There’s a difference between a championship game and a championship game.
Confused? That’s why there’s an asterisk in the title of this piece.
Here’s the explanation.
Oklahoma State versus Oklahoma Saturday in Norman – aka Bedlam, version No. 111 — will decide the 2016 Big 12 Conference football champion. The Sooners are 8-0 in league play, the Cowboys are in second place at 7-1. It’s a winner-take-all showdown.
Yet, Bedlam is not like the other championship games that will be staged this weekend. The Big 12 variety has occurred out of happenstance thanks to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma reaching Conference Championship Saturday with one combined loss. The Big 12 also has Baylor at West Virginia and Kansas State at TCU on its Week 15 schedule. Neither are “championship” games.
Next season, the Big 12 will join the other cool kids with its own “13th data point” championship game… but as Saturday’s championship game illustrates, reviving a championship game with a 10-team league that doesn’t have divisions creates its own problems.
Just to illustrate the issue: This is the second consecutive season Bedlam has decided the Big 12 title. The championship game format chosen by the league’s athletic directors matches the top two teams in the conference standings.
If that format had been in effect for 2015 and 2016, the championship game would have been a rematch of a game played a week earlier.
“It is ironic last year and this year that we’re in the last game playing Oklahoma State again for the championship and, just like a year ago, we would have played again the following week,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said this week. “It would be unusual to play the same team two weeks in a row.”
It’s the fourth time in six years that Bedlam will be a deciding game in the Big 12 title race. The rivalry game has traditionally been the last game of the regular season. Bedlam has been played earlier in the season, but since 2005 it’s been the regular-season finale for both teams.
It’s impossible to predict the future based on past results, but considering the Sooners are going for their 10th Big 12 title and the Cowboys have been in the middle of the race the last half-dozen seasons, moving Bedlam earlier in the season might be necessary.
“I think it’s worth considering,” Stoops said. “I’m sure our leaders will look at that. I’m pretty big on sticking to my job, and that’s coaching. I have a great athletic director, as Oklahoma State does, and great presidents to look at that and the league commissioner to look at the league and what’s best for it.”
When it was announced that the championship game would return in 2017, most Big 12 football coaches were in favor of two five-team divisions. The athletic directors chose to match the top two teams in the standings. That decision, along with the Big 12 presidents deciding against expansion, means the nine-game round-robin schedule will remain.
The Big 12 administrators who put together the puzzle that is the conference schedule can only guess if the final games of the regular season will be between the teams that eventually play in the championship game.
Rematches in the title game will be inevitable. If future title games are decisive regarding a College Football Playoff bid, the team that won the regular-season game could put its CFP hopes in jeopardy by facing a team it defeated in the Big 12 title game.
Of the four Power Five conferences staging championship games this weekend, none involve rematches of regular-season games. However, there’s a more than reasonable chance that the winner of the Big Ten championship game (Penn State or Wisconsin) won’t make the CFP final four.
As Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy pointed out this week, there is no perfect method.
“You’re going to have two teams in the (Big Ten) championship game this year that aren’t even ranked highest in the polls, right?” he said Monday.
The Big 12 is hoping that the championship game, plus its nine-game conference schedule, will earn its champion respect with the CFP committee. However, by matching the top two teams in the standings instead of division winners as its peers do, the Big 12 is creating more potential problems.
Pure Bedlam, one could say.