Let the Great Big 12 Debate Begin: Your Weekly College Football Wrap

Sue Ogrocki/AP :: Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The college football season is hitting the stretch run, and this year, that means the discussion is all playoffs, all the time. After a weekend that saw three more contenders (Auburn, Michigan State, and Notre Dame) effectively banished from the playoff picture following their second losses, the fate of the eventual Big 12 champion promises to be central to that conversation. Before we get to the big-picture, national ramifications of the conference race, though, let’s get one thing clear: Baylor and TCU, the protagonists in that drama, are not the teams you think they are.

They’re quite a bit more. Admittedly, from a thousand feet up, the Bears and Horned Frogs both seem to submit wholeheartedly to the frantically paced, Air Raid stereotype that outsiders append to the Big 12 as a whole. Nationally, they rank first and second in total offense and second and third in scoring (behind only Marshall) against FBS opponents. On Saturday, Baylor racked up 544 yards (just shy of its season average) in a 48-14 thrashing of no. 15 Oklahoma, the second year in a row that the Bears have eclipsed 40 points against the Sooners, and the 17th time they’ve hit that mark in the past two years. A few hours later, TCU lit up no. 7 Kansas State for 553 yards in a 41-20 romp in Fort Worth, the most yards that K-State has allowed to any opposing offense since a 2012 loss to Baylor (naturally).

When Baylor and TCU went head-to-head on October 11, they combined for 198 plays, 1,267 yards, and 119 points in the wildest shootout of the season, a 61-58 Bears win. Statistically, stylistically, symbolically: Here are two outfits deliberately staking out their place at the vanguard of the spread revolution.

But since it’s also true that entertaining, one-dimensional upstarts tend to fare poorly in the national pecking order, it’s worth stressing that neither Big 12 front-runner currently jockeying for playoff position deserves to be dismissed as some kind of up-tempo oddity.

Consider Baylor’s defense: After yielding two early touchdowns on Saturday, the Bears shut out Oklahoma over the final three quarters, limiting a Sooners offense that had scored at least 30 in every other game this season to 14 points while holding it 175 yards below its season average. In fact, Baylor has held all nine opponents below their averages for both yards per game and yards per play. Altogether, the Bears have allowed fewer points per game, yards per game, and yards per play than any other defense in the conference — no minor feat playing opposite Baylor’s offense, which snaps the ball once roughly every 19 seconds.

And TCU, despite the success of its stem-to-stern overhaul on offense, remains committed to winning at the line of scrimmage. Against Kansas State, perennially the most salt-of-the-earth outfit in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs outrushed the Wildcats by a staggering 300 yards, averaging 7.0 yards per carry on offense while yielding just 1.8 on defense.1 In their previous win, at West Virginia, the Frogs limited WVU to a season-low 357 yards and forced five takeaways. Two weeks before that, they held Oklahoma State without a touchdown, snapping a 58-game streak in which the Cowboys had scored at least 20 points. Meanwhile, the TCU offense has eclipsed 200 yards rushing on four consecutive weekends, and now boasts the league’s most productive ground game against FBS opponents.

A week ago, such distinctions might have seemed too arcane to hold sway in a national debate that generally lacks the bandwidth to absorb minutiae beyond the final score. Suddenly, though, the finer points in the Big 12 race seem very relevant. Thanks to the casualties elsewhere in the top 10, TCU and Baylor (both 8-1 overall) come in at no. 5 and no. 6, respectively, in both the AP and Coaches polls, just behind Oregon (9-1) and Alabama (8-1) and just in front of Arizona State (8-1) and Ohio State (8-1). If the playoff selection committee establishes the same hierarchy in its weekly Top 25, set for release on Tuesday, the Big 12 champ will have a clear path into the top four following next weekend’s seminal showdown between AP no. 1 Mississippi State and no. 4 Alabama. But in keeping with the conference’s official motto, the path is wide enough only for “One True Champion,” not two. Assuming Baylor and TCU both close out the season with identical 11-1/8-1 records, which will be in line for a spot in the final four?

