Big 12 dilemma: Two automatic berths in a 14-team playoff would have come at a price

Big 12 dilemma: Two automatic berths in a 14-team playoff would have come at a price

Two guaranteed berths should look awfully good to the Big 12, which some years might garner just one. And the Big 12 will be hard-pressed to ever be granted one of those first-round byes.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 31, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 31, 2024, 6:00am CDT

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Mike Gundy imagines college football being run a certain way. Frankly, Gundy imagines college football being run the same way we all imagine the sport is run.

“The guy at the SEC, Shankey?” Gundy said, referring to commissioner Greg Sankey. “That guy and the Big Ten commissioner (Tony Petitti), they kind of huddle and try to play some power games, right?”

Who wants to argue with Gundy? I don’t know why anyone would. He seems to have it nailed perfectly.

The shakeout of college football — consolidation of most big brands into two conferences, elimination of at least one league — has led to shakedowns.

The recent College Football Playoff negotiations are Exhibit A. The playoff will expand from a 12-team format, which hasn’t even been tested yet, to a 14-team format in 2026.

The SEC and Big Ten indeed tried a power play. They floated a plan in which their champions not only would get a minimum number of berths (proposing four each, though that was whittled to three a piece), but their champions would get the two first-round byes that accompany a 14-team format.

Public opinion was swift and loud, and the SEC and Big Ten backed down to a more egalitarian system of letting the market (the playoff committee) determine those perks. Of course, the bargaining had its downside to the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference, particularly major financial concessions that are anything but egalitarian.

“What do they say? In a compromise, if both sides feel like they give up too much, we’ve probably landed in the right place?” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione, who was a Big 12 athletic director (at Missouri) when the league was formed in 1995, and who remains a Big 12 AD for three more months, before the Sooners join the SEC.

“Is it perfect? No. But it certainly, I believe anyway, it’s part of moving this model forward.”

Big 12 dilemma

All the backroom dickering made me think. Should the Big 12 have played along initially? Should the Big 12 have accepted the rich-get-richer terms of playoff access, or kept fighting the good fight?

In the final SEC/Big Ten plan, each of those leagues would get a minimum of three teams in the 14-team playoff, while the Big 12 and ACC each would get a minimum of two.

Truth is, two guaranteed berths should look awfully good to the Big 12, which some years might garner just one. 

Truth is, the Big 12 will be hard-pressed to ever be granted one of those first-round byes.

The reality is clear. The SEC and Big Ten do run college football. Sometimes, making bricks without straw is better than being sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army.

Sometimes, getting muscled around by bullies leads to self-preservation of living to fight another day.

But no, says Gundy.

“I didn’t think it was good,” Gundy said of the 3-3-2-2 proposal for minimum berths. “I think we should play it off on the field.

“Everybody’s watching basketball now because everybody that got in has a chance. Now, some schools, the odds are not for you, but you still had a chance.

“Last year we had San Diego State and Florida Atlantic in the Final Four. That’s why they play the tournament. So why not do it in college football?”

It’s a noble question. But football is not basketball. 

Cinderella stories are going to be few on the gridiron. It’s hard to imagine more than the one required mid-major to be in the 14-team playoff. Those showdowns will be big-money, high-profile games. They aren’t on TruTV at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, as are some NCAA Tournament games.

The moneylust in football is mighty. The football committee will deploy parameters that favor the power conferences. The Big Ten and SEC lord over the Big 12 and ACC, which lord over the Sun Belt, American, Mountain West, Conference USA and  Mid-American conferences.

The SEC and Big Ten were throwing around their weight because they could. It’s hard to imagine a scenario by which they wouldn’t get a minimum of three teams in. Or even four.

With a 3-3-2-2 format, plus one reserved for the mid-majors, that still leaves three openings. All likely to go to the Big Ten and SEC.

Should the Big 12 not have been in take-what-you-can-get mode?

“The 12-team playoff, 14-team, whatever, I think that’s great,” Gundy said. “Whoever’s paying the money’s going to make those decisions, but everybody should get a fair shot. And you can’t just (in) preseason say, this group gets three or four in. What if it doesn’t work out that way?

“I’ve got respect for every conference, but here’s the deal. If you’re good enough, you’ll get in. Why do you have to do it preseason?”

Let’s break this down to something simple. A 10-2 Kansas State vs. a 9-3 Tennessee, for the final spot in the playoff. The hypothetical Vols would argue strength of schedule, and that might even be solid reasoning most years.

But not every year. The expanded SEC, with 16 teams and still just an eight-game league schedule, means some conference schedules won’t be as rugged as the hype says. The expanded Big 12, with 16 teams and a nine-game schedule, could have a squad playing an inordinate number of the league’s better teams.

