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Breaking Down the Big 12 Title Contenders

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Three teams currently control their own fate in the Big 12. Let’s see how each breaks down.

Motel 6 Cactus Bowl - Arizona State v West Virginia Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Halfway through the 2016 college football season, the Big 12 has emerged as a three-team race. Yes, Oklahoma State has an outside shot but it would need to run the table AND hope for either Baylor to lose twice or some other miracle. For now, we’re going to look at the three teams with a zero in the conference loss column.

Oklahoma

How they got here: Oklahoma was the preseason favorite in the Big 12. With returning Offensive Player of the Year Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma was seen as the most talented team in the conference. Oklahoma would be tested early with a “neutral” site game against up-and-coming Group of 5 member Houston and a blue blood of college football, Ohio State.

Oklahoma stumbled against Houston, losing 33-23 thanks in part to a “kick-6”. Things were worse in a matchup between college football elites. Ohio State ran OU off the field to the tune of 44-24. At 1-2, the Sooners were all but eliminated from the playoff race.

Once Big 12 play started, the Sooners have looked the same....and different. The Sooners beat TCU in a wild game where each team traded scoring bursts. TCU jumped out to a 21-7 lead, before Oklahoma roared back to lead 49-24 heading into the 4th. TCU came back to life before losing 52-46. Things were similar against Texas, where the Sooners won 45-40. A 38-17 win over Kansas State made it seem like Bob and Mike Stoops had the Sooners heading in the right direction but last week’s basketball game that the Sooners won 66-59 proved otherwise. At 4-0, Oklahoma is technically first in the conference.

The remaining schedule: Oklahoma has a home game against Kansas this week, before heading to Ames for a Thursday night game. Then Oklahoma will have 3 games that will define its title chances. Oklahoma gets 9 days to prepare for a home tilt against Baylor. After Baylor, the Sooners will travel to Morgantown to take on West Virginia before a bye week then Bedlam.

Odds of winning Big 12: S&P gives the Sooners a 17% chance of finishing the regular season 10-2. The Sooners are favored in every game remaining. The two games expected to challenge for the title, Baylor and West Virginia, are virtual tossups. Oklahoma has a 52% chance to beat Baylor according to S&P+ and a 53% chance against West Virginia. The projected margin of victories are both within 1.5 points.

Analysis: Oklahoma would appear to be set up well to win the Big 12 but those last 3 games are going to test the Sooners. The Sooners have struggled all season defensively, allowing 36.7 points per game (111th), 475.9 yards per game (105). Opponents convert over 48% of their third downs against the Sooners. Baylor is currently averaging 41 points per game and Oklahoma State is averaging 37 points per game.

West Virginia is no slouch offensively either, but the Mountaineers have opted for a more ball control offense to control games. They have been willing to grind out games and frustrate opposing offenses. WVU will also test the Sooners offense, as WVU is currently 9th in scoring defense in the country. Only Ohio State is higher of opponents OU will play. WVU could suppress the high flying Sooners in Morgantown.

Baylor

How they got here: In typical Baylor fashion, the Bears have taken the easiest path to date. Baylor is determined to force the committee to say a 12-0 undefeated Big 12 team is less deserving than a 11-1 non conference winner. It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off. Baylor started the year with a FCS directional school, Northwestern State. They followed that with a drubbing of in-state SMU. The same SMU that just took down Houston, who beat Oklahoma in week 1. Transitive property of college football to be applied later. The Bears followed the SMU game up with a 38-10 win over Rice. Baylor’s out of conference (OOC) schedule was ranked 117th in FBS and did not feature a single Power 5 team.

After the annual cupcake OOC, Baylor began play with a 35-24 win over Oklahoma State. That game featured Baylor quarterback Seth Russel looking the most like his 2015 version as he threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns. The Bears gained 523 yards of offense and collected four turnovers on defense.

Baylor’s next two opponents, Iowa State and Kansas, are the two annual cellar-dwellers. Iowa State gave Baylor all they could handle in a 45-42 loss. Iowa State led for the first 53 minutes before Baylor tied the game with 6:27 to go. Baylor would then drive 18 plays over the final 5 minutes before kicking a game-winning field goal. Against Kansas, Baylor jumped out to a 49-0 lead and cruised to bring their record to 6-0.

