-- The Big 12 better hope Texas is for real.
The league's College Football Playoff hopes are already dangling like a pinata after Arkansas, Houston and Central Michigan (with an asterisk) have taken their swings.
Yes, it's still early, but that's part of the problem -- the heart of the conference schedule hasn't even begun yet, and the Big 12's preseason favorites are already playing from behind.
Oklahoma already has a loss to Houston -- and faces Ohio State next week before taking on TCU and Texas. TCU couldn't seal the deal in a double-overtime loss to Arkansas and once again faces a back-loaded schedule that includes November games against Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas.
The Longhorns? They're 2-0 and looking like one of the most improved teams in the country after a season-opening statement win over Notre Dame in double overtime. But Texas is entering a stretch against Cal, Oklahoma State and OU.
"We'll be ready," Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson said of the upcoming road trip to Cal. "It just takes preparation like we do every week, and we all have to be in our playbooks. We all have to be ready for this week because we're going in as the big dogs."
Or the lone wolf.
As of right now, No. 11 Texas and No. 23 Baylor are the only undefeated, ranked teams in the Big 12. It's not that the CFP won't take a one-loss team -- six of the eight previous playoff teams, including Oklahoma in 2015, have each had a loss in the past two seasons, with Clemson (2015) and Florida State (2014) being the only undefeated teams to make the semifinals. But there's immense pressure to produce a one-loss champion in large part because the Big 12 still doesn't have its championship game to help compensate for another ink stain on the r?sum?. Not until 2017 will the Big 12 officially add its championship game.
For one more season, the Big 12 faces a similar gamble to Notre Dame's status as an independent -- it has to impress the committee with the 12 games on its schedule.
"Like I told them in there, they've got 10 more chances," said TCU coach Gary Patterson. "You've got to feel positive. We've got a lot of football to go. We haven't played our best football yet."
That much was clear after the Frogs' loss to the Razorbacks, which followed a 59-41 season-opening win over FCS team South Dakota State in which TCU struggled defensively.
On the flip side, the front-runners from the Big Ten (Ohio State and Michigan), the SEC (Alabama and Georgia), ACC (Florida State and Clemson) and Pac-12 (Stanford and Washington) haven't lost. Granted, Stanford was off this week and has a ho-hum win over K-State on its r?sum?, but that's an improvement from a year ago, when the Cardinal opened with a loss to Northwestern.
The good news -- as Stanford can attest to -- is that now is the best time to lose because the Big 12 title is still up for grabs, and any team with a shot to win its league has a chance at the top four. The committee places a great emphasis on winning a conference championship and is directed by the CFP protocol to use league titles as one of its tiebreakers when two teams are similar.
It will also factor in who they lost to, how and where. Oklahoma lost to a ranked opponent, and TCU lost to a respectable SEC team. The committee will also take into account the officiating gaffe that cost Oklahoma State its game against Central Michigan on the last play -- a play that never should have happened.
"The teams' records will reflect the outcome of the game," said Bill?Hancock, executive director of the playoff. "Of course, the committee members will be well aware of what happened on the field -- as they will about all the games that will comprise every team's body of work. That ability to comprehensively consider each game is one of the most significant benefits of the CFP protocol."
The human element is what makes this system impossible to predict.
None of the Big 12's top teams have been eliminated from the CFP (the committee's first rankings don't even come out until Nov. 1), but it's only going to become more difficult. In the Longhorns' win over UTEP, Texas showed it can handle success. But here's the question: Can that continue into league play?
"Coach [Charlie Strong] was talking about how often teams look past an opponent like this after winning a huge game," Texas safety Kevin Vaccaro said. "We started off slow, but we kept it together."
The challenge now is for the rest of the league to do the same.