Why playoff expansion could put conference championship games at risk
Moving the College Football Playoff to eight teams could change more than access to the title game
Very few people cared about a fairly innocuous rule passed at the 1987 NCAA convention so the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference could stage a conference football championship game in Division II. All three NCAA divisions voted on the rule, which affected every division. But it was out of sight, out of mind for most people since conferences were smaller then.
One person who paid attention: Roy Kramer, Vanderbilt's athletic director at the time and later the SEC commissioner.
When the SEC expanded in 1990, the conference viewed a championship game as a revenue windfall. The championship game was also a way to create division races for more fan interest later in the season and helped with unbalanced schedules. As the SEC Championship Game turns 25 years old this week, Kramer's vision proved to be revolutionary.
The SEC Championship Game, which the conference cherishes as much as the Big Ten and Pac-12 love the Rose Bowl, has been copied across the country. By 2018, every Football Bowl Subdivision conference will have a championship game once the Big 12 returns to the scene and the Sun Belt adds one.
"I knew from day one that with the passion for college football in the South that it would be a popular event," Kramer said. "I did think if ours succeeded, others would take a hard look at it. I don't think we anticipated how popular it would be."
The concept of conference championship games has outlived the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Championship Series -- the models used from 1992-2013 to try to force a national championship game between the top two teams. But whether conference championship games survive the College Football Playoff is an entirely different question.
"I don't know," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "If we were to expand the College Football Playoff, I think one of the ways you might expand is to play the first-round games -- assuming you have eight teams -- on the weekend where conference championship games are. Then the winners could go forward to play in the semifinals and finals, and the losers could go on and play in the bowl system. I can see a replacement at some point in time with the first-round games in an eight-team playoff. There would be enough money involved in extra playoff games to make it worthwhile."
Conference championship games exist in large part for money. They add more revenue for a league through its media rights package, sponsorships and ticket sales. They provide an end-of-the-year celebration for conferences and a trophy for one winner. They often help better decide a "true" champion since conferences have become so big that only one league (the Big 12) plays everybody each season.
Yet despite the benefits, this is another Championship Saturday in which the public is left wondering what exactly they're watching at conference championship games.
The real ACC Championship Game may have occurred on Oct. 1 ( Clemson's narrow 42-36 win over Louisville) instead of Clemson-Virginia Tech this week. While an upset is certainly possible given Clemson's habit of turning the ball over, the Hokies have lost to four-win Syracuse and at home to Georgia Tech (the fifth-place team in their division) -- and they barely beat four-win Notre Dame.
The Pac-12 has a very compelling championship game with playoff implications between top-10 teams Washington and Colorado. Still, the Pac-12 hottest team (USC) won't be in the game despite beating the Huskies and Buffaloes. (That pesky month of September actually does matter, USC.)
But nothing is more confusing than the Big Ten Championship Game, where No. 6 Wisconsin meets No. 7 Penn State. Arguably the Big Ten's two best teams (No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan) -- and perhaps two of the best four teams in the country -- are home after playing a classic double-overtime game won by the Buckeyes last Saturday.
Penn State or Wisconsin will be crowned Big Ten champion, even though Wisconsin lost close to Ohio State and Michigan, and Penn State lost by 39 points to Michigan and edged Ohio State on a blocked field goal touchdown return. Good luck explaining to foreigners how conference championship game participants are chosen. They might look at you cross-eyed.
Ohio State will likely make the playoff without playing for its conference championship. That doesn't happen often. Alabama didn't win the SEC West in 2011 and still won the BCS national title.
The objective of the playoff is correct: Pick the four best teams. But when one of those teams doesn't play for its conference title, it makes you wonder why fans bothered paying attention to the conference race all year.
Too many championship games are blowouts
Count Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany among those who didn't know about the Division II conference championship rule in 1987. Who needed to be aware of a Division II rule during an era of eight- and 10-team conferences? Delany, then the Ohio Valley Conference commissioner, first picked up on it when Kramer created the SEC Championship Game, though the Big Ten didn't create its own game until 2011.
"I thought it was really interesting, creative, clearly within the rules and watched it with interest," Delany said. "I asked Roy early on what were the benefits. He said you had two races, two champions, and that was easy enough to understand so you had teams in the middle of the game longer -- a little bit like the wild card. It's a way to get a truer champion. It shouldn't drive expansion. You should do it if you want to do it."