The most objective way to settle the question, if it comes to that, will be to leave it to the scoreboard: Baylor beat TCU in October after rallying from a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter;2 the head-to-head tiebreaker would seem to favor the Bears in the national race. The selection committee is under no such obligation, however. Despite the committee’s stated preference for rewarding conference championships, executive director Bill Hancock said on Sunday that, in case of a tie in the conference standings, the committee effectively has carte blanche to break the deadlock by whatever criteria it sees fit: “Any time there are co-champions and there is no championship game, the committee will consider them both champions.” And TCU has a viable counterargument: Unlike Baylor, whose most impressive victory outside of Big 12 play came at the expense of a MAC doormat, Buffalo, the Horned Frogs notched a quality-ish nonconference win in September over Minnesota, which looks even better now that the Gophers are sitting at 7-2 overall with a chance to win the Big Ten’s West Division. Is an ever-so-slightly stronger schedule worth enough to offset a head-to-head loss decided on a last-second field goal?

We’re still a few weeks from a final answer. In the meantime, there’s plenty of time for the question to resolve itself if the Bears or Horned Frogs drop one of their final three games — Baylor has the tougher finish, with Kansas State coming to Waco on December 6, although Texas may finally be rounding into form just in time to give TCU a run for its money on Thanksgiving night — or if enough dominoes fall at the top of the rankings to allow the committee to invite them both. Otherwise, welcome to the first great debate of the playoff era: two worthy teams, 88 miles apart, and only one seat at the table.

Notebook

deandrew-white-alabama-lsu-triChris Graythen/Getty Images

No. 5 Alabama 20, no. 16 LSU 13 (OT): Bama and LSU have met nine times in the Saban-Miles epoch, with six of those games having been decided by a touchdown or less, and it’s getting harder to separate the new entries from the older ones. For most of the night, the 2014 edition resembled the (in)famous “Game of the Century” slugfest in 2011, which was knotted 6-6 at the end of regulation; this time, both teams agreed to an armistice at halftime barring either offense from coming within striking distance of the opposing end zone and were content to trade punts for the rest of the night until an especially ill-timed fumble by Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon left LSU with no choice but to kick a go-ahead field goal with just under a minute to play. From there, the Crimson Tide’s matter-of-fact, nine-play drive to force overtime was reminiscent of the 2012 game, which also featured a dramatic Bama rally at the end of a dormant second half. The overtime itself harks back to Saban’s first win over Miles, in 2008, which was also the result of a touchdown in extra time and also salvaged Alabama’s hopes of playing for a national title.

This one was ugly. The starting quarterbacks combined to complete 28 of 71 passes for four yards per attempt. The longest gain of the night was a 24-yard pass, in overtime, to a 300-pound “tight end” who is officially listed as an offensive tackle. But Alabama-LSU, as a rule, is ugly. At the end of the night, the only details that matter are the successful comeback — presumably the commemorative painting of DeAndrew White’s game-winning catch in overtime will be available for purchase soon — the status of Yeldon’s gimpy ankle, and the fact that Bama still controls its fate in the SEC West, and therefore in the playoff.

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That’s more than we can say for Ole Miss after its visit to Baton Rouge a couple of weeks back, or for Auburn after the Tigers were ambushed Saturday by the same Texas A&M team that the Crimson Tide buried by a score of 59-0.3 If the Tide had beaten LSU by the same margin on Saturday night, though, the stakes for next weekend’s date with Mississippi State wouldn’t be any higher than they already are.

No. 14 Ohio State 49, no. 8 Michigan State 37: The margin in East Lansing, on the other hand, was an eye-opener. That’s putting it mildly: Ohio State may have just delivered the most dominant offensive performance against a Michigan State defense since Mark Dantonio arrived as MSU’s head coach in 2007, and the competition for that designation is pretty good company.

14.11.09-Michigan State Defense Chart

The Buckeyes moved on the vaunted Spartan D like it was Rutgers’s defense, or maybe Kent State’s. After missing a field goal on its first chance with the ball, Ohio State proceeded to score touchdowns on seven of its next eight possessions, on drives covering 71, 50, 79, 64, 67, 64, and 78 yards. As usual, overall production was split roughly evenly between the run (268 yards) and pass (300), marking the fifth time in its last seven games that OSU has eclipsed 250 yards by ground and air. The only previous opponent to go for 250/250 against a Dantonio defense was Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.

