TCU and Baylor. In recent years, both teams have become teams to be reckoned with in the college football world. TCU’s recent BCS trips made the team a national brand, and Baylor’s Heisman winning quarterback Robert Griffin III made the Bears a household name. Both teams joined the Big 12 after the conference nearly imploded and immediately rose to the top of the food chain. But, the Big 12 is depleted and wounded, and the talent level in the conference more closely resembles Conference USA than the traditional power it once was. At this point, the conference doesn’t even play a championship game—and it cost them.
No one knew how the playoff committee would select the participants in the inaugural playoff. The BCS never had a “human factor” that would play the most important role. This factor is what many people felt had been lacking—creating a system where LSU and Alabama would play 2 times in a season. Although that is still a relevant concern, the playoff selection committee was formed to insure the 4 best teams in college football would meet to on the field to determine the championship. And so they met. The committee, made up of athletic directors, writers, conference commissioners, NCAA representatives, former politicians,and even a retired Air Force general, would use their knowledge of the game, their perspective of the rankings, and—most importantly—their instincts to decide who would play who at the end of the year. It is a system that lends itself to controversy and criticism, but so was the BCS.
The BCS was a system that no one understood and only a select few really knew how it worked. The formula used to determine the national championship game was kept secret so as to keep its integrity. The system also caused controversy on a nearly yearly basis, most notably in 2003, when Oklahoma was selected to play in the BCS Championship game after a devastating loss in the Big 12 Championship (they subsequently lost to LSU as well). In 2011 it also paired LSU and Alabama though the teams had already met, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. The introduction of the committee was a move that would remove some of the stigma of the antiquated BCS system and provide a face to the football public—one that would answer for its picks and provide tangible evidence of its methods. Sunday, they did just that.
The Big 12 was not the weakest “power” conference in college football this year (that reservation most likely goes to the ACC), but they are still suffering from the effects of not having a 12 or 14 team strength, and therefore not having a championship. On top of that, the conference does not have clear policies on championship selection, and instead of backing one team they took a different route; they announced that they would have co-champions. The conference rules clearly state that in the event of a tie, the representative to the Sugar Bowl (de facto champion) would be the team that won the head-to-head meeting. The fact that they had already met is the main arguing point for not having a championship game: the PAC 10 applied this logic for years. All the teams in those conferences would play each other, every season, usually around the same time. This means that a clear conference champion would be established through head-to-head play, and there could be no doubt as to the result of the game, and therefore there would be no doubt as to who was champion. TCU lost that game to Baylor (a game that scored like a basketball game) and won every game for the rest of the season, finishing with a record of 11-1. Baylor went on to lose a road game at West Virginia and finishing the season with only that loss. When the first playoff rankings were released in week 10, TCU was ranked above Baylor and jumped into the number 3 spot in week 15. Once the season finished, Baylor was the clear champion. But the Big 12 attempted to hedge its bet by naming TCU as “co-champion”. The conference with the motto, “One True Champion” couldn’t decide on a champion. It wanted to hedge it’s bet. It wanted two. The playoff committee was apparently not impressed or enthused by this decision, and a storm was gathering for the Big 12, centered around playoff selection.
The storm continued to gather Saturday in Indianapolis. At the Big 10 championship, Ohio State was making a statement, and Wisconsin was the example. The Buckeyes beat Wisconsin, the 11th ranked team in the nation, 59-0. For a little perspective, the Big 10 championship has had combined scores of 81 points, 101 points, and 58 points. Ohio State scored 59 points on its own. Wisconsin, the number 11 team in the nation, scored NONE. Meanwhile, TCU played Iowa State and Baylor beat Kansas State by 11 points. Ohio State made their point clear: we deserve a shot. And the committee, as they had previously stated, determined that conference championships mean something. Ohio State won the conference. They earned their shot. Baylor won its conference. They were rewarded with a co-championship and no chance of a playoff berth.
There are several lessons that can be pulled out of this story, some more clearly than others. The Big 12 has resisted the changing landscape of college football for years, with an attitude of, “We will not change for football, football will change for us”. They allowed Texas (and to a lesser extent, Oklahoma) to do almost anything they wanted, unchecked, and it cost them. When Texas A&M and Missouri departed for greener pastures, the Big 12 stood on the heels of its feet and stubbornly refused to take decisive action. They didn’t go out and acquire a powerhouse team, a perennial contender, or even get enough schools to legitimately live up to the conference name (there are 10 schools in the Big 12…insert your own jokes here). They decided to get by on their legacy. They were passed by.
In a sport where the landscape shifts like dunes in the desert and the implementation of a single rule can cost a school its entire season, the Big 12 failed to adapt. They failed to give their contingent of teams an opportunity. They failed TCU. They failed Baylor. They put their money the same place they always have: Texas and Oklahoma. It didn’t pan out. A gamble is only as good as its payout, and this one failed miserably. For Baylor and TCU, the directors of those programs may seriously have to consider their options. With a new national prominence and brand, there may be other suitors at the door before long. And with the human factor in the playoff committee, an independent school or undefeated from a mid-major conference (with a championship, of course) could be in position to make a run at a playoff berth. Stranger things have happened. But for now, the Big 12 will have to heave a sigh, stare across the barren plains of Oklahoma, and think to itself, “There’s always next year”. For now.