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Playoffs? Let’s take an honest look at the Big 12’s chances

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The Big 12 doesn’t control its own destiny to the College Football Playoff, at least for now, but that can change in a hurry.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Alabama vs Clemson Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

And then there were four weekends of college football left to be played.

That’s all that remains until four teams don’t see their dreams of a national championship fizzle out just yet. Who will participate in college football’s imperfect solution to the imperfect BCS — the College Football Playoff — remains at large, though the picture is coming together week by week as the nation’s best fight for their lives on the gridiron.

The SEC? Lock it in. Whether it be Alabama, Georgia, or perhaps even both, the conference that has sent a member school to the national title game every season but once since 2005 is sure to play a part in the playoff action for yet another year. No other conference can have that same assurance, though the ACC also seems bound to return once again in the form of Clemson as the undefeated Tigers plow through a less than formidable slate of opponents.

And Notre Dame? You better believe the Fighting Irish will become the first independent program to crack college football’s version of the Final Four if they end the regular season with a 0 in the loss column — even if there is no 13th data point to be had.

Venture beyond, and it’s a crap-shoot as to who may or may not crash the field. The Big 12 would love to finally make it in for the first time in consecutive years after sending Oklahoma to the semifinals in 2017 — only for the Sooners to be dealt a crushing overtime defeat against Georgia in a game that didn’t alleviate the narrative against America’s lone 10-team Power 5 conference.

But back-to-back years in the playoff? That would certainly put a smile on the face of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and others, even if the only two teams have a chance of making it a reality.

Oklahoma and West Virginia both came in within the top 10 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday night. And while the Sooners (6) and Moutaineers (9) didn’t crack the top four for now, there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel for the Big 12 if at least one team takes care of business before Nov. 23, with a little bit of luck sprinkled in.

There are no guarantees. Could the Big 12 cannibalize itself before Oklahoma and West Virginia square off the final weekend of the regular season? You betcha. Could the Big 12 title game backfire in even greater fashion than it did a year ago with TCU’s New Year’s Six chances, indeed. Could there even be the unfathomable scenario of three Power 5 conferences getting left out of the playoff? It’s not out of the question.

Nonetheless, here’s the most realistic path to the playoff for the Big 12 — one that can either be fulfilled in the form of a return trip for the Sooners or a first-ever bid for the Mountaineers.

Run the table

No buts, no question marks. If either Oklahoma or West Virginia intends to make the playoff, running the table en route to a Big 12 title is a must. So go ahead and call the Nov. 23 meeting between the Sooners and Mountaineers in Morgantown a de facto playoff elimination game if both enter with one loss, because that’s exactly what it is.

What’s to come before then? It’s a relatively similar path — a home game against a bottom tier Big 12 opponent (TCU for West Virginia and Kansas for Oklahoma) and a common opponent in the form of Oklahoma State. That won’t be any cupcake however, with the Mountaineers traveling to Stillwater and Bedlam always bringing out the best in both the Sooners and Cowboys. Not to mention, West Virginia has lost its last three meetings with Oklahoma State and is 1-2 on the road vs the Pokes since joining the Big 12.

Still, both the Sooners and Mountaineers are the far more talented teams in each of their next two matchups, and should get the job done. The more realistic nightmare scenario would be the event that Oklahoma and West Virginia play each other in back-to-back weeks, with the loser of the regular-season matchup emerging victorious in the Big 12 Championship Game. Should both teams run the table up to Thanksgiving weekend and the Sooners win, the rematch is on. That would also be the case if West Virginia is the victor in that scenario and Texas was to lose again before the end of the regular season (Oklahoma lost to Texas so the Longhorns would win the tiebreaker at two losses each in Big 12 play). Given that the game is being played in North Texas, you can count on Oklahoma having the crowd on their side as well.

And let’s face it: Just how humiliating would it be if the Big 12 title game — designed to help the Big 12’s playoff chances — actually doomed the conference? Not great, Bob.

Get Georgia out of the picture

Alabama didn’t even make the SEC title game in 2017, and got into the College Football Playoff right alongside a fellow 1-loss Georgia team who won the SEC Championship. So let’s imagine that the Bulldogs hand the Crimson Tide their lone loss of the season with an upset victory to repeat as SEC Champions. Are you going to tell me — after last season — that both wouldn’t get in when this time, Bama actually made the conference title game?

Good luck with that, pal. Both are getting in. And that’s the last thing the Big 12 — let alone any Power 5 conference — wants to see with independent Notre Dame still in the picture too. If the Big 12 wants to get in the playoff, Oklahoma and West Virginia fans should be rooting for Alabama to finish the season undefeated and hand Georgia what would essentially be a playoff-disqualifying second loss. The Crimson Tide would be the lone representative from the SEC, and that would be that.

Notre Dame needs to lose

We’ve feared this situation for many years, and finally, it might happen: An undefeated Notre Dame stealing a College Football Playoff spot from a Power 5 champion. Don’t expect the No. 3 Irish to miss a beat against Florida State on Saturday. As for a home game vs. No. 13 Syracuse and then a visit to USC Thanksgiving weekend? An upset could happen, but don’t bank on it.

Whatever slim chance there is that Notre Dame stumbles before November comes to an end, the Big 12 — namely Oklahoma — should be cheering for it. Combine that with a second loss for Georgia in the SEC Championship game, and the Sooners would almost certainly be in if they win the Big 12 Championship with one loss. West Virginia will need more help, as we’ll soon touch on. Regardless, it would still be a major boost to both team’s chances if they can take care of their own business for the time being.

Michigan and Washington State losses would help

This holds more true for West Virginia than Oklahoma, but the No. 4 Wolverines and No. 8 Cougars enduring a second loss — combined with the above — would just about guarantee that a 1-loss Big 12 team cracks the playoff. There’s a decent chance that both could happen, as Michigan will face Ohio State in Columbus — a place the Wolverines have not won since 2000 — the final week of the regular season, while Washington State faces a potential trap game at Colorado on Saturday before ending the season with what is current a top 25 affair with Washington two weeks later.

So let’s say both lose at some point before the regular season ends. If all of this comes true, every team currently ahead of Oklahoma will have lost. Unless the playoff committee were to leap frog a 1-loss Big 10 Champion Ohio State past a 1-loss Big 12 Champion Oklahoma or decides that a 1-loss Notre Dame — even without a 13th data point — is still superior, the Sooners should be in. West Virginia will likely be up against a whole lot more subjectivity against teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame (trust me, the Mountaineers really need both Michigan AND Washington State to lose) if all three are at one-loss, but a 13th data point and the fact that West Virginia is already ahead of the Buckeyes in the rankings helps its case. Still, maybe you should go ahead and pray that Ohio State loses the Big Ten title game if they make it, just to simplify things even more.

Tell me the odds

If you want precise numbers, well, thank our friends over at FiveThirtyEight.com. Oklahoma is listed at 91 percent chance of making the playoff should they win out (conference title game included), while West Virginia has a 77 percent chance if they were to accomplish that same feat. Of course, only one team can do so.

And the end of the day though, it’s up to a select number of individuals in a conference room in Grapevine, Texas to decide who is in, and who is out. And after all we’ve seen over the years, heck, who knows what might go down on Dec. 2.