Photo Credit: The New York Times
In general, college football conference championships game mean nothing, especially when one division’s champion has three or four more wins than the other division’s champion. But perhaps no conference championship game was more notably meaningless than last year’s Big Ten (B1G) conference championship game, and that was a game that actually featured two of the nation’s top teams: the #6 Wisconsin Badgers and the #7 Penn State Nittany Lions.
Just a week before that game, the #2 Ohio State Buckeyes (10-1) and the #3 Michigan Wolverines (10-1) met in a regular season B1G contest featuring the conference’s two best teams. However, it was #7 Penn State (9-2) with the best chance of winning the East division and advancing to the conference championship game as long as Ohio State won at home at Penn State could take care of a lowly Michigan State team.
Well, Ohio State won and Penn State took care of MSU. So the game that featured the top two teams in the nation was effectively a 3rd place game for its own conference, which is kind of stupid to begin with, especially since Michigan stayed ranked ahead of Penn State and Wisconsin even after they lost to Ohio State (and rightfully so, as they slaughtered Penn State and beat Wisconsin).
So Penn State (10-2) and Wisconsin (10-2) battled for the B1G championship. They won their respective divisions, so while neither was probably even a top 2 team in the conference, they did what they had to do to get to the big game. Penn State won the game, but it’s what happened afterwards that makes this topic relevant heading into a new season.
Penn State (11-2) beat Ohio State (11-1) earlier in the season and they won the B1G championship. Yet it was the Buckeyes who got into the College Football Playoff (CFP), not the Nittany Lions. In a conference with four of the top 7 teams in the country, only one team made the CFP, and that team didn’t even make that conference’s championship game.
Everyone knew Ohio State vs. Michigan was pretty much the B1G championship to begin with. So what, exactly, was the point of having Penn State and Wisconsin, the 3rd and 4th best teams in the B1G, respectively, square off for the “official” B1G title when the winner had no chance at getting into the CFP anyway?
Here are a few things the NCAA could do to prevent this from happening again. The most basic solution would be to expand to an 8-team playoff. In the three years of the CFP, one conference has never had two teams in the semifinals in the same season. This would allow a conference to get two or even three teams into the CFP and allow teams outside of the top 4 to prove they can fight for the championship as well.
Another solution would be to effectively discount a conference champion’s worst game when selecting the four playoff teams. Obviously a four-loss conference champion shouldn’t be in the playoffs, but how about a two-loss champion like Penn State was, especially since they beat one-loss Ohio State, who got in, in the regular season? Why should bad losses be taken into consideration over great wins when the teams in the CFP are all going to be great teams?
Up until last season, the two CFP’s had featured zero or one-loss conference champions only. That changed this past season, when it came down to either a two-loss conference champion or a one-loss non-conference champion that lost to the champion in the regular season getting a spot in the CFP.
So how much do conference championship games really matter if a conference champion with one more loss than another team in their conference doesn’t get into the CFP and the team with one less loss does, like what happened with Penn State and Ohio State? Are we in for more B1G-like debacles in the near future?