College football's winding down, and since the Big 12 and SEC conference championship games will determine who gets a shot at the crystal football in January, here's a timely myth begging to be busted:
First, a quick primer: The SEC, Big 12 and ACC (which each have 12 teams) have conference title games, while the Big East (which has eight teams), the Pac-10 (which has 10 teams) and the Big Ten (which has ... uh, 11 teams) do not. The Pac-10 does not play a title game because all of its teams play each other during the regular season. And the Big Ten, well, pretty much does whatever the Big Ten wants, thank you very much.
These conference title games were created to bring some added attention to lesser-known conferences that were out of the spotlight and didn't receive enough national notoriety.
Just kidding, they were created to make more money.
While the ACC title game has struggled to find relevance, the Big 12 and SEC title games have become juggernauts. They take place when most teams have wrapped up their seasons, are played on network television in prime time and serve as the unofficial kickoff to the sport's nutty postseason. Forget Dr. Pepper: the SEC and Big 12 Championship Games should be sponsored by Cold, Hard Cash.
Even as SEC and Big 12 fans grumble about how hard it is playing that extra game, they probably don't mind when their schools and conferences cash the nice, fat paychecks that go along with those extra 'roadblocks.' The extra revenue generated by these games has helped fund many a locker room refurbishment, first-class charter flight and blue chip recruit's on-campus visit (read: night out at a gentleman's club).
But added visibility and a nifty paycheck aren't the only reasons conference-title games aren't a hindrance to teams with bigger ambitions. In fact, in recent history, there are more examples of that added game actually helping teams win it all than hurting national-title chances.
To find an example of why the "playing that conference-title game makes it harder" argument is nonsense, fans have to go all the way back to ... last season. Fans might recall the entire college football landscape in 2007 went to hell in a hand basket. The No. 2 team went 0-for-18 (at least, that's how it seemed) and the whole thing basically became a race to avoid losing last. But LSU rose out of the ashes of that exercise in futility. The Tigers began the season ranked second, rose to first, gave up 45 points to Kentucky in a loss, then rose back to first only to give up 50 points at home to Arkansas and lose again on the final day of the regular season.
Without the SEC title game, LSU wouldn't have had a shot. (Admittedly, the Tigers wouldn't have had a shot in most normal seasons anyway). But that extra showcase game on national television, combined with a few other fortuitous losses by top five teams, gave the Tigers a third chance, and they cashed it when they beat Ohio State and won their second Waterford.
But one game does not a busted myth make, so let's keep going back in time, all the way to ... the season before. In 2006, the Florida Gators finished the regular season ranked fourth heading into the SEC title game. They had seen their national-title hopes seemingly go up in smoke after a loss to Auburn and had averaged only 22 points per game in SEC play. But on the season's final day, UCLA upset second-ranked USC (not in a conference-title game, but in their Pac-10 regular-season finale) and third-ranked Michigan was idle (since, in case you weren't paying attention, the Big Ten doesn't do title games, or judging from its conference name, math).
So, the No. 4 Gators found themselves playing in a nationally televised game against No. 8 Arkansas and they seized that opportunity to prove their worth. Their subsequent 38-28 win helped vault them past the Wolverines and into a title-game matchup with Ohio State. The rest is history. Or in the case of the Buckeyes' offense that night, prehistory.
It's almost certain that victory in either the SEC or Big 12 Dr. Pepper Game will once again turn the tide (no pun intended) in this year's title race. The SEC winner is assured of playing in The Only Bowl Game That Matters, and the stakes are equally high in the Big 12 game. No. 5 USC, on the outside of a potential one-loss Sig alert looking in, will not have an added title game (which could have been a rematch against Oregon State) to help bolster its case.
In fact (annoying though they might be to college football fans, those facts), there have been 31 conference-championship games played in the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, and only five of those 31 have resulted in a loss that prevented a team from playing for a national championship (Nebraska in 1996, Kansas State in 1998, Tennessee and Texas in 2001 and Missouri last year).
Conversely, in nine of those 31 games, a team has won and gone on to play for the national title. And you can also make the 2003 Oklahoma Sooners an honorary addition to that group, since they lost the Big 12 title game by four touchdowns and still advanced to the BCS championship game. But then again, that's not very conclusive. Maybe a five or six-touchdown loss would have constituted a roadblock.
Then there was the 2001 Nebraska Cornhuskers. They didn't even advance to the Big 12 title game after a 62-36 blowout loss to Colorado, but they still ended up playing for the national championship that season. We're not sure if that's an argument for or against the conference-title game being an added roadblock, but it nevertheless adds to add fuel to the "this whole thing is a mess" fire.
What does it all mean? That it's twice as likely conference title games either haven't hurt or have actually propelled teams into the national championship picture, than have actually done harm. Trust us, our math's better than the Big Ten's.
That's all for this week. Remember: Just because college football fans believe it's true, doesn't mean it is.