While some championship games have produced drama, too many of them are duds. The average margin of victory is 15.4 points in the 97 FBS conference championship games played by nine leagues, according to a CBS Sports analysis. In the Power Five conferences, the games are even more lopsided (17.4-point margin of victory).
|Conference Championship Game History|
|Conference||Avg. Margin||Avg. Crowd||Best TV Rating|
|SEC (1992-present)||16.7 points||74,896||11.8 (Alabama-Florida, 2009)|
|Big 12 (1996-2010)||20.6 points||69,333||8.7 (Texas-Nebraska, 2009)|
|WAC (1996-98)||12.7 points||28,896||7.3 (BYU-Wyoming, 1996)|
|MAC (1997-present)||12.5 points||20,397||1.7 (Buffalo-Ball State, 2008)|
|ACC (2005-present)||12.5 points||64,134||6.9 (Florida State-Georgia Tech, 2014)|
|Conference USA (2005-present)||12.1 points||30,508||Not available|
|Big Ten (2011-present)||19.0 points||59,726||7.9 (Ohio State-Michigan State, 2013)|
|Pac-12 (2011-present)||20.4 points||52,925||3.7 (Arizona-Oregon, 2014)|
|MWC (2013-present)||8.0 points||26,141||1.2 (Utah State-Fresno State, 2013)|
|AAC (2015-present)||11.0 points||35,721||1.8 (Temple-Houston, 2015)|
If you think of conference championship games as a quasi-quarterfinal feeding into the playoff and bowl structures, consider that 96 NFL wild-card games (which feed into the rest of the NFL playoff) have been decided by 12.4 points since 1992. It's not entirely apples to apples since the best NFL teams don't play in wild-card games, unlike conference championships.
But shouldn't championship games produce better games on the field? Perhaps it's a combination of who's playing and beat-up teams mentally and physically at the end of the year without a real break.
"I've always hoped these championships wouldn't become like the NFL in that sense," said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, a former longtime executive at CBS Sports and ESPN. "I want the geography and the unique qualities of the conferences to remain to keep those intersectional rivalries. I don't know that we need an NCAA league per se of certain teams feeding into the playoff perfectly."
Thirty-eight percent of conference championship games have been decided by one score or less. Again, there's a larger gap between the bigger and smaller conferences: 32 percent of Power Five championship games are settled by one score or less compared to 54 percent for everyone else.
"That's a big negative, no question," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "There's probably more blowouts than good games. Still, I do like them because I think it's fun and exciting for the kids. I'm such a traditionalist with the bowl games and I struggle with losing their impact so I'd hate to lose championship games."
Even Kramer, the godfather of conference championship games, agrees the actual football isn't always as good as it could be.
"Anytime you have a championship playoff of some kind, there's never a guarantee you're going to have the best two teams playing," Kramer said. "But what you do have because of divisional play is at least those teams that got there beat their teams in their division. The thing I didn't realize from the start is how well divisions would work. Now, there's controversy today with the strength of divisions. I understand that. But we used to have the conference champion sometimes determined in the middle of October. Who wants to watch games in November when that happens?"
Is Big 12 pitting No. 1 vs. No. 2 the right idea?
Fifty-seven percent of all conference championship games pair the top two teams based on their league records. That means about three out of every seven championship games don't pair the teams with the best two records. Of course, conference records can get inflated or deflated based on a team's unbalanced schedule, especially the strength of its division, so a championship game can at least add another data point to pick a champ.
The Big 12 is taking the unusual step next year of no divisions and pairing the teams with the best two league records in the championship game. Big 12 coaches voted for divisions, but the athletic directors felt they needed to create the best marquee matchup they could for financial considerations with TV and playoff positioning.
"It's odd because they have a full round robin," Delany said. "They're assuring a rematch. I think they probably felt disadvantaged by not having one. But it's a marketing point. It's nice to be able to bring everybody under a roof and celebrate the season."
Bowlsby said the conference was in a "defensive mode of some sort." The Big 12 is the only league without a championship game, a television network and round-robin play.
"We were different in several significant ways," Bowlsby said. "I think it got us looking a little like everyone else. The other motivation is it's a marquee matchup between two highly-ranked teams."
It remains to be seen if the Big 12 will be helped or hurt by a championship game. If the Big 12 Championship Game had been staged in 2015 and 2016, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have played a rematch one week later. That's hardly ideal and would get justifiably mocked.
From 1996 to 2010, 33 percent of Big 12 Championship Game matchups featured teams with the league's two best records. The SEC and ACC, which currently have staged conference championship games the longest among Power Five leagues, are both over 60 percent.
Based on AP Top 25 rankings, upsets in conference championship games happen 27 percent of the time. The Big 12 had it happen 33 percent of the time.
Make no mistake: The Big 12 resides at 10 members and outsider status only because there aren't great candidates for expansion. "If the right institutions were available," Kramer said, "I think the Big 12 would expand this afternoon."
But what if the Big 12 actually has the right idea by simply acknowledging that conference championship games are first and foremost moneymakers? What if pairing the top two teams, albeit in a roundabout way with a guaranteed rematch, is the best way to create more compelling championship games? What if the Big 12 shows everybody what they're missing by not having better -- and more valuable -- "quarterfinal" games on Championship Saturday?
