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New Big 12 tiebreaker rules not perfect, but effective and needed

With new tiebreaker rules in place, the Big 12 can move forward from 2014's tie and finally achieve "One True Champion."

PHOENIX — The league that touted “One True Champion” before the season in which it crowned two champions will save money on football trophies starting this year.

“One trophy,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday.

Big 12 athletic directors and coaches voted unanimously to approve a system of tiebreakers that will give the conference a definitive champion. Last year, Baylor and TCU shared the title after each went 8–1 in conference play, even though the Bears defeated the Horned Frogs on Oct. 11 in Waco. After both teams were left out of the College Football Playoff, conference leaders began discussing potential tiebreakers. The CFP selection committee guidelines state that a conference championship is a key criterion in selecting the teams, and it was unclear whether Baylor and TCU were harmed by the Big 12’s refusal to declare a champion. The Big 12 will remain the only Power Five league without a conference title game, but it will definitively crown a champion each year. “We don’t want to be different in two ways,” Bowlsby said.

So how will the tiebreakers work?

In the event of a two-team tie, the process is simple. The team that won the head-to-head matchup is the champ. In 2014, Baylor would have been declared the champion because it beat TCU 61–58.

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The process gets more complicated in the event of a three-team tie, such as the one atop the Big 12 South Division in 2008.

If one of the tied teams swept the other two, that team is the champion. Mike Finger of the Houston Chronicle correctly pointed out that the Big 12 needs to write this more clearly than it did Wednesday. But that's an easy fix.

If no team has a better record in games against the other tied teams, the teams' records against the next best teams will be compared. For example, Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma might finish 7–2 in the league. Let’s say that Texas finishes with the next best league record at 6–3. Baylor beat TCU and lost to Oklahoma and Texas. TCU beat Oklahoma but lost to Baylor and Texas. Oklahoma beat Baylor and Texas but lost to TCU and Texas Tech. Oklahoma would win the league by virtue of its win against Texas.

It's also possible that one team does not sweep the other two and the tied teams all have identical records against the other conference opponents, such as what happened in 2008 when Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all went 11–1 and 7–1 in Big 12 play. Their only losses came against each other. In that scenario, the league will bring in the tiebreaker that has the potential for the most controversy: point differential.

The margins of victory and defeat will be combined to eliminate the third team. Then the winner of the head-to-head matchup between the remaining two teams will be determined the champion. So here’s how the math would have worked in 2008.

Oklahoma: Lost to Texas 45–35, beat Texas Tech 65–21

Point differential: Plus 34

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Texas: Beat Oklahoma 45–35, lost to Texas Tech 39–33.

Point differential: Plus 4

Texas Tech: Beat Texas 39–33, lost to Oklahoma 65–21

Point differential: Minus 38

Texas Tech would be eliminated. Since Texas beat Oklahoma in Dallas, the Longhorns would have won the title. That year, it was a division title. (And Oklahoma won it in real life by virtue of a higher BCS ranking because that was the system the Big 12 used at the time.) Now, it would be the conference title. If all three teams amazingly had the same scoring differential, the champion would be determined by a drawing at the conference office. This is unlikely, but it seems less cinematic than the coin flip the SEC would use to determine a division champ if all its tiebreakers were exhausted.

Kansas State athletic director John Currie said Wednesday’s discussion of the tiebreaker format was “completely non-controversial,” but Bowlsby acknowledged the potential issue with using point differential. “There is, I think, probably a little bit of apprehension about scoring differential because theoretically it could contribute to running up the score,” Bowlsby said. “But I just think when you get down to that level, there aren’t a lot of real good ways to break the tie. This is probably as good as any.”

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​Bowlsby is correct. Diving that deep doesn’t offer a lot of convenient options. But it’s unlikely that a team capable of going 8–1 in Big 12 play is going to allow any other team to run up the score. Remember, it doesn’t matter how many points a team scored against Kansas. It matters how many they scored in the games against the other teams knotted at the top. Plus, a team that does allow itself to get blown out might not deserve to be in consideration with two teams that never got creamed. And at the end of the day, no coach should ever complain about a team running up the score. If he doesn’t like the spread of the numbers on the board, he should get his team to score more points and/or play better defense.

Because this is point differential and not points for or against, it doesn’t favor offense- or defense-first teams. “It gave us some comfort that a 21–7 win was more valuable than a 48–41 win,” Bowlsby said. “We were concerned that it would favor an offensive team or a defensive team.”

This system probably isn’t any better or worse than the ones used to break divisional ties in the other leagues. If the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 have to go deep into their tiebreakers, they bring the penultimate CFP selection committee ranking into the mix. If the SEC has to go deep, it uses the best cumulative conference win percentage of the tied teams’ non-divisional opponents. (Basically, it would reward the team that had the toughest interdivisional draw.) None of these are perfect; they exist in the case of rare, extreme situations.

What happened last year in the Big 12 is more common, and it should have been easy to declare a champion. Baylor won the head-to-head. Baylor was the champ. But the Big 12 didn’t have the mechanism to declare a champion, so it became a national joke for touting “One True Champion” and handing out two trophies.

Now, Bowlsby can laugh when he gets asked if the league will keep the slogan that made it the target of so much ridicule.

“I think it’ll probably be around,” Bowlsby said. “It’s apropos now.”