WACO, Texas -- The first trophy ceremony went so smoothly on Saturday for Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. Back in Fort Worth in the early afternoon, Bowlsby presented a Big 12 title trophy to TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose team had just beaten Iowa State. Patterson said he loved everyone. Everyone Patterson said he loved cheered.
Eighty-seven miles south, long after night fell, Bowlsby presented another Big 12 title trophy to Baylor coach Art Briles, whose team had just beaten Kansas State. Briles accepted the trophy, yelled that his Bears were the league’s “one true champion,” and then proceeded to continue screaming at Bowlsby in a corner of the stage while others blabbed into the microphone.
Presenting trophies to two teams is a little like presenting engagement rings to two women. Both feel less special, and the odds of either finding happiness at the end of the aisle are significantly reduced. Bowlsby has said he will present Baylor and TCU as the conference co-champions to the College Football Playoff selection committee, which purports to consider a league championship to be a significant résumé line. The committee knows the identity of the ACC champ (Florida State), the Big Ten champ (Ohio State), the Pac-12 champ (Oregon) and the SEC champ (Alabama). Which school is it supposed to choose as the Big 12 champ?
Last week committee chair Jeff Long said his group would not choose a champion for the Big 12. So will that résumé line be left off for Baylor and TCU? If that’s the case, the only Power Five league with two teams in legitimate playoff contention could turn into the only Power Five league that gets left out of the playoff. Baylor and TCU might both wind up jilted at the altar because the Big 12 wouldn’t back one or the other.
Here is a better, more sport-specific analogy: What does every coach say while trying to decide a quarterback controversy? If you’ve got two quarterbacks, you’ve got no quarterback.
Well, if you’ve got two champs, then you probably have no champ. That’s especially problematic when the dual, dueling champs come from the league that has bragged all season that it produces “One True Champion.”
To anyone who ever played a sport anywhere and didn’t go to TCU, the only Big 12 champion can be Baylor. The Bears finished with an 8-1 conference record. The Horned Frogs finished with an 8-1 conference record. The Bears played the Frogs on Oct. 11. The Bears won 61-58. End of discussion.
Even the Big 12 would seem to agree. This was posted on the league’s website in June and remained there on Saturday:
The following procedure will determine the Big 12 Conference representative to the Sugar Bowl (or alternate College Football Playoff game when the Sugar Bowl is a semifinal) in the event of a first-place or alternate place tie (for the avoidance of doubt, only Conference records will be used throughout the process):
- If two teams are tied, the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative.
In years that the Sugar Bowl doesn’t host a semifinal, it is where the Big 12 places its champion. So, this is essentially how the Big 12 determines its champion in this situation. Except this season, when league leaders decided not to do it that way.
This probably had something to do with the fact that the committee had TCU ranked No. 3 entering this week -- above the playoff cutline -- and Baylor at No. 6. But that didn’t matter to Briles. A few minutes after his animated conversation with Bowlsby, Briles remained hot as he discussed his team’s title and how the Big 12’s definition of champion might affect the Bears’ playoff chances.
“If I’m the commissioner of the league, then these universities are his kids. You love them all the same, but sometimes you have to differentiate who you present to one and two,” Briles said. “That was the gist of the conversation. Don’t go public and say we’re going to present as co-champs if our bylaws say head-to-head determines who goes into a bowl game if neither one of us are in the top four.”
Briles realized the ground on which he trod after that statement. He looked toward the back of the room to Bob Simpson, Baylor donor, Texas Rangers co-owner and all around kajillionaire. “If I get out of line, Bob will cover my fine,” Briles said. “So I’m in good shape. My obligation is to Baylor University -- not the Big 12.” From the peanut gallery, Simpson chimed in: “Let’s get our money’s worth."
Briles didn’t really say anything that incendiary, and he likely didn’t score points with the committee when he tried to justify Baylor’s horrendous nonconference schedule by noting that the Bears played in front of the largest crowd in Buffalo -- Bulls, not Bills -- history. He also called Baylor’s 48-14 win over Oklahoma the best road win in America this season. Rich Rodriguez, whose Arizona team beat Oregon 31-24 in Eugene on Oct. 2, would beg to differ.
But Briles’ basic point with regard to the Big 12 title was solid. “If you’re going to slogan around and say there’s ‘One True Champion,’” he said, “don’t go out the back door instead of the front.”
Of course, that only works in the argument about the true Big 12 champ. It isn’t necessarily helpful in the argument about whether Baylor is one of the four best teams in America. In fact, Patterson can and did make just as many arguments to suggest TCU is more worthy. The Frogs played a better nonconference schedule -- basically just Minnesota, but Baylor’s nonconference slate was that putrid -- had a better loss (Baylor) and beat the team that beat Baylor (West Virginia) in the place Baylor lost (Morgantown).
“Just think about this,” Patterson said. “Imagine if Arizona and Oregon hadn’t played again. Arizona beat them head-to-head. And they beat them at their place. Does that mean that Oregon isn’t a good football team?” Patterson conveniently left out that Arizona lost two regular-season games to Oregon’s one, but don’t stop him. He’s on a roll. Besides, we haven’t even mentioned Ohio State, which started the weekend ranked ahead of Baylor, pounded Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and could leapfog TCU.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 can’t get out of its own way. The league that lived through the three-way tie in the South Division in 2008 and nearly blew itself to bits in '10 and '11 now has another controversy entirely of its own making. Fans of teams from other conferences will point to this situation as proof the Big 12 needs to add two schools, split into divisions and play a championship game like the other four Power Five leagues. That would be silly because the true round robin actually is more exciting and eliminates the kind of grousing that arises when one team always seems to get a challenging cross-divisional draw and another always seems to get an easy one.
Also, the Big 12 isn’t adding two schools except at gunpoint. Why would league members want to split the pie in more ways when none of the available schools generate enough juice to convince network partners to pay enough money to keep everyone making the same amount they make now?
Still, the Big 12 and the ACC have petitioned to set aside the (extremely arbitrary) NCAA rule that requires leagues to have at least 12 teams and two divisions to have a championship game. The Big 12 wants the option to stage one with 10 members. The ACC would like to ditch its divisions and keep its title game. So, what happens now? “Certainly, there will be a lot of discussion [about the title game waiver request] regardless of who makes the playoff,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said on Saturday. Asked if that discussion would come at January’s NCAA convention, McCaw suggested the issue is a little more pressing. “I think it’ll start being talked about Monday at our Big 12 meeting in New York.”
If the Big 12’s reluctance to name a champ leads to the league being excluded from the playoff, that meeting could turn as heated as the one in 2011 the day after Oklahoma State was shut out of the BCS title game in favor of an Alabama-LSU rematch. All that meeting did was tip the balance of power in favor of scrapping the BCS and creating a playoff. What would happen this time? Would it be the first step down the path to the eight-team playoff commissioners should have created in the first place?
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Maybe a Big 12 team will make the playoff. Maybe the decision to hand out two trophies and avoid making a definitive statement will not come back to bite the conference in its One True Championship. But as Saturday turned to Sunday, the chances of anyone involved getting a good night’s sleep approached zero.
“There are six teams that all think they have a good case to make,” McCaw said. “And there are only four spots.”