In spite of heightened speculation about potential Big 12 expansion, conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby says he is not receiving phone calls or emails from schools wanting to join the conference.
“They know I’m not going to have those conversations,” he said, “so they’re not bothering to contact me.”
“Their business is their business,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who doesn’t shy away from the fact some of the schools in his league could be top targets should the Big 12 decide to expand. “All we’ll do is monitor things. We’ll make sure we’re prepared, but we’ll be very deliberate regardless of what happens.”
Not even the most powerful people in the Big 12, though, know what’s going to happen by late summer, the most likely timeline for the school presidents to make any decision on the Big 12’s postseason format.
“It’s truly too close to call,” one Big 12 official said about the likelihood of a championship game. “I think there is just as many not sure as there are supportive.”
After two days of annual spring meetings in Phoenix, Big 12 coaches, athletic directors and presidents now have a plethora of data — numbers based on only two years of the College Football Playoff — to help determine whether they should add a championship game with the current 10 teams, expand and have divisions, or keep things the same.
The playoff has been a driving force in prompting the Big 12 to do a self-evaluation over the past two seasons, as the league most certainly wants to do everything it can to best position itself for a spot in the semifinals every year. So far, the results have been mixed. The Big 12 got the Big Snub in Year 1, when TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final poll and Baylor finished at No. 5. Last year, Oklahoma proved the conference could finish with a top-four representative without a Big 12 title game.
“If you think about where the conference has been in the first two years of the playoff, it’s undeniable, we’ve been right there,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione told reporters this week. “One year we didn’t have a participant, one year we did. But we want to make sure that our conference stays right there year in and year out. Those decisions are sometimes based on razor-thin margins, so we’re trying to determine what the advantages are. It’s outcome-based, how our teams do against the best competition.”
The Big 12 hired two firms — Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures (BHV) and Navigate Research — to help it study and negotiate its way into the future. According to a Big 12 spokesman, the data showed that the league’s chance of making the CFP semis increases four percent by having a championship game, coupled with the current full round-robin, nine-game conference schedule.
Bowlsby was firm in his belief that there are too many other factors involved in the overall health of the conference to make such lofty decisions based entirely on the CFP.
“It’s certainly a component, but there are financial aspects, there are lots of other sports involved,” Bowlsby said. “There’s probably none more important than football, but it isn’t just about the playoff. It’s an important component, but it’s not the only component.
“We want to know the information. Will it be enough ultimately to drive the decision? That’s yet to be determined. It probably depends on who you ask. There are a lot of numbers out there.”
The problem sometimes with relying too heavily on data — even from such a highly regarded company as Navigate Research — is there’s no accounting for the human element of the selection committee.
Choosing the top four teams is an ambiguous, subjective system that is left in the hands of 13 people. While none of the criteria is weighted, the selection committee must follow its protocol, and has made it clear that strength of schedule and winning a conference championship — not a championship game, but a championship —is of the utmost importance.
CFP officials have also said repeatedly that a team will certainly benefit from beating another ranked opponent in a 13th game, as did Ohio State in Year 1.
“Oklahoma was one of the best four teams last year without a 13th game,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “No one can say what everybody has to do to get in the playoff each year. No one can accurately predict the future. It’s still, play a good schedule, win your games and you’ll be in the hunt.
“It’s not any surprise that schools are evaluating the ways to best position their teams for the playoff. We won’t know for a long time all of the ways in which the playoff will change the culture of the game, but so far the changes have been very positive.”
It would be naïve to think that every move is made with the CFP in mind, but it has pushed the Big 12 to take a deeper dive into the financial gap that exists between it and the other Power 5 conferences. It’s the smallest Power 5 league, with no TV network.
Bowlsby said Big 12 officials have “talked very frankly about it,” and if they “do nothing, we’ll be substantially behind a decade from now.”
“If you look at our television and our size and our current contracts and the fact that we don’t have a network and all of those things, the trend lines between us and particularly the SEC and the Big Ten begin to diverge,” Bowlsby said. “Who knows exactly how far we’d be behind, but we know that we’ll continue to lose ground.”
The university presidents are the ones who say the least publicly but carry the most weight when it comes to conference-wide decisions like expansion.
“The College Football Playoff has become extremely important,” Aresco said. “The power and influence of it is pretty apparent from how leagues look at their internal structure — you’re seeing that now — to how fans spend New Year’s Eve, how TV programming is affected, how TV rights fees could be affected.
“It’s had a significant impact already, but obviously two years of data is not a reliable sample to assess its overall impact.”
The latest NCAA deregulation allows for the Big 12 to have a conference championship game as long as it keeps its round-robin format — a system Bowlsby likes.
“I think that’s the way to contest your championship,” Bowlsby said. “I think that’s a really good thing you get with 10 members. But having said that, we’re seeing some data that tells us without a playoff game we’re less likely to get into the College Football Playoff. Are we willing to live with that?”
It’s one question no amount of research can answer.
ESPN staff writer Adam Rittenberg contributed to this story.