LITTLE ROCK — Handicapping any competition begins with scrutiny of the favorite, seeking to justify a stand against the popular choice.
Applying that strategy to the six conferences that automatically qualify for a spot in the final round of BCS bowl games, the Big 12 is the way to go. In fact, there is some question as to who is the favorite.
Oklahoma State, Texas, and Oklahoma are each 5-2 or 3-1, a decent price on any favorite at Oaklawn Park. According to Bovada.lv, TCU is barely 4-1.
The favorite to win the other five AQ conferences is more clear-cut. For example, Alabama is even-money — bet $5 to get back $10 — in the Southeastern Conference. The odds are even shorter on Louisville in the American Athletic Conference and on Ohio State in the Big Ten. In the Pac-12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference, Oregon and Clemson are less than 2-1.
Those five favorites have a quarterback who won at least 11 games in 2012 and compiled impressive stats:
Alabama, A.J. McCarron, 67.3 percent completion, 30-3 TDs vs interceptions.
Louisville, Teddy Bridgewater, 68.5 percent completion, 27-8 TDs vs. interceptions.
Ohio State, Braxton Miller, 58.3 percent, 15-6 TDs vs. interceptions, 1,271 yards rushing, 13 TDs.
Oregon, Marcus Mariota, 68.5 percent completion, 32-6 TDs vs. interceptions, 752 yards rushing, five TDs.
Clemson, Tajh Boyd, 67.2 percent completion, 36-13 TDs vs. interceptions, 514 yards rushing, 10 TDs.
The quarterbacks for the Big 12 favorites have skimpy 2012 stats or none at all.
Last year, the all-conference quarterback was Kansas State’s Collin Klein. On the second team was West Virginia’s Geno Smith. Honorable mention went to Baylor’s Nick Florence and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones. All are gone.
Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh, and Wes Lunt all started games at OSU last year. Lunt has transferred to Illinois. Chelf, the projected starter, is a senior. Supposedly more talented, Walsh is a sophomore.
At Oklahoma, Blake Bell and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight are competing. Playing behind Jones, Bell became a crowd favorite because of production in short-yardage formations. In two years, he has attempted 20 passes.
In Austin, David Ash is the acknowledged starter, but he was atrocious in a 42-point loss to hated Oklahoma and completed less than 50 percent in a loss to Kansas State. The Longhorns had to beat Oregon State in a bowl game to get to nine victories and there is speculation about how Texas might use Tyrone Swoopes, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring drills.
The quarterback on the preseason all-conference team is TCU’s Casey Pachall, who has a back story that will resonate with Heisman Trophy voters if the Horned Frogs have a big year.
Very productive in 2011 when TCU was unbeaten in the Mountain West Conference, Pachall was brilliant in the first four games of 2012 before he was suspended from the team. He left school in October to enter an inpatient rehabilitation facility a few days after he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. The arrest came eight months after he told police he smoked marijuana and failed a team-administered drug test, a revelation made public in a police report.
TCU coach Gary Patterson responded to the report by saying that Pachall was not suspended earlier because he had completed drug and alcohol counseling mandated by the school.
Counting on Pachall is risky, but the situation is ripe for him to succeed. He will get help from a defense that is always sound under Dick Bumpas. Opening against LSU on Aug. 31, Pachall and the Frogs have an immediate opportunity to crash the national conversation.
For somebody who likes longshots, what are the odds on a parlay of TCU winning the Big 12 and Pachall winning the Heisman?
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.