Obviously, that’s nothing like what we’d seen from Ohio State in its other outings against sentient opponents, specifically an early loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2 and an overtime escape at Penn State on October 25. But it was exactly what the polls and the playoff committee needed to see to consider giving OSU the benefit of the doubt despite playing in an underwhelming Big Ten: The Buckeyes moved up four spots in the Coaches Poll (to no. 7) and five in the AP (to no. 8), foreshadowing a leap in the committee poll that will put OSU within plausible range of the top four. The B1G’s toxic rep will remain a burden, mainly due to the watered-down strength of schedule, but as long as selectors can be convinced that the Buckeyes are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league, that rap won’t keep them out.

No. 4 Oregon 51, no. 17 Utah 27: Oregon did to Utah what it always does: turned a seemingly close game in the second half into a lopsided rout in about the time it takes to make a cup of coffee. In this case, the Utes pulled within three points, 30-27, with a little under 12 minutes to play; the Ducks responded to that final salvo with three unanswered touchdowns in the span of seven minutes. But Oregon also limped out of Salt Lake City feeling stung by a rash of key injuries, most notably a knee injury to All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu, a fifth-year senior whose streak of 50 consecutive starts dating back to 2011 is in serious jeopardy. Grasu is the glue of an offensive line that has remained in various states of upheaval all year: Starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone went down with a torn ACL in the preseason, and was joined on the injury list in September by fellow starter Jake Fisher and backups Andre Yruretagoyena and Matt Pierson.

The comings and goings up front wouldn’t be of much interest if we hadn’t already seen the line fall apart in Fisher’s absence, yielding seven sacks in a too-close-for-comfort win at Washington State and five more in a subsequent loss to Arizona. Fisher’s return against UCLA seemed to stabilize the rest of the unit, and Yruretagoyena hopes to be back in two weeks against Colorado. If Grasu is out through the Pac-12 championship game, though,4 chemistry will be a valid concern. Hell, after nearly three full seasons behind the same guy, Marcus Mariota should be concerned just about getting clean snaps.

No. 9 Arizona State 55, no. 10 Notre Dame 31: Suddenly Arizona State’s defense is looking like a concern for the Ducks’ championship odds, too, after the Sun Devils turned five Irish turnovers into 35 points: Altogether, ASU returned two interceptions directly for touchdowns and set up three short-field touchdown drives that began inside the Notre Dame 25-yard line. Although Notre Dame wound up with 487 yards, the vast majority of that number came in chuck-and-duck comeback mode after the Irish fell behind 34-3 in the second quarter; by the time they found the end zone for the first time, just before the half, the only question was how close they could make the final margin.

Before the season, the defense was considered an Achilles’ heel for Arizona State because of the exit of eight starters from 2013, but over the past month the Sun Devils are playing as well as any defense in the Pac-12: In their previous three games, they held Stanford, Washington, and Utah to a combined 36 points on fewer than 300 yards of offense apiece. ASU still has a razor-thin margin for error atop the Pac-12 South standings because of its lopsided loss to UCLA in September,5 but from Oregon’s perspective, there’s nothing attractive about the prospect of meeting the Devils in the conference title game, regardless of the state of the O-line.

Quote of the Week

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“You know, I’ve always seen those. They’re a lot colder than you think.” —Kansas interim head coach Clint Bowen, on getting doused in Gatorade following the Jayhawks’ first Big 12 victory of the season, a 34-14 win over Iowa State. How rare is a conference victory for Kansas? The home crowd responded to beating the 2-7 Cyclones by tearing down the goalposts.

Reorientation 

It’s Time to Rethink: Texas A&M’s Demise. What was more shocking: A&M’s offensive collapse in October, or Saturday’s abrupt resurgence in a 41-38 upset over no. 3 Auburn? At least the collapse was a gradual decline; before they hit rock bottom at Alabama, the Aggies had already turned in a pair of deflating, turnover-marred performances in losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss. By the time they got to Tuscaloosa, expectations were already at a low ebb. Last week’s deflating effort against Louisiana-Monroe unfolded less than 24 hours after A&M announced a two-game suspension for starting quarterback Kenny Hill, winner of this year’s September Heisman.

