have been a hell of a heavyweight battle. And while Baylor is going out of its way not to use injuries as an excuse, it's fair to say that Alabama might bog down a bit without T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Amari Cooper (or whoever is Bama's No. 1 receiver in a given week), and Cyrus Kouandjio. So might Ohio State without Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Corey Brown, and Jack Mewhort, or Auburn without Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, and Greg Robinson, or Missouri without Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, L'Damian Washington, and Justin Britt. Of the current top five teams in the BCS, perhaps only Florida State is deep enough to handle injuries like that without a drop-off, and even that is questionable.
In the end, Baylor is a fantastic team, and game 10 shouldn't do anything to diminish what the Bears accomplished in games 1 through 9. But as we chug toward the finish line, Baylor is no longer the best team in the Big 12. Injuries or no, turnovers or no, Oklahoma State's play left no doubt of that.
Five more thoughts from the weekend
1. I like AJ McCarron.
I really do. If he lights up Auburn and either Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC title game, and Florida State's Jameis Winston is indeed charged with a felony (and rendered unvotable by most Heisman voters), and we really want to give McCarron some sort of "lifetime achievement" Heisman, then fine. Even if I disagree, I'll get over it. There are certainly worse candidates in the world.
But can we at least wait until he plays Auburn and the SEC title game before saying things like this?
Don't be surprised if AJ McCarron clinched the Heisman today.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) November 24, 2013
This is clearly a terribly awkward situation moving forward. Winston really is the runaway favorite at this point. and Florida State is just a wrecking machine on the field right now. The cloud of his sexual assault investigation hangs over everything, but nobody's clinched anything no matter what. Even if he doesn't get charged with a felony and suspended (as a lot of us are kind of assuming at the moment), he hasn't clinched anything. And even if Winston does get charged, McCarron also hasn't clinched anything.
I realize it's difficult not to rush to immediate, lasting judgment following every game or even every set of downs. But rushing makes us say some pretty stupid things. How about we let the next two weeks play out before proclaiming anybody the Heisman favorite, Heisman winner, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, or whatever?
And if we've decided to eliminate quarterbacks from Heisman contention following a single poor performance (Baylor's Bryce Petty on Saturday against Oklahoma State, Johnny Manziel on Saturday against LSU, Oregon's Marcus Mariota against Stanford two weeks ago*), can we at least acknowledge that McCarron went 10-for-23 for 110 yards, a touchdown, a pick, and four sacks (yards per pass attempt: 3.2) against Virginia Tech to open the season? Yes, Virginia Tech has a great defense. So does Stanford. So does Oklahoma State.
* Obviously Mariota would have been more-or-less eliminated after his performance against Arizona this past Saturday. But we wrote him off a couple of weeks ago.
2. What was that, Ducks?
I had this game circled a while ago. Arizona was playing quite well despite a few losses, and Oregon has certainly run into championship road blocks in the desert in November before. But then the Wildcats lost at home to Washington State* on November 16, and I wrote off a potential upset. But apparently the Wildcats were just saving all of their mojo for the following week.
Arizona averaged just 5.5 yards per play (decent, not great) but converted a staggering 11 of 16 third-down attempts (and was 1-for-1 on fourth downs), playing a perfect game of keepaway, finishing drives (usually with Ka'Deem Carry scoring from a few yards out), and smoking an Oregon team that has struggled to get out of its own way of late.
Oregon outgained Arizona on fewer plays, and Marcus Mariota completed 66 percent of his passes, but the Ducks' running game was only decent (De'Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner: 27 carries, 136 yards), and three turnovers -- two Mariota interceptions, and a fumble by Tyner -- doomed the Ducks to a decisive defeat. Even if I thought an upset was a reasonable probability, i would never have guessed a final score of 42-16.
* Washington State is bowl-eligible for the first time in 10 years. Hell of a job, Cap'n Leach.
3. Saturday in the SEC is huge, even by SEC standards.
We basically have a Final Four set up for this Saturday in the SEC, where the winners of Alabama at Auburn and Proxy South Carolina (Texas A&M) at Missouri will form the SEC title game the following weekend. The Iron Bowl doesn't need pumped-up circumstances to be a huge game, but it has them regardless; meanwhile, this really might be the second-biggest home game in Missouri's history*. A win would give the Tigers their first trip ever (obviously) to the SEC championship game. It would also give Gary Pinkel his 101st win at Missouri, tied for most all time with Don Faurot, after whom Faurot Field is named.
That A&M-Mizzou, with titles and records at stake (and Johnny Manziel playing the heel role he was born to play), is only the second-biggest SEC game of the week tells you quite a bit. This is a huge weekend.
And in the minor leagues, so to speak, Conference USA is basically seeing the same thing. East Carolina plays at Marshall on Friday to determine the East division title, while Rice and Tulane will just about do the same on Saturday -- Rice wins the division with a win, and either Tulane or UTSA (if the Roadrunners beat Louisiana Tech) win with a Green Wave victory.
* The biggest Mizzou home game ever? The "win, and you're the national champion" game versus Kansas in 1960 that they managed to lose ... and win. But let's not talk about this game ever again.
4. Duke is one win from the ACC title game.
I still say the Blue Devils lose to North Carolina this coming weekend -- the Tar Heels have basically been the third-best team in the conference over the past few weeks -- but it's not like winning in Chapel Hill is impossible, especially for a Duke team that is legitimately playing at a top-40 level and just won its ninth game of the season. Duke! Nine wins! One game from the division title!
Can we just have about a three-way tie for national coach of the year between Duke's David Cutcliffe, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Missouri's Gary Pinkel? And can we give about 15 runner-up trophies to the likes of UCF's George O'Leary, Arizona State's Todd Graham, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen, ECU's Ruffin McNeill, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, etc.? And maybe an Interim Coach of the Year award to USC's Ed Orgeron? There have been all sorts of tremendous coaching jobs done in 2013.
5. So should I just keep doubting you, NIU?
I keep saying less-than-glowing things about the Huskies -- "In fact, we should probably focus on Fresno State here because I'm pretty confident in saying NIU won't finish undefeated," "Odds NIU doesn't finish 13-0: 82%" -- and they just keep right on not giving a damn.