Oklahoma and the Big 12 Championship

Posted By BrokenClaw on December 8, 2008

The University of Oklahoma Sooners were chosen to represent the Big 12 South in Saturday’s league championship game. It was a most unlikely scenario which hasn’t happened since… oh, wait, it had never happened before. Three teams in the South division ended the season with exactly the same won-loss record. Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas all completed the regular season with identical 7-1 records in the Big 12, identical 4-1 records in the South division, identical 4-0 records against common league opponents, and identical 11-1 records overall. Of course, this situation is only possible if the three teams beat each other in a triangular fashion. Texas beat Oklahoma 45-35 on October 11, then Tech beat Texas 39-33 on November 1, then Oklahoma beat Tech 65-21 on November 22.

Having three national power teams in the league is a boon for the Big 12, but having them all tied in the same division is a nightmare. While all three teams are officially recognized as division champions, only one team can play the North champion for the league championship.

The final tiebreaker, according to Big 12 rules, was the team with the highest spot in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings. When the numbers were crunched, Oklahoma barely came out on top of Texas, with Texas Tech a few spots down. Mayhem ensued. Just listen to the sportscasters lament the fate of poor Texas, unjustly snubbed from the championship game. Most of them, like Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN, continued to cite Texas’s victory over Oklahoma as proof that Texas should have played in the championship game. And many other sportscasters blasted the Big 12′s procedure for using the BCS rankings in order to settle the 3-way tie conundrum.

In my professional life, part of my job involves writing policies and procedures which impact healthcare, so I have a greater appreciation for policies which have real consequences and for the responsibility to account for every possible scenario. With that is mind, let’s examine the arguments in the Big 12 South fiasco, and see how their selective logic fails.

The first one, as mentioned above, was the fact that Texas beat Oklahoma 45-35. This argument completely ignores Texas Tech, who beat Texas. Proponents justify their snub of Texas Tech by citing Tech’s embarrassing 65-21 loss at Oklahoma. As one sportscaster said, “Anyone who loses by 40 points doesn’t deserve consideration.” In other words, since Tech’s loss was by so many points, you can dismiss them and just consider the other two teams head-to-head.

Oh, so points matter? If that’s the case, exactly how many points matter? If Oklahoma had beaten Tech by only 10, would Tech still be in the mix? Does that mean that Oklahoma would have been more deserving if they had beaten Tech by fewer points? If points are going to be a criterion, then the criteria have to be stated. By this logic then, you’d have to consider the point differential for all three teams in the three games. So here Tech came out at -38, Texas at +4, and Oklahoma at +34. No contest there. Oklahoma was clearly the winner.

A related argument was that Texas beat Oklahoma on a neutral field, while Tech and Oklahoma’s wins came on their home fields. While voters can always consider home-field advantage when ranking teams, this argument has no merit whatsoever in the league policy, because Texas and Oklahoma are the only teams in the Big 12, and in all of college football, who play on a neutral field every year. You can’t have a policy which discriminates for or against certain teams.

Another argument for Texas was that Texas’s only blemish in this triangle was a “last second” loss to Tech. This argument is probably the most laughable. I would question anyone who makes it if they even watched the game. The fact is, that Tech held the lead during the whole game until Texas scored a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. Texas didn’t almost win, Texas Tech almost lost. But just for fun, let’s entertain the concept that “almosts” count for something. And the only way to measure “almosts” is by calculating the time that a team has the lead in a game.

In the game just cited, Texas held the lead for 1:32, and Tech held the lead for 47:46 and the win. Oops, not much of a contest there. In the Texas-Oklahoma game, Oklahoma held the lead for 35:30, and Texas held the lead for 12:59 and the win. In the Tech-Oklahoma game, Tech never held the lead, while Oklahoma held the lead for 51:01 and the win. The totals aren’t pretty. In the three games, Texas held the lead for exactly 14:31, Tech held the lead for 47:46, and Oklahoma held the lead for 86:51. So for Texas’s sake, I wouldn’t bring up the “last second” loss thing.

The only way to discredit the “lead time” criterion is to acknowlege that only the final score matters. In other words, it only matters who wins the game. So that puts us right back at the 3-way tie.

An argument for using the BCS ranking to determine the division representative was often countered that something more concrete should be used. I heard at least one sportscaster suggest using performance against common opponents. Well, let’s see. Won-loss record against common opponents is already part of the tie-breaker system, so the only other measure of performance would be score. Really? Score? Aren’t these the same sportscasters who bemoan the fact that teams in the Big 12, and these three teams specifically, routinely score more than 50 points a game?

