The Big 12 football championship game is pulling a Bill Snyder or a conference basketball tournament in Kansas City. All were successful Big 12 originals, went away for a brief period and triumphantly returned.
We’ll see if the football game can approach the spectacle of its predecessors — and make no mistake, the early Big 12 title games filled NFL stadiums with raucous college atmosphere and pulled superb TV ratings — but before the first one is played in 2017 at least one conclusion can be drawn.
Reviving the game at the first possible moment after NCAA approval is a bold stroke by a conference that had allowed itself to be defined by comments like “psychologically disadvantaged” by Oklahoma president David Boren and by others over the past few years.
For instance, the Big 12 believes the round robin scheduling makes its path to the College Football Playoff as or more difficult than the other conferences that play fewer league games and a neutral field championship.
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But the rest of college football suggested otherwise when it omitted the Big 12 from the first CFP semifinals two years ago.
On the final day of the annual spring meetings near the office in Irving, Tex., Big 12 presidents were presented with a study that strongly suggested a competitive and financial advantage with a championship game and didn’t hesitate. The league played offense.
“I was really encouraged by that,” Boren said. “People saw where it would direct us if we followed common sense. We didn’t say we would study it for five more years. We took action.”
Expansion requires more deliberate thought and perhaps more years of study. The answers aren’t as obvious to the conference. Boren was gung ho for growth earlier this year because he was convinced the Big 12 could create a network, and networks need inventory. There’s more of that with 12 or 14 schools in the conference.
But signals given to the Big 12 are that a network won’t happen, and now the primary reason for expansion is down to giving the Big 12 a structure it had during its original football title game era, a pair of six-team divisions. Is that enough reason to grow?
“There’s no doubt expansion gives some marginal financial gain,” said Boren, who is chairman of the Big 12 board of directors. “But you have to weigh that against reputational impacts.
“In other words, our fans want to see our teams play great teams. They don’t want to see them play mediocre or less teams. We have to determine what that’s going to do to the longtime reputation of the brands of each of the schools.”
Hmm. Can that be roughly translated as Boren finding the group of widely guessed Big 12 expansion hopefuls like Cincinnati, Brigham Young, Memphis and others not to his liking? Does he know of schools in current Power Five conferences that might be interested in exploring a migration to the Big 12, which announced a healthy per school revenue distribution of $30.4 million before third-tier rights?
The conference will study expansion further over the next few months and make some kind of announcement by the end of summer. My guess: No expansion at this point and a desire to see how a football championship season or two unfolds in a 10-team league, possibly with divisions.
As for the argument that the Big 12 is doomed to repeat history, that the earlier championship games produced more than their share of upsets that prevented teams from appearing in the national championship game, well, yes. That happened. Nebraska in 1996, Kansas State in 1998, Texas in 2001 and Missouri in 2007 lost those opportunities in title game pratfalls.
The losses were particularly sour for the Wildcats and Tigers, programs without national championships to offset the disappointment.
But it’s not as if the Big 12 cashed in during the current stretch without a championship game. The conference simply found heartbreak in a new structure, with its champions from 2011 to 2013 — Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor — losing undefeated seasons and national title position with November upset losses.
Whatever the method of producing a champion, the Big 12 has pushed its drought of producing a national champion in football to beyond a decade. Not since Vince Young took it upon himself to score the winning touchdown to cap the 2005 season has a Big 12 team achieved ultimate glory.
Returning to a championship provides no assurance of a title or even inclusion into the College Football Playoff. But with one decision, the conference changed its credentials.
Its coaches, the only ones in Power Five football who must prepare for every opponent, would disagree, but the Big 12 had the easiest path to the postseason by having its champion play one fewer game. Now, the Big 12 champion likely will have the most difficult. Its champion will have played all nine of its fellow members and is assured of playing a second one twice.
In that way, the Big 12 might be disadvantaged. But not psychologically.