COLUMBIA — A rollout rocked the national championship picture, and a Big 12 title game spoiler was born.
But was it a good thing?
It all happened during the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game in 1996 when Texas beat AP No. 3 Nebraska, 37-27, inside St. Louis’ Trans World Dome.
With 2:28 left and the unranked Longhorns clinging to a 30-27 lead, Texas was faced with fourth-and-inches from its own 29. Expecting Nebraska’s defense to stack the middle to try to stop the run, Texas coach John Mackovic called a play-action “roll” to the left side of his offense’s Power-I alignment.
Before kickoff, Texas coaches told players if a short fourth-down situation presented itself late, they would go for it. After all, they were trying to beat the two-time defending national champions, a juggernaut that had won 35 of its past 36 games since 1994.
“We had a timeout before the play,” said former Texas quarterback James Brown, a junior at the time, who is now a real estate appraiser in Austin, Texas. “We could have easily punted. We had the ball and the lead. It was a risky call, but Coach Mackovic was a risk-taker.”
The gamble turned golden. Brown floated a pass to wide-open sophomore tight end Derek Lewis, who sprinted behind the secondary to the Nebraska 10. One play later, senior running back Priest Holmes sealed the victory by rushing into the end zone untouched.
Nebraska, the conference’s only remaining national-title contender, had fallen. The Big 12 Championship Game had snuffed the national-title aspirations of one of its own.
“I don’t think I realized the full extent of that play,” Brown said.
Could it happen again? With Missouri ranked first in the latest BCS poll a Big 12 Championship Game participant, for the ninth time, will be one victory away from playing for a national title. Championship dreams have been dashed on three of those occasions: Nebraska’s loss to Texas, No. 2 Kansas State’s loss to No. 10 Texas A&M in ‘98 and No. 3 Texas’ loss to No. 9 Colorado in 2001.
When the Big 12 Conference began its first season in 1996, it followed the Southeastern Conference’s model of matching two divisional champions in a conference-title game at season’s end, something the SEC had done since 1992 with 12 member schools.
The SEC’s precedent marked the beginning of what became a movement among some of college football’s power conferences.
Today, officials set the Big 12 Championship Game’s value at about $8 million. Each member institution shares guaranteed revenue, meaning a school such as Baylor, which has never won more than three conference games in a season since the Big 12’s inception, can count on additional funds produced from the game even if it doesn’t win the South division.
But at what price financial gain?
Before the conference’s formation, Big 12 coaches voted unanimously against a conference-title game, some saying it would introduce an unnecessary obstacle for contenders on their quest for a national championship. Meanwhile, athletic directors voted in favor of the proposal.
Other BCS conferences such as the Big Ten, Big East and Pacific-10 don’t play a conference title game, instead crowning their champion by way of best conference record. If Missouri loses Saturday, Big Ten champion and BCS No. 3 Ohio State is expected to play for the national championship.
“You had critics indicate that you could have a highly ranked team that could get knocked off by one of the other (division champions) that wouldn’t have as much to gain by the victory,” said Steven Hatchell, Big 12 Conference commissioner from 1995-97. “You also had the potential for a rematch, which nobody really likes. At the time, you could come up with a grocery list of concerns when you’re going into something that’s brand-new and unknown.
“I think on a conference-by-conference basis, you need to make your determination as to whether you want to make (the conference championship game) work. … Some don’t have it, because they don’t have enough teams. I’m not sure it fits everybody.”
Some former Big 12 coaches still have their doubts.
Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, who led the Aggies to an upset of KSU in the 1998 game that knocked the Wildcats out of the national-title picture, said the Big 12 Championship Game has denied the conference potential national champions.
Without a level playing field throughout the nation, he says, the conference is doing itself more harm than good.
“I think the concept would be fine if everyone played one,” he said. “(The coaches’) thought was that you could have your two best teams in the league end up having to play each other, whereas a team like Ohio State doesn’t have to do that. They have a chance to get players healthy, while a Big 12 team has to play