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Big 12 is one true conundrum entering final playoff ranking

12/7/2014

FORT WORTH and WACO, Texas -- This is what happens when a league becomes trapped by a slogan.

You get Baylor coach Art Briles, who should be enjoying a second consecutive championship, dressing down commissioner Bob Bowlsby on a podium in front of 47,934 fans who agree with the coach. You get lines such as, "The real champs, Bowlsby!" and " Have pride in your conference, Bowlsby!" You get chants such as "One true champ!" and "Head-to-head!" You get Bowlsby shuttled through an angry crowd on his way off the McLane Stadium field.

You get Baylor wide receiver Clay Fuller saying the Big 12 title is "a little clouded right now" by the team's College Football Playoff uncertainty and the Big 12's unwillingness to fully back the Bears in their pursuit.

"The Big 12 didn't help us," Fuller told ESPN.com after Baylor's 38-27 win against No. 9 Kansas State. "They wanted to make sure one person got in, and I think it's messing them up now. The commercial says, 'One true champion.' They play that a lot."

What's a recent college football season without some Big 12 squabbling? There was plenty at Baylor after Bowlsby declared earlier in this week that the Big 12 wouldn't designate one champion to the playoff selection committee, in accordance with its bylaws.

The league instead will present Baylor and TCU as equals, even though both played the same schedules and Baylor beat TCU 61-58 on Oct. 11. One true champion? More like one true conundrum.

Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said that though the Big 12 bylaws recognize co-champions, tiebreakers are in place, and the team winning the tiebreaker would advance as the league's representative. McCaw "disagreed" with Bowlsby's "position" to present co-champions, though Bowlsby said he's simply following the bylaws as they pertain to the playoff.

"If you have a slogan and say there's one true champion, all of a sudden, you're going to go out the back door instead of going out the front," Briles said. "Don't say one thing and do another. That's my whole deal. If they said from the get-go, 'We've got co-champs. Head-to-head doesn't matter,' I'm OK with it. But don't say one thing and do another."

The optimist sees the Big 12 having two teams in the playoff mix. But with No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 4 Florida State winning this weekend, the Big 12 likely is competing for one remaining spot. It faces a formidable challenge from No. 5 Ohio State, which pummeled Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game and has no complexities about what it is and what it represents.

The Big 12 has two fabulous candidates in No. 6 Baylor and No. 3 TCU, teams led by great coaches and great quarterbacks (Baylor's Bryce Petty and TCU's Trevone Boykin combined for 872 pass yards and five touchdowns Saturday).

But could the league's reluctance to fully back one team hurt in the debate against Ohio State?

"That could be a factor," McCaw said. "The thing that's going to be interesting, if you look at the strength of the Big 12 Conference overall, being one or two [among conferences], the champion of that conference should carry a lot of weight."

Briles referenced the Big 12's strength in his stump speech Saturday. The coach had previously been relatively quiet about politicking, but Petty said Briles told the players, "give me some ammunition" at a recent meeting.

So Briles came out with guns blazing.

He mentioned Baylor's wins against a top 5 team (TCU) and a top 10 team (Kansas State). He mentioned how Baylor played only six true home games, while the other playoff candidates played seven.

"If [selection committee chair] Jeff Long's sitting there, and he asks, 'Who's representing the Big 12?' ... and [Bowlsby] says, 'We're sending Baylor. That's our representative,' they've got to look long and hard at that," Briles said. "Because they won one of the toughest leagues."

It was much tamer earlier in the day at Amon G. Carter Stadium, where TCU thrashed Iowa State 55-3. Bowlsby drew cheers from the crowd when he presented the Big 12 championship trophy.

Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson told reporters, "You're not going to put me on a pedestal" about his team's playoff chances and said the Horned Frogs would "act like a true champion, a co-champion."

And if they miss the playoff?

"I'd be sad for my kids and for this university," Patterson said. "They've done everything they could possibly do, and I don't believe we did anything today to hurt ourselves."

TCU running back Aaron Green was more direct when asked why his team should be one of the top four.

"Because we're the best," Green said. "That's why."

Well, that settles it. Both TCU and Baylor made strong closing arguments, even though the Frogs struggled to score early and Baylor couldn't shake Kansas State for much of the game.

Baylor's narrower home win against K-State 41-20 undoubtedly will be dissected, but the Bears still hold the head-to-head win -- a logical trump card, but perhaps not in this case. One team undoubtedly will be grumpy when the selections are announced at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday. Maybe both.

"It'd be less painful [if Ohio State got in over both]," Fuller admitted. "I know you're rooting for the Big 12 to get in the playoff. Heck, it'd be worse if TCU got in. I don't understand that argument whatsoever. It doesn't make any sense to me."

It's rarely harmonious in the Big 12 -- a league that nearly dissolved twice in a 14-month span in 2010-11, which cost Bowlsby's predecessor, Dan Beebe, his job. There was the controversial division tiebreaker that cost Texas a national title shot in favor of Oklahoma in 2008.

Now, in an effort to remain neutral and, as Bowlsby says, to stick to its own rules, the Big 12 could be left out cold in the playoff.

"We just happen to be part of the Big 12, and we happen to be the champion two years in a row," Briles said. "So they need to be obligated to us because we're helping the Big 12's image in the nation."

What is that image after Saturday? Is it a league that merits a spot in the playoff over the Big Ten? Or is it a conundrum that might be better left out of the race entirely?

"The winner of the Big 12," Boykin said, "should have a decent chance of getting in."

If only it were that easy.