July is optimism season in college football. Coaches and players bring their upbeat selves to media days. Everyone smiles.
Contrary references aren’t as welcome, which is why Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby called defending the football strength of his conference “tiresome.”
Does the Big 12 have a perception problem? Not to Bowlsby.
“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,” Bowlsby said Monday during the Big 12’s football media day. “And I know that the method by which we conduct our championships and conduct our regular season is the most difficult because you never miss anybody.”
Plenty to unpack here.
The Big 12 plays at a high level? The league had a rough regular season in 2016 when it came to non-conference results but rebounded with a winning bowl record, including 2-1 against the SEC.
Best in the country because of balance? Unsure how that is measured, but Big 12 bottom feeders haven’t toughened up in non-league games, so that claim is a stretch.
As for not missing an opponent and playing a complete schedule, this is a strength for which the Big 12 doesn’t get enough credit.
And getting credit is ultimately what it’s all about in college football. The sport, for all the progress made in identifying a national champion, still relies on subjective analysis, now a playoff committee, which means impressions matter.
The Big 12 has felt short-changed when it comes to making an impression.
The conference is the only Power Five member in three years of the College Football Playoff to miss the national semifinals twice. The Pac-12 missed the tournament once. The SEC, ACC and Big Ten are three-for-three in appearances.
The Big 12 has stressed over this and made the blockbuster move of restoring its conference championship game in December, matching the league’s top teams at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.
The 2014 snub of TCU and/or Baylor from the playoff still resonates. You remember, the Horned Frogs and Bears tied for Big 12 championship and owned 11-1 overall records, but TCU was passed in the final College Football Playoff poll by Ohio State.
What was the difference between one-loss Buckeyes and the Big 12 teams? Ohio State played in a conference championship game and rolled Wisconsin.
The selection committee described the advantage as a data point, and the Big 12 didn’t have enough of them. Now it will.
“We’ve been responsive to what we’ve heard from the CFP,” Bowlsby said.
It wasn’t lost on TCU Coach Gary Patterson that Ohio State was selected to the playoff in 2016 without having participated in the Big Ten title game. His issue wasn’t with the Buckeyes.
“My point is, I was told the reason Baylor and TCU got left out was because we didn’t play a championship game,” Patterson said. “We didn’t have a 13th ball game.”
Now the Big 12 does, changing its championship structure to include the additional game and data point. Presumably the league will be measured on equal footing with the other Power Five conferences.
This is a critical point for the Big 12. If the conference winds up with a 12-1 team along with four other Power Five teams with the same record and isn’t part of the CFP, the Big 12 will be in trouble. It has to be considered an equal partner in the Power Five, or why would football traditional powers Oklahoma and Texas want to be part of it?
Bowlsby is correct when he says college football is cyclical. The ACC had a lousy run in the old format, the Bowl Championship Series, until Florida State won the 2013 championship. The Big Ten has been down, so has the Pac-12.
But those conferences don’t have as much as stake as the Big 12, and Bowlsby doesn’t want to stop at one of his teams reaching the bracket.
“It’s not about making the playoff, it’s about winning national championships,” he said. “That’s what we want to do.”