Friday afternoon, the Big 12 presidents voted unanimously to hold a Big 12 Conference Championship Game starting next year. The conference will be splitting into two 5-team divisions, which have yet to be formalized. The division winners will then play for a conference title and presumably a spot in the 4-team College Playoffs.
All of this sounds standard for the rest of the Power 5 conferences, outside of the 5-team divisions. So far so good, right? Well, according to Bob Bowlsby, the conference is retaining its round-robin format, meaning everyone plays nine conference games. The two division winners will play a tenth conference game. Along with the conference's requirement to schedule Power 5 teams in non-conference play to boost strength of schedule, the conference championship participants will be playing eleven Power 5 teams. It could be as many as thirteen if conference champion makes the Playoffs and wins its first game to play for a national title.
The question on most people's mind is, "Does this mean the Big 12 is going to expand?".
The reasons for expansion
As I said above, the conference is retaining the round robin format. This means that the Big 12 championship game participants will have already played each other. This is not unheard of in other conferences. The SEC has held a conference championship game every year since 1992 and six times there has been a regular season rematch, with the regular season winner 5-1 in the championship rematch. In the ACC, a rematch has happened four times as well, with the regular season winner 2-2 in championship rematch games.
But the Big 12's proposal is different. In the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, you NEED a conference championship game because you do not have the ability to determine a champion in the regular season. Alabama doesn't play Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt on a regular basis and therefore you cannot determine if Georgia is the better team or if Alabama is. The Big 12 has the ability to determine a champion without holding a championship game. Its round-robin format is very clearly telling you Oklahoma with its 8-1 conference record is superior to every other team.
So the conference should expand. Expanding eliminates the round robin format and puts the conference on an even playing field with the remaining Power 5 conferences. It eliminates the idea of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State playing Bedlam in late November, then turning around and playing again the first weekend in December. Does Bedlam count or does the following weekend count?
Expansion also means more probable bowl eligible teams. 70% (44/62) Power 5 teams were bowl eligible last year. If the conference expands to 12 teams, that means likely one more bowl eligible team. If the conference expands to 14 teams, it likely means 2 or even 3 more bowl eligible teams. Each bowl eligible team for the conference is an additional $180,000 per school. If 3 additional schools become bowl eligible, West Virginia is looking at an additional $540,000, or 1/20th of what it made as a member of the Big East in 2010.
Expansion also (most likely) means more eastern teams for the Big 12. Outside of BYU, the remaining expansion candidates are all further east than Iowa State, the second most eastern team in the Big 12. Memphis, Cincinnati, UConn, South Florida, Centra Florida have all been talked about as possible expansion candidates. If the conference splits into two divisions of six teams each and WVU plays Cincinnati and Connecticut and does not play Texas Tech, it could reduce its travel expenses and remove a near 4-hour plane ride from its schedule.
The other good news about expansion is that the way the conference negiotiated its television deal, the payout from cable networks increases in order to offset the additional teams so payouts per school remain the same. Given that WVU is set to receive 30 million from the Big 12 this year, the fact that we can still count on receiving the same amount (or more) eliminates a major objection for schools.
The reason for not expanding
The conference championship is about money. A Conference Championship Game (CCG) generates about 25-30 million for the conference. Why split that up with two additional teams? If the conference can hold a championship game with only 10 teams, why have two more to the mix? The conference can decide to not use the round robin format, only have 8 conference games and be the same as everyone else.
Oklahoma president David Boren, who last June called the Big 12 "psychologically disadvantaged" at 10 members, spoke Thursday of a league that "is in a strong position" and can afford to take its time with several major items, including expansion. If the man who has been pushing expansion for over a year is now saying the conference can take its time, you can better believe that schools like Texas, who have opposed expansion in the past, are not going to change their tune now.
If you're still not convinced, also consider that expansion is often about television markets and conference networks. Television markets and getting schools which increase the profile of the conference. When the ACC raided the Big East, they chose Miami and Virginia Tech in part because they were the strongest teams in the conference at the time. The Big East expanded in order to keep itself afloat with teams that were rather lackluster. That led to the powers that be defining a conference as "Power 5" or "Group of 5". The Big East is not a Power 5 conference anymore. Does expansion with a school like Cincinnati (36th television market), Memphis (50th), Houston(10th), or Connecticut really make the profile of the Big 12 better? If expansion is about television markets, Temple with the number-4 market should be a stronger candidate. Do you want Temple back?
The Big 12 has now realized that a Big 12 network is no longer viable. Cable network providers are finding out that while the SEC region and Big Ten region craves football, the Pacific Coast does not. It has made cable companies wary of providing another conference network, especially one where one team has its own network. The Longhorn Network, which is on a 20-year contract with ESPN, has cost ESPN nearly 50 million dollars to date. Until the Big 12 can guarantee Texas that it will receive the remaining money from ESPN, it isn't letting go of the LHN. Cable companies aren't bringing on 9/10ths of the Big 12. Goodbye conference network hopes.
Speaking of the "powers that be", are you under the impression that the 4-team playoff is here to stay forever? Don't be. The NCAA is always changing the rules. The playoffs have slowly been building, since the days of the Bowl Coalition to the BCS. The BCS seemingly changed the rules every year trying to avoid the previous year's debacle, whether that be three undefeated teams or having teams run up the score to increase the victory component.
The next iteration of the playoffs is going to be 6- or 8-teams. If the playoffs are expanding, why should the Big 12 expand. Once 6 or more teams are allowed in the playoffs, all conference winners will be represented. At that point, who cares whether or not Oklahoma lost to West Virginia in the championship game?