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Big 12 pointing fingers, mulling change after being left out of College Football Playoff

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
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GRAPEVINE, Texas – Big 12 athletic directors are scheduled to meet Monday in New York City, a gathering that Baylor's Ian McCaw predicted would be "intense."

And that was even before McCaw knew the league would be shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, a field which features No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State in a New Year's Day doubleheader. The winners meet in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12.

Left out and left in a heap was the Big 12, dealing with regret, finger pointing, confusion and, now, sure-to-be-heated debates ranging from non-conference scheduling priorities to expansion of the playoff, the conference or both.

"We're smarting today," commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

The commissioner's decisions and words were under attack all weekend, most directly when Art Briles confronted him late Saturday down in Waco. The Baylor coach was upset the league was using a "co-champion" distinction rather than giving the Bears the full weight of the title because of their head-to-head victory over TCU. Briles felt it might hurt the cause of Baylor, who finished fifth.

Baylor's Bryce Petty (L) and Bryce Hager kiss the Big 12 trophy after their win over K-State. (AP)
Baylor's Bryce Petty (L) and Bryce Hager kiss the Big 12 trophy after their win over K-State. (AP)

While committee chair Jeff Long wasn't specific when pressed on the subject, it certainly may have.

"He was doing what coaches should do," Bowlsby said of Briles. "He was advocating for his team and his student athletes. He made his thoughts known and I listened and I shared what I had to say."

Bowlsby better get used to that because it'll come from all parties now.

It's worth noting the Big 12 almost played the system perfectly. It was two single results from paydirt. Had, say, Florida State failed in one of its many late-game comebacks and Wisconsin put up a better fight against Ohio State, the Big 12 likely would have put both TCU and Baylor into the field.

It didn't, though, which leaves everyone to listen to the direct comments of the selection committee and move forward.

As a whole, the committee did one very important and commendable thing, it reaffirmed that strong non-conference scheduling is important. That decree should force teams to go away from buying games against weak opponents and instead face off with other major programs. The BCS, which the playoff replaced, did the opposite, which led to a rash of early season cupcakes in recent years.

Long said definitively that Ohio State received a significant advantage over Baylor because of its out-of-conference schedule, which by featuring Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Navy and Kent State, wasn't actually a murderer's row.

"[It] was stronger than Baylor's," Long said.

The Bears played a weak slate of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. Long implied that would continue to be a big factor, which is problematic for a Baylor program that has just one significant non-conference series on its future schedule – a home-and-home with Duke in 2017 and '18. It's otherwise a steady diet of SMU, Rice, UTSA, Northwestern State, Lamar and even the University of the Incarnate Word.

"We've been telling our ADs and football coaches they need to strengthen their non-conference schedules," Bowlsby said. " Some have been able to do it and some haven't been able to do it … we talked specifically about being fifth or sixth or seventh with a relatively weak schedule and that being something that costs you from getting into the four."

Now it's happened. And Bowlsby is going to be able to counter Briles' complaints with that point.

Then there is the lack of a conference championship game, which in some years could presumably help. The Big 12 has just 10 teams and stages a true round robin. By playing nine regular-season conference games, it plays the same amount as the Big Ten, ACC and SEC (at least currently), who call for eight regular-season games and one title game.

Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby (R) hands the Big 12 trophy to TCU's Gary Patterson on Saturday. (USAT)
Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby (R) hands the Big 12 trophy to TCU's Gary Patterson on Saturday. (USAT)

Overall, however, the league's 12 games against 13 for the others hurt. A conference title game also offers a chance for a strong final weekend impression, something TCU lacked because the flow of the schedule brought the Horned Frogs a game against two-win Iowa State. TCU won 55-3 but went from No. 3 in the rankings to No. 6.

Long pointed to Ohio State's ability to win convincingly in its 13th game as a difference maker. Bowlsby could only shake his head at that. With just 10 teams, NCAA rules prohibit his league from staging a title game, although a legislative push to eliminate that rule is already in the works.

Still, he was surprised that it mattered.

"It's clear we were penalized for not having a championship game," Bowlsby said on ESPN. "It would have been nice to know that ahead of time. We were told we had a different model and that wasn't going to penalize us. That will cause us to go back to the drawing board."

Bowlsby would have liked Baylor's strong victory over then No. 9 Kansas State to have resonated as a final audition with the committee, but in terms of style points, there was no comparison to Ohio State's 59-0 annihilation of No. 13 Wisconsin, even if the Badgers all but rolled over and quit. The Buckeyes clearly won the night.

"I would say that human nature says the most recent things that occur are probably the most impactful," Bowlsby said. "And Ohio State's victory over Wisconsin was complete domination and in that regard they played their way into the position they now enjoy."

A conference title game in a league with a full round robin doesn't always make sense, though. It assures that a team that already defeated an opponent has to now do it twice (none of Saturday's other three league title games were rematches). The other option is to expand the league by adding two teams – BYU, Boise State, Cincinnati, Central Florida, Memphis and others all have their hands up and waving. That's a big step, though.

"Conference expansion is a multifaceted decision that goes beyond whether you stage a conference championship football game," Bowlsby said.

Then there is Briles' complaint about "co-champions." First, it countered a statement by Bowlsby last summer that the league would use a tiebreaker to determine one champion. Bowlsby could only acknowledge he did say that, but he "misspoke" and league policy calls for co-champs.

Ohio State's big win over Wisconsin on Saturday helped them make the playoff over TCU and Baylor. (AP)
Ohio State's big win over Wisconsin on Saturday helped them make the playoff over TCU and Baylor. (AP)

Second, Long left open the belief that being a "co-champion" may not have carried the same weight with the committee as being a "champion." It was up to each member to determine what that meant, Long said. So it's anyone's guess what each person thought.

"This will be a catalyst for discussion for sure," Bowlsby said.

Bitterness rules in Texas on this grey, misty day. While claims of brand bias and big-market interests are being rained down on the committee from Baylor and TCU fans, the truth is, there is no good way to pick four of 128 teams.

And while disagreements are going to arise, there was no right or wrong answer here. Each of the final three had a compelling case. And a compelling case against them.

Someone had to make a tough call.

The overriding principles were clear though: schedule better, play a 13th game, choose a champion.

All of that is good for the long-term health of the game.

No, the committee's work wasn't perfect. The process remains somehow arbitrary, overly subjective and contradictory all at the same time. Some of the criteria are poorly thought out. The weekly ranking show is pointless and sets unfair expectations.

If games against Incarnate Word and attempted dual-champion tricks are soon scrapped, however, then something positive happened here.

It's up to the Big 12 to learn its lesson. You may hear the arguing on Monday up in New York all the way back down here.