The Big 12 championship game used to be viewed as an unnecessary challenge by the league’s best football teams.
Too often, they argued, the better team lost. Too often, a potential national champion was unable to play for the Bowl Championship Series title.
Alone with conference realignment, it’s a main reason the Big 12 championship game no longer exists.
In time, that argument might also be used against the Big 12’s current scheduling format. So far, no team has survived the nine-game round robin unscathed. Two have come close, but both saw their national title hopes disintegrate following a single loss near the end of a road-heavy schedule.
First came Oklahoma State. It was 2011, and the undefeated Cowboys appeared poised to reach the BCS championship game, where they would take on LSU in a battle of contrasting styles. The stage was set, but Iowa State spoiled things when it upset Oklahoma State in the Cowboys’ fifth and final conference road game.
Then came Kansas State. Last year, the undefeated Wildcats were two wins — Baylor and Texas — away from playing for the BCS championship. They went to Baylor as the No. 1 team in the BCS standings, but left unable to win their fifth and final conference road game.
Another victim claimed by an unforgiving schedule.
The beauty of the Big 12’s nine-game schedule is that everyone in the conference plays each other, but it is not completely balanced. No one can complain about an easier North path to the Big 12 crown than the more daunting South, but home-field advantage is skewed.
Every year, some schools play five home games, some play five road games and some even things out by playing one conference game on a neutral field. Managing those fluctuations is vital in the new Big 12.
Coaches have to ask themselves: Do the benefits of five conference home games one season outweigh the challenges of five conference road games the next? Or would it be simpler to strike a deal with a nearby rival for a neutral series and face the same road/home split every year?
“I don’t like the 4-5 split,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said last week at Big 12 media days. “I would be in favor of working out a 4-4-1 split. Kansas and Kansas State are certainly the first schools you would look at, because you could play at a site like Arrowhead Stadium and both teams could get there.
“I’m not interested in playing a Texas school in Cowboys Stadium or something like that. Nothing about that favors me. There is nothing neutral about it. If it remains 4-5 and I get those five home games that evens out, but keeping it even every year with the 4-4-1, I certainly see the advantages to that.”
Iowa State has tried playing at Arrowhead before, facing K-State there in 2009 and 2010, but the series has since moved back on campus. Rhoads said Iowa State has floated the idea of returning to Kansas City for an annual game to both Kansas and K-State, but neither program has interest in a neutral series.
K-State coach Bill Snyder prefers playing as many home games as possible. He sees no benefit in moving a conference rivalry to an NFL stadium. Kansas has played at Arrowhead several times, taking on Missouri there for five straight years until the series ended in 2011. The Jayhawks have played all home games on campus since.
“We are open to it, and we are always looking for ways to exhaust those opportunities,” Rhoads said, “but the two parties have to agree on the arrangement and it has to be right over a long period of time. It can’t be some quick fix.”
Four Big 12 schools currently play neutral conference games. Oklahoma and Texas meet in Dallas every year, while Texas Tech and Baylor recently began playing at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
As long as the Sooners and Longhorns continue making money off the Red River Rivalry, it will stay at its tradition-rich Cotton Bowl location. The Bears and Red Raiders, though, might not play in Arlington much longer.
“That game is a disadvantage to us,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “I would rather go 4-5 and 5-4 and take my chances. There is so much of an advantage playing at home. Honestly, when we go to Dallas, we ain’t winning the crowd battle.
“You think going to Dallas isn’t a road game for us? If you’re not in your same hotel, dressing at home and coming out of your locker room, it’s a road game. It just might not be as much of a road game as some of them with a completely dominant site. But it’s not like being at home, either. It’s a neutral site, but it’s not like being at Baylor. I wouldn’t mind seeing it lasting another year or two, but after that I want to go back to home sites.”
Neutral-site games are becoming a trend in college football, but it seems as though most Big 12 programs are only interested in playing them out of the nonconference. TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia will all play at neutral sites early this season. None will be conference games.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby wants to continue allowing teams to make their own scheduling decisions. Though he can see some advantages in a universal 4-4-1 conference schedule, he prefers the current setup.
“The home games are too important to our teams from a financial standpoint,” Bowlsby said. “The only game they could move to neutral is one where they are going to make enough money where it is worth it to them. Most of the time, it isn’t worth it. Everybody can’t do it, either. If you move to those neutral sites, you have to sell them out and really make it work.
“I think probably 5-4 is the way we are going to be for a while. I haven’t heard any (complaints). Is it a disadvantage to play five road games in a year when you are contending for the championship? Yeah, it’s hard. But you get the chance the year before to play five at home. So it evens out.”