The Big Ten finally has a showcase event to cap its football season, kicking off the inaugural Big Ten championship game this Saturday at 8:17 p.m. ET in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with Legends Division champ Michigan State playing Leaders Division champ Wisconsin.
“It’s a chance to celebrate the conference,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “It’s a culminating event. And I think it will extend the watchful eye of the fan base on through early December. That hasn’t been the case with our season usually ending before Thanksgiving.”
Unlike previous seasons, the Big Ten tended to fade from the national consciousness by early December. The conference had wrapped up play in November before Thanksgiving, while other leagues played on with a chance to improve their poll standings.
The most poignant example was 2007. With the Big Ten season finished, Ohio State sat No. 1 in the BCS poll with a secure spot in the title game. USC was No. 2, Michigan No. 3 and Florida No. 4. The Trojans lost to UCLA, while the Gators beat the Razorbacks in the SEC title game. But instead of the Wolverines moving up to the No. 2 slot in the final BCS poll, Florida jumped Michigan to claim a BCS title game slot opposite Ohio State. Had the Michigan played that weekend and won, it may not have been leaped in the poll.
While a league title game can serve as a catapult to the BCS title game, it also can ruin a team’s chances to play in the national championship game. League championships are another hurdle for BCS title game contenders to have to clear. And, as history shows, they can be fatal.
“Sometimes, it is really special,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “But when you are undefeated and still have that hurdle to cross, and you look at other teams that aren’t playing them and are sitting there and waiting, it isn’t the best situation.”
The Big 12 title game, which no longer exists, was the most damaging. In 1996, Nebraska saw its title hopes trashed by unranked Texas. In 1998, No. 2 Kansas State’s BCS run was ruined by Texas A&M. Missouri was primed for a trip to the BCS championship game in 2007 before being dumped by Oklahoma. It also almost happened in 2003, when the No. 1 Sooners lost to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game but still found a way to the BCS championship.
In the SEC, which will conduct its 20th league title game this weekend, Tennessee just needed to knock off LSU in the 2001 SEC championship tilt to play in the BCS title game—but lost.
The 2001 Nebraska team was a beneficiary of not having to play in the Big 12 title game, as the Cornhuskers got to the BCS title game without even playing in the Big 12 championship game. Alabama looks to become the second team to pull off the oddity this year, as the Crimson Tide sits No. 2 in the BCS poll and doesn’t appear to be in peril of being jumped regardless of any outcomes this weekend.
“If we are undefeated and racing for the national championship, no, I won’t miss it,” Stoops said. “If we are out of the national championship picture, then it is pretty neat and special to have that game. Does that make sense?”
The Big Ten has no such worries about a team damaging its national title hopes in its maiden game, as neither Wisconsin nor Michigan State is primed to play in the BCS title game. But one day, a Big Ten team will enter the league title game needing a win to advance to the BCS championship game.
“I’ve never seen a great advantage (of having a league title game) from a coaching standpoint,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “I think this is just a sign of the times and the way and direction that college football is going.”
Indeed, there are now four automatic qualifying leagues that conduct conference title games: ACC (which began in 2005), SEC (1992), Big Ten and Pac-12, which like the Big Ten is conducting its first league championship game this season after adding Utah and Colorado to grow to 12 teams. The Big 12 had a title game from 1996-2010 but dropped it after failing to maintain membership at 12 teams, which is an NCAA requirements for having one. The league could grow to 12 again in the future and re-institute it. The Big East also could grow to 12 teams as soon as next year, as it continues to explore expansion possibilities.
Even some non-automatic qualifying leagues have gotten into the championship game business in recent years, with C-USA (2005) and the MAC (1997) holding league title games.
In addition to perhaps augmenting a Big Ten team’s BCS title game chances, the Big Ten championship game also will pad the conference’s bottom line in a nationally televised event that figures to annually be a sold-out event.
“I don’t think the Big Ten championship game will be as lucrative as the SEC’s,” said Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis who is the founder of Sportsimpacts.net, a sports consulting firm that specializes in marketing research and economic-impact studies for sporting events. “The fan avidity among SEC fans is unmatched in college football.
“That said, the Big Ten championship game will likely become a close second in terms of stature and prominence, given the history of the schools and the positive marketing power that the Big Ten Network exercises during the season by promoting the Big Ten brand.”
If the Big 12 and Big East each grows to 12 teams and adds a league title game, that means all of the “Big Six” conferences will be structured the same. Could that lead to a national playoff?
“Some people who are into structure look at it that way,” Delany said. “We pushed hard to get the Rose Bowl in the BCS in ’97 and ’98. Keep the Rose Bowl healthy and alive, and grow it, improve and enhance the bowl system.
“If the Rose Bowl is healthy, that would make the establishment of a NFL-style playoff more difficult. I don’t see our expansion to a championship as anything other than a move intended to strengthen the Rose Bowl and the conference’s regular season. It’s the same objectives we had when we went into the BCS. It’s really not tied to a football playoff.”
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.