The Big 12's choice not to host a title game is a risky, but coherent decision
PHOENIX — The proximity to the men’s room—which on Tuesday afternoon was being utilized by a steady stream of coaches from the Big 12, Pac-12 and MAC—provided the perfect soundtrack for Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s summation of his meeting with the league’s athletic directors. Six days after Bowlsby suggested the Big 12 would move toward adding a football championship game, the membership essentially flushed the idea.
While the 10-team league will continue to seek deregulation from the NCAA that would allow it to stage a championship game if it chooses, the Big 12 will opt against overreacting to being the one Power Five league left out of the first College Football Playoff. With a sample size of just one season, conference leaders don’t believe they have enough information to determine whether adding a championship game that might coexist awkwardly with the nine-game, round-robin schedule. Those leaders have reserved the right to change their minds if more data indicates the lack of a championship game is a real problem, but that’s too difficult to ascertain at this point. “We all believe that one year is not a long enough trial to draw any conclusions,” Bowlsby said. “We may find ourselves in better shape than some other conferences as a result of our model instead of in spite of our model.”
Here’s the truth. If Georgia Tech makes a couple of stops against Florida State in the 2014 ACC Championship and Ohio State beats Wisconsin by seven instead of 59, it’s entirely possible the Big 12 would have had half the teams in the playoff. Baylor and TCU would have both made the field, and the Big 12’s model would have appeared ingenious. Considered that way, tacking on a championship game would seem the acme of foolishness.
But since the Big 12 became a punchline by declaring co-champions in a year the league’s advertisements touted “One True Champion” and was the only one of the ultra-wealthy leagues to be left watching the festivities, the conference title game became a legitimate topic of discussion. It seemed even more legitimate last week after Bowlsby emerged from a meeting with College Football Playoff selection committee chair Jeff Long and all but said the Big 12 needed to install a championship game. Bowlsby said then that it was clear the lack of what Long called a “13th data point” put the league at a disadvantage. Tuesday, Bowlsby didn’t seem nearly as adamant. “What I said is there is some disadvantage – all things being equal – with 12 versus 13,” Bowlsby said. “We needed to talk about it. I continue to believe there is a disadvantage, but I couldn’t characterize it as one percent or three percent.”
The tone of Bowlsby’s comments last week suggested a much larger percentage, but some of his athletic directors must have knocked down the numbers Tuesday. In off-the-record conversations with a few Big 12 ADs here, there was no consensus, but the prevailing opinion seemed to favor caution. After only one year of the playoff—a year in which the selection committee behaved quite differently from the poll voters of the BCS era—it seemed unwise to make any rash decisions. One of the ADs was in favor of the game. “Just play it,” he said. But even that endorsement seemed lukewarm. The strongest support for a game came from West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “I’d support it,” Holgorsen said. “You’re kidding yourself if you say that didn't hurt us.”
It did hurt the Big 12 in 2014. The question is will it hurt the Big 12 every year? The honest answer is that no one knows. In 2014, the champions of the five wealthiest conferences finished one through five (1. Alabama 2. Oregon 3. Florida State 4. Ohio State 5. Baylor) in the final CFP selection committee rankings. How many times did that happen in the 16 seasons of the BCS era? Zero. So the odds are against that happening again, and the odds also are against the Big 12 being shut out again in a similar situation.
“One year doesn’t make a trend,” Bowlsby said. Given the difference between his tone last week and his tone Tuesday, it’s likely several of the league’s athletic directors reminded him of that fact.
One thing that will not happen is an expansion to 12 teams that would allow the Big 12 to stage a championship game under the current rules. While expansion rumors are great fodder for sportswriters hunting for offseason material, expansion doesn’t make financial sense for the Big 12. Quick, name the two schools that would allow the league to add $50 million a year in revenue, because that’s probably what it would take in the next few years to allow the current Big 12 members to keep the same slice of pie they would get in a 10-team configuration. No combination of BYU, Memphis, Cincinnati, Central Florida or South Florida would do that. “There aren’t a lot of obvious candidates,” Bowlsby said. “The other thing is we are splitting our resources 10 ways. So anybody that comes in is going to have to bring pro rata value in order to keep our schools from having to take a haircut.”
One thing that will happen is the league will approve a tiebreaker Wednesday so it can live up to its advertisements and declare one true champion. Bowlsby wouldn’t reveal which option leads, but common sense suggests that if two teams at the top have an identical conference record, the winner of the head-to-head matchup will be the champ. In that scenario, Baylor would have been declared the 2014 champ.
This doesn’t mean the Big 12 has completely abandoned the idea of a championship game. After all, such an event probably would bring in an additional $2 million per school. If you’re Iowa State or Kansas and you’re offered an additional $2 million for something that won’t require any extra work and would rarely, if ever, affect your program, it’s an enticing possibility. But for the teams at the top of the league, a title game could absolutely have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of making the path to the playoff easier, it could make it harder because a playoff in a 10-team league with a round-robin schedule would guarantee a matchup of the No. 1 conference team and the No. 2 conference team on the season’s final weekend.
That doesn’t always happen in leagues with larger numbers. Georgia Tech probably was the ACC’s second-best team in 2014, but Wisconsin wasn’t the Big Ten’s second-best and Missouri wasn’t the SEC’s second-best. One and two would always face off in the Big 12. And if the league gets shut out one or two more times expressly because a conference title game winner leapfrogged the Big 12’s champ, then the Big 12 needs to consider adding the title game. That No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup could be risky, but it’s an awfully strong 13th data point if No. 1 wins.
But unless last year proves to be the norm and not the anomaly, the Big 12 doesn’t need to make any changes. Bowlsby got fired up last week, but he appears to have been talked down from the ledge. Tuesday, he sounded like a man whose common sense had teamed with his sense of humor. “You can imagine how you guys would be kicking my butt if we made the change and then we had our best team lose in the championship game and get left out again,” Bowlsby said. Reminded that he’ll probably be criticized no matter what he does, Bowlsby fired back. “I don’t want to be an easy target,” he said. “I don’t like leaning into left hooks.”