Does the Big 12 Really Need a Conference Championship Game?

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Does the Big 12 Really Need a Conference Championship Game?
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The Big 12 now has options regarding a 13th conference championship game. The question is whether it actually wants to exercise them. 

On Wednesday, the NCAA DI council announced the approval of the long-awaited proposal allowing Football Bowl Subdivision conferences with under 12 members to hold conference title games in football. The two adopted policies are: 

  • A game between division champions of a member conference that is divided into two divisions (as equally balanced as possible), each of which conducts round-robin, regular-season competition among the members of that division; or,
  • A game between the top two teams in the conference standings following a full round-robin regular-season schedule of competition among all members of the conference.

What this means practically for the Big 12 is it can place its top two teams in a 13th game after the regular season to determine its "One True Champion," as the conference likes to parade. Whether it will go through with this won't be decided right away, according to a statement from commissioner Bob Bowlsby via the Big 12 website

I appreciate that what was acted upon today takes into account our unique 10-team, full round-robin scheduling model. However, this vote does not automatically mean the Big 12 will implement a football championship game. Our membership will continue to analyze its pros and cons, as we now know the requirements should we decide to go down that path.

The Big 12 is right to marinate on this for a little while longer. Critics of the conference's nine-game, round-robin format called for an immediate change—be it expansion or otherwise—after the Big 12 was left out of the playoff two seasons ago.

Yet, conference brass decided to hold off on any drastic decisions. That turned out to be the right move, as 11-1 Oklahoma made the 2015-16 playoff as a No. 4 seed. The very thing that hurt the Big 12 in 2014 turned out to be beneficial the next year. 

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Tacking on a conference title game to the end of the regular season could have financial benefits but also presents serious risks and logistical problems the Big 12 needs to consider.

The simplest concern is that it creates a potentially awkward and unnecessary game. The benefit of playing a round-robin schedule is that there are no guesses. Everybody has played everyone else. The results are what they are. (The Big 12 also clarified its co-champion scenario by updating its tiebreaker procedures this past offseason.) 

Now imagine if Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, who finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the final Big 12 standings, respectively, played one week after the Sooners beat the Cowboys 58-23. This year, the Bedlam game was for the Big 12 title, as ex-Grantland writer Matt Hinton pointed out: 

Would a 13th game have benefited the Sooners? Absolutely not.

There's also the matter of finding a place to host the game. AT&T stadium in Arlington, Texas, always seems like a natural destination, but would fans travel to see a week-old rematch that was already decided convincingly? Would viewers tune in at home, especially in the wake of declining TV numbers, for major bowls/playoff games? 

These are the things the Big 12 has to mull over when proceeding with an extra game. Per Bowlsby, finding a stadium for a deregulated conference title game in 2016 would be "one of the biggest logistical considerations" (h/t Chuck Carlton, the Dallas Morning News). 

The 2015 season is just an example. There would obviously be years in which the top two teams would have met in, say, mid-October, and not in the final week in November. Rematches are not unprecedented in conference title games, either. 

But allowing deregulated title games for round-robin schedules is, and it never seems like the Big 12 gets enough credit for playing everyone top to bottom. 

Still, the Big 12 might consider embracing its newfound awkwardness if it means validation of the all-important phrase: "Controlling your destiny."

Playoff inclusion is ultimately what a 13th game boils down to. Or, put another way, the Big 12 wants to be in the same position as the other power conferences without changing its membership. Any extra money the conference might make by fielding a title game is secondary. 

By having the title of the Power 5's smallest conference with a format all its own, it feels like the Big 12 is consistently at a disadvantage relative to playoff inclusion. Whether perception matches reality is another story; there is an example of when it hurt and when it helped. 

What the Big 12 has to decide is whether the 13th game provides the same advantage as the other four power conferences. Historically, however, that hasn't been the case as Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports observed:

Basically, the possibility of the top-seeded team playing its way out of the national title race is not only there, it's proven. (The other side, of course, is the No. 2 seed could play its way into the playoff field.) 

Understand that the Big 12 is in a tough spot and there's no easy answer for what to do. The most logical thing would be to expand back to 12 teams, but that's simply not going to happen. With apologies to BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and any other team hoping to land in the Big 12, the conference just doesn't feel the same way.

If it did, it would already be up to 12 teams by now. There isn't enough value in the available expansion targets, and no amount of debate that will change this fact. 

Should the Big 12 hold a championship game?

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With expansion off the table—keep in mind if it ever does come to fruition, the likes of BYU, Central Florida and Houston will still be available—the Big 12 had to get creative. 

Playing an extra game hasn't proven to be necessary for playoff inclusion, but the Big 12 now has the option if it wants to proceed with it. When weighing a 10th conference game guaranteed to be a rematch vs. the possibility of equal footing in the playoff arena, the risk is awfully high. 

The conference might take it anyway out of desperation. But you already know how that smells. 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

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