It’s not unreasonable to state that the modern era of college football began in 1992, when an Alabama defensive back named Antonio Langham stepped in front of a pass and returned it for touchdown, thereby punctuating a contest that ultimately wound up meaning more in the grand scheme than it did in the short term.
Here are the bare details, according to the Wiki machine: In the ’92 Southeastern Conference Championship Game, 11-0 Alabama defeated 8-3 Florida, 28-21, with Langham’s pick in the final minutes making the difference. Alabama went on to win the national championship; Alabama was clearly the best team in the SEC, and didn’t require another test against a three-loss team to prove this.
So why was this game so historically meaningful? Because it was the first postseason conference championship game in college football, and at the time there was a healthy amount of skepticism toward the whole concept of conference championship games. This is understandable in retrospect, since any time college football’s season sprawls outward, people get concerned that this might the moment the whole enterprise tips toward overkill.
For better or worse, the conference championship game spread like wildfire through the Bowl Championship Series era, as every major conference expanded outward to accommodate a pair of divisions (with the exception of the Incredible Shrinking Big 12, which we’ll get to in a moment). It turned out to be a good idea for that time period, and even as I look ravenously ahead to this weekend’s conference championship schedule, I am willing to admit that it is an idea whose time should soon pass.
Of course, it’s possible that Alabama will lose to underdog Missouri this weekend in the SEC Championship Game, or that Florida State will lose to underdog Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, or that Oregon will fall to Arizona for the second time this season in the Pac-12 title game. It’s not unfathomable to imagine that three of the top four teams in the playoff standings will lose this weekend, which will validate the short-term case for a conference championship game. But oddly enough, it’s the games that aren’t conference championship games that may wind up mattering the most on Saturday, which is why I’m starting to think the only conference that has correctly deciphered the future is the one that was forced, out of necessity, to axe its conference championship game altogether.
The Big 12 lost four teams over the course of the past several years, shrinking its total membership to ten and inspiring a whole genre of numerical humor (Why does the Big 12 have ten teams, and the Big Ten have 12?) that your accountant uncle and Jay Leno no doubt found unspeakably hilarious. This unintentional shrinkage is the only reason the Big 12 doesn’t have a championship game anymore, and it’s the only reason the Big 12 this season embraced the idea of a nine-game round-robin schedule among all 10 teams that would crown “One True Champion.”
That idea has been obfuscated, this time by a playoff committee that – at least heading into the final weekend of play – can’t seem to fathom the notion that a head-to-head result should probably mean more than esoteric attempts to apply the transitive property. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby admitted this week that the league with “One True Champion” may, in fact, crown co-champions, which is the kind of brilliantly nonsensical propagandizing that has long made college football one of the most fascinating political metaphors on the planet.
But here’s the thing: I still think the Big 12 got it right.
I admit I didn’t believe this until I spent a little time interviewing ESPN’s Chris Fowler, and Fowler brought up the idea of college football forming a bunch of 10-team conferences that do the same thing the Big 12 does: Play a round-robin nine-game conference schedule.
My first thought when I heard that was, This is a crazy idea. My second thought was, This will never work. But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about the seemingly inevitable notion that college football will expand to an eight-team playoff. And I thought of how the conferences could use this to grow even larger, and make even more money – imagine the Big Ten, SEC and ACC with 20 teams each, and the Big 12 with its current 10 (or also with 20), and/or say, a new conference with the best of the remaining FBS schools.
Now imagine the champions of these leagues as the eight playoff representatives. And imagine we compensate for that extra week of games by either eliminating the conference championship game, or incorporating the conference championship games as the first week of the playoff. It is not unfathomable, and it points to a future in which the conference championship game is either phased out altogether or folded into the playoff system in order to keep the length of the season under control.
I will admit, this is nothing more than a raw idea. Maybe this is not the idea, but any of these “mega-conference” expansions, for all their potential flaws, would preserve the notion that the regular season matters. They would preserve the notion that conference championships should mean something, and – given that there are clearly semi-intelligent people on the committee who still think TCU-Baylor is a legitimate debate, despite the head-to-head-result – they would allow for the kind of subjective, argumentative, headstrong combativeness that drives college football on a week-to-week basis.
The point is, I think there’s a future that preserves the best of every world. And most of the futures I envision would eliminate a weekend of games that is often thrilling, but has always felt a little bit gratuitous (even more so in the playoff era).
I mean, I’m glad these stand-alone conference championship games were born. I plan to watch every single one of them this weekend. But I look forward to the moment when they are rendered obsolete.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb