Oklahoma football: Will the13th data point work for or against the Big 12?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02: Baker Mayfield
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02: Baker Mayfield /
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It has been six years since the Big 12 held a championship game in football. Oklahoma football was a participant the last time their was a 13th game in the Big 12, and the Sooners have high expectations to be there again when the title game returns this season.

The Big 12 discontinued its championship game beginning with the 2011 season after the number of conference members went from 12 to 10. Since then, the widespread belief has been that by not holding a conference championship game the Big 12 has subjected itself to odd-man-out status in the selection process to determine which teams ultimately make the cut to compete for the national championship.

In the first 15 seasons the Big 12 hosted a football championship game (1996-2010), Oklahoma was one of the two teams competing for the conference crown, and the Sooners took home the trophy seven times. The Sooners have won three more outright Big 12 titles — and would have played for a fourth after sharing the title with Kansas State in 2012 — in the six years since the last conference championship game, but did not have to take on the added challenge of a 13th game to ascend to the top rung.

The absence of a championship game in the Big 12 was not really a factor in the final four years under the BCS format, because no Big 12 team finished No. 1 or No. 2 in the final BCS standings or on the cusp of doing so, thus avoiding any controversy. The first year of the College Football Playoff was a different story, however.

With only 10 teams (the only major conference with so few members) and without a deciding conference championship game, the Big 12 created an image campaign built around the tagline “One True Champion.” The premise was that with a balanced, round-robin schedule, every team would play each other and the school that survived that competitive schedule with the fewest losses would reign as the true conference champion, without the need for an extra game to determine such.

It seemed liked a reasonable approach until, in the very first season of its implementation, which happened to coincide with the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff, Baylor and TCU tied for first place. Baylor won the head-to-head, regular-season matchup, but that was TCU’s only loss that season and the Horned Frogs were rated higher, at No. 3, in the BCS rankings.

Inexplicably, however, TCU feel from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final BCS poll for 2014, and the Big 12 found itself on the outside looking in at the football Final Four that season. Would a conference championship game — and a rematch of the two teams that season –  have put one of these two teams in the inaugural Playoff? Probably. But the brutal truth is that the Big 12’s decision to honor co-champions in 2014 resulted in not crowning a single or true champion and cost the conference one of the four CFP spots.

“It’s just having a presence on that last week and people getting to see the best your conference has to offer.” –OU head coach Lincoln Riley on holding a Big 12 championship game

Ohio State, which wasn’t even the Big Ten champion that season, was awarded the final spot in the 2014 Playoff field. And as fate would have it, the Buckeyes went on to beat Alabama in the semifinals and Oregon in the championship game.

Oklahoma became the first Big 12 team to make it into Playoff as the No. 3 seed in 2015, but the conference was left on the sidelines again in the 2016 CFP selection process. The Sooners were the undisputed Big 12 champions last season with a spotless 9-0 league record. the two earlier-season losses to Houston and Ohio State left OU too far down in the CFP pecking order at selection time.

That brings us to the current season, which is a little over a week away and features the return of an official championship game in the Big 12. While restoring the championship game does, in fact, level the Playoff playing field as far as the Big 12 is concerned, it does not change the universal perception that the Big 12 offers the weakest brand of football among the Power Five conferences. Once considered second only to the SEC as a football power league, the Big 12 — whose current reputation is that of a pass-heavy, all-offense, no-defense conference — has dropped below the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12.

The powers that be within the Big 12 have reached the conclusion, after several years of debate, that the reward of holding a conference championship game outweighs the risk.

“It’s just having a presence on that last week and people getting to see the best your conference has to offer,” Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN senior writer Heather Dinich recently. “It’s the human part of it. That is, to me, the most important of it all. And ours will be unique in that it’s the best two teams in the league (in contrast to two division winners who may or may not be the best two teams).”

It’s true that the Big 12 will crown its champion this season after the best two teams in the conference meet for a second time in a winner-take-all rematch on the final weekend before bowl season.

Based on the projections of the 2017 Big 12 Preseason Media Poll, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will face each other in the conference championship. Regardless of which two teams it is, though, in order for a team from the Big 12 to be relevant in the CFP conversation, it will require beating the same team twice in one season, which has been proven many times over is an extremely difficult thing to do.

If the higher-ranked team in the CFP pecking order wins out in the Big 12 championship-game, adding the 13th data point may end up boosting the conference’s Playoff bid, but if the lower-ranked team prevails. the Big 12 is all but assured of being kicked to the side of the road again.

It will be great if renewing the football championship game works in the Big 12’s favor, but the fear is the chance that it won’t is equally great. I like the way Texas head coach Tom Herman summed up the risk incurred by a conference that plays a balanced schedule, like the Big 12.

Because the Big 12 championship game will literally pair the top two teams in the conference standings, “of all the leagues, our higher-ranked team has the higher chance of upset,” Herman said.

Regardless of whether you are a Sooner fan or a champion of the Big 12, we can only hope it doesn’t come to that.