The remaining schedule: Baylor has the toughest remaining schedule of the three contenders. Since Baylor has already played Iowa State and Kansas, the remaining teams are all more talented. Baylor, like West Virginia, has already used both bye weeks and will be forced to play the remaining 6 games with no rest.

The Bears will start out with a trip to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns. They will follow that game with the Revivalry against TCU. They travel to Oklahoma in the first of three games that will determine the Big 12 champion before home games against Kansas State and Texas Tech. Baylor will end its season in Morgantown on December 3rd taking on the Mountaineers.

Odds of winning Big 12: S&P+ gives the Bears a 10% chance to go undefeated. Baylor is currently favored in every game remaining, other than their November 12 game against Oklahoma. Baylor is favored to win by 10+ points against the non-contenders while Oklahoma is projected as a 1.1 favorite. Baylor is currently a 2.7 favorite against West Virginia.

Analysis: The Bears are still a top-10 offense according to all the metrics. They are scoring 41.4 points per game while running for over 280 yards per game. Yet something seems off about this Baylor team. Last year, before he was hurt, Seth Russel completed well over 60% of his passes. Through 7 games last year, Russel threw 29 touchdowns. Through 6 games this year, Russel only has 16 touchdowns. It is very tough to get a read on the Bears given their schedule. Is their 18th-ranked scoring defense a product of talent and scheme or because they played NWSt (FCS), SMU (88th), Rice (115), KU (125) and ISU (89)?

The next six weeks will give us a true idea as to how good the Bears really are. They could stumble with a loss to rival TCU or at Oklahoma or they could do their part and be 11-0 when they brave the trip to Morgantown.

West Virginia

How they got here: The Mountaineers kicked off the season with a home game against SEC opponent Missouri. The Mountaineers controlled the game and won 26-11, which was only aided by a garbage time touchdown by Missouri in the final 2 minutes. Following the opening game, WVU played Youngstown State then traveled to Landover, Maryland for a game against independent Brigham Young. The Cougars gave the Mountaineers all they could handle but came up short as WVU improved to 3-0.

Once Big 12 conference play started, the Mountaineers have been a different team. They survived against Kansas State, winning 17-16 before the defense really took to the national spotlight. The country started to notice the Mountaineers after a thorough woodshed beating of Texas Tech. The Mountaineers held the #1 scoring offense in the nation to less than 20 points while ending a streak of 9 games scoring at least 50 at home. The Mountaineers followed this up with a butt-whooping of TCU. The Mountaineers handed Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs their worse loss in Big 12 play.

The remaining schedule: This weekend the Mountaineers will take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater. After this game the Mountaineers will alternate home and away games for the remaining season. They come home to Morgantown to take on Kansas before traveling to Austin and the Longhorns of Texas. That sets up a showdown with Oklahoma in Morgantown on November 19. After the Sooners, the Mountaineers will travel to Ames, Iowa for the Riot Bowl with the Cyclones. The final game of the regular season will be in Morgantown against Baylor on December 3.

Odds of winning Big 12: According to S&P+, the Mountaineers only have a 5% chance of going 12-0. They are predicted to lose to both Oklahoma and Baylor at this point, though both games can reasonably be called a toss up, with S&P giving the Sooners a 53% chance of winning and Baylor is given a 56% chance of beating the Mountaineers right now.

Analysis: Unlike Baylor, the Mountaineers have already been tested. Against power-run BYU, the Mountaineers gave up yards but ultimately were able to hang on and make stops. Against spread teams TTU and TCU, the Mountaineers found ways to confuse the quarterbacks and offensive line and generate pressure. The Mountaineers have 7 sacks in their past 2 games after collecting only 5 in their first four games.

West Virginia has the advantage of playing both Oklahoma and Baylor in Morgantown this year and that has to count for something. One, or both games, will likely be night games. Both games will be cold. So far WVU looks like the most complete team. They own a top-40 scoring offense that is depressed (32 pts/game) in part because they choose to control the clock. WVU is a top-ten scoring defense (17.2 pts/game) and they hold opponents to 53% completions. They are susceptible to the power run game on defense, which makes the Oklahoma game scary. If WVU can get ahead and force the Sooners to throw, that will play into WVU’s strengths.