With Oklahoma meeting TCU on Saturday in the reborn Big 12 championship game at Arlington, Texas, let’s relive some of the big moments of the game’s previous existence that helped create some of the best atmospheres of the college football season.
The inaugural contest in 1996 delivered the great gamble. Texas, leading Nebraska 30-27, faced a fourth-and-1 from the Longhorns’ 28 with 2:31 remaining. Coach John Mackovic went for it, not with a power run to running back Priest Holmes but a roll left run-pass option. Quarterback James Brown found tight end Derek Lewis for a 61-yard gain and Texas went on to a 10-point victory.
Two years later, Texas A&M trailed Kansas State by 15 points entering the fourth quarter and pulled off an amazing comeback, capped by Sirr Parker’s 32-yard touchdown reception in the second overtime, the only title game to go to extra time.
Craziness continued in 2001 when Texas quarterback Major Applewhite relieved starter Chris Simms and nearly pulled the Longhorns out of a 19-point hole before falling by three to Colorado.
Six games into its history, the Big 12 championship game had provided remarkable theater and something else: a pattern of eliminating itself from a national-championship opportunity.
The losing teams in each of those dramas — Nebraska, Kansas State and Texas — would have played for the national title had they not lost as favorites.
This history is relevant because of where the conference finds itself this season. The 10-team league decided to match its top two teams and accept the risk of an upset. The Sooners (11-1), third in the College Football Playoff ranking, are all but assured to advance to the national semifinals with a victory.
But a TCU (10-2) triumph would likely shut the Big 12 out of football’s final four.
“They have more to lose than we do,” Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said of OU.
He’s right. The entire conference does.
A motivation for reviving the championship game, beyond the $3 million in TV contract revenue it’s worth to each school, was to give the Big 12 the opportunity to play its way into the CFP. The decision was a reaction to the inaugural CFP in 2014, when TCU went into this same weekend ranked third and defeated Iowa State 55-3 in a regular-season finale.
That outcome wasn’t good enough for the committee, at least compared to the victory by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game over Wisconsin. The Buckeyes jumped from fifth to fourth and TCU dropped to sixth.
One reason, committee chairman Jeff Long said, was that the Big 12 did not play a championship game, thereby denying itself a “13th” data point” for the committee to consider.
That 13th data point rang in the Big 12’s ears. The conference liked its membership count and rightfully bragged that it was the only one of the power leagues that determined a true champion, based on opponents played — not avoided.
Expansion, which would’ve restored the two-division setup, was explored, but the Big 12 was told no school would bring added value to the conference. (Though Central Florida would argue that point this year.)
So there was no expansion, leaving the league without the advantage the SEC and ACC may have this year: conference championship games in which both participants figure to have an excellent shot of making the CFP semifinals with a victory.
The Big 12’s missed opportunities didn’t end in 2001. The 2007 BCS title game would have included Missouri if the top-ranked Tigers hadn’t lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
And the league’s habit of hurting its own title chances didn’t stop with realignment. Oklahoma State in 2011, Kansas State in 2012 and Baylor in 2013 took perfect records deep into the season — the Wildcats topped the BCS standing at 10-0 — before losing in upsets and falling out of the national-championship picture.
A new chapter in the Big 12’s postseason history begins Saturday in which should be called the 13th Data Point Bowl. And if the favorite hangs on, the conference will start a new trend.