Conference Championship Games Should Cease to Be (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love That the PAC-10 Has it Mostly Right)

A recent thread about the BCS on RBR reignited an argument that we hear almost every off season: the conference championship game reigns supreme as a way to crown a victor. We also hear how the PAC-10 and Big Te(leve)n need to get on board with the "movement" created by the SEC and further fueled by the Big 12 and ACC by adopting the twelve team, two division format (midmajor conferences like C-USA and the MAC have also hopped on the train.) The Big East is almost never brought into the discussion for reasons unbeknownst to me; perhaps people feel that particular conference adding four more teams is unrealistic or that they shouldn't even be in the BCS equation anyway. Regardless, the PAC-10 and Big 10 are frequently brought up, most likely because their commissioners are viewed as the primary obstacles towards a playoff for Division 1 (FBS) football as a whole.

For whatever reason though, the cojones of the Pac-10 and Big 10 are frequently called into question because of their lack of a conference championship game. This is something I simply don't understand. What is so special about the ultimately one game playoff of a conference championship game that makes it a more valid way of crowning a champion? I think the Big Ten's format is wrong, but if anything, I view the PAC-10 as having the best format in place for determining a conference winner in the whole of college football. They play nine conference games and play everyone in the conference. I like this for two reasons: 1) it essentially adds more meaningful games to the schedule by replacing throw away non-conference match ups (aka cash grabs...which the PAC-10 as a whole doesn't do on the level of the SEC anyway) with more conference games and 2) everybody plays the same schedule as far as the conference is concerned.

One frequent complaint I hear about this system is that in the case of a three way tie, there's no clear cut way to determine a champion and that the title should be won "on the field." That's complete balderdash. Any determinant "tie breaker" is a measure of on the field activity...and furthermore a "winner take all" scenario for the conference title more or less negates it for what it is...a measure of the best team in the conference over the entire season. My particular suggested methodology of tie breaking in this instance is point differential. In the instance of ties in soccer to determine a champion, they do "goal differential" across the whole season including all games against all teams. That's too much in my opinion though. Here, I suggest using a "point differential" system, but only counting the games amongst the teams involved in the tie.

This is what I suggested be done to break the three-way tie in the Big 12 South last year when the Ouroborosian argument of "Well, Texas beat Oklahoma so they should go, but Texas Tech beat Texas so they should go, but Oklahoma beat Texas Tech so they should go..." nearly drove us all to drink. Poor Texas Tech was left out of the argument because they got thoroughly destroyed by Oklahoma, but based on record alone, they should've been a part of the discussion. If you elected to go with my proposed tiebreaker system, Oklahoma would've advanced to the title game based on the point differential. They lost to Texas by ten (-10) and beat Texas Tech by forty-four (+44) so they had a (+34) point differential in the games involving the tied teams. Texas beat Oklahoma by ten, but lost to Texas Tech by six, leaving them with a (+4) point differential. Texas tech beat Texas by six (+6), but lost to Oklahoma by forty-four (-44) leaving them with a (-38) point differential. See, Oklahoma's trip to the Big 12 title game was won on the field after all. I think the voters ultimately got it right, but by the wrong reasoning. Another benefit of using aggregate scores in a tiebreaker situation is that it eliminates the whole "style points" nonsense we're always hearing about. If you don't want to run up the score on teams, that's fine, but win all of your games so it doesn't become an issue. If you want to settle it on the field, make sure you beat your rival like a rented mule when given the opportunity. It adds another element of strategy to the proceedings: give youngsters some much needed playing time for depth and for the future, or secure the advantage in a tiebreaker situation?

The 2008 MAC Championship Game is the preeminent example of what is wrong with conference championship games. A 12-0 (8-0) Ball State faces a 7-5 (5-3) Buffalo team and ends up crapping the bed and the MAC winds up with an 8-5 champion and a 12-1 runner up. During the regular season, in a 12 team conference, the two eventual divisional champs shared five common opponents from an eight game conference schedule. If you remove the two teams in question, they only shared 50% of the same possible opponents in their conference. How is that a measure of the best in the league? I digress though. Among those five common opponents, Ball State was 5-0 and Buffalo was 2-3. Buffalo would've finished with the fourth best record in Ball State's division, yet by the disastrous possibilities a divided conference allows, a mediocre, middle of the pack team gets hot for one game and becomes champion. Madness. Sheer madness.

Is there anyone that really believes Buffalo was the best team in the MAC last year? I can hear the scoffers now saying, "That'll never happen in the SEC" and it may not happen ever (though that's unlikely based on a sample set that theoretically will be infinite)...or it may only happen once before the end of the world, but the fact that it's a statistical possibility should bother people. The two best teams in the MAC didn't face each other last year, but because of "playoff obsession" and the accident of geography, a team that shouldn't have been at the table was allowed a roll of the dice...and they won.

In my opinion, conferences should be capped in size at 10 teams and everybody should play everybody. I'd cap the whole of Division 1 at 120 teams with 10 conferences too...but that's another article for another day (as in I'll be writing it very soon.) I know the conference championship game is going to be around for a long time, but hopefully we'll wake up and see why it's bad for college football. I actually believe their eradication will actually pave the way for a D1 playoff that will function more like a super league or champions league, but like I said, that's an article for another day...

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