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The Big 12 Bowl Primer

An attempt to give college football fans a basic understanding of the bowl selection procedures for the 2014-15 season. Who is in, who is out, who knows. Now you will at least know how they will get there...

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Baylor Bears are 8-1 and going bowling for the 5th time in as many seasons.  After passing the biggest test of the season by winning in Norman for the first time in program history, Baylor fans are feeling good about the Bear's post-season opportunities and rightfully so.  Where Baylor ends up playing has a lot with how they finish out their last 3 games and if the Bears keep winning then good things will happen.  Of course it is obvious that if a team that is already bowl eligible keeps winning they will improve their post-season lot, but there are a number of factors that are outside of a team's control.

There have been major changes to the bowl selection process for the 2014 football season.  The BCS is no more, there is a 4 game playoff system, there is a 12 seat committee of football luminaries holding all of the marbles and no one knows who is in or out (or exactly what that means for that matter).  The casual college football fan has about as much chance to understand the bowl placement process as Spencer Roth has at landing his next punt on the moon.

The staff at Our Daily Bears thought it would be valuable for the readership if we produced an outline of how the Bowl selection process works so that everyone can have a foundational knowledge of it as the final stretch of the season unfolds.  This overview comes from the perspective of the Big 12 and will cover the bowl tie-ins that the Big 12 has.  It will probably not cover every nuance in the whole process so please feel free to add any observations, corrections or questions in the comments below.  This was compiled by a slightly-more-informed-than-casual football fan, not a playoff attorney or committee expert.

Also, all observations regarding bowl placement and end of season records are intended to be hypothetical to illustrate points and potential outcomes, they are not intended to be a prognostication of where a team will finish.

The Holy Grail - Selection to the College Football Playoff

This is the biggest change to the bowl landscape for this year.  There is now a 12-member College Football Playoff committee that will put out a weekly top 25 poll for roughly the last half of the season.  The top 4 teams in that poll at the end of the regular season will then square off in two semi-final games with the winners playing in a national championship game for the title.  This takes the place of the complicated BCS poll that selected the top 2 teams to play in the national championship game.

The committee is made up of intelligentsia and titans of college football such as committee chairman Jeff Long who is the AD for Arkansas, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Former Air Force Academy Superintendent Michael Gould and West Virginia AD Oliver Luck.  These members have pledged to set any past or present affiliations aside and be completely objective when casting their votes.  The most brow-raising selection to the committee was Condie Rice, but from first-hand experience, she is an incredibly smart lady and will bring a lot to the table.  Archie Manning was the 13th member of the committee but for health reasons he had to resign his post.

There is a set of major bowls that will host the semifinal matchups and provide tie-ins for conference champions similar to the BCS bowls.  These bowls include:

  • Sugar Bowl
  • Orange Bowl
  • Fiesta Bowl
  • Cotton Bowl
  • Rose Bowl
  • Peach Bowl

For the sake of simplicity these bowls are typically referred to as the "major bowls".  The bowls selected to host the semifinals will rotate on an annual basis.  For the 2014/15 season, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl will host the semifinal matches.  Next in line are the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl in 2015/16 and the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl in 2016/17.  The rotation then starts over.

The committee's rankings also provide the seedings for the semifinal games with the #1 seed playing in the bowl closest to its campus against the #4 seed.  Numbers 2 and 3 play in the other semifinal.  For example, using current rankings, Mississippi State would play the #4 seed Oregon in the Sugar Bowl, which is much closer to Starkville, Mississippi than the Rose Bowl is.  If by chance Oregon were to make a run and finish #1 then the games would flip with the Ducks playing the #4 seed in the Rose Bowl given the geographic proximity to Oregon.  The semifinals are identical in panache, only the map decides between them.

The winners of those two games then play on a Monday night at least a week after the semifinals in a location that is decided on by a bidding process.  This season the game will be played in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium on January 12th.  The only rules for the bidding process are that the championship must be held in a different city each year, the venue must have at least 65,000 seats and it must be in a different location than both of the year's semifinal matches.

The Major Bowls - Replacing the BCS

The major bowls listed above will all be played in dual triple-headers on New Year's Day and New Year's Eve and will provide a showcase for the top teams in the country that are not selected into the semifinals.  There are some bowl tie-ins but the semifinal process supersedes them.