And to be fair, it’s much too soon to go overboard on Hill’s successor, five-star true freshman Kyle Allen, who turned in a brilliant first half Saturday in his first SEC start — A&M scored four touchdowns on its first five offensive possessions — and then held on for dear life in the second, when the Aggies leaned heavily on the running game and managed just six points on a pair of field goals. Still, for such a green lineup, their resilience in an amped road environment, with nothing in particular to play for, was startling. It’s too soon (or too late, actually) to jump back on the bandwagon in 2014, especially for an outfit liable to go belly-up again without warning. But if nothing else, A&M is worth watching once more, and if Allen looks as good against Missouri and LSU to close the regular season as he did on Saturday, the hype for 2015 will reach a boil before the bowl game.

Superlatives

The best of the week …

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: Allen reaped the headlines, but his blue-chip classmate made life hell for Auburn’s prolific offense, consistently disrupting plays in the backfield and forcing multiple holding penalties in the process. (Not all of which were actually flagged.) Garrett also blocked a field goal attempt that turned into a quick A&M touchdown at the end of the second quarter, thereby supplying just enough cushion to hold off the Tigers in the second half.

Shaq Thompson, Washington, and Myles Jack, UCLA: The battle of the “runningbackers” in Seattle did not disappoint: Thompson, playing both ways, churned out 100 yards rushing on 16 carries — his second 100-yard effort in as many weeks — and contributed four tackles from his more familiar position on defense; not to be outdone, Jack supplemented six tackles (including one tackle for loss) with 38 yards rushing, most of it coming on a spinning, stiff-arming touchdown run from 28 yards out in the second quarter:

UCLA won, 44-30, and Jack enjoyed what sounds like a pleasant trip back to his hometown.

Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota: Williams, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound moose of a tight end, put on a kind of gargantuan ballet against Iowa, beginning with a toe-dragging beauty for 25 yards on his second reception of the day. From there, he contributed three touchdown receptions, including another graceful tightrope act in the back of the end zone, while playing a significant role as a blocker; Minnesota finished with 291 yards rushing on 4.9 per carry, logged a 51-14 massacre of a division rival, and paired Floyd of Rosedale with the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 1967.

Fat Guy of the Week: Terrell Lathan, DT, TCU: No one played a bigger role in turning Kansas State’s patient, balanced attack into a desperate, one-dimensional mess than Lathan, who was credited with two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries from the middle of the TCU defensive line. The Wildcats found the going so tough inside that they attempted just 17 runs (not including a pair of sacks) to 40 passes, the most lopsided ratio since Bill Snyder returned as head coach in 2009.

Demerits

… and the worst.

Kaelin Clay Drops the Ball: Dude ran 78 yards, got to the 1-yard line, and just dropped it.

The official box score entry for this play reads “Travis Wilson pass complete to Kaelin Clay for 78 yds to the Oregon 1, Kaelin Clay fumbled, recovered by Erick Dargan, Erick Dargan fumbled, recovered by Joe Walker, returned 100 yards for a TD,” which is technically true. But to say Clay “fumbled” at the goal line implies some kind of agency or effort by Oregon to stop him from crossing it — like, maybe he was caught from behind and had the ball stripped, or lost control trying to stretch the ball into the end zone while being tackled, or something in that vein. But no. In the most objective, cosmically accurate sense possible, he just dropped it.

Clay had a sensational night, by the way, accounting for 331 all-purpose yards as a receiver and return man against the no. 4 team in the nation. Then again, he also gifted the no. 4 team in the nation a free 14-point swing in the dumbest possible fashion. Let’s call it a wash?

Filed Under: College Football, Your Weekly College Football Wrap, College Football Week 11, Baylor Bears, TCU Horned Frogs, Big 12, College Football Playoff, 2014 College Football Playoff, Air Raid, Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, SEC, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Big Ten, Oregon Ducks, Utah Utes, Pac-12, Arizona State Sun Devils, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Quote of the Week, Kansas Jayhawks, Clint Bowen, Reorientation, Texas A&M Aggies, Auburn Tigers, Kyle Allen, Superlatives and Demerits, Myles Garrett, Shaq Thompson, Myles Jack, Fat Guy of the Week, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton