The College Football Playoff committee sent a message to Baylor last week. It did it again Tuesday, too.
The Bears debuted at No. 13 in the first-ever CFP rankings, six spots behind a TCU team they beat 61-58. Selection committee chair Jeff Long said what too many others were thinking: “They have not had a strong schedule.”
Baylor moved up to 12th this week, but its fan base seems no less outraged. Of the top 10 one-loss teams, BU is ninth in line -- and now a spot behind two-loss Ole Miss. The schedule? Still the issue.
Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw is listening. While he defends Baylor’s current predicament, he's also keeping a close eye on the future and in particular the selection committee.
“The committee has an incredibly difficult task,” McCaw said. “I think weekends like this coming weekend will be great differentiators and we’ll see how things go in the end of the season. I know judging by the past couple years, the way things looks halfway or two-thirds of the way through the season aren’t the way they end up.”
Beating No. 15 Oklahoma in Norman on Saturday would go a long way for Baylor’s playoff résumé. So would beating No. 7 Kansas State in the season finale, a potential de facto conference title game. But will the Bears' soft nonconference slate end up proving costly in December?
The Big 12 title race is still wide open, but the fact K-State nearly beat Auburn and No. 6 TCU beat up a Minnesota team that’s now 6-2 has boosted their respective playoff profiles. In the eyes of the committee members, those nonconference tests matter.
Baylor, meanwhile, played SMU (currently 0-7), Northwestern State (4-5 in FCS) and at Buffalo (3-5) and continues to get maligned for doing so. McCaw takes issue with the perception Baylor’s schedule was too easy.
“You have to look at the entire schedule,” he said. “The SEC schools, for example, have some of their weaker nonconference opponents late in the season. If you look at their entire nonconference schedule, the teams look very similar to some of the teams we’ve played.”
He has a point. This week, Mississippi State and Ole Miss take on Tennessee-Martin and Presbyterian, respectively. Alabama still has to play Western Carolina. Auburn has an upcoming showdown with Samford. McCaw understands why they do it: he too wants the right number of home games.
Baylor’s nonconference issue extends well beyond 2014, though. Baylor is locked in to face the following programs in the next five years: SMU, Rice, UTSA, Northwestern State, Lamar, Liberty and Incarnate Word.
In his defense, McCaw said this year’s schedule and several future games were agreed to back when Baylor hadn’t reached a bowl game in 15 years. They were chasing six wins -- the minimum for bowl eligibility -- by any means necessary.
“When I first came to Baylor in 2003, we had a lot of people wanting to schedule us in football,” McCaw said. “I’d have Michigan on line one, Ohio State on line two, Auburn on line three. They were lining up to play us at that point in time. Those phone calls aren’t prevalent at this point in time. I think certainly people recognize we’re a strong program, and it makes it much more challenging to get games scheduled.”
While that’s reasonable, Baylor continues to prefer cupcakes since rising to prominence. The series with Incarnate Word -- a San Antonio FCS school that began playing football in 2009 -- was announced in March. And while McCaw touts the Bears’ 2017 and 2018 meetings with Duke, a current top-25 program, those games were scheduled five years ago.
How can the Bears improve the future slate? McCaw and coach Art Briles are not interested in playing high-profile kickoff games in Dallas, Houston or elsewhere, because BU already has an annual neutral-site game against Texas Tech at AT&T Stadium. McCaw isn't looking to give up home games at $266 million McLane Stadium.
The reality is, Baylor has taken a gamble with its approach to nonconference play. Nine Big 12 games are a tough enough challenge. Starting off 3-0 with momentum, blowout-enhanced confidence and more experienced backups is a logical strategy.
That doesn’t mean it promises to pay off in the end. McCaw knows he might have to reevaluate future agreements if the playoff committee continues to disrespect Baylor’s scheduling efforts.
“A lot will depend on how things go this year. I think all of us are going to watch how the committee makes its final evaluation and what kind of weight they assign to various factors,” McCaw said. “It certainly could have a number of different implications, based on how the committee perceives things. But all of that right now is speculation until it actually happens.”
McCaw is confident the champion of the Big 12 will deserve a College Football Playoff bid. He knows the odds of a 10-2 team receiving that bid are, in his words, "extremely unlikely.”
So Baylor has to win out, then cross its fingers that these résumé risks pay off. The Bears have no other choice.
“We’re looking to finish strong,” McCaw said, “and make a great impression with the committee and the college football world."