Jimmy Burch

Big 12 needs to be wary in efforts to resurrect title game

TCU coach Gary Patterson shakes hands with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby after the Horned Frogs’ victory over Iowa State gave them a share of the Big 12 title. Bowlsby wants the league to have a conference championship game.
TCU coach Gary Patterson shakes hands with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby after the Horned Frogs’ victory over Iowa State gave them a share of the Big 12 title. Bowlsby wants the league to have a conference championship game. Star-Telegram

To borrow a recruiting analogy, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has made a verbal commitment to resurrect a conference championship game in football to enhance playoff opportunities for league teams.

A frustrated Bowlsby departed Wednesday’s meetings with College Football Playoff officials prepared to go to league meetings in May and preach the gospel of holding a 13th game. He wants school presidents to sign off on the idea as quickly as possible in hope that a title game can become part of the 2016 Big 12 schedule.

“Based on the information I heard, I think we are at a disadvantage not playing a championship game,” Bowlsby said. “I surmise that we will probably move in that direction, knowing what we now know.”

As he spoke, a timeless bromide began racing through my head: Be careful what you wish for. It may come true.

For starters, the information Bowlsby is using to draw his conclusion stems from one season’s worth of evidence in a new venture and follow-up conversations about a difficult decision made by members of the CFP selection committee.

In December, Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU were left at the playoff doorstep in favor of Ohio State, a 59-0 winner in the Big Ten title game. At the time the playoff field was set, Ohio State held a 12-1 record. TCU and Baylor owned 11-1 marks. Ohio State, the No. 4 playoff seed, went on to win the national championship.

While Bowlsby left Wednesday’s meeting with the understanding that a 13-game résumé always will trump a 12-game résumé in the minds of CFP selection committee members seeding teams with comparable records, others who took part in the session were not so sure.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, whose team must base its playoff hopes on a 12-game independent schedule, told reporters that he considers it premature to make a binding call on the issue.

“One year’s worth of experience with this system is way too small to draw any conclusions about how it plays out over time,” Swarbrick said. “It’s not the aggregate number. It’s who you’re playing.”

Swarbrick predicted there will be future seasons when a favored team loses its playoff footing by falling to a rival in its conference title game, a scenario the CFP did not have to ponder last season. In that hypothetical situation, Swarbrick said: “Did the 13th game help them? No.”

More than most conferences, the Big 12 should understand that argument. During its 15 seasons as a two-division league (1996-2010), losses in a conference title game killed national championship hopes for three schools (Missouri, 2007; Kansas State, 1998; and Nebraska, 1996).

The results from those games, in part, helped shape the strategy behind the league’s 10-team configuration and nine-game, round-robin scheduling model. Among the Power 5 conferences, only the Big 12 mandates that its members play every league opponent during the regular season. CFP executive director Bill Hancock raised the possibility that such a practice could help as much as it hinders over time.

“There’s a point the Big 12 is correct in making that their full round-robin makes it easier to judge their conference than it is to judge other conferences,” Hancock said.

It’s also undeniable that Jeff Long, CFP selection committee chairman, cited Ohio State’s victory in the Big Ten title game as a factor in tipping the playoff scales in the Buckeyes’ direction over TCU and Baylor. When Long reiterated that point Wednesday, Bowlsby concluded that his league faces a competitive disadvantage until it adds a conference championship game. Even if that game is simply a rematch of a regular-season contest.

The earliest that could happen is 2016. But in making that move, Bowlsby and the Big 12 might be tweaking tomorrow’s rules to fix a problem from yesteryear that never resurfaces. Hancock reflected on similar knee-jerk rules changes from his days with the BCS, which preceded the CFP in determining college football’s national champion.

“They were well-intentioned tweaks but it turned out to be a negative. I think it undermined, to some extent, the public’s confidence in the BCS,” Hancock said, acknowledging that CFP officials seek to avoid “the mistakes of the BCS and how often we made tweaks early on.”

Before the Big 12 signs off on Bowlsby’s verbal commitment, league administrators should reflect long and hard about whether resurrecting a football championship game truly is a necessary step or a knee-jerk overreaction to a perceived slight from the 2014 season that may never resurface.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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