Opinion: Big 12 Title Game Won't Fill Void of Elite Team

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The graphics rolling across the digital backdrop to the Big 12 media days this year no longer include the self-aggrandizing "One True Champion," a slogan meant to boost the image of the league that instead inspired endless snark.

This time, what the Big 12's new theme lacks in creativity and grandiosity, it makes up for in accuracy: "Guaranteed 1 vs. 2."

When the Big 12 regular season ends Nov.25, the top two teams in the standings will face off the next weekend in a championship game for the first time since realignment forced the league into a 10-team format in 2011.

Though schools will make millions more each year by holding a championship game, there's one overriding reason the conference chose to change its format: It has missed the College Football Playoff in two of its first three seasons, a fact that has led the Big 12 into an existential crisis.

"The decision was made 100% on our ability to optimize the likelihood of getting a team into the CFP," Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

But for all the talk of data points and schedule strengths, for all the hand-wringing about rematches and the difficulty of a round-robin schedule, what was true about the Big 12 the last few seasons remains true now.

There's no way to game the Playoff system, and as long as the Big 12 lacks an elite team, it likely will be just as disappointed in 2017 and 2018 as it was in 2014 and 2016.

Much of the talk here Monday was about the perception of the Big 12, a league whose teams regularly produce video-game numbers on offense, generally don't play very good defense and didn't have as many players drafted by the NFL this year as even the American Athletic Conference.

The popular counterargument in these parts is that the depth of quality (Kansas and Iowa State aside) makes it harder to go undefeated in the Big 12, that the round-robin schedule means you can't dodge any of the league's heavies, such as they are. And hey, if all else fails, just turn on the tape and look at how tough those offenses are to stop!

"As most of you remember, the ACC was, I believe, 2-13 in the BCS era and now they're on top of the heap," Bowlsby said. "So it gets a little tiresome because I know we play at a very high level and I know that top to bottom we're the best in the country in terms of balance."

Problem is, balance doesn't win championships. Brilliance does.

What Bowlsby said about the ACC is true. From about 2001 to 2011, as Florida State's dynasty crumbled and had to be rebuilt in the transition from Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher, the league was largely a joke. Now the ACC is claiming status as the best league in college football, and the reason it can is because its top two programs are winning on national signing day, winning non-conference games and ultimately winning championships.

In every league — even the Southeastern Conference — there are only so many programs that have the capability to recruit at a high-enough level to compete for national titles. The Big Ten has Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. The ACC has Florida State, Clemson and Miami. When two or three of those programs are operating at maximum capacity, the strength of the rest of the league doesn't really matter. When those programs are down, the entire league goes to the bottom of the heap.

A year ago at media days, it appeared the Big 12 was about to embark on the drastic decision to expand to 12 or perhaps 14 schools. Instead, the big change is a conference title game at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. And by matching up their top two teams rather than splitting into divisions, it will ensure their top Playoff candidate one more opportunity to get a quality win.

On one hand, it will put the Big 12 regular-season champion in double jeopardy. There will be no mismatches like the last couple of Alabama-Florida SEC title games. On the other hand, had the Big 12 gone to this format in 2014, it's possible the winner of the TCU-Baylor rematch would have gone into the Playoff instead of Ohio State, which wound up winning the national title.

"That's why we set up the championship game the way we set it up," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "You have to have your best two teams playing. Everybody says, 'Well, it's going to be tough.' Yeah, it is tough, but it doesn't matter. You're just trying to get to that point. Anything that gets you to the top is going to be tough. That's the way it is."

Though Patterson will believe until his last day on Earth that TCU belonged in the first Playoff, this is far simpler for the Big 12 than the last couple of years of histrionics would suggest.

In three years, the league's lone entrant into the Playoff was the 2015 Oklahoma team that lost once in the regular season — to Texas, which finished 5-7 — and won close games against Baylor and TCU, both of whom had lost their starting quarterbacks to injury. By no measure did that look like an elite Oklahoma team, a suspicion that was confirmed in the Playoff when Clemson ripped the Sooners apart 37-17.

Last season, Oklahoma was pretty much out of Playoff contention by Week 3 after losing to Houston and Ohio State, which beat the Sooners by three touchdowns in Norman. Even when Oklahoma rallied to go undefeated in the Big 12, there was nobody lobbying for them to get into the Playoff.

"It's the old adage: You can't win big games unless you schedule them," Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. "For us to demonstrate the strength of the league is not only to be in the big games but win a good share of them, and the rest will take care of itself. It's always been that way. Quite candidly, that's the way it should be."

In the end, adding a conference championship game for the Big 12 was probably the right move, but it's far from the magic bullet for a league that quite simply hasn't produced a national championship-level team at any point in the last three years.

The Playoff is still largely a subjective process, and it's not one that the consultants and number crunchers who advised the Big 12 to add a championship game can solve for them. Ultimately, the league formerly boasting One True Champion just needs One True Great Team.

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July 18, 2017


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