Berry’s college football buffet: Conference title games about to get more important

Berry’s college football buffet: Conference title games about to get more important

With the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams, conference championship games will have even more intrigue. If the 12-team playoff was in place this year, OSU, Louisville and Iowa all still would be in the hunt for a playoff berth.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 29, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 29, 2023, 12:00pm CST

Conference Championship Week has arrived, and some lament the events that now are common in college football.

Since the Southeastern Conference got into the title game business in 1992, and the Big 12 followed suit in 1996, championship week has sprouted to where every league hands its trophy to the winner of the ultimate game.

Some critics say we should get rid of such showdowns. They cite title games that have lost their importance.

For instance, Texas Christian lost to Kansas State in overtime a year ago in the Big 12 title game, and not only did that outcome not keep the Horned Frogs out of the four-team College Football Playoff, TCU didn’t even drop in the playoff committee’s rankings. The Frogs stayed at No. 3.

But why would we get rid of competitive games involving quality teams? If we’re going to trim games from the schedule, let’s start with the horrific mismatches that dominate the September schedules.

Saturday, Georgia plays Alabama in the SEC title game and Michigan plays Iowa in the Big Ten championship.

Here are six of Georgia’s and Michigan’s combined seven non-conference games this season: Bowling Green, Tennessee-Martin, Nevada-Las Vegas, Ball State, East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham.

And we want to get rid of Georgia-Alabama and Michigan-Iowa?

That’s nonsense. Especially since next year, with the College Football Playoff expanding to 12 teams, conference championship games will have even more intrigue.

If the 12-team playoff was in place this year, OSU, Louisville and Iowa all still would be in the hunt for a playoff berth. Win their title game, and those teams would be in, perhaps even with a bye into the national quarterfinals.

As is, that trio is trying to play its way into a major bowl, but those bowls have become watered-down. The 12-team playoff will not be watered down.

In 2024, the conference title games also will be for playoff positioning. Washington-Oregon and Alabama-Georgia would be for a first-round bye, with the loser still hoping for a first-round home game in the playoff.

Those games will be even more spicy. More relevant. Why get rid of them now, just when they’re about to blossom?

National rankings: The race at 12-1

Four unbeaten teams go into Championship Game Week, which is quite rare of course. You have to go back to the pre-playoff era to find such a logjam.

Maybe to 1973, when the regular season ended with three 11-0 teams (Alabama, Penn State and Notre Dame) and three 10-0-1 teams (OU, Michigan, Ohio State).

If all four unbeatens win this weekend, the committee is off the hook. Seems clear the committee will select Georgia (which plays Alabama in the SEC title game), Michigan (Iowa in the Big Ten), Washington (Oregon in the Pac-12) and Florida State (Louisville in the Atlantic Coast).

But if someone stumbles, a quartet of 11-1 teams stand ready to take their place: Oregon, Alabama, Texas (which plays OSU in the Big 12 title game) and Ohio State (which does not play).

The committee ranks them No. 5 Oregon, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Texas and No. 8 Alabama.

Committee chairman Boo Corrigan was asked this week how those rankings came to be.

“Well, what I’d share with you, a lot of conversation early when we went into the room, at the end of the day, and then coming back again this morning to make sure that we were hearing every opinion,” Corrigan said Tuesday night.

“The good news is everyone is weighing in to everything, where their opinions are, what their point is on each one of those teams. All 11-1, all with good wins, all obviously have lost a game, and looking at it and as we came through the evaluation of that, after weighing many points and making sure that we took our time going through it, we ended up where we did at 5, 6, 7 and 8.”

Here’s the simple case for those 11-1 teams.

Oregon lost at Washington but has beaten Utah, Oregon State and Southern Cal.

Ohio State lost at Michigan but has beaten Notre Dame and Penn State.

Texas lost to OU in Dallas but has beaten Alabama, Iowa State and Kansas State.

Alabama lost to Texas but has beaten Ole Miss, Louisiana State and Tennessee.

Hard to distinguish from that group except Texas beat Alabama. In Tuscaloosa. That’s why I have the Longhorns ranked fifth.

“Head-to-head is head-to-head, no matter when the game is played, and that’s how we look at it,” Corrigan said.

“Again, it is close. As we look at it, you can look at any part of what we’re doing when you get here in the different groupings and everything that we do, but two really good teams that have had really good years.”

Here are my rankings:

  1. Washington (12-0): Lots of good wins for the Huskies, but they’ve got to get one more, else it’s the consolation Fiesta Bowl.
  2. Michigan (12-0): All the unbeatens except Washington had relatively easy schedules. Maybe that explains why they’re unbeaten.
  3. Georgia (12-0): The Bulldogs’ schedule has heated up, and their dominance has gone down. Interesting.
  4. Florida State (12-0): Hard to build a big-time resume’ in the ACC. Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh. Lots of mediocre opponents for the Seminoles.
  5. Texas (11-1): I came close to ranking the Longhorns (and Alabama) ahead of the Seminoles.
  6. Alabama (11-1): The committee likes Oregon and Ohio State above Texas and Bama. I don’t see it.
  7. Oregon (11-1): The Ducks missed Arizona and UCLA on the Pac-12 schedule.
  8. Ohio State (11-1): The shallowness of the Big Ten brings down the Buckeyes.
  9. Penn State (10-2): For a Big Ten schedule, the Nittany Lions did OK.
  10. Ole Miss (10-2): Last week, I had Missouri and OU ranked 9-10. Not much difference in any of these teams.

