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Big 12 analysis, college football playoff race

In the first year of the College Football Playoff, Baylor and TCU were the Big 12’s top candidates for a spot in the national semifinals. In the next three years and through the first half of this season, the league’s playoff chances have rested with Oklahoma.

The landscaped shifted this weekend. Not only the pecking order of top teams, but the Big 12’s position in the conversation, as the league’s chances of having one of the last four standing may have taken a big hit.

Oklahoma’s loss to Texas by a late field goal in a Red River Shootout that lived up to its hype Saturday elevated the Longhorns into a first-place tie with West Virginia.

The outcome leaves the Sooners and Texas with one loss — the Longhorns’ opening-game defeat at Maryland grows more inexplicable by the week — and the Mountaineers as the Big 12’s lone undefeated team.

West Virginia was an unimpressive winner over Kansas on Saturday, with the Jayhawks coming up with three end zone interceptions of quarterback Will Grier. Kansas’ program isn’t strong enough to take advantage of an excellent defensive performance, but the perception of the Mountaineers wasn’t improved by the triumph.

The good news for West Virginia is a back-loaded schedule. November’s slate: at Texas, TCU, at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma. The Mountaineers’ playoff chances and Grier’s Heisman hopes will come into greater focus during that stretch.

West Virginia caught a tough break, losing a high profile game at North Carolina State because of Hurricane Florence. The Wolfpack remains undefeated. The game would have been a perception boost for the winner.

It appears there are no good scheduling options for the Mountaineers, who are headed to an 11-game season. Still, West Virginia remains the Big 12 team best positioned for a playoff spot.

As for the Longhorns and Sooners, they’ve used their mulligan and history suggests there is no margin for error. One-loss teams have been common in the CFP era (since 2014). Of the 16 playoff teams, only three have entered undefeated. But there hasn’t been a two-loss team selected to the semifinals.

When Ohio State won the first CFP, the Buckeyes had lost to unranked Virginia Tech in the regular season, in Columbus. In 2016, Clemson fell at home to Pittsburgh, and won the national title.

Those teams built terrific resumes and won their conference championship game. Texas is now in a better position than Oklahoma to take this path.

Saturday’s victory in Dallas gave the Longhorns a third victory over a ranked team and continued the recent trend of close encounters in the Cotton Bowl. The last five games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

The Big 12 needs that showcase game to deliver on an older trend. For much of the BCS era, Texas-OU often served as a de facto national semifinal. From 2000-09, the Sooners or Longhorns played in the BCS National Championship Game.

This year, obstacles are lined up against the Big 12. The SEC, as usual, is strong at the top with Alabama and Georgia. Ohio State is a strong Big Ten favorite, same with Clemson in the ACC. That might leave room for another conference champion or powerful second team from a conference, like Georgia last year.

For the first time, Notre Dame looms as a strong contender for the playoff. The Irish’s convincing victory at Virginia Tech, removes one of the biggest threats remaining on the schedule.

The CFP selection committee chooses what it believes are the four best teams. Two months remain — plenty of time for some upheaval — except perhaps mighty Alabama, which plays host to Missouri on Saturday. But as favorites from other conferences win each week, the chances of a Big 12 entry on the game’s biggest stage appear to decrease.

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