Can a Conference Championship Bring the Big 12 Back? (To the College Football Playoff, That Is)

Even when you fail to consider the past four season’s worth of results, high-level coaching changes, and Baylor still dealing with Baylor things, the upcoming football season is bound to be crucial in sustaining the reputation and public perception of the Big 12 for years to come.

Since June of last year, those invested in Big 12 football have been restlessly awaiting the return of the conference’s championship game this December, following a six year hiatus.

On the surface, this seems like the perfectly logical idea, I mean the rest of the Power Five have championship games, and they’re actually competing in playoffs and National Championship games.

Often cited during the process of reinstating the game was the infamous 2014 debacle, in which TCU and Baylor split the conference crown with 8-1 conference records (after that perplexing/hilarious “One True Champion” campaign slogan was unveiled that year). In reality, as many argue, this move was more than likely motivated by the extra revenue a title game would bring in, while masking it with the need for the “thirteenth data point” to appease the playoff committee.  

 

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The arguments against this move are understandable, although slightly misguided in my opinion. The Big 12 still has the perfect round-robin conference schedule, which in theory should be the fairest way to figure out a champion, but as we know, theory doesn’t always work out. As the argument goes, the eventual conference champion will have to beat their toughest opponent twice in a season, maybe even in a 2-3 week window.

Assuming the top team is firmly planted in the playoff race, the game would be pretty unnecessary and the would-be champion would only stand to lose their spot by losing to a lesser team in the title game. However, this assumption is far from a safe one, and the conclusion it comes to is a bit flawed as well.

While there’s not a ton of data to look back on to really dig into playoff committee decisions, we do have a perfectly good example in 2014 where TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State were all perfectly viable options for the final spot, and it seemed extremely likely that the Big 12 would have a representative in the first playoff.

It didn’t happen that way, and while some will argue biases, there’s no doubt that the strength of schedule argument in favor of OSU was legitimate, especially after demolishing a ranked Wisconsin side in the national spotlight.

You could argue that the committee is biased towards the SEC and Big 10, or conferences with title games in general, but a better argument would be that sometimes they’re looking to reward the big time revenue generators who create suspenseful, dramatic regular season finishes for the paying customer. While the Power Two conferences are in another stratosphere in terms of revenue generation, the Big 12 adding a championship keeps them within the same galaxy, and gives added motivation for the committee to do them some favors come December.

In the hypothetical 2014 Big 12 Championship, a blowout on either side would’ve done enough to land the winner a playoff spot, while a tightly contested battle would likely put the victor right on the edge with Ohio State, while giving the committee a late-season thriller to look back on during the decision making process. While the real Big 12 championship won’t always be the perfect solution for the conference’s top team, I believe that the title game will be considered worthwhile more than it’s regretted.

If Oklahoma is going into the final weekend as the number two or three team in the nation, and they get beat by a dangerous West Virginia team they beat the week before, who’s ranked outside the top 10, we’re going to hear the criticism loud and clear.

However, as we’ve seen over the past few years, the much more likely scenario is that the conference’s top team (I’ll keep using the Sooners for example) is on the fringe of playoff contention, or on the outside looking in. If a fifth ranked Oklahoma squad meets seventh or eighth ranked Oklahoma State in the conference title, the win for Oklahoma would be the perfect way to cap off their resume and cement their spot in the playoff.

On the other side of the coin, the Cowboys handing it to their in-state rivals would be a fantastic statement victory that could absolutely land them in the playoffs given some help.

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While I believe we’ll see some examples of both hypotheticals happening in the next few years, this is a risk that the Big 12 needed to take to get back in the presence of college football’s premier programs and conferences. They need to make up some ground on their Power 5 counterparts, and a late season battle of their top two teams is the easiest and most profitable way of doing so. It’ll put added pressures on their best team, sure, but as we’ve seen this is the kind of challenge it takes to keep them up with the likes of Alabama, Florida State, and Ohio State, among others.

Of course, this should keep the Big 12 from having two representatives to the playoffs anytime in the near future, but that’s okay because they weren’t going to do that anyway, they can barely manage one as-is. As the historical powerhouse is quickly falling behind college football’s new elite, the Big 12 needed to add a title game to make sure their top team could get over the hump, while ensuring that they’re putting their absolute strongest foot forward.

 

Images via Fansided, Sports Illustrated

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