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Bad Idea Time: Replace conference title games with FLEX GAMES

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Two teams in your conference can play a 13th game against each other. Spend it more wisely.

Getty Images. Banner Society illustration

Let’s start by agreeing on three things: conference title games are not always useful ...

Wikipedia

entertaining ...

Wikipedia

... or the best uses of anyone’s time.

However, let’s also agree having a 13th game is a valuable property for each conference, and the Saturday right before Selection Sunday should be full of as many meaningful — as in, entertaining for the viewer and constructive competition for as many teams as possible — games as it can be.

The key to improving everything about that final Saturday is in two of those words: “13th game.”

First, let’s back up to address the concern hanging over all of my silly ideas to follow.

One lasting misconception from 2014 is that Baylor and TCU missed the College Football Playoff because they didn’t play in a Big 12 Championship, which didn’t exist at the time.

In 2014, Ohio State getting to 12-1 was important, because the other bubble teams were only 11-1. Making that extra win one of the most impressive beatdowns of the decade was valuable. The fact that this 13th game was at a neutral site with a Dr. Pepper scholarship toss on Championship Weekend Saturday? That part might not’ve mattered at all.

“Ohio State’s performance in a 13th game gave them a quality win over a highly ranked team,” committee spokesperson Jeff Long said, my emphasis added.

So:

  • The lesson the Big 12 should’ve taken from 2014: having a 13th game can help one of your teams into the Playoff.
  • The lesson the Big 12 chose to take from 2014: having a conference championship game can help one of your teams into the Playoff.

There’s a difference!

And as the next season would show, not forcing your best team to play a 13th game can be beneficial. Oklahoma got to cruise into the 2015 Playoff while the other contenders risked everything on Championship Saturday.

  • The lesson the Big 12 should’ve taken from 2015: having a 13th game can be good, but forcing your best team to play in a 13th game isn’t always good.
  • The lesson the Big 12 chose to take from 2015: STILL MAD ABOUT 2014.

Shortly after this, the Big 12 Championship returned. The old version had ruined four BCS Championship bids for Big 12 teams, and the revived version quickly cost TCU a New Year’s Six bowl.

But what if there were a way to get all the benefits of a 13th game ... without risking any bowl stakes?

Your conference’s neutral-site spectacle on Championship Saturday does not have to be A Conference Title Game. Wink, wink.

The NCAA’s requirement for conference title games is that they be:

(1) Between division champions of a conference that is divided into two divisions (as equally balanced in number as possible) and conducts round-robin, regular-season competition in each division; or (2) Between the top two teams in the conference standings following full round-robin regular season competition among all members of the conference.

I can’t find anything else in the Division I manual that specifies how your conference decides which teams win each side of your conference, however. The NCAA saying you must use round-robin scheduling certainly implies you should base your standings on win-loss record. But is that made explicit?

Also, every conference has a unique list of standings tiebreaker rules, and some of those eventually come down to coin flips or random draws. Who’s to say the first item on your conference’s list couldn’t be a — wink, wink — random draw? Find me an explicit NCAA rule against it.

Yes, I’m suggesting we rig our random draw so we can select which teams appear in our 13th game. (Or maybe we just base it on a conference power ranking. I mean, if we can rank the entire top 25 based on what a shadowy backroom thinks, why not one lil ole conference?)

Here are some shenanigans to get away with before the NCAA shuts down our operation.

1. If your conference’s best team is already pre-booked for the Playoff, like 2015 Oklahoma was, don’t risk that spot! Instead, use your 13th game to try to improve a different team’s bowl chances.

