There's a palpable excitement circulating through the cyber-air of the sundry football internets.
And it's more than just the usual low-voltage electricity driving the digital electronic devices that graciously host our rhetorical nitwittery. It's PAC-16 fever! Can you feel it? Symptoms of this disease include irrational affection for the state of California, nausea at the mere thought of corn, pity for unfortunate songbirds who have been sucked into a vicious tornado, and an inexplicable desire to add members to a group until it reaches an illogical and unsustainable size.
Look, I'm as excited as the next guy about shedding the dead weight in the Big XII. *cough*iowastate*cough*. But I fear that ditching one 12-team conference for a new 16-team conference will only exasperate one of the most annoying problems of modern college football: the conference championship game.
Over the 14-year history of the Big XII, the conference championship game has typically served one of two functions: (1) eliminating the conference's best team from national title contention and (2) adding an unnecessary risk of injury to the best team's season. The two most highly-ranked Big XII teams have met in the CCG in only 3 (or 4 - more on that in a minute) seasons since 1996. In other words, the CCG serves its intended role - i.e. determining a champion from the two best candidates - only 20-25% of the time. In the vast majority of years, the CCG simply adds another hurdle for the conference's best national title candidate, without resolving any lingering doubts about which is the conference's truly best team.
Some particularly glaring examples of the flawed championship game system point out the multitude of ways that the CCG can fuck up the conference's post-season hopes:
1996: Texas, probably the 4th or 5th best team in the conference, pulls out a stunning upset of #3 Nebraska ... and then goes on to get embarrassed by Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. NU, the clear best team in the Big XII, sees its national title hopes dashed.
2001: This game arguably pitted the #1 and #2 teams against each other (Colorado having beaten barely-higher-ranked Nebraska). However, Texas was the better team and had already destroyed Colorado in a lop-sided mid-season game. A massive quarterbacking meltdown hands Colorado the title, and keeps Texas out of the MNC game.
2002: Oklahoma and Colorado play in the title game, despite the fact that Kansas State is ranked higher than both. Colorado is, according to the AP poll, #4 in conference.
2003: K-State, the third best team in the Big XII, clobbers top team Oklahoma. But, because they're Oklahoma, they are still given the opportunity to embarrass themselves in the national title game.
2004: Colorado, at best the 5th best team in conference, gets a shot at the conference championship because the best four teams are all in the South Division. They lose, 42-3.
2005: Colorado, at best the 4th best team in conference, gets a shot at the conference championship because the best three teams are all in the South Division. They lose, 70-3.
2009: Mizzou, the fifth best team in the conference, represents the North. The South is stacked. Due to a bizarre tie-breaker scenario and last-second upset loss in Lubbock, top team Texas is frozen out and the second-best team in the conference represents the South in the CCG.
The conference championship game is usually just an absurd appendage on the season. I would argue that 1998 and 2000 are the only years in which (a) there was a reasonable doubt about the identity of the conference's best team and (b) the conference championship game offered an opportunity to settle the debate.
Due to the seriously unbalanced schedule that will accompany a 16-team conference, the problem may only get worse in the PAC-16. Teams within the same division will likely play inequitable cross-divisional schedules, such that the best team in a given division may lose its CCG birth because of losses in cross-divisional play. Just imagine a scenario where Texas drubs Oklahoma, but misses the CCG because it loses close games to USC and Oregon while OU ekes out victories against Stanford and Washington.
One thing going for the PAC-16 is that the divisions appear more balanced than they are in the Big XII. As of today, Texas and OU roughly correspond to USC and Oregon. But USC will be seriously hurt by the recent NCAA sanctions and Oregon's roster of behavioral problems rests perpetually on the brink of total collapse. It remains to be seen whether sleeping giants like Washington and UCLA will take advantage of USC's hiatus.
If USC can weather the NCAA-levied storm and return to dominance, then the conference's championship game could be an annual classic. Otherwise, I expect the same yearly garbage game we've seen in the Big XII era: either OU or Texas plays an extra conference game that can't help, and can only hurt, its post-season aspirations.