"Everybody criticized them, but they might be doing that right," said Smith, who as Iowa State's athletic director was on a Big 12 task force in the 1990s that created the league's first championship game. "I looked at that and said, 'You know what? That might be the wave of the future.' I didn't look at that negatively at all. It takes strength in that league to do that. That's a tough call, but I think it's a very viable option."
Will championship games be around in 25 years?
The wildly popular SEC Championship Game has been the standard for how to run a conference championship. Only in 1993 and 1995 has the SEC Championship Game not sold out.
These are the lowest ticket prices on the secondary market for 2016 championship games: SEC $79, Big Ten $49, MAC $47, AAC $34, Mountain West $30, ACC $24 and Pac-12 $19. Tickets can be easy to get if championship games don't have the right teams in the right location, or if fans elect to save money for their teams' potential playoff games. (In the ACC's case, a controversial North Carolina law caused the ACC to move this year's game to Orlando from Charlotte, where more Clemson fans presumably would have demanded tickets.)
The SEC Championship Game worked so well from the start because it was regional. Fans could easily drive to Birmingham or Atlanta, which has held the game since 1994 and maintains a contract with the SEC through 2027.
The South devours college football so much that who wouldn't want to watch one more SEC game? And while you're here, SEC fan, come to the Dr Pepper SEC FanFare, where for $10 for adults and $5 for kids, you can enjoy interactive attractions and meet ex-SEC players and coaches. And don't forget to buy tickets as well to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for just $22 for adults and $18 for kids.
My, how far championship games have come. In 1992, the concept was so foreign that Kramer struggled to find a TV network to air the SEC game.
"It was after the season and it was in a time period where the NFL was playing some Saturday games," Kramer said. "It kind of sat out there by itself. In the fact, the first TV contract was only for one year with ABC. I remember saying to our people one time, 'We ought to get as much [money] as the Rose Bowl.' That was our goal."
The first game was so successful -- Alabama edged Florida in the closing minutes from Legion Field with Keith Jackson broadcasting the game -- that ABC's president called Kramer two days later to renew the contract after an extremely high TV rating. "It was so unique," said Kramer, who later moved the game to CBS as part of the SEC regular-season package.
College football existed in such a different world then. There was no BCS pairing the top two teams for the national title, much less a playoff with four teams.
Today, conference championship games can still be compelling depending on the matchup and what's at stake. Alabama and Florida essentially played national semifinal games at the SEC Championship Game in 2008 and 2009. Michigan State's down-to-the-wire win over Iowa at the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game was a national quarterfinal game. Ohio State got knocked out of playing for the national title by losing to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. Undefeated Florida State barely survived Georgia Tech to win the 2014 ACC Championship Game.
Yet the shelf life of the championship game barely lasts much longer than basketball conference tournament title games leading into the NCAA Tournament pairings. For many people in the public, the football championship game is viewed now as another data point for playoff consideration, though CFP Selection Committee protocol does say conference championships should be considered when comparing similar teams.
"There's no question football is becoming like basketball," Smith said. "We're all talking about who's in the playoffs, and the kids have done this magnificent thing of running through the regular season and the championship, and we don't put that on the pedestal."
Which raises an interesting question: Will conference championship games even be around in another 25 years?
Delany, Big Ten commissioner: "I would guess yes. I think people feel good about them. I think it feels a lot like a championship. I would say if you're a larger league you want it and if you're smaller you want it simply because it's an extra opportunity to impress and get a win against a quality opponent. There's a downside, but there's also an upside. The better team typically wins, but not always. ... I think we're going to be at four [playoff teams] for a while."
Aresco, AAC commissioner: "I suspect they'll be around. I think the conferences are going to be reluctant to give up their championship games. Maybe the playoff revenue would be so great that conferences might look at it. But I also think conferences want to keep their identity and have the excitement during the season of divisional races."
Smith, Ohio State's AD: "I think it depends on if they expand the playoff. If they do, they can't move [playoff games] into January -- the presidents won't have that -- so they move backward. They don't want to shorten the regular season because that impacts those schools' home revenue that aren't in the postseason. I think you've got to look at then whether you play a championship game, or the championship game becomes part of it. It might not be there, or it might be constituted differently, 25 years from now."
Kramer, former SEC commissioner: "I have no idea. It could be affected because, in a sense, that's what you've done to basketball. We're playing college basketball now [in November] and you walk down the street and people say, 'Really?' Once you start taking two or three teams from a conference [into a football playoff], the drama of it begins to lessen. Now, the drama of the playoff goes up, but what happens to the regular season? I would hope that whoever looks at it takes a long, hard look because if the day ever comes that the winner of the Alabama-Auburn game doesn't matter because both of them are already in the playoff, what happens to that game? It will still be big, but it won't have the drama."
Kramer created the BCS, which lasted 16 years as the last stop-gap before a playoff finally happened. His idea for conference championships in major college football has now survived for a quarter of a century.
"It seems like the day before yesterday we first played it," Kramer said.
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