The Big 12 will once again have a championship game in football starting in 2017. There are two options the Big 12 could use to determine who plays in the championship game. Under the first option, the Big 12 can play a title game without divisions- all 10 teams play each other, then the top two teams match up at the end of the year. Under the second option, the Big 12 could split into divisions and have the winner of one division play the winner of the other division.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby says Big 12 will likely go to five-team divisions with a full round-robin schedule and title game for 2017.— Chuck Carlton (@ChuckCarltonDMN) June 3, 2016
Right now, the most likely option is that the Big 12 adopts a divisional format with a round-robin. This would be a mistake.
In my original article outlining why Baylor should oppose expansion, I laid out how detrimental the Big 12 title game had been from 1996-2010. I estimated the Big 12 would have cost itself a playoff spot two times with a championship game (I evaluated if the championship game would have left a Big 12 team outside of the top four). I also concluded the Big 12 never would have boosted a team into the playoff with a championship game.
The big reason the championship game hurt the Big 12 was not because a championship game was per se bad. Rather, those championship games were played while the Big 12 had divisional imbalance. Many years, a highly ranked A.P. champion of one division played a team from way outside the top four in another division. If that lower ranked division champion won, then the Big 12 cost itself a spot in the championship game. That happened in 1996 when #3 Nebraska was upset by unranked Texas and in 1998 when #2 K-State was upset by Texas A&M.
Any divisional format creates a risk of imbalance. The winner of one division may not be the second best team in the Big 12. Some seasons the two best teams are in one division. For years, the Big 12 south had the two best teams: Texas and Oklahoma. In many seasons, Oklahoma State and/or Texas Tech were also better than anyone in the North.
The Big 12 can try and craft divisions around this problem. Some have suggested the Big 12 could change the divisions annually because every team plays every team anyway, so there really is not a concern about geography or continuity in who is in each division. However, this misses the easier solution. A league should not have divisions with the hope to reduce imbalance when the league could simply not have divisions and eliminate the imbalance.
The first justification I can think of for divisions is that the Big 12 could view some imbalance as positive. The Big 12 could determine having a strong team play a slightly worse team is beneficial. If the Big 12 champion is the #3 team in the playoff rankings and gets to play the second best team in the conference, the second best team in the conference may still be too far down in the rankings to make the playoff with a win in the championship game. Rather, they could only be a spoiler. For example last season, Oklahoma State as the #2 team in the conference probably would not have made the playoff with a win over Oklahoma. But they could have ended Oklahoma's shot at the playoff with a win. However, if Oklahoma still could have played a top 25 team from another division, or at least a quality opponent, say Kansas State or West Virginia, then Oklahoma would have had a lower chance of losing , but still would have received the bonus of a 13th data point and a quality win.
The imbalance theory makes sense if top 25 wins are the criteria going forward. As Stewart Mandel laid out, top 25 wins have been a huge metric lately:
The more important takeaway is that seemingly every week that Jeff Long went on ESPN over the past two seasons, he cited one stat above all others: Wins over Top 25 opponents. It's not simply playing a 13th game that's so valuable; it's the added opportunity for a playoff contender to add another Top 25 win.
In contrast to this line of thought, the divisional format is likely to harm the Big 12's playoff chances. First, if the Big 12 has two playoff caliber teams, a championship between the top two teams can nearly guarantee a spot in the playoff, while a divisional format can knock the Big 12 out of the playoff. Often the Big 12 #1 and #2 teams may have a strong shot at making the playoff. If those two teams play each other, then the Big 12 Champion would have a strong shot to make the playoff. However, if they do not play, then the weaker division winner could win the Big 12 Championship and knock the Big 12 out of the playoff. For example, in 2014, if TCU beat Baylor, I am nearly positive they would have made the playoff. I think the committee may have also put the Bears in the playoff, but they did have serious qualms with the Bears non-conference schedule. But if Baylor had played KSU- as would have happened with the divisional format, if Baylor and TCU were in the same division- in a Big 12 Championship and lost to KSU, then the only remaining Big 12 contender for the playoff, here TCU, would not be a conference champion. Given the Committee is supposed to favor conference champions, this probably would have left TCU below Ohio State, and the Big 12 without a playoff team.
The second problem is that divisions can deny another good win for the conference. Some seasons one division may have several of the best teams in the conference. The stronger division winner may be left playing a mediocre team from the other division, which would not give the Big 12 Champion much of a boost. Denying the Big 12 Champion a chance to get the strongest win possible could harm the Big 12's standing. We should be more honest we really have no idea what the committee wants. At various times these terms have been used to explain rankings: body clock, top 25 wins, wins against teams over .500, wins against teams ranked at one point in the top 25, road wins, injuries, and recent wins. On top of that, there are a number of new committee members this season who may have different criteria. The best way to get past this clutter is to give the Big 12 Champion another win against the best possible opponent. The Big 12 can do that by making the "13th data point" one where the Big 12's best team plays the second best team in the conference.
The second justification for the divisional format is avoiding rematches in back to back weeks. With a divisional format, the Big 12 could put teams that play in the last week of the season in opposite divisions, which would ensure the title game would not have a rematch. The Big 12 may hate that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could meet in back-to-back weeks or somehow, and don't laugh, Kansas and KSU could play in back to back weeks. Alright laugh at that last one for now. But in any event, the Big 12 may just hate any chance of rematches. A rematch is weird, but if a rematch would boost the Big 12's odds at the playoff, then the Big 12 should embrace this format.
In either championship format, the Big 12 is guaranteed a rematch in the championship game because the league plans to keep the round robin. Although it does seem odd to have teams play in back to back weeks, the weirdness people feel for a time should not take precedence to the Big 12's playoff chances. Even with divisions, teams may often have their rematch game within a few weeks of the championship game.
The Big 12 added a championship game for two reasons: the revenue from the game itself, and the hope of boosting the Big 12's shot at making the playoff. Unless the Big 12 is convinced the committee has and will continue to improperly value quality wins, the Big 12 is best served playing a conference championship game between the two best teams in its conference.