Why the sports media will be calling the Big 12 the nation’s best conference by early October – and why you shouldn’t buy it.
Last year we noted that the Big 12 gamed its schedule in a way that gave it an advantage in the national rankings to conference teams.
The gist of the game was this – the Big 12 front-loaded their schedule with non-conference teams that created the illusion of a conference much stronger than it actually was, especially when compared to other conferences. How this works is pretty simple – if members of a conference can avoid playing each other as long as possible (while feasting on mostly inferior talent) the conference at-large avoids the losses that inevitably result from conference play.
Last year for example, five Big 12 teams were undefeated by week 5, a situation that was (and would be) nearly impossible in any other major conference. As a result half the conference was ranked in the top 22 by the fifth week creating a sort of poll inertia that benefited the conference later in the season.
The other major conferences don’t have the same advantage of a 5 week pre-conference hiatus that benefits the Big 12. Take the SEC for example. By week 5 of the upcoming season every SEC team will have played at least 2, and as many as 3, conference games. By the virtue of simple mathematic attrition borne of conference play, many SEC teams will have one or more losses by week 5, making it virtually impossible for five teams to be undefeated.
Georgia, for instance, will have played South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU by the 5th week of the season. If Georgia were to be undefeated by that point, by necessity the other 3 other SEC teams will not be, meaning Georgia alone will have given losses to one-fourth the conference by week 5. (As an aside, UGA’s 2 other games that first 5 weeks are Oklahoma State and Arizona State – is there a harder opening schedule than that?)
Now let’s look at those opening 5 weeks for the Big 12. Contrary to last season there actually are a few tough non-conference games in the first 5 weeks, but the schedule still sets up very nicely for the conference. (For some reason this year there is also a single conference game before week 5 between Texas and Texas Tech, but it doesn’t change the calculations much).
According to the excellent poll aggregation work being done over at LSUFootball.net, the following should be close to the rankings for the top Big 12 teams -
6. Oklahoma State
We will used the same poll rankings to assume, for our purposes here, who wins between teams in the first 5 weeks. Here are the early conference schedules and predictions -
Texas – Louisiana Monroe, at Wyoming, Texas Tech, UTEP
Texas should begin 4-0, easy.
Oklahoma – BYU, Idaho State, Tulsa, at Miami
Credit the Sooners with the game at Miami, but 4-0 looks a likely start with UM ranked 29th.
Oklahoma State – Georgia, Houston, Rice, Grambling
The Dawgs won’t be a pushover by any means, but the Cowboys get them at home in the post Stafford-Moreno era, and UGA is ranked 15th to Oklahoma State’s 6th. 4-0 is probably the result.
Kansas – Northern Colorado, at UTEP, Duke, Southern Miss
Kansas should go 4-0.
Nebraska – FAU, Arkansas State, at Virginia Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette
I don’t see the Cornhuskers winning at Blacksburg, but 3-1 is a given.
These other Big 12 teams will probably also start strong due to schedule –
Texas Tech – North Dakota, Rice, at Texas, at Houston, New Mexico
4-1 is almost a given.
Kansas State – Umass, at Louisiana-Lafayette, at UCLA, Tennessee Tech
3-1 at least
Texas A&M – New Mexico, Utah State, UAB, at Arkansas
Neither Arkansas or A&M is ranked, so hard to call who might win. We will say 3-1 to be conservative.
Missouri – at Illinois, Bowling Green, Furman, at Nevada
We’ll give 31st ranked Illinois at home the win over unranked Missouri, so look for 3-1.
We could easily have a situation that, after week 5, the records of the Big 12 teams should be –
Oklahoma State 4-0
Texas Tech 4-1
Kansas State 3-1
Texas A&M 3-1
Kansas State 3-1
Iowa State 3-1
In fact, I’d be surprised if it was not so. Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas and Nebraska will be top 25 ranked (after all the Sooners will “only” have lost to top ranked Virginia Tech). Texas Tech may also be ranked.
Pollsters, being the generally a lazy lot they are, will have their eyes are drawn to records that end in zero. I’m predicting six ranked Big 12 teams by the end of week 5.
All of this will have occurred essentially without the Big 12 having to face competition within their own conference. By comparison, on October 3rd, most ACC and Big Ten teams will have played 2 conference games, the SEC 2 to 3 conference games, and the Pac Ten 3 conference games. As a result those conferences won’t – in fact they can’t - have the same gaudy win-loss records the Big 12 will surely boast.
The sports media discussion regarding the Big 12 at this point will be predictable – “Look at how strong the conference is! 4 undefeated teams with 6 (or half the conference!) ranked in the top 25!” Nebraska’s loss at Blacksburg will be easily explained away – “No one wins at Va Tech”, and the Red Raiders will “only” have lost to highly ranked Texas at Texas. Add in what is sure to be some high scoring routs, Big 12 offenses ranked near the top of statistical categories, and the media love affair will be on.
None of this is to say that certain Big 12 teams, especially Texas and Oklahoma, AREN’T deserving of all the attention and media focus they are sure to gather, as I think both will be top competitors in 2009. Texas in particular looks ready to contend for a BCS title.
But the “best conference ever” theme that we will sure to be hearing by that first week in October shouldn’t resonate with discriminating college sport enthusiasts, insufferable though it might be.