This season, the Big 12 is branding itself under the banner “One True Champion.” But will that make a difference come playoff time?
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby believes so, and he wasted little time trumpeting the league’s scheduling format and how it could influence the members of the college football playoff selection committee when the four-team field is selected in December.
“I believe it’s a nuance that won’t be lost on the selection committee,” Bowlsby said when he took the podium at Big 12 Media Days in Dallas on July 21.
The Big 12 will be the only league in FBS to play a true round-robin format in conference play. It will also be one of just three FBS conferences that won’t hold a conference championship game.
The Big 12 will be the only league in FBS to play a true round-robin format in conference play.
In 2015, that number shrinks to two when Navy joins the American Athletic Conference. If the Sun Belt Conference adds a 12th member — which would allow it to adopt a two-division format and hold a league title game — then the Big 12 would stand alone less than 20 years after becoming one of the first leagues to adopt the 12-team, two-division format.
That fact doesn’t seem to concern Bowlsby, who sees the competitive nature of the Big 12 as an asset. In addition, the league’s members will play 11 nonconference games against teams that played in bowl games a year ago, including last year’s competitors in the FBS National Championship game, Florida State and Auburn. Oklahoma State opens the season with Florida State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“We’re certainly not oblivious to [the conference championship games],” Bowlsby said. “I like our path to the championship. Our champion has been decided on the last day of the season for about five years. So we have great competition at the end of the year.”
The conference champion is automatically eligible for selection to the college football playoff. There is potential for the Big 12 to end up in a tie for the conference title, but the head-to-head nature of the league schedule should take care of two-way tiebreakers.
The bigger issue may the grinding nature of playing a nine-game conference schedule, something only the Big 12 and Pac-12 will use this season. Although Oklahoma and Baylor are considered the favorites to win the Big 12, the top half of the league is competitive and could influence the number of losses that the conference champion ends up with, which could be important based on past history.
The past three seasons — during which the Big 12 has had just 10 teams — the league champion has had one conference loss. In all three cases — Oklahoma State in 2011, Kansas State in 2012 and Baylor in 2013 — that loss may have robbed each team of a shot at a spot in the BCS National Championship game.
From 1998-2010, during which the Big 12 was a 12-team league with a conference title game, the conference sent a representative to the BCS National Championship game six times (Oklahoma four times and Texas twice).
In the Big 12’s two championship seasons (Oklahoma in 2000, Texas in 2005) both teams went undefeated in conference and overall. In the other four appearances (OU in 2003, 2004 and 2008, and Texas in 2009), three times the Sooners or the Longhorns went to the BCS title game with an undefeated regular-season conference slate and no more than one loss overall.
So strength of schedule, a selection committee or a round-robin schedule may not matter that much if none of the league’s teams manages to get through the season with one or fewer losses, and a conference title game won’t solve that problem.
“Honestly I’m not [worried about a conference title game],” Baylor head coach Art Briles said. “I think it’s just going to be down to how the season plays out. With what you do in this league, no, I don’t see it as a problem at all.”
Neither does Bowlsby, who is banking on this great differentiation as a potential key toward getting the league back into the hunt for the national title.
“We want to win national championships, and I don’t think our coaches shy away from that,” Bowlsby said.