During the college football summer offseason for the past two years, the subject has changed from on-the-field game stories and instructive analysis to conference realignment rumors and rants. Guess what? The same is true again this year. Only the paradigm has shifted from the protraction and subtraction of conference members to partnerships between major conference powers.
The Big 12 has been at the center of all of the conference realignment stories the past several years and that, too, has not changed. Last Friday, officials of the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference announced a five-year agreement to have the football champions from each conference meet in a New Year's bowl game beginning in 2012.
Given that this landmark agreement translates to a marriage between what inarguably today are the two best college football conferences, the chances of the national championship team coming out of what some are now calling the "Champions Bowl" would seem to be very high. After all, since 2000, eight of the 11 teams crowned national champions have come from the Big 12 or SEC, and the last six national champions have all been from the SEC.
Certainly sounds like a game-winning touchdown (it didn't seem appropriate to use the phrase "slam dunk"), only that's not how the agreement is structured. The terms of the agreement between the two football power conferences says that the champions of both leagues will meet in a New Year's bowl game unless one of both of the conference winners is among the four highest-rated teams in college football that season. Since 2000 alone, the Big 12 and the SEC have placed their league champions among the top four in nine of the 12 years.
If you go all the way back to the first AP poll in 1936, the teams that currently make up the SEC have had at least one team among the top four in the land 46 times in 76 seasons (60 percent), and the teams originally made up the Big 12 have been ranked in the top four 48 times.
What many are thinking, and experts around college football are even projecting, is that the bowl agreement between the Big 12 and SEC, coupled with the alignment that already exists with the Big Ten and Pac-12 for the Rose Bowl, could serve as the structure for a semifinal round in a four-team playoff to determine the national champion. But what about the other conferences, like the Big East or the Atlantic Coast Conference or even a mid-major league like the Mountain West, that would be left out if a playoff scenario involving just the champions of the four most prolific football conferences?
Again, history speaks loudly. Dating back 62 years, to 1950, considered the beginning of the modern era in college sports, a team from what currently (or previously) constitutes the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 or Big Ten has been crowned the outright national champion 37 times or shared the title in 19 of the 62 seasons. In the ten seasons since 1950 when there was a split national champion, one or both of the teams were from one of the four power conferences. That's 47 out of 62 seasons, or 75 percent of the time, in which the national champion in football has come one of the aforementioned four leagues.
The conferences that are part of the Bowl Championship Series met recently to talk about changes in determining a college football champion, and the belief coming out of that discussion (which is all that it was at this point; no decisions were made) was that the conference representatives were leaning more toward a four- or eight-team playoff format, or an abbreviated form of how the NCAA Division I basketball champion is determined. What that tells us is that there are still a number of advocates for preserving the current major bowl structure, or at least there were the last time the BCS group got together.
Now with the Rose Bowl and the Champions Bowl (most likely to pull in either the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl) out of the picture, it will be interesting to see how, or if, the support for the major bowls operating independent of a football playoff process holds up the next time the BCS meets. To me, the biggest problem with determining the participants for a four-team or eight-team playoff format is the methodology used to determine the seeding. Would it be something similar to the mathematical mess we have now with computer polls and human polls in some combination. Let's hope not, because that doesn't deal with any of the problems that exist currently.
The problem with best-four or best-eight approach isn't so much with seeding the top three or top seven, it's in the criteria to choose the fourth- and fifth-best teams and, similarly, the eighth from the ninth playoff team. At least all comers are eligible in that type of playoff format, whereas if the college football decision makers were to ultimately decide that the new FBS in college football would consist of the so-called four super conferences and that to contend for the FBS national championship a team would have to be a member of one of those four conferences, the decision criteria on the teams involved would be more selective but much more objective and less fraught with controversy.
And while we're touching on the subject of super conferences, I don't think we've seen the end of conference realignment. The SEC has already expanded to 14 teams (with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12) and is finding that 14 is not a very practical number with regard to scheduling. The Big 12 partnership with the SEC puts the Big 12 in a position of strength for growing its membership back in alignment with the league brand name, and perhaps beyond that. And the Pac-12 was thinking out growing to 16 teams just last fall (with four Big 12 schools as the chips in play).
While a little over a week ago it looked to be totally out of the question that Florida State would elect to leave the ACC for the Big 12, FSU officials did not close the door on such a possibility, and since then the Big 12 has acquired a major additional bargaining chip. If Florida State were to be convinced to come, what about putting another all-out blitz on Notre Dame? Or the other way around? It's not particularly prudent to get ahead of ourselves, but you've got to agree that this notion has more plausibility now than ever before and is highly tantalizing.
Just pondering the possibilities represents an electrifying transformation for a conference that was thought to be on life support a little over a year ago. And because college football drives the bus in college sports insofar as revenue generation for the schools' athletic department bottom line and annual budget, think of the coup such a possibility would have on the revenue to be leveraged from current and future Big 12 TV contracts.
Keep dreaming...but heartened by the reality that such an outcome is much closer than it once was. All because of the potential game-changing college football alliance struck between the two best football conferences in America.
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