For the first time since TCU joined the Big 12, the Horned Frogs will have a chance to secure a football title by winning a conference championship game in December.
The season-ending showdown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington will be a guaranteed rematch of a regular-season contest, a novel twist on a concept created years ago to match divisional winners from within the same league.
But in the division-free Big 12, the 2017 season will unfold with the chance that a team could win all nine of its conference games yet flub its title hopes with a loss in Jerry World to the second-place finisher from the final league standings. To bring that point home: The Horned Frogs could run the table in league play, including a 30-point win over Texas on Nov. 4, but watch the Longhorns crowned as Big 12 champions with a one-point triumph over TCU in the rematch.
That’s an ironic departure for the conference that once prided itself on crowning “One True Champion” with its round-robin schedule. But that mindset died when league officials bought into two perceived truths during its 2016 spring meetings: the title game will generate roughly $30 million for league coffers (indisputable) while boosting the Big 12’s odds to land a College Football Playoff participant (speculative).
When players and coaches gather for Monday’s opening session of the Big 12 football media days in Frisco, expect the resurrection of the conference title game to be a hot topic of discussion. But don’t expect the leadoff batter to the proceedings, TCU coach Gary Patterson, to show much sympathy for the plight of a top-seeded team unable to hold serve in the title game.
“For me, it’s always been, ‘Let your play on the field speak for you.’ That’s the answer. You’re trying to get our two best teams into this game and their job is to impress the committee enough and win,” said Patterson, whose team will report July 29 for fall drills. “That’s just the way it is.”
In other words: Consider AT&T Stadium a No Whining Zone for any team that had its way with an opponent during the regular season but cannot duplicate that result during a title-game rematch Dec. 1 or Dec. 2 in Arlington.
“That’s just part of the deal,” Patterson said. “Any time you’ve got to play somebody twice, it’s harder. … But I still say it’s about the end. The key to it is: Are you worried about playing again, or are you worried about getting in the playoffs? If you just keep your eye on what the prize is, here’s why we’re doing this.”
As TCU fans are painfully aware, the value of an outcome in a conference championship game seems to have a sliding value with members of the CFP selection committee. In 2014, TCU and Baylor shared the Big 12 title with identical 11-1 records.
But a third team with an 11-1 mark during the regular season, Ohio State, forced its way into the playoff field at the expense of the Big 12 co-champs by routing Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten championship game. The Big 12 had no title game in 2014, and CFP officials extolled the virtue of Ohio State’s “13th data point” in its title game as a key factor in deliberations.
Yet when Ohio State failed to reach last year’s conference championship game, the Buckeyes still were green-lighted for the playoffs with an 11-1 mark over a two-loss team from Penn State that defeated Wisconsin, 38-31, for the Big Ten title. The primary lesson, of course, is that it helps to be a playoff bubble team from a blue-blood program with a huge fan base than from a small private school with a limited national following.
But the potential value of a “13th data point” acquired in a title-game setting has convinced Big 12 officials that they should resurrect their football championship game for the first time since 2010, when the league had 12 members and competed in two divisions. This year’s outcome could help or hurt the playoff chances of the school that enters as the top seed from today’s 10-member configuration.
If Oklahoma, which won last year’s title with a 9-0 league record, repeats that feat during the regular season but falls to a runner-up with two league losses in a December rematch and is left out of the CFP field, you can expect plenty of angry howls from Sooners fans. Coaches may join the chorus.
But no verbal flags will be tossed by Patterson, the Big 12 coach with the biggest reason to complain about how things have unfolded in the CFP era. His message to peers, heading into media day, is simple: Be prepared to back up any regular-season success in a December rematch and keep your lips zipped if your team cannot.
“Either that, or don’t have a championship game,” Patterson said, noting that Door No. 2 is no longer an option. “We all have to make decisions sometimes that not everybody agrees with. That goes along with being in charge of something.”
Big 12 Media Days football schedule
Ford Center at The Star in Frisco
TV: Fox Sports Southwest and FS2, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Monday coach press conferences
TCU, Gary Patterson, 10:05 a.m.
Kansas, David Beaty, 10:40 a.m.
Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury, 11:15 a.m.
Iowa State, Matt Campbell, 11:50 a.m.
Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, 12:25 p.m.
Tuesday coach press conferences
Texas, Tom Herman, 10:05 a.m.
West Virginia, Dana Holgorsen, 10:40 a.m.
Baylor, Matt Rhule, 11:15 a.m.
Kansas State, Bill Snyder, 11:50 a.m.
Oklahoma State, Mike Gundy, 12:25 p.m.
Note: Media Days are closed to the public; fans can follow Big 12 social media accounts.