That year, Oklahoma State got the Big 12’s Sugar Bowl bid because OSU had beaten TCU — despite TCU finishing clearly superior and as the CFP’s higher-ranked team. In your 13th game, give TCU a rematch against Oklahoma State. There would’ve been no business downside for the Big 12:

  • If TCU beats Oklahoma State, you get to send a better rep to a far more hyped Sugar Bowl against Ole Miss, a team TCU destroyed 12 months prior. Maybe your conference wins this game it lost IRL! And maybe Oklahoma State finds a more winnable bowl as well! (Let’s also stipulate one of these bowls must equal TCU’s 31-point Alamo Bowl comeback. We can’t give that up.)
  • If Oklahoma State beats TCU, cool! Now they’re a non-embarrassing NY6 team. The conference made some money off its 13th game and can give some of it to its student-athletes! (Fine, there are actually clear NCAA rules against that, but we’re pushing the envelope. The envelope full of cash. Into players’ hands.)

2. If your conference’s best team is on the bubble, assess exactly how big of a win they might need.

Could beating a .500 team do it? What about adding a road win against a bad team? Do they need to beat a top-20 team? Assess your options. Ideally, you can pick an opponent without much to lose and with something to gain from a potential win.

In this situation, you have to risk your best team’s record anyway — so make it a targeted risk, both in terms of opponent and venue.

3. If your conference had any scheduling issues that might damage any of your teams’ bowl chances, use your conference’s 13th game to make them up.

When 2017 Florida State hastily rescheduled ULM just to make the Independence Bowl, that was sad.

Imagine FSU instead playing in “the ACC Championship” against a Georgia Tech that likewise could’ve used a shot at a sixth win! Now we’re having fun! (And it’s not like Clemson needed that game in order to make the Playoff that year.)

4. If you’re satisfied with all your teams’ postseason chances, just schedule the 13th game that will make everyone the happiest.

Hey, Big Ten. After 2014 Indiana beat SEC East champ Mizzou and then finished 4-8, you should’ve let Indiana play in a 13th game called The Actual 2014 SEC East Championship, Brought To You By The Big Ten.

(Actually, Big Ten, you should give almost every Indiana team one final shot to take down a top-15 team, just to keep whittling away at probability.)

5. Does a school in your conference need a tactful way to get its longtime program architect to step down? Offer your 13th game as a goodbye ceremony.

  • Telling your 30-year local hero head coach to retire after the nationally ignored Old Metal Rivalry Trophy Game against Directional State: he’s gonna make this awkward.
  • Telling your 30-year local hero head coach to retire after “the conference championship” on primetime TV: sending him out on a big stage!

6. Let your bowl-banned team play a postseason game after all!

This is against NCAA rules, which is of minimal concern to our conference at this point.

7. If you have two genuine contenders, play a traditional conference championship.

THIS is when you play a 2014 Baylor-TCU 13th game. They can’t both make it, but one might power the other into the field.

Also, let’s use basketball-style conference title banners in order to make sure everybody walks away with something.

You can give your actual best team the regular season conference championship and, if need be, award the underdog winner of your rigged 13th game the conference tournament championship.

If the NCAA catches on to our genius scheme, we will find more loopholes to exploit.

Let’s work out a deal with Hawaii. This is aimed at a different NCAA rule: teams that leave the Mainland can schedule 13th games to make up travel costs. If we can get our two chosen teams to play non-con games in Honolulu in the weeks before Championship Saturday, they’ll both be eligible to play a 13th game, which we can orchestrate as a non-conference — wink, wink — game right before Selection Sunday.

Alternatively, we can found a college football team in Alaska or Puerto Rico and add it to our conference. The same NCAA rule applies.

The thing is, it turns out our newly added Juneau Wildcats have a satellite campus in Lexington, which happens to host most Juneau-Kentucky football games. You know, kind of like how Arkansas has two different home stadiums. All very normal.

Then, we sneak Bama and Georgia way northwest in late November for (indoor) games against the Juneau-Kentucky Wildcats*.

Behold: we can now have a résumé-boosting Bama-Georgia “non-conference” game meant to earn the winner the #4 seed ... while LSU rests up with its top-two seed already clinched.

* Won’t facing Kentucky’s JV team ruin our strength of schedule, even if Kentucky’s JV team gets to host in Alaska? No, facing Kentucky’s JV team in Alaska is as valid as Big Ten teams getting to consider Rutgers a “conference game.”