Trophies will be awarded. Champions will be crowned. A confetti cannon or two will likely be fired.
And after all the celebrating is done, there is a good chance at least one conference this weekend is going to have to deal with the fact that the ‘wrong team’ won its championship game and cost the loser a spot in the College Football Playoff.
As the playoff era begins, a number of questions about the future of conference championship games are emerging. Among them: What’s the best format? Should they even exist anymore?
Even when the Bowl Championship Series was being used to determine the teams in the national title game, conference championship games could be perilous. Plenty of teams have stumbled in their final steps to the national championship game while playing for a conference crown. It happened to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship last year.
Now with four spots and a selection committee sizing up the contenders, there is more uncertainty about how these showcase games will be factored into the process.
“We always felt during the BCS era that there were years where it was helpful and there were years that it could hurt. I suspect we’ll find the same thing during the playoff era,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford. How the committee evaluates a conference championship game is “a bit of an unknown right now.”
Swofford will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, Saturday to see Florida State, fourth in the last playoff rankings, face Georgia Tech for the ACC title. If the No. 11 Yellow Jackets upset the unbeaten Seminoles, there’s a good chance the ACC won’t have a team in the playoff.
The ACC and the Big 12 are in the process of trying to change NCAA rules regarding conference championship games. Currently, a conference must have at least 12 teams, split into two divisions and all the teams in that division must play each other.
The Big 12 has 10 teams. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has said the Big 12 has no plans to bring back its conference title game. But with autonomy on the way for the Big Five conferences, which essentially allows them to make their own rules, some wonder if it makes senses to allow conferences the freedom to determine a champion any way they want.
Swofford agrees. The ACC, with 14 teams in two divisions, has tossed around the idea of eliminating its divisions and having a championship game matching the two highest-ranked teams in the conference.
“If given the opportunity, I don’t know whether we would change or not,” Swofford said. “That would be up to our institutions. We’ve had some discussion about it without taking a formal vote.”
The Big Ten (Ohio State-Wisconsin), Southeastern Conference (Alabama-Missouri) and Pac-12 (Arizona-Oregon) will also hold championship games this weekend with playoff implications. Meanwhile, the Big 12 will conclude its regular season with playoff contenders TCU and Baylor both playing at home.
“I think the fact of the matter is there will be some years, like this one, where we feel just great about where we are. And there will be other years where we’ll say ‘Gee, we wish we had one more game to play because we might be able to differentiate ourselves,’ ” Bowlsby said.
The Pac-12 will play its fourth conference title game on Friday, but first on a neutral field. The Ducks and Wildcats meet in Santa Clara, California, at the new home of the San Francisco 49ers. Previously, the Pac-12 played its conference title game at the home field of the division winner with the best record.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said he likes the way division races have increased the importance of regular season games.
“The narrative in the Pac-12 has been really cool this year,” he said. “There has been the race to win the Pac-12 South, knowing that the prize is you get to go to Santa Clara and compete for a Pac-12 championship and possibly a playoff berth.”
Scott caused a bit of stir a couple weeks back when he mentioned that eight teams might be the ideal number for a playoff, not four. But in a sense the conference championship games already serve that purpose.
“In our world of college football I see the championship games as a preliminary round of the playoffs,” he said. “If you lose in that penultimate conference event, you lose and you’re out and I think people get that.”