A Dream for Big 12, Championship Game Deregulation

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The NCAA announced Wednesday, via the DI Council conference championship deregulation. The decision effectively opening the door for the Big 12 and Sun Belt to host title games without expansion.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby immediately followed the NCAA’s announcement with a statement of his own, reassuring opponents of a potential championship game after the conference’s round-robin slate that deregulation wasn’t a guarantee of a 13th game.

“It is too early to speculate on the impact this will have with our member institutions regarding a football championship game,” Bowlsby said, via Big12Sports.com.

On one hand, a hypothetical Big 12 Conference Championship is a potential economic boon for the conference. On the other, it’s completely superfluous given all 10 members play each other in the regular season, and a regular-season champion in position for a Playoff bid could be ousted in a rematch. But when has the Big 12 ever approved something foolhardy because it made someone money?

Oh. Right.

But for traditionalists like your humble author, the silver lining to this new development is that it likely puts the brakes on conference expansion. At the very least, one motivating factor fueling expansion is removed. Twelve or more teams split in two divisions had been a requisite for a conference championship game previously, but removal of that caveat no longer necessitates membership for the sake of a quota.

The Sun Belt is a more applicable example in this case, a conference which will have 12 members in 2017 once FCS newcomer Coastal Carolina makes the transition from the Big South. But while CCU makes 12 along with the Sun Belt’s current ranks, the conference no longer has the same incentive to hold onto football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State.

The Sun Belt rescued the two after the WAC’s closure and a one-year stint of independence, which would not have been feasible for either program long-term. Both the Vandals and Aggies showed positive signs of progress in the second-half of the 2015 season, but their football lives have been consistently bleak otherwise.

Idaho last bowled in 2009; New Mexico State, in 1960. Neither of these football-only members are exactly football powerhouses.

Hold off on purchasing either the customary gold watch for now.

Nevertheless, a move to a 10-team conference is a distinct and possibly for economically viable option for the Sun Belt moving forward.

So, with a motivation to expand removed, might the ACC, Big Ten and SEC have buyer’s remorse for swelling to 14 members? Not necessarily — market size and potential viewer reach were always more important cornerstones to conference expansion than simply having the numbers for a conference championship game. The ACC and SEC both had title games well before the first seismic shifts of realignment six years ago.

Market footprint equaled strength-in-numbers when negotiating with TV providers, and record-setting deals poured in for each of the power conferences. However, a sharp decline in ratings for the College Football Playoff, including the National Championship Game, suggest over-speculation.

TV as an industry is in a state of uncertainty due to growing options, both in what and how viewers watch. The astronomical fees networks paid for broadcasting rights — ESPN, primarily — have forced unfortunate cutbacks in the past year.

The media landscape’s evolved vastly since conference realignment was at its height in 2010 and 2011. A TV revenue bubble forced college football to move away from tradition — could that bubble shrinking then move the game back to at least one tradition?

With the 12-plus-team, two-division model no longer necessary for that important championship game, and the TV money bubble in danger, the landscape’s more welcoming to the traditional conference model: 9 or 10 teams, playing a round-robin schedule, with no skipping of league members any season.

It’s a pipe dream, admittedly. Programs would need reason to leave their current conferences in order to form a smaller league elsewhere, or the conferences would need a reason to relegate the programs. Barring Maryland and Rutgers, the two quintessential case-studies in expansion-for-market, or getting Texas A&M-Texas and Missouri-Kansas back together, nothing stands out.

This would also likely force Playoff expansion. The four-bids-for-five-conferences model currently in place has already caused friction; eight “power” leagues bidding for four spots would lead to some especially insufferable takes every December.

Alright, so it’s an unrealistic pitch right now. But tell your 2001 self that the Big 12 would have 10 members, the Big Ten would have 14 (including Rutgers!) and that Baylor would be one of the best programs in college football.