Football Conference Title Games Lack Championship Week’s Appeal

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Championship Week is a fitting christening to the madness of March. The conference title tilts that fill the eight days leading up to Selection Sunday set the stage with drama, heartbreak and plenty of memorable moments.

The first weekend in December is college football’s version of the second week in March, though college football conference title weekend pales tremendously in comparison to the madness of Championship Week.

College football has one huge edge on college basketball in that hoops gets one month of madness; college football has an entire season. Perhaps because the entire college football regular season already has a championship aura to it, conference championship games feel superfluous.

Football league title games are the invention of conference expansion, beginning with the SEC’s additions of Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992.

The Big 12’s union of the Big 8 and vestiges of the Southwest Conference followed suit about a half-decade later, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 got on board in 2011.

I covered the last two Pac-12 Championship Games live. The conference does a great job hosting the event, but a big-game feel akin to Championship Week tournaments alludes the league.

Surely, it didn’t help that both games were blowouts. Stanford trounced Arizona State in much the same fashion it had that previous September.

In this year’s Pac-12 Championship, Oregon scored revenge for its two consecutive losses to Arizona in November 2013 and last October. That plotline added some intrigue lacking in the previous year, but the Ducks summarily routed the Wildcats in a snoozer.

Oregon-Arizona continued the conference’s run of rematches in the championship. All four since it launched were do-overs of regular-season games, three were blowouts and only this year’s contest saw the regular-season loser exact revenge.

This past year’s Pac-12 title game was also played at Levi’s Stadium. It suffered from my biggest gripe about the continuing exodus of big-time college football games away from college campuses, and into the antiseptic monuments to corporate welfare capitalism that are modern-era NFL stadiums.

Sun Devil Stadium, about two hours before the 2013 Pac-12 Championship Game.
Sun Devil Stadium, about two hours before the 2013 Pac-12 Championship Game.

Prior to the 2013 Pac-12 Championship at Sun Devil Stadium, I walked around Arizona State’s campus. The atmosphere was just like any other college football Saturday, with fans filling Mill Ave. bars, others tailgating and others still lining up outside the stadium to welcome the team on their Devil Walk.

This year’s installment couldn’t match that game-day feel. Soggy weather in the Bay Area certainly didn’t help, but neither did moving from a Pac-12 campus into a business park.

Seriously, if you’ve never been to Levi’s Stadium, realize that it is quite literally situated in a Silicon Valley business park.

In many ways, the Pac-12’s move to Levi’s Stadium reminds me of the conference’s failed attempt to recreate the magic of the old Big East Tournament by hosting the basketball championship at Staples Center.

New York –> Los Angeles? It made perfect sense, but only since the conference moved to MGM Grand in Las Vegas has the basketball tournament begun to take off.

And that’s something Championship Week tournaments have seemingly mastered that their football counterparts haven’t. The tournaments have more of a destination feel that, for whatever reason, is difficult to replicate with a single football game.

In its decade of existence, the ACC has tried different venues. None can match the magic of the basketball tournament’s Greensboro home.

Lucas Oil Stadium and Levi’s Stadium are architectural marvels, but that isn’t what the essence of college football is. The buzz around campus is, and that’s why in the same vein, many basketball tournaments are held at campus sites.

Among the football lot, only the SEC and its Atlanta title game have found the right formula. But truthfully, that has more to do with SEC fans than the destination.

The SEC Championship could be played in an empty field next to a Pikeville Waffle House and would still draw 70,000.

For the rest of college football, conference title games simply lack the madness Championship Week generates for basketball.