If you’re going to throw score into the mix as an official tiebreaker, then you can’t object to a coach keeping the first team on the field in the fourth quarter when the score is 52-14. But just for fun, let’s check out the score differential. In the other division games plus Kansas (whom all three teams played), Texas was +96, Oklahoma was +104, and Tech was +106. Just imagine what those numbers would have been if points really did matter. Nevertheless, Texas came out at the bottom of that one, too.

Maybe it’s not fair to consider those blowouts. So let’s just look at the other highly ranked team in the South division. Oklahoma State was an undefeated Top 10 team as well, until they lost to these three teams. So how did the big three fare? Texas beat them at home by 4 points, Texas Tech beat them at home by 46, and Oklahoma beat them at Oklahoma State by 20. So against the highest ranked common opponent, Texas came out at the bottom again.

To others, the only reason that Oklahoma came out on top was because their loss to Texas was a month earlier, and Tech’s victory over Texas was late in the season. So let’s consider a different sequence. Suppose Oklahoma’s rout of Tech had occurred at the start of the league games in early October. And then Tech won their next six games before facing an undefeated Texas. So after Tech beat Texas to create the 3-way tie, would Texas still be the clear choice to go to the championship game? If Oklahoma benefited by being the first team to lose, is it better to benefit the last team to lose?

Finally, let’s examine the Big 12′s procedure for using the BCS rankings to finally break the tie. As many people have pointed out, the BCS rankings are designed to determine the top two teams who will play for the national championship. Period. They are not designed to set rankings below the top two teams, and they are certainly not designed to pick division winners. However, that’s precisely why the Big 12 uses it. Dan Beebe, commissioner of the Big 12, appeared on ABC’s broadcast of the championship game and explained it. The fifth tiebreaker uses the BCS rankings as a practical matter, because it gives the Big 12 the best chance to end up with a team in the BCS Championship game!

Apparently, the voters and computer calculations took all these things into consideration, and came up with Oklahoma over Texas and Texas Tech. There’s no point in arguing if Oklahoma was more deserving than Texas. The numbers tell the tale. It was so close to be statistically insignificant. If the league ignored the BCS and sent a lesser-ranked team in this situation, it would be doing a disservice to itself.

At least one other conference uses the BCS rankings, with a caveat, that if the second team is within 5 places of the first team, then head-to-head record determines which of those two teams goes to the league championship game. If that were the case, of course, Texas would have gone over Oklahoma. Once again, it’s easy to say that now, because Oklahoma and Texas were in a virtual dead heat in the polls. But let’s consider another scenario.

Suppose this same three-way tie occurred in the Southeast Conference West, with Auburn beating LSU, then LSU beating Alabama, and then Alabama beating Auburn late in the season. It’s not unreasonable to imagine the final regular season BCS rankings something like this:
1. USC (12-0)
2. Oklahoma (11-1)
3. Florida State (11-1)
4. Alabama (11-1)
5. Missouri (11-1)
6. Utah    (12-0)
7. LSU (11-1)
8. Penn State (10-2)
9. Georgia Tech (10-2)
10. Florida (10-2)
11. Ohio State (10-2)
12. Auburn (11-1)

USC would be done with their season, with a lock on the top spot. Oklahoma would be playing Missouri in the Big 12 Championship. Florida State would be playing Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. Using the tie-breaker just described, the Southeast Conference would have to send LSU to play Florida in their championship game. They would have to send the 7th ranked LSU Tigers, by virtue of their early season win over 3rd ranked Alabama, which would virtually eliminate the possibility of any Southeast Conference team moving up into the 2nd place spot for the BCS championship. Even if both OU and FSU lost, Missouri would likely jump over the idle Alabama, by virtue of their win over the 2nd ranked Sooners.

On the other hand, if they used the Big 12 tie-breaker, Alabama would go into the league championship game as the top ranked team of the three. Alabama could jump over OU and FSU in the final rankings, even if one or both of those teams won their games less impressively.

If there’s a problem with Oklahoma going to the Big 12 championship game, the problem is with the BCS rankings, not with the Big 12. The fact that Oklahoma was ranked ahead of Texas, even by the slimmest of margins, means that Oklahoma is more likely, even by the slimmest of margins, to be ranked in the top two of the final BCS if they win. And they did, and they were.

If Texas had been chosen, by some other hocus-pocus, to represent the South in the league championship, chances are they would have beaten Missouri as well, and probably would have ended up in the top two of the BCS. But they weren’t, and they didn’t.

I am certainly not advocating that conferences use the BCS rankings to break routine ties. But in this most unlikely of scenarios, with three teams having the exact same record of one loss, I can’t think of any fair way to break it, so it might as well be the most practical.


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