Does the Big 12 really believe the committee will give that 10-2 K-State team a fair trial? That’s an awfully lot of trust in a system that long has shown to be tilted toward the powerful.

“You’re right,” Gundy said of the risks of the Big 12 allowing for just one guaranteed berth in the 14-team field. “You never know. But the point being is if we only deserve one, then we should only get one. If we don’t deserve any, we shouldn’t get any.

“If the ACC comes out and they’re killing it, and they got four guys, they get four in. Why not play it off?”

Doing away with minimums for each conference, be it the 3-3-2-2 model or something else, avoids the stigma of a class system. The 3-3-2-2 plan officially would have created a divide. The House of Lords and the House of Commons. An upper class and a middle class. The other side of the tracks.

Those designations already exist, of course, but they aren’t official. They aren’t documented. The Big Ten and SEC get more television money, determined by the marketplace, but there is no official decree of status.

“Nobody wants the perception that these schools get this, this, this and this, and these schools don’t,” Gundy said. “But right now, that perception’s out there.

“ESPN and Fox and Peacock and Amazon and whoever’s minding TV rights, they can pay who they want, because it’s free enterprise. But if we’re going to set rules and standards, it needs to be equal for everybody in my opinion, if you want the strength of college football as high as it is for a long period of time.”

Television money is why the SEC and Big Ten compromised on the playoff. Castiglione admitted that the playoff financial payouts were more important than the distribution of berths.

Reports say the financial allotments will be $21 million annually for SEC and Big Ten members, while the ACC school will get $13 million, the Big 12 programs about $12 million and Notre Dame about $12 million, with the mid-majors sharing fractions of those figures.

Those numbers are based on past playoff appearances and performances, and there is a 2028 window in which the distributions can be adjusted.

“This is me speculating, I really don’t know,” Castiglione said of the compromises. “It’s possible conversations took place, and they realized that to move this along, this was the deal worth accepting.”

The 14-team playoff figures to be good for college football. It gives many more teams a chance at the big stage, and it figures to enhance a regular season that can be staid, because of weak schedules early and meaningless games late.

“What we’re seeing is such parity in the sport,” Castiglione said. “I always say that if the postseason creates a stronger regular season, then we’ve done our job the right way. If it weakens the regular season, then we’ve put cracks in the foundation.

“Every program has their own regular season, and that’s what matters the most. I get it, we want to have an exciting postseason. Of course we want to do that. But we have to always underscore the importance of the regular season in football, because that’s the bread and butter for every university that sponsors football.” 

Preserving the sport

Sankey has been on record as saying he feels a duty to keep college football a national sport. That diluting the number of relevant programs is not good for the industry.

Of course, the SEC and Big Ten moves of the last few years have run counter to that aim. The SEC added OU and Texas, imperiling the Big 12. The Big Ten added Southern Cal, UCLA, Washington and Oregon, endangering the Pac-12.

Courtesy of commissioner Brett Yormark, the Big 12 won the war of attrition with the Pac-12, absorbing Arizona State, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The Pac-12 disintegrated, with California and Stanford joining the ACC, even though both happen to be within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean.

“Yormark’s on the outside listening,” Gundy said of the Big Ten/SEC axis, “but I think he’s involved more than people think, and I’ve got faith in him.”

Still, Gundy worries that college football could be permanently damaged if it limits the number of relevant programs.

So far, that has not happened. 

In fact, while the number of power conferences has decreased from five to four, the number of schools in the power conferences has increased, from 65 to 68. The Big 12 added Central Florida, Brigham Young, Houston and Cincinnati; the ACC also added Southern Methodist. Dropped down were Washington State and Oregon State.

The transfer portal, coupled with name/image/likeness money now going to athletes, has done what free agency always has done — spread out the talent. College football has the most parity it has experienced in decades.

But consolidation of power comes with problems. We’ve seen it in NASCAR, where a few ownership teams now dominate the sport, a variety of changes have been widely panned, and the sport has suffered over the last two decades, with television viewership reaching record lows and track attendance in rapid decline. 

“We don’t want to be NASCAR, where we’re doing all this, and we screwed it up, screw it up, screw it up,” Gundy said. “Now we’re down here. That can happen. Humans can screw things up really quick.

“So what we want to do is, hey, you know what, let’s keep a little bit of parity. I understand some leagues are going to get more money, it is what it is. They’ve been getting more money anyway.

“So let’s try to keep it somewhat in the same box … if all 68 teams have somewhat of a chance to get in the playoffs, people turn TVs on. People turn TVs on, then everybody makes money.”

But Gundy might be living in la-la land. He knows how the game is played. Commissioners Sankey and Petitti combining forces, setting agendas and compromising on things that might not matter, all in the name of making more money.

Will the parity endure, or will college football go the way of NASCAR?

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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