SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – As the Big 12 was considering a temporary split into divisions for football, sources tell CBS Sports an NCAA proposal to relax conference championship game rules has complicated matters. That proposal that would no longer require FBS conferences to have divisions in order to hold league title games, effectively giving such conferences better access the College Football Playoff by allowing them to match their two best teams.
A special Big 12 subcommittee formed to determine how to best incorporate up to 14 teams in conference realignment from 2023-24 had been expected to finalize league composition and schedules this week. However, the Big 12 is awaiting resolution on a proposal from the NCAA Football Oversight Committee that would allow all leagues to play without divisions but still hold conference championship games without a waiver from the association.
That would give conferences an opportunity to match their two best (usually highest-ranked) teams in league title games. The legislation would be an option, not a mandate. Currently, the only FBS conferences that play without divisions are the 10-team Big 12 and 11-team American. The Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule, granting it the ability to play a conference championship game, while the AAC has an NCAA waiver to match its two best teams for the league title.
With divisions becoming less of a consideration, the Big 12 has to retrench with its largest membership ever, albeit temporarily.
“You’re basically starting [the scheduling process] from scratch,” a source familiar with the Big 12 process told CBS Sports.
For months that five-person subcommittee has been discussing what is anticipated to be 14 teams for the 2023-24 seasons. That is assuming BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF join the Big 12 in 2023 as Oklahoma and Texas stay for their final two seasons before leaving for the SEC in 2025. In a 14-team divisional alignment, scheduling would be easier with teams playing six divisional games and three crossover contests with the other division.
The Big 12 has played as one 10-team league with a round-robin schedule since 2011. However, scheduling becomes more complicated as a 14-team league because schools would need to agree on competitive balance. That discussion could become combative considering lingering animosity over Oklahoma and Texas leaving the conference.
“How could we make that work and keep your national rivals together?” a Big 12 source asked. “How do you do that for two years knowing everybody wants to play Texas or Oklahoma one of those two years?”
As of last week, that five-person subcommittee had not developed any sample schedules for the 2023-24 seasons. In January, CBS Sports reported the Big 12 was engaged in plans to split into seven-team divisions beginning in 2023.
Such considerations are now being reevaluated.
“We were clearly focused on two divisions,” said that person familiar with the process. “We’re coming up with some different models. We were going to use these meetings to finalize what that would look like. Now, this new proposed legislation.”
As of last month, the NCAA Football Oversight Committee began considering a proposal that would do away with current requirements to stage a conference championship game. Any recommendation from the committee would have to be approved by the NCAA Council. One Big 12 source believes that process will be completed by the middle of May.
However, given the fluidity of the NCAA at the moment, commissioner Bob Bowlsby questioned whether the association should be involved at all.
“I’m not sure why the NCAA has to be involved in that anyway,” Bowlsby said. “The conferences can capably decide how they want to conduct their competition.”
The March 24 oversight committee report contains a lead item seeking feedback “to remove requirements for excluding a conference championship game” from the 12-game regular-season maximum. That’s code for deleting language that requires schools playing a conference championship game to have at least 12 teams or play a round-robin schedule. The round-robin language addresses the current 10-team Big 12, which had a waiver previously approved because its conference schedule allowed every team to play one another in the regular season.
The oversight proposal — authored by the Pac-12, according to NCAA documents — is considered noncontroversial with widespread support among the 10 FBS conferences. There has been growing support to deregulate conference championship game requirements, thus enhancing access to the CFP.
“I just think people are trying to figure out how do they best position their teams into the CFP,” said that source familiar with the process. “I think that’s it. I think it’s giving each conference autonomy to decide how to get to the CFP whether that’s four [teams] or that ends up being 12.”
Matching the two best teams — as determined by each individual conference — lessens the possibility of an upset by an “inferior” team that could knock the conference out of the CFP.
“The feeling is this expanded playoff, whatever form it takes, you’re going to want your two best teams playing in the championship game,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told CBS Sports. “You know the risk when you have divisions. You can have a three-loss team that upsets somebody [higher ranked].”
The Big 12 reinstituted its championship game in 2015 after being left out of the first College Football Playoff in 2014. That year, Baylor and TCU tied for the league title. At the time, the Big 12 was the only conference that didn’t play a conference championship game. The league missed that first CFP because it was suggested by then-CFP Selection Committee chair Jeff Long the Big 12 lacked an extra “data point”.
In 2017, the Big 12 decided to match its two highest-ranked teams in a league title game to create a greater chance of getting into the CFP. It was able to do so as a single league because each team played nine games against the remaining teams in the conference.
Should the proposal be passed, even when expanding to 14 teams in 2023, the Big 12 could play with neither divisions nor a round-robin schedule and continue matching its two highest-ranked teams in its championship game. The Big 12 would then shrink to 12 teams in football beginning in 2025.
Two sources told CBS Sports the SEC may have slow-played the proposal perhaps out of retribution for the ACC not supporting expansion; however, the SEC is now on board.