Beginning in 2014, the champions of the SEC and the Big 12 will meet annually in a New Year’s Day bowl. That’s provided both champions are available, which neither figures to be. Which is why I’m a little confused about just how big this Big Game really is.
I’m less confused about the motivations for such a move. They are, as ever, money and power. Even if the actual conference champions won’t be playing in this game, it will still bear the imprint of the SEC, which in college football has become the only league that matters, and the Big 12, which by pairing with the almighty SEC is hoping that some of the glow is transferable.
If you’re the Big 12 and you were losing high-profile schools teams left and right — Colorado to the Pac-12, Nebraska to the Big Ten, Texas A&M and Missouri to the, er, SEC — that’s a major consideration. Recent rumblings about Florida State considering a move to the Big 12 offered a chilling indication that the great shuffle might only have reached halftime. Last summer the Big 12 seemed near collapse, and if Texas and/or Oklahoma ever choose to bolt that would be Game Over. But the Big 12 has found itself a new commissioner and now, in the SEC, a new contractual partner.
The Big 12 is desperate to ensure its continuing existence, and this new bowl will go a long ways toward doing that. Of the Big Six leagues, four have paired off: The Big Ten and the Pac-12 have been joined at the hip since before granddad had his first hip replacement, and now these two. Left hanging are the ACC and the Big East, the flimsiest of the big football leagues, and those two might be loath to form an alliance given that the former just raided the latter for Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
Apart from money and power — I know; you’re asking, “What else is there beyond money and power?” — this SEC/Big 12 game is a muddle. As we know, a four-team BCS playoff is surely at hand. As we know, the chances of the SEC and the Big 12 champions not being included among those four teams in a given year is all but moot. That would mean the new game will get lesser teams from the SEC and Big 12, which would mean, as Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman archly noted, that “the new agreement is really an enhanced agreement of the Cotton Bowl for the last decade.”
Some believe the so-called Champions Bowl could slide into the BCS playoff grid as a host site — SEC commissioner Mike Slive told the Birmingham News his new game “can be in the BCS or outside the BCS” – but the existing major bowls may be better positioned for those nods. (That’s unless the Big Ten and Pac-10 overplay their sanctity-0f-the-Rose-Bowl hand, which would leave a massive opening.) And really, if you’re the SEC and the Big 12, do you want to introduce and ballyhoo your new partnership as a championship test if it’s actually a BCS semifinal?
Then again, is it really a Champions Bowl if it includes the losers of the SEC and Big 12 title tilts? And for all the SEC’s cachet, would a New Year’s Day game that features a team (or teams) riding a one-game losing streak be quite the draw Slive has in mind?
In the attempt to be pro-active, the SEC and the Big 12 may be guilty of fighting a battle that has all but ended. They’re trotting out a new bowl at a time when the future, at long last, will belong to a playoff. The stand-alone BCS title game came to marginalize the other bowls, even the other BCS bowls. What will happen when you’ve got two semifinals and a final? Will anyone care about any games that aren’t part of the tournament?
Yes, some folks will care. Fans of the schools involved will care. The casual observer sitting home on New Year’s Day will click on the game. But clicking to check the score isn’t the same as caring deeply, and I’m not sure college football can have it both ways: You’ve got your 30-odd bowls on the one hand, the outcomes of which matter not, and on the other you’ll have a playoff, which will bring a true championship intensity to a sport that only recently has embraced such a concept.
Twenty years ago, the notion of Big Eight champ Oklahoma playing SEC champ Alabama on New Year’s day would have stirred the senses, but that was a time when we had to take whatever the bowls ladled out. As fat and profitable as they remain, bowls are yesterday’s news. Once the playoff arrives, only the playoff will matter.
By Mark Bradley