There’s an alternate reality out there somewhere in the galaxy where the Big 12 placed 11 teams in national championship games over a 15-year period.
During the league’s championship years of 1996 through 2010, seven teams played for national titles: Nebraska in 1997, Texas in 2005 and ’09, and Oklahoma in 2000, ’03, ’04 and ’08. That Ohio State actually won its way into an opportunity to play for a national championship must be a revelation to the Big 12, because never once did a Big 12 team propel itself into a title game with an extra win – those seven above teams were in regardless – while 1996 Nebraska, 1998 Kansas State, 2001 Texas and 2007 Missouri lost their way out of championship opportunities. Oklahoma’s 2003 team also lost in the Big 12 championship, but the Sooners remained at No. 1 anyway.
But the BCS formula is now gone, and a team of all-knowing oracles now decides the fate of college football’s best teams. The game has changed.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s announcement, College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long made it clear that the Big Ten championship tipped the scales in favor of Ohio State. Not necessarily that it was a championship game, just that the Buckeyes had 13 chances to state their case while Baylor and TCU only had 12.
However, Long himself acknowledged that the lack of a championship game could have easily played in the Big 12’s favor. “We could have been hailing the Big 12 and [commissioner] Bob Bowlsby for their brilliance, because if certain things had happened, they could have gotten two teams in,” he said during an appearance on CBS Sports Network’s We Need to Talk this week. We wouldn’t be talking about how they should have had a championship game, we would be talking about how brilliant it was that they didn’t have a championship game.”
Well, which is it? Does the Big 12 need a title game or not?
The answer is yes, and no.
Should the Big 12 and ACC’s joint waiver to hold a championship game pass through the NCAA’s legislation at the organization’s next convention the Big 12 should think outside the box, 10 miles outside the box, in fact, and ensure themselves the right to stage a championship game only when necessary.
Considering that every season is a snowflake, history says adding a permanent championship game could just as easily hinder the conference’s chance of sending one (or two) teams to the College Football Playoff instead of enhance them. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby acknowledged as much this summer. “I think it’s a good thing we don’t have our two best teams playing each other on the last date of the season,” he said in an interview with Fox Sports Southwest. “One of them’s going to lose, and sometimes it’s not the right one.”
Instead of installing a permanent championship game, the Big 12 should ensure itself the right to hold a championship game only when necessary.
Let’s pretend the 2015 season plays out exactly like 2009, when third-ranked Texas finished the regular season a full two games ahead of the rest of the conference. In this scenario, Texas should be declared the Big 12’s One True Champion at the conclusion of the regular season, and the Longhorns’ next official team function should be a watch party to see which semifinal the committee placed them in. No need to push your conference’s golden goose through the field of barbed wire that a championship game would be.
Now let’s pretend 2015 plays out exactly like 2014. Baylor and TCU ended up tied in the standings, and in effect cancelled out the other’s candidacy for the final seat at the table. Instead of handing out two trophies and hoping for the best, the Big 12 would have been better off pitting them in the rematch, giving the conference its One True Champion – and, most importantly, a win over a Top 6 team that certainly would push the winner past Ohio State and possibly Florida State as well.
In short, if a team wins an outright conference title, it should receive its trophy and have that be that. But in the event of a tie – and only in the event of a tie – the Big 12 should stage a rematch.
Now, how would this work practically? The conference would have to schedule so that all 10 teams end their regular seasons on Thanksgiving weekend to leave room for a potential 13th game. (And the biggest drawback of this plan is that it robs all 10 teams of a second bye in a season like this with 14 Saturdays between Labor Day and Thanksgiving weekends.)
The Big 12 couldn’t shop its title game to networks and stadiums on an either/or basis (and Andy Staples reported this week it was unclear if there was a market among TV networks for a Big 12 championship anyway), so the title game would have to be played on campus and within the existing television contract – meaning the league would stage an extra game for free.
Those are the downsides, and there are definite hurdles to clear.
But let’s jump back to the real world for a bit. You think ESPN wouldn’t find time in its schedule for a Baylor-TCU rematch on championship weekend? And let’s ask Art Briles if he’d rather rather keep his scoreboard, his tiebreaker status and the Cotton Bowl berth that comes with it or play a winner-takes-the-Sugar-Bowl-berth-away-from-Ohio-State rematch with TCU.
The Big 12 Championship Only If Necessary proposal also increases the conference’s chances of placing more than one team in the Playoff tremendously when compared with an annual championship. Pretend Baylor had beaten West Virginia back in October and finished undefeated, and TCU’s lone loss came on the road in a back-and-forth game against an undefeated Bears squad. In this case (or, to be fair, under non-championship the current structure) the Big 12 would have a fantastic shot at getting two teams in, and would all but guarantee it if another contender slips up in its own championship game. But a Big 12 championship would pit those two against each other, locking up a spot for the winner while all but guaranteeing the loser gets left out.
There is a temptation to add certain stipulations to prevent, say, a third-ranked 11-1 (8-1 Big 12) Oklahoma from a rematch against a 15th-ranked 9-3 (8-1 Big 12) Texas, but such a rule would only encourage Baylor-esque non-conference scheduling, which should be avoided at all costs.
Again, it’s an idea well outside the box and would need some convincing both internally and externally, but if Bowlsby is serious about securing his conference the best possible chance of Playoff representation, this is it.