After playoff snub, what are the Big 12's best options moving forward?
NEW YORK -- By Monday night, they’d had more than 24 hours to digest what happened on Saturday and Sunday. Big 12 athletic directors had met once, with another meeting to come Tuesday, to discuss what they needed to do after the league was snubbed from the first College Football Playoff after entering the season’s final day with a chance to get two teams into the bracket.
What was the consensus? “Don’t freak out,” Kansas State AD John Currie said.
After conversations with multiple Big 12 athletic directors as well as officials from the Big 12 and other conferences, a clearer picture has emerged of the Big 12’s options as league leaders try to determine their path going forward. And Currie’s assessment may be the best. Now that the initial sting has worn off, league leaders can take a careful look at their available choices. They also have ample time to decide whether they need to make any changes. So, let’s look at what the Big 12 and its schools can do and two things the Big 12 absolutely should do.
Immediately after everyone learned Baylor and TCU had been shut out of the playoff field, the responses from fans were predictable. See, the Big 12 needs a conference championship game. It should add (choose any two of) BYU/UCF/Cincinnati/Memphis/SMU/Boise State/USF, split into divisions and be just like every other league.
That’s probably the worst idea. While the Big 12 still might want to add a title game -- more on that later -- scooping up two schools from the above list would only result in less money for everyone currently in the league, a diluted football product and more travel headaches for the non-football teams. Expansion is a viable solution only if it makes financial sense, and a 12-team Big 12 would need to be able to command about $50 million more a year in media rights fees to allow the current members to break even. No two schools from that list, even when combined with the money a championship game would bring, would convince ESPN and FOX to pony up that much more money.
On top of that, the Big 12’s 10-school alignment allows for true round-robin schedules in football and basketball. That arrangement is better for competition and fans. It also creates more meaningful rivalries. In the current alignment, a football player who begins his Auburn career in 2015 would never play Florida, even if he redshirted. Did you really play in the SEC if you never played Florida or Auburn? Meanwhile, a football player who starts his career at Oklahoma in ’15 knows he’ll play every Big 12 school four times. That familiarity among teams will make games more fun and (usually) more competitive. If the Big 12 can keep its 10-school alignment going forward, that’d be the best for everyone in the league.
But what about the championship game? It might be odd to see teams face off a second time, but consider this season. Computer rankings and advanced statistics suggested TCU was the Big 12’s best team. Baylor had the same conference record (8-1) and beat the Horned Frogs 61-58 in a wild game in Waco on Oct. 11. By the most accepted tiebreaker rule in sports, Baylor was the Big 12 champ. But if the two teams had played again at JerryWorld on the season’s final weekend, that quandary could've been solved. If TCU was really better, the Horned Frogs would have beaten Baylor. If Baylor was really better, the Bears would’ve beaten TCU. Each team would have, in the parlance of the selection committee, played an additional game against a quality opponent. No one minds rematches in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC title games. Why would a Big 12 rematch seem weirder?
The flip side is that had Florida State and Ohio State lost their conference title games this year, the Big 12 would have gotten both Baylor and TCU into the playoff. We’d be talking about what geniuses commissioner Bob Bowlsby and his ADs are. In that scenario, a Big 12 title game might have knocked one of the two contenders out of the playoff. Or it might not have. The loser may have still had the best two-loss resumé.
The problem? The Big 12 isn’t allowed to stage a championship game. The NCAA requires that conferences have at least 12 teams and two divisions if they want to play a title game. The Big 12 and ACC drafted NCAA legislation in May that would deregulate league championship games and allow any conference to stage them no matter its numbers or alignment. The Big 12 simply wants the option to play one. The ACC would like the option to ditch its divisions -- after I spent years learning who is in the Atlantic and who is in the Coastal -- and seed the top two teams at the end of the conference season. This would allow teams in the league to meet more regularly and would eliminate the problems that come when one division dominates for years at a time. (As the Atlantic, with Florida State and Clemson, is doing now.)
