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If Baylor's new QB plays like a freshman, TCU projects as the crowded Big 12's favorite

The Big 12 saved all its big games for the home stretch. How much will one injury change the conference's Playoff push?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

If last season proved anything, it's that there's enough teeth-gnashing to go around when the Playoff committee gets involved. Somebody with a good record will be out of the top four, someone will be overrated, and even if you don't mind the rankings, explanations by committee chair Jeff Long will get you fired up regardless.

Anger season has officially begun, but there's a twinge of anxiety among Big 12 fans at this point. Its undefeated teams are sixth (Baylor), eighth (TCU), and 14th (Oklahoma State). The committee placed two one-loss teams ahead of Baylor. This could be a problem, right?

Probably not. The Big 12's backloaded schedules ensured the smallest possible number of quality games before November, and strength of schedule numbers for the conference's top teams are ghastly. Things will pick up.

With Oklahoma No. 15, each of the Big 12's undefeateds has three remaining games against current top-15 teams. Finish 12-0, and you're in. Finish 11-1, and you end up with at least a couple of nice wins, plus maybe a nebulous "conference champion" boost. Assuming the top teams suffer a normal number of losses, and an 11-1 champion probably gets in, too.

Using S&P+ win probabilities, let's gaze into the crystal ball.

A few notes:

  • The spaces in bold signify the conference's biggest remaining games: TCU at Oklahoma State in Week 10, Oklahoma at Baylor in Week 11, TCU at OU and Baylor at OSU in Week 12 and Baylor at TCU and OU at OSU in Week 13.
  • The top four have a clear edge, and whoever has the best round-robin record will likely take the title. (The exception could be Oklahoma, weighed down by the baffling loss to Texas.)
  • Oklahoma State ranks 35th. Since there is no bonus in the formula for just winning, S&P+ sees a team that has beaten only one team better than 55th and has won four games by 11 or fewer points despite the weak schedule.
  • The Cowboys' explosion (128 points against Kansas and Texas Tech) could be a sign of things to come, considering TCU, Baylor and OU have to come to Stillwater. S&P+ is slow to warm because the Pokes have only looked impressive a handful of times, but beat TCU this weekend, and the numbers jump.
  • WVU ranks 13th. Call it a ratings quirk. The Mountaineers are still getting credit for nearly perfect football over the first three weeks, dominating Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Maryland (it's not who you play, it's how). And while they're sliding, their tumble has been softened by three of their four losses coming to top-eight teams. Their loss to OSU was a virtual tossup, too. They will probably continue to fall, but they aren't as bad as you think. A lot of wins could come now that the schedule eases up.

Win probabilities suggest a) the winner of the Week 13 tossup in Fort Worth will win the conference, but b) OU and OSU are each an upset away from muddying the waters. And anyone who remembers last year's OU-TCU or 2013's OSU-BU in Stillwater knows an upset isn't out of the question.

But what if Baylor's offense slides?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There's an elephant in the room. Baylor's numbers are based on the play of quarterback Seth Russell, who is lost for the season with an injury. The Bears' run will be steered by true freshman Jarrett Stidham, who has done brilliant things in mop-up time but won't be seeing much mop-up time from here on out.

As I wrote in this summer's Baylor preview, "The next time the quarterback position is a problem for Art Briles will be the first time." After all, Nick Florence succeeded Heisman winner Robert Griffin III by nearly replicating Griffin's production. This is the closest thing to a plug-and-play offense in college football. Stidham will probably be fine.


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But ... he'll need to be better than fine. Baylor's defense has looked decent in recent weeks; after allowing a big-play touchdown to WVU on the Mountaineers' first drive, they allowed only 17 points in WVU's next 11 possessions. And while there were glitches against Iowa State, most came in garbage time; BU was up 35-7 at halftime. The Bears' defense isn't great, but it's risen to 69th in Def. S&P+ (14th against the run).

But what if the defense has risen as far as it is going to? What if it plays at the No. 69 level the rest of the year? That means almost no margin for error on offense with the power hitters on the schedule.

Only a slight dip would make TCU the favorite.

The following chart includes current win projections, but also what might change if, instead of playing like the No. 1 offense in the country, Baylor's offense slides to playing like the No. 5, No. 10, or No. 20 offense.

Because of the mediocre defensive numbers, the Bears would quickly leave the S&P+ top 15 in this scenario. With the No. 5 offense, BU would slide to No. 18 overall, and with the No. 20 offense, they fall to No. 41.

If Baylor's offense falls to even the level of the No. 5 national offense, TCU's win probability in Week 13 skyrockets, which makes the Horned Frogs Big 12 favorites overall. And with only the No. 20 offense, Baylor might finish fourth in the conference.

At Baylor's current level, Week 13 is a tossup, and the Bears have two-in-three chances of beating both OU and OSU. With any change in offensive upside, the TCU-OSU winner probably takes the conference. (And one should note that these projections are based on TCU's full-season defensive performance. There have been quite a few signs that Gary Patterson's young defense is improving rapidly.)

No pressure, Jarrett.

Week 10 win probabilities

You can find full win probability data in the Football Study Hall stat profiles, but here are your Week 10 projections.

  • In Manhattan (on Thursday): Baylor 41.6, KSU 23.5 (win probability: 85 percent)
  • In Stillwater: TCU 35.4, OSU 31.0 (60 percent)
  • In Norman: Oklahoma 38.9, ISU 19.8 (87 percent)
  • In Morgantown: WVU 43.8, Texas Tech 29.2 (80 percent)
  • In Austin: Texas 39.4, Kansas 18.1 (89 percent)