Big 12 should be careful before it gets its playoff hopes up

Pardon the Big 12 if it seems a bit confused.

It was heckled in 2014 for having co-champions during a season in which it touted the slogan "One True Champion." Now the league has a conference title game -- all for the sake of the College Football Playoff -- and might not need it.

As the only Power 5 conference with 10 teams and no divisions, the Big 12's round-robin format was the inspiration behind the "One True Champion" slogan during the inaugural season of the CFP. But after TCU and Baylor finished tied for first place -- and TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final CFP rankings -- Big 12 officials thought they needed a title game to even the playing field with its Power 5 brethren and impress the selection committee.

Until Ohio State got in last year without even winning its own division.

"We were told the reason we didn't get in and the reason I dropped from three to six was because we didn't play in the championship game," said TCU coach Gary Patterson. "[Ohio State] didn't play in the championship game, either. All coaches ever want, you give us the rules, and we'll play by them."

With a 13-member selection committee, though, there are far more opinions than there are "rules." Ohio State snuck in at No. 3 last season, despite the fact that Penn State beat the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten title, calling into question the true value of a conference championship game.

It has befuddled the Big 12, which continues to struggle to find its place among the Power 5 conferences in the playoff era. A championship game on Dec. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, its first since 2010, could be exactly what the league needs: A showdown of two highly ranked teams on the only day the 13-member selection committee is gathered to watch games together. Or it could be an upset that puts a dagger through its playoff hopes.

The Big 12 believes the rewards will outweigh the risks in the long run.

"It makes you relevant at the end," Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. "We all want to be that, somehow some way. That's the one thing the Big 12 said is, 'We'll leave all debate out of this. We'll put ourselves on the line.' Could there be negative ramifications? There sure could, but you have to be willing to be bold in this day and age in college football to really put yourself at the forefront."

Of the 12 CFP participants over three years, only one -- Oklahoma in 2015 -- has represented the Big 12 in the semifinals, and it's the only Power 5 conference that hasn't had a team in the CFP national championship game. Granted, the sample size is small.

"Others have been left out too, so that's part of the compelling nature of it," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "It's a game of musical chairs and there are fewer chairs than there are people walking around."

Since the Big 12 will maintain a round-robin format with no divisions, the championship game will feature a rematch between its top two teams. What Bowlsby and the Big 12 can't possibly know is how the selection committee will respond if its best team loses a nail-biter. Will that leave two one-loss teams in the mix? Or will it eliminate them both?

"Everybody knows the old adage in football," Texas coach Tom Herman said. "It's really hard to beat a team twice in one season. I worry our higher ranked team is going to get beat more often than not and then you've got no shot. If the higher ranked team wins, it's going to be a great extra data point for us, but of all the leagues, our higher ranked team has the higher chance of upset."

Since the CFP debuted in 2014, eight of the 12 conference championship games played in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC did not include the top two teams from each conference in that week's CFP rankings.

Last year, No. 3 Clemson beat No. 23 Virginia Tech while No. 12 Florida State stayed home. The SEC championship game has been so lopsided that Alabama has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in each of the past three seasons, while the SEC East hasn't produced a division champion ranked in the top 10. Typically, the two highest ranked teams in each Power 5 conference have been from the same division.

"The Big 12 is going to settle things that other conferences are going to leave up for debate," Baylor coach Matt Rhule said.

Coaches also pointed to another benefit of having a championship game. The Big 12 has lacked exposure on the Saturday before the selection committee releases its final rankings. While the rest of the Power 5 is playing its championship games, the Big 12 has been wrapping up its regular season.

"It's just having a presence on that last week and people getting to see the best your conference has to offer, it's the human part of it," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. "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 order to improve its chances at being selected for the CFP, though, the Big 12 must also improve upon its 5-8 record against nonconference Power 5 opponents. Oklahoma has to beat Ohio State. West Virginia has to beat Virginia Tech. Texas has to win at USC.

"If the Big 12 wants to kind of up their image," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said, "those types of games need to be won."

There are no guarantees with the selection committee, however. The Big 12's new championship game has to feature more than its two best teams. At least one of them has to be one of the nation's top four teams. Only then does any conference championship game matter. Just ask Penn State.