The NCAA announced on Wednesday that a proposal to deregulate conference championship games in FBS had passed. It was not complete deregulation, but it was close enough.
Long story short, any FBS conference–even one with less than 12 members–can now hold a conference championship game as long as the conference meets one of two conditions. The conference must either split into two divisions and have the winner of each division (which will play a full round robin schedule within the division); or the conference must play a full round robin schedule and have the top two finishers compete in the conference championship game.
Until this rule was passed, the Big 12 was going to be the only FBS conference to not have a championship game in 2016. Now that the rule has passed, the Big 12 will still be the only conference to not have a championship game in 2016… but at least the option will be there.
Since the moment the deregulation was announced, every hot take has been about what the Big 12 should do. Obviously, a conference championship game is a double-edged sword. In 2014, such a game would have helped the Big 12 and would probably have earned the winner of a TCU-Baylor rematch a spot in the playoff. In 2015, a win in such a game would not have helped Oklahoma much and a loss would have kept the Big 12 out of the playoff. A knee-jerk reaction to what happened two seasons ago seems foolish with this past season also in the rearview mirror.
Of course, the drawbacks to playing a full round robin and then hosting a championship game on top of all of that are obvious. First of all, the conference championship game is guaranteed to be a rematch. It will be both disappointing and strange for the first-place finisher to have to play a team a second time (most often one that it has already beaten) to be crowned as champions. This past year, such a rematch would have occurred a week after the first game was played, as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State finished in the top two spots in the conference.
Also, three-way tiebreakers will be nearly impossible to sort out and lead to much confusion. If we’re being honest, since the championship game for the Big 12 would be solely to help the champion get into the CFP, it makes the most sense to use the CFP committee rankings as a tiebreaker. Of course, that means not knowing who is in the championship game until Tuesday night, but it is probably better for the conference than most alternatives.
Of course, as a money grab, conference championship games are golden. Even if it hurts the chance at a Playoff bid, the TV rights to the game itself can be worth over $25 million per year. That’s probably worth enough to deal with the awkwardness of rematches and tiebreakers.
The Big 12 has plenty of time to decide what to do. The rule is now on the books. The ADs and presidents don’t have to act on it immediately. They can wait and see how seasons play out and whether it will be beneficial for the conference to add the game. They can see what happens most years before deciding whether it’s worth it to play the championship game.
And, of course, they have a crazy alternative. No conference has an obligation to play a conference championship game from the NCAA’s perspective. They just have the right to. What every conference has done, though, is sell the rights to their championship games and therefore obligate themselves to play one. The Big 12 has done no such thing.
Assuming that the Big 12 stays in wait-and-see mode for now, we could see a fascinating situation next November. The Big 12 could, if it seems the conference is likely to miss the playoff, add a conference championship game at the very end of the season. There is no regulation on it. They can decide to play the game as late as the second-to-last week of the season. Sure, the schools won’t get as good a TV deal in comparison to a package negotiated before the season, but it would be fascinating.
That won’t happen, of course. No one is going to schedule a conference championship game on short notice. Even having the possibility of doing so also might require some meaningless “official” scheduling before the season starts. However, if the Big 12 doesn’t have one planned for next season and a playoff spot looks doubtful, you can bet that someone will bring up this possibility in November.
What does this all mean? I have no idea, and I have no idea what the Big 12 will choose to do. Sometimes, however, having flexibility is not a bad thing. Having the option to make unusual choices in November isn’t a bad thing, and it can always open up other possibilities or at least create discussions. Are there any other unconventional ideas this flexibility can lead to? Probably. There might even be some good that can come of being the only conference with no predefined way to crown a champion at the start of each season.
Eventually, the Big 12 will settle on a way to determine a champion–one that likely includes a championship game — but until we get to that point, the Big 12 will be the conference everyone is talking about and paying attention to.
No, having flexibility is not a bad thing at all.