The Major Bowl tie-ins are:

  • Rose Bowl - Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-12 #1
  • Sugar Bowl - SEC #1 vs. Big 12 #1
  • Orange Bowl - ACC #1 vs. SEC #2, Big Ten #2, or Notre Dame
  • Cotton Bowl - at-large or "Group of Five" (committee selection)
  • Fiesta Bowl - at-large or "Group of Five" (committee selection)
  • Peach Bowl - at-large or "Group of Five" (committee selection)

The committee selects the teams that will play in the Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach bowls from the top ranked teams remaining that are not selected for semifinals or subject to any remaining tie-ins. The committee will try and honor traditional bowl relationships and geographical proximity by creating "compelling matchups" in the remaining bowls.  For example it would be reasonable to assume that a highly ranked Big 12 runner up would end up in the Cotton Bowl or Fiesta bowl where historical Big 12 relationships exist.

Regardless of tie-in, the conference champions of the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and ACC are all guaranteed a spot in a major bowl.  For example, this year the Sugar Bowl is hosting a semifinal game so the tie-in to that bowl for the SEC champ and Big 12 champ is not locked in.  Both of those champions are guaranteed a slot though, either in a semifinal or as an at-large selection in one of the non-semifinal major bowls.

Another wrinkle in the major bowl selection is that the "Group of Five" mid major conferences are guaranteed one spot in the major bowls either as a semifinalist if selected by the committee or as an at-large selection.  These Group of Five conferences are:  American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and the Sun Belt.  The highest ranked team in any of the above conferences will be automatically selected.

Every year, two of these bowls (and their tie-ins, depending on the year) will be taken up by semifinalists so the guarantees listed above will be fluid and will be move around between the major bowls.  Depending on the semifinalist teams and the bowls making up the semifinals, conference champions could play in a different bowl every year.  Lets hypothetically assume that the Big 12 champion will make the semifinals for the next 3 years.  They would play in the Sugar/Rose Bowl this year, the Orange/Cotton Bowl next year, and the Fiesta/Peach Bowl the following year.

So for the major bowls, they are all very similar in terms of prestige and a set of rules dictates who plays in them.

The most important rule to remember though is that the top teams in the CFP poll will get selected for these bowls.  The committee will not skip teams to bring in bigger fan bases, the top 12 teams in their poll will play in the major bowls.  The order of selection is as follows:

  1. Semifinals
  2. Contract Bowls (tie-ins + "group of five" as outlined above)
  3. Placement of next highest ranked teams into remaining major bowl slots

Everyone following?

Conference Tie-ins - The traditional Bowl process

Below the CFP, each conference will have traditional bowl tie-ins that will be selected in order, similar to the way that they have been selected in the past.  For the Big 12 these bowl tie-ins are:

  1. Sugar Bowl - SEC #1 vs. Big 12 #1 (subject to rules above)
  2. Alamo Bowl - vs. Pac 12, First pick of available Big 12 teams not in a major bowl
  3. Russell Athletic Bowl - vs. ACC with the next Big 12 pick
  4. Texas Bowl - vs. SEC with next Big 12 pick
  5. Liberty Bowl - vs. SEC with the next Big 12 pick
  6. Cactus Bowl - vs. Pac 12 with the next Big 12 pick
  7. Armed Forces Bowl - vs. AAC with the next Big 12 pick

So this process works in a similar to the way that it has in the past.  There are tie-ins that will be honored to the extent that there are teams eligible for post-season play (minimum of 6 wins).  The picks for these bowls will happen for the teams that are available after the picks for the major bowls and do not have to go in conference finishing order.

Given that the Alamo Bowl has the first pick in the Big 12 outside of the major bowls, it could pick any eligible team that it wanted to pick within the Big 12 from the teams not already slotted into a major bowl.  This might be the runner-up of the Big 12 or it might be #3, it all depends on who they wanted and who was still available in the conference. The Alamo bowl would also pick a Pac 12 team in order based on the same criteria as above.  Fan base and proximity come into play here, but typically there would not be major differences between bowl selection order and conference finishing order, although it is possible.

The bowls would then progress in priority order listed above until the Big 12 was out of eligible teams at which point the bowls pick anyone that they wanted that was eligible and available, typically from the group of five mid-major conferences.

So What Does It Mean for the Big 12 Champion?

The rules state that the Big 12 championship is shared by teams with identical conference records.  So by rule Kansas State, Baylor and TCU would all be declared conference co-champions if the season ended today.  The tie-breaker procedures are used for bowl representation only, not to determine the champion.  So the tie-breaker would be to see who would represent the Big 12 for the Sugar Bowl tie-in. The Big 12 is guaranteed a spot in a major bowl, either Sugar when it is not a semifinal or an at-large selection when the Sugar Bowl is a semifinal game.

Here is where it gets a little confusing though.  The Big 12 is not guaranteed a spot in a semifinal game even if it is the Sugar Bowl.  Semifinal selection is completely at the whim of the CFP committee with conference championship being only one of the criteria used for selection.