Upset special: UNLV over Boise State

Ada High School graduate Barry Odom was fired after four seasons coaching Missouri, during which he had a 25-25 record (2016-19). 

Mizzou is not an easy job, since the SEC is not an easy league, but you really couldn’t blame the decision-makers in Columbia. It’s a tough business. 

But Odom had been a good coordinator under Pinkel during some really good Missouri seasons, and Odom is a Mizzou grad. There were some who thought he got a raw deal.

Now Odom is restoring his coaching reputation. Hired a year ago by Nevada-Las Vegas, Odom has led the Rebels to their best season in almost 40 years. UNLV is 9-3 and finished in a three-way tie atop the Mountain West Conference, along with Boise State and San Jose State. Computer rankings elevated the Rebs to the No. 1 seed, so they host the league title game Saturday against Boise State.

Odom hit the transfer portal hard and has shown that he can rebuild a program quickly. Odom was mentioned prominently for the Mississippi State job that went to OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.

Expect Odom’s name to float to the top of lists, if not this year, then certainly next. UNLV is a two-point underdog against Boise State, but let’s go with Odom in the upset.

Coach on the hot seat: Nick Saban

Nick Saban’s first SEC title came in 2009. In the following two years, Auburn and Louisiana State won the conference title. And that’s the last time Saban went back-to-back years without an SEC championship.

Alabama won the SEC in 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021.

But Saban’s 2021 team lost to Georgia 33-18 in the national championship game, and his 2022 Crimson Tide didn’t make the College Football Playoff.

Meanwhile, Georgia has won back-to-back national titles and an SEC-record 29 straight games. The Bulldogs look more and more like the new college football dynasty, and while Alabama hasn’t fallen far — the Tide is 11-1 and ranked eighth — it has fallen.

Saban’s dominance has given way to the dominance of a protege, Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide play Saturday in Atlanta’s SEC Championship Game. Saban is the ultimate made man, but the pressure is on for him to get Alabama back in the championship picture and to slow Georgia’s command of the sport.

Ranking the conference-title games

  1. Georgia vs. Alabama in Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday, CBS: I know it seems like Bama-Georgia is the SEC matchup every year, but this is just the third time since 2012 that the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs will meet in Atlanta in the SEC’s marquee event. The others were 2018 and 2021.
  2. Oregon vs. Washington in Las Vegas, 7 p.m. Friday: What a shame the Pac-12 is disintegrating, just as the league shines its brightest. Of course, if Michigan, Florida State, Oregon, Texas and Alabama all win, might the committee keep the Ducks out, just so it can take Bama and Texas?
  3. Louisville vs. Florida State in Charlotte, 7 p.m. Saturday, ABC: The Cardinals sure could do the committee a solid by upsetting the now-quarterback-challenged Seminoles. But Florida State seems perfectly equipped to avoid that fate.
  4. Oklahoma State vs. Texas in Arlington, 11 a.m. Saturday, ABC: We’ve spent so much time lamenting Bedlam that we haven’t had time to mourn the end of this rivalry. Texas leads the series 17-10 in the Big 12  era, but the Cowboys have won nine of the last 13. And when the Longhorns were dominating, they needed wild comebacks — they won 38-35 in 2007, after OSU led 35-14; 47-28 in 2005, after OSU led 28-9; 56-35 in 2004, after OSU led 35-7. This has been an orange blossom special. So long.
  5. Michigan vs. Iowa in Indianapolis, 7 p.m. Saturday, Fox: Jim Harbaugh is back from a three-game suspension. Not that the Wolverines need him to score the 11 points required to win this game.
  6. Southern Methodist at Tulane, 3 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Tulane’s Willie Fritz is mentioned as a possible replacement for Dana Holgorsen at Houston. But I think I’d stay at Tulane. 
  7. New Mexico State at Liberty, 6 p.m. Friday, CBS Sports Network: Jamey Chadwell, coach of unbeaten Liberty, is weaving another mid-major success story. He did the same thing at Coastal Carolina.
  8. Boise State at Nevada-Las Vegas, 2 p.m. Saturday, Fox: Boise State interim coach Spencer Danielson has won two straight since taking over for the fired Andy Avalos and now is a candidate for the full-time job.
  9. Miami-Ohio vs. Toledo in Detroit, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN: Toledo coach Jason Candle should be a candidate for a Big Ten job. Since taking over after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State, Candle is 65-33 in nine seasons. He’s still only 44 years old. Toledo is an excellent place to shop for a coach — Saban, Gary Pinkel, Campbell.
  10. Appalachian State at Troy, 3 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Troy has the most Sun Belt titles, seven, of any program in the league. And Appalachian State has won or tied for first in the league four of the last seven years. But both schools know that James Madison looms as the coming power.

