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Is Big 12 A Model For College Football Playoff?

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Bob Stoops and Oklahoma should get credit for scheduling tough non-conference opponents within the new College Football Playoff system, like a road game against Notre Dame in 2014. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.
Bob Stoops and Oklahoma should get credit for scheduling tough non-conference opponents within the new College Football Playoff system, like a road game against Notre Dame in 2014. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.

We’re in spring meeting season for the major conferences and biggest wigs gather in posh places to discuss the business they do on a daily basis and how it changes every year.

No business is greater than college football.

Oh, there are important matters and the conversations and meetings will address those, but the mind never strays too far from football and, specifically, the playoff that debuts in 2014. We have the format and we have the sites. We’re getting closer to picking who picks the participants and the criteria the panel will use. That these are the final matters to be decided reminds everyone how important they truly are.

As this all unfolds, there are dialogues in every hotel boardroom where the executives gather that feature this one aspect of college football: the length of the conference schedule.

Is it eight games? Is it nine? Which is better? Why is the other worse?

It’s a dire and divisive issue, so much so that last fall the ACC abandoned its idea to play nine games beginning next season so that it could stick with eight. The SEC plays eight games and there are heavy, friendship-straining emotions involved with staying there or moving to nine. The Big Ten is moving from eight games to nine in 2016. The Big 12 is rowing along with 10 teams and nine conference games while the Pac-12 is new to nine.

Why does it matter? Well, the college football playoff, now officially known as the College Football Playoff, is supposed to create and present an air of equality. It’s granting access never before granted to the national championship by inviting four teams to a two-round playoff. And, eventually, it will have a committee that picks the teams by using some form of evaluation.

Part of ensuring at least the appearance of equality is to create a form of evaluation that will measure candidates equally. To do so, the candidates are going to have to present themselves equally. We have 12 games, but not all 12-game schedules are created equal. There are variables, some that are out of a team’s control (the strength of the conference, for example) and some that are within the College Football Playoff’s control (the structure of the schedule).

The committee can make this simple and demand, among many demands, teams play three non-conference games and nine conference games. Or four non-conference games and eight conference games. Whatever the decision, it sets parameters and it establishes premiums. What a team does with non-conference games is going to deeply impact a strength of schedule measurement and strength of schedule ought to, and will, be a major piece of the puzzle.

Just as important, it eliminates debate about the nature of non-conference opponents and the difference between, say, eight SEC games and nine Big 12 games. It adds uniformity to a process that will need some among so many variables.

Let’s offer an assist: It ought to be three non-conference games and nine conference games. It's working in the Big 12 and the other leagues are moving in that direction as opposed to away from it.

Given the size of these conferences now, one is not dramatically different from another. A nine-game schedule is a pretty thorough test, and you can amplify that if conference title games remain in place. Certainly, the television partners signing massive checks won’t mind the presence of a greater quantity of quality games.

With relative comparability in place from league to league, teams can then distinguish themselves with who they play in non-conference games. Believe it or not, fans still matter in this sport. It’s not all finances.  

This model accomplishes something else that’s been prevalent for far too long: Teams shouldn’t run away from possible losses. If a team is rewarded for a big win against a tough opponent it didn’t have to schedule, the loser should get a partial credit for taking a loss when it took a risk others did not.

It all makes too much sense to ignore, even in the face of the strongest opposition.

That would be the mighty SEC. It has its eight games, a series of intraconference battles that tests its members like no other conference can boast. The thought is those combatants need a break built into the schedule, much like coaches need a gimme to find their way closer to bowl eligibility and athletic directors need seven home games to buffer their budget — never mind that’s a tired argument now when you read how much money the SEC is making these days.

But there are detractors who see some of those 14 schools playing soft non-conference schedules and essentially taking a week off in November to grab a victory against an overmatched opponent, sometimes from the FCS level. Why turn shrewd scheduling into a component of the championship formula? Why grow to 14 teams if you’re not going to take advantage of the size of the league to build new rivalries or revisit ones compromised by expansion? 

What’s unique here is that the model for this season as decision time nears is actually the outlier. The Big 12 is the smallest of the major conferences with 10 teams, but it has the nine games and neither need nor want for an additional championship game. Teams are also encouraged to make the non-conference schedule matter so that, in the old days, if a BCS spot or a bowl invitation came down to circumstances, a Big 12 school could point at a win in September to support the record in December. That won’t change for the playoff.

As luck would have it, there are basically four Big 12 teams that have somewhere near the same chances of winning the league title next season — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU. Win the Big 12 and you're going to be in the playoff once it arrives. Yet that's a presumption and not a guarantee, and that's what makes the entire schedule matter. Those four happen to have the strongest non-conference schedules and that will be huge in 2014, when teams should be tasked with making the most of those three games. 

What happens to the Sooners (at Notre Dame), Cowboys (vs. Mississippi State in Houston in the opener), Longhorns (at BYU, vs. Ole Miss) and Horned Frogs (vs. LSU in Dallas in the opener) could make or break their seasons, but also set a standard that might cast a definitive vote in the future of the playoff.