The NCAA rule isn’t some sacred text. In fact, it’s completely arbitrary. I wrote a story in May that explained how it came to exist, and here’s the passage that explained how the rule’s writer arrived at 12 teams.
[In 1986, West Chester (Pa.) University athletic director Dick] Yoder wrote a draft of the rule that required 14 schools -- to match the [Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s] membership -- split into two divisions, playing a round-robin schedule within their divisions. After learning from friends with more NCAA legislative experience that he had worded the legislation incorrectly, he rewrote it. But while Yoder was rewriting, some friends from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) -- a 12-member league of historically black schools then spread throughout North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland -- asked him if their league could co-sponsor the legislation. They liked the idea, and they also used divisions. So, Yoder revised his legislation to require 12 teams and not 14. That was it. There was no research. No debate. The CIAA had 12 members at the time, so Yoder wrote the number 12 into the legislation. “We were Division II,” Yoder said. “Nobody really cared.”
The rule passed at the 1987 NCAA convention with little debate, and no one really noticed until Roy Kramer, then the SEC commissioner, used it as justification to add Arkansas and South Carolina and stage the first SEC title game in '92.
So, it makes no sense that the rule still exists, and given the recent push toward deregulation and permissive rather than restrictive regulations, the Big 12 and ACC should get what they want some time next year. The only reason they wouldn’t is if the other leagues choose to block the deregulation just because they can.
What should the Big 12 do if it is allowed to stage a title game? We already discussed a potential advantage (one more quality game, which seems to matter to the playoff committee) and a potential drawback (potentially knocking a playoff contender out of the race). Here’s another plus: money. Depending on time slot, a Big 12 title game featuring two of the league’s 10 current members could fetch anywhere from $20 million to $35 million a year from a television network. That money would then be split 10 ways, and not many ADs would turn down a $3 million addition to their revenue share check. But one Big 12 insider said the TV network partners -- which essentially saved the league in 2010 by agreeing to pay the same for 10 schools as they paid for 12 -- have not indicated they would pay more for a title game.
While the Big 12 would have to carefully consider whether to add a championship game if it gets the deregulation it wishes, there are two things that can happen this offseason that would help the Big 12’s chances next time.
First, the league needs to present a champion to the committee next season. There may be no tie, so this might not be an issue. But in the event of a two-team tie, the winner of the head-to-head meeting needs to be presented to the selection committee as the league’s champ. Keep the rule that allows the league to hand out multiple trophies. ADs and coaches love championship bonuses, and who are we to deny them kitchen renovations? But there should be no co-champions for the committee, because calling Baylor and TCU co-champs meant that neither was considered a champion by certain committee members who considered a conference title a critical criterion.
The other thing Big 12 schools can do right now is schedule better nonconference competition. Actually, let’s rephrase. The other thing Baylor can do right now is schedule better nonconference competition. If the Bears want to be a nationally elite program, they need to quit scheduling in an attempt to go undefeated and try to beat a quality team outside the Big 12. Florida State went undefeated this year. Alabama and Oregon did not. Which teams did the committee rank higher? Risking a loss won’t get Baylor left out of the playoff, but taking no risks at all might have killed the Bears this season. Baylor chose to play a pitiful nonconference slate in 2014 that featured SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. Here are Baylor’s next five years of nonconference games.
2015: at SMU, Lamar, Rice
2016: Northwestern State, SMU, at Rice
2017: Liberty, UT-San Antonio, at Duke
2018: at UT-San Antonio, Duke, TBA
2019: University of the Incarnate Word (yes, that’s an actual school and not something Gordon Gee said to be funny), UT-San Antonio, Rice
At least the Bears scheduled a home-and-home with Duke, but the rest of that lineup is miserable and will be frowned upon by the committee. Even one decent game in 2015, ’16 and ’19 would help the Bears’ cause. The Big 12 could make a rule -- as the ACC and SEC did -- forcing teams to schedule at least one Power Five foe out of conference, but that shouldn’t be necessary. The Bears should choose to help themselves and play a better nonconference schedule.
That, rather than any major structural changes, might be the thing that helps the Big 12 solve its playoff problem.