Big 12 rankings: Conference scheduling matters more than ever

Unbalanced schedules came to Big 12 football in 2023. After 12 years of round-robin play, the Big 12 expanded to 14 schools this season and will be at 16 next year. With no divisions.

The same format was adopted this season by the ACC and will be adopted next year by the Big Ten and SEC. 

This means the luck of the draw is going to have a profound effect on the standings. Teams with easier schedules will have an easier path to the conference championship games.

And the 2023 Big 12 season was a great example of how schedules can impact a team’s success.

For example, Brigham Young went 5-7 overall, failing to become bowl eligible. The Cougars were 2-7 in Big 12 play.

But BYU played the Big 12’s toughest conference schedule. The Cougars missed out on Baylor and Houston, which also were 2-7, and BYU drew Texas (which finished 8-1), OSU and OU (each 7-2), and West Virginia and Iowa State (each 6-3). The Cougars thus played five of the top six teams in the standings.

The conference record for BYU’s Big 12 opponents, minus their games against the Cougars: 42-30.

Compare that to West Virginia, which skipped Texas, K-State, Kansas and Iowa State. Seven teams other than West Virginia finished with a winning Big 12 record. The Mountaineers played just three of them.

The conference record for WVU’s Big 12 opponents, minus their games against the Mountaineers: 29-43.

Think that made a difference in BYU going 5-7 and West Virginia going 8-4?

Here are my final Big 12 rankings of the season, accompanied by their strength of conference schedule:

  1. Texas (11-1, 8-1): The Longhorns had the most equitable schedule possible — its Big 12 foes went 36-36 in conference games not involving the Longhorns, plus UT had four home games, four road games and one neutral-site game.
  2. Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2): The Sooners played the third-toughest conference schedule, 39-33.
  3. Oklahoma State (9-3, 7-2): The Cowboys matched Texas in schedule toughness, tied for seventh at 36-36. But the Cowboys did get five home games.
  4. Kansas State (8-4, 6-3): The Wildcats tied for the fourth-toughest schedule, 38-34. The Wildcats missed out on last-place Cincinnati and BYU.
  5. West Virginia (8-4, 6-3): The schedule isn’t the only reason for the Mountaineers’ excellent season, but it sure didn’t hurt. However, WVU also played two non-conference power-league teams (Penn State, Pittsburgh), so the Mountaineers more than made up for it.
  6. Iowa State (7-5, 6-3): The Cyclones also were tied for fourth, 38-34. They got all three of the top teams (Texas, OSU, OU) but also three of the four bottom teams (Cincinnati, BYU, Baylor).
  7. Kansas (8-4, 5-4): Remarkable season for the Jayhawks, who had the second-toughest Big 12 schedule, 41-31. KU played Texas, OU, OSU, K-State and Iowa State.
  8. Texas Tech (6-6, 5-4): The Red Raiders were gifted with an easy schedule, 33-39. No OU, no OSU, no Iowa State.
  9. Central Florida (6-6, 3-6): Another easy schedule; the Knights’ foes were 33-39 in non-UCF games, though the Knights got only four home games.
  10. TCU (5-7, 3-6): A fairly tough schedule, 38-34. The Horned Frogs missed out on OSU but got all the other top six teams in the league.
  11. Brigham Young (5-7, 2-7): Not only did the Cougars play that rugged schedule, the Cougars had just four conference home games.
  12. Baylor (3-9, 2-7): Uh-oh. The Bears had a miserable season and played an easy schedule, 33-39, plus five home games. Baylor missed both OSU and OU.
  13. Houston (4-8, 2-7): Same with the Cougars. Rough season, easy schedule. Houston’s foes went 34-38, and the Cougars had five home games.
  14. Cincinnati (3-9, 1-8): Good gravy, the same thing. Debilitating season, easy schedule. The Bearcats’ foes went 32-40, giving UC the 13th-easiest schedule, plus Cincinnati had five home games.
Share with your crowd
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].

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; The Oklahoma City Thunder bench watch the final minute of their game against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Does OKC need more Aaron Wiggins?

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fans cheer as their team scores against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Thunder-Mavericks: Why these playoffs might spawn a new OKC rival

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket beside Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    OKC fans chanted ‘Luka sucks,’ but Doncic’s play said otherwise

  • Tailgating on The Grove on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Ms., on Saturday September 15, 2018.

Pre309

    OU’s move to the SEC: Listing the things to look foward to

  • Ireland travelblog: Farewell to the Emerald Isle, which keep Americans coming

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; The Oklahoma City Thunder bench watch the final minute of their game against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Does OKC need more Aaron Wiggins?

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fans cheer as their team scores against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Thunder-Mavericks: Why these playoffs might spawn a new OKC rival

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket beside Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    OKC fans chanted ‘Luka sucks,’ but Doncic’s play said otherwise

  • Tailgating on The Grove on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Ms., on Saturday September 15, 2018.

Pre309

    OU’s move to the SEC: Listing the things to look foward to

  • Ireland travelblog: Farewell to the Emerald Isle, which keep Americans coming