So now lets fast-forward to the end of the season and make an assumption that TCU and Baylor both win out.  Big assumption, but I am making it only to illustrate a point.  That assumption would mean that Baylor and TCU are Big 12 co-champions with identical 8-1 conference records.  Conference record is the only thing taken into consideration by the Big 12 when determining a champion, a loss out of conference does not hurt a team's chances to win a nominal Big 12 title but it would be irrelevant in this case given that both teams are undefeated in non-conference play.  The first tiebreaker for bowl representation is the head-to-head match between the teams.  Baylor would hold the bowl tiebreaker with the head-to-head victory over TCU.  Both would be ranked in the top 12 so both will play in major bowls.  Given that the Sugar Bowl is a semifinal this year, Baylor would be guaranteed a spot somewhere, but not necessarily in the Sugar.  If the committee saw fit to grant Baylor a spot in the semifinals, then the story wraps up neatly.  TCU at 11-1 would be a top-10 team and would slot into a major bowl berth as well.  This would most likely be the Cotton Bowl or Fiesta Bowl, which have traditional ties to the Big 12.

But here is the punchline, if TCU is ranked somewhere 1-4 by the CFP committee and Baylor is outside of that esteemed club, then TCU would go to a semifinal regardless of the Baylor/Big 12 situation.

The CFP selection into a semifinal game overrides all conference procedures.  They pick the top 4 based on their opinions and process - no matter what.

Baylor would still get a major bowl berth as the Big 12's designated bowl representative but they would play in an at-large spot.  It would be a tough situation indeed if a conference champion and designated bowl representative at 11-1 would get overlooked for a playoff spot in preference to a team that it had beaten in the regular season.  Seems unlikely but given the respective rankings in the Big 12 right now, that is exactly what would happen.  If the committee determined that the team on the wrong side of the conference tie-breaker was the better team then that team would advance to the semis.

Best Case Big 12 Championship Scenarios

Given the way that the schedule is laid out it is highly unlikely that the Big 12 will have more than dual co-champions so there is no need to go into further Big 12 bowl preference tie-breakers.  TCU, Baylor, and Kansas State all still have the chance to win an outright conference championship depending on the how the each team in the trio fares for the rest of the season.  Likely co-championship scenarios would include Baylor/TCU or TCU/Kansas State if the respective teams win out.


TCU has a nice road to the end of the season with its biggest test remaining on the road against Texas.  If TCU wins out they are guaranteed a share of the Big 12 Championship.  They do not control their destiny for Big 12 major bowl representation due to the head-to-head loss to Baylor.  They could land a spot in a semifinal though regardless of what happens with Baylor.  If TCU wins out and Baylor has a loss then TCU would either win the conference championship outright or split it with Kansas State (if K State beats Baylor) and would be the Big 12 major bowl representative based on the head-to-head win against Kansas State.

Kansas State

K State still has to travel to Morgantown to play West Virginia and to Waco to play Baylor.  Even with an out of conference loss, K-State could still split the conference championship with TCU if they win out.  If they do that, they will have knocked Baylor out of contention for the championship and they would have an identical conference record with TCU.  TCU holds the tiebreaker though for the bowl.  If TCU loses again the Cats could win the conference outright.


If Baylor wins out they would be Big 12 co-champions with TCU and have the bowl preference tie-breaker.  If TCU loses and the Bears win out, then Baylor would win the conference outright.  The Bears will go to a major bowl under either situation and most likely it would be a semifinal match as the Big 12's designated representative, but that is speculation only.  It is completely up to the CFP Committee to make that decision.

Big 12 Overall

The Big 12 is in good position to have 2 teams playing in major bowls.  Those two teams would most likely be TCU and Baylor.  Kansas State is just on the outside looking in at this point with 2 losses to top-10 teams.  If they beat Baylor in the last game of the season then they would likely climb into major bowl ranking again and that could possibly lead to the unlikely scenario of the Big 12 landing 3 teams (TCU at 11-1 and Baylor and K State at 10-2) in major bowls.  It is highly unlikely that the Big 12 would land two, 2-loss teams though, that would require some significant movement from the other conferences.  The Big 12 might not even land a single 2-loss team in the at-large ranks, but that situation would be more likely.  In the case above, K State with a big win to close the season out against Baylor, would likely be an at-large selection with Baylor dropping out.

Another possible, but highly unlikely scenario would for the Big 12 to land two teams in the semifinals.  If Baylor and TCU both win out they will both be right on the edge of the semis.  With some conference shakeout above it is possible that they could both sneak in, but that probably would not happen.

At this point, the best thing that the Big 12 could do is to have the two teams with the best records, Baylor and TCU, win out and land major bowl spots.  There is still a lot of football left to play so all of this is speculation, but no matter what happens, college football fans are in for an exciting finish to the season.

Perfectly clear now?  Leave observations in the comments...