Does the Big 12 need to add a league championship game to thrive in the playoff era?
NEW YORK — Bob Bowlsby smiled a lot bigger Wednesday than he did this week last year. The Big 12 commissioner certainly seemed happier as he addressed the crowd at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. “I was in a patently unhappy place last year,” Bowlsby said, “so it’s a relatively low bar.”
A year ago, Bowlsby had to explain to his league’s presidents, athletic directors and fans why the league was left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. He got plenty of suggestions about what the Big 12 should do in the wake of the slight. Declare one champion. Play a championship game. Expand to 12. Expand to 14.
What did Bowlsby do? He advised his schools not to do anything drastic. He encouraged the presidents and ADs to wait for more data, and to let the playoff selection committee set the field a few more times to establish patterns of behavior before making significant changes. All his schools changed prior to this season was introducing a simple solution to a ridiculous problem. In May, the league installed a tiebreaker that would firmly declare a champion. This week, the Big 12 passed something known informally as the “Baylor Rule,” which requires each team to play at least one Power Five opponent from another conference per year.
This season, the Big 12 has a team in the playoff. Oklahoma (11–1) is the No. 4 seed, and because the Sooners’ season ended a week earlier than the champions of the other Power Five leagues, the Big 12 was able to sit back and watch the other conferences struggle to claim the other three spots. Yet Bowlsby, who weathered the storm last year with minimal complaints about the process he and the other commissioners created, keeps getting suggestions.
One came from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. “I’d like to see more consistency [between conferences] rather than less,” Scott told CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon. “I’d like to see the Big 12 go to a championship game. I don't think it's good or fair to see a conference not have to win that extra game and have that extra opportunity both for a win and a loss. I don't like the idea that a champion can be in the clubhouse and not put it on the line when, in this case, there are strong teams in other conferences that if they lose can be out of the playoff.” It should be noted that this season, it was the Pac-12’s turn to sit out the playoff.
Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wants the Big 12 to add divisions if it wants to stage a championship game. The Big 12 and ACC have a proposal in the pipeline to eliminate the rule that requires conferences to have at least 12 members to stage a title game. That proposal will be voted on at the NCAA Convention in January. But the Big Ten added an amendment that any league playing a championship game would have to split into divisions.
Bowlsby appreciates his colleagues’ concern about his conference’s affairs, but he still isn’t ready to recommend any radical changes. “I’m used to getting lots of unsolicited advice,” Bowlsby said.
Since everyone is telling the Big 12 what to do, here’s one more suggestion.
Don’t make any changes besides the minor one Bowlsby is currently kicking around. Stay at 10 schools. Keep playing that nine-game true round-robin schedule. Let your conference freak flag fly.
One of the best things about college football is its aversion to homogeneity. Some leagues play eight conference games. Some play nine. Some play championship games. The Big 12 did, but now it doesn’t. (The Big 12, you’ll recall, eliminated its title game after it dropped from 12 to 10 members after the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC tried to pick it clean during realignment and toss the bones into the Group of Five conferences.) These differences start a lot of arguments, most of which make the sport even more fun to follow.
If all the leagues were the same size and determined their champions the same way, they might as well be NFL divisions. Arguing about that would be no fun at all.
When the Pac-10 became the Pac-12, no one made it play a nine-game conference schedule with a title game. It chose that, just as the SEC chooses to play eight league games with a championship. The Big 12 chooses to have 10 teams and play a format that eliminates the possibility of a program winning because of a lucky scheduling draw. And despite what some people thought after 11–1 Baylor and TCU were left out of the playoff field in ’14, that won’t preclude the conference from making the playoff. “There was a lot of soul searching [last year],” Bowlsby said. “But I was very proud of our athletic directors that they didn’t take any knee-jerk reactions.”
Bowlsby and the Big 12 ADs now have two years of committee behavior to study, but nothing has happened that would force the league to expand or to bring back its championship game (presuming the rule is eliminated in January). “We need to continue to watch the landscape,” Bowlsby said. “We’re a little smaller. We don’t have a championship game. We do have a round robin. You’ve got to keep asking yourself if you want to be different in three or four significant ways. There may come a time when we don’t, but we want to see the pieces of the puzzle before we make those decisions.”
The one potential change they can make with relative ease is adjusting the league schedule so all 10 teams play on the final Saturday of the season. Had Oklahoma played Oklahoma State on Dec. 5 instead of on Nov. 28, the Sooners might have been seeded higher and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield might have gotten more Heisman Trophy votes. “If we end up not having a championship game,” Bowlsby said, “we don’t want to be dark on that last weekend.” That change can be made for the 2017 season, because that schedule hasn’t been made. It’s also likely the Big 12 champion will play—or be crowned—on the final Saturday in ’16. Six teams, including Baylor, TCU and both Oklahoma schools, play on Dec. 3.
That should help the league deal with potential recency bias. As for the famous 13th data point, there is no guarantee having a championship game would help a Big 12 team make the playoff. The committee hasn’t selected teams for the playoff enough years to establish a trend, so it makes little sense to push radical changes absent data that radical changes would address. The Big 12 didn’t make the field last year. It did this year. This predicament, Bowlsby said, may be a function of the format commissioners chose rather than a disadvantage based on the Big 12’s structure. “We have five autonomy conferences,” he said, “and only four slots.”
Unlike Scott, who started suggesting what other conferences should do when his got left out, Bowlsby never said leagues should be more like the Big 12 when he found himself in the same position last year. There is only one league like the Big 12, and it may not need to change to thrive in the playoff era. We won’t know until the committee has seeded the field a few more times. Scott may think the Big 12 needs a title game, but part of the beauty of college football is one commissioner doesn’t necessarily have to care what another thinks.
“I don’t know if it’s a big deal,” Bowlsby said. “The question is: Is it a disadvantage we’re willing to live with?”