As you can see, the top ten of the AP Poll is a good place to start looking, but even in that elite company, only a single team (Florida State) ranked within the top four halfway through the season. Plus, each season has seen a 'Cinderella' of sorts emerge with Ohio State and Oklahoma ranking in the teens at the halfway point of their respective seasons. So who could crash the fancy soiree in 2016? Let's consider a team from a conference that was left for dead after the opening weeks of the college football season.
The Big 12, the most unstable of the Power Five conferences, did not have a good start to the 2016 season. After three weeks, league favorite Oklahoma had dropped non-conference games to Houston and Ohio State. Former mid-major and darkhorse contender TCU had dropped a home game to Arkansas. Oklahoma State, a team enjoying the best multi-season run in school history had lost at home to a MAC school, in a most improbable way. Texas, after opening the season with what Longhorn faithful felt was a program defining win over Notre Dame, lost on the road to a mediocre Pac-12 team. Need I go on? Kansas State lost to Stanford, Texas Tech lost to Arizona State, Iowa State lost to an FCS school, and Kansas, well, was Kansas. Only Baylor, a team that fired their coach in the offseason and hemorrhaged recruits left and right in the aftermath and West Virginia, a team that entered the conference with much aplomb, but never managed better than a 5-4 league mark made it to October unscathed. Pundits, particularly dumb jock archetype Jason Sehorn (statistics are for losers) wrote the Big 12 off and have ignored the conference in their coverage of potential playoff teams. However, if you are looking for a longshot candidate for the College Football Playoff, allow me to introduce you to West Virginia.
West Virginia is coached by Dana Holgorsen, a disciple of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid school of coaching. In his first season as head coach, the Mountaineers won the Big East and laid waste to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, setting up great expectations for their foray into the Big 12. However, the Mountaineers neglected to bring a defense to their new conference. Here are West Virginia's rankings in Yards per Play Allowed (YPA) and Touchdowns Allowed (TDA) in Big 12 play through their first four seasons.
Whether you look at efficiency (yards allowed per play) or allowing drives to finish (touchdowns allowed) West Virginia was bad in their first two seasons as they were either second to last or third to last in both categories. Something changed in 2013 though. The Mountaineers realized if you play a little defense in the Big 12, you can win games. So they made perhaps the most underrated coordinator hire in the country when they tabbed their safety coach, Tony Gibson to lead the defense. The results have been fantastic. The Mountaineers went from the bottom of the conference to the top in terms of defensive acumen and their great play has continued in 2016. The Mountaineers just went to Lubbock, Texas and held Texas Tech to 17 points. That is the lowest point total for the Red Raiders in a home game in nearly two years!
So we know West Virginia is probably better than most people think, but can they win out? The Mountaineers have only played five games, meaning they have seven remaining, so it is more likely to not happen, but here are a few reasons why it can.
West Virginia has a unique homefield advantage...at least relative to their Big 12 peers. I'm not talking about couch burning, I'm talking about distance and isolation. The rest of the Big 12 either plays in Texas or flyover states. West Virginia is located all by itself in the eastern part of the United States. The Mountaineers get Baylor, Oklahoma, and TCU at home this season. Remember, two seasons ago, West Virginia kept Baylor out of the playoff by beating them in Morgantown. That same season, TCU needed a late field goal to escape Morgantown with a win. This year's version of both teams are not as good as those 2014 teams. In addition, both of Oklahoma's trips east have resulted in close Sooner wins. Now take a look at their remaining road schedule. The Mountaineers go to Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Texas. Any road trip, especially in conference play is dicey, but with the exception of replacing Texas with Kansas, West Virginia could not have asked for a better road slate.
Now, perhaps the more important question. If West Virginia wins out, do they deserve a spot in the playoff? The Mountaineers did challenge themselves in non-conference play, in hosting Missouri and playing a semi-home game against BYU. Now, Missouri may not qualify for a bowl, but I think the Mountaineers deserve a little credit for playing an SEC team versus a member of the Sun Belt. And the BYU win will probably end up looking pretty good. Even if the Cougars lose to Boise State this week, they will probably end up 8-4. The SEC champion, barring a gigantic upset by the eventual east winner in the championship game is probably in the playoff, but every ACC team save Clemson already has a loss and the Tigers have been playing with fire as of late. The Michigan/Ohio State winner is probably in, but Washington has several tough games left on the schedule (@Utah, Southern Cal, @Washington State), not to mention the Pac-12 Championship Game. Barring a great deal of chaos, West Virginia probably has to win out to make the playoff, but if they do, I think they get in. I don't know if the Big 12 schedule makers are clairvoyant, but putting Baylor @ West Virginia on Championship Saturday may turn out to be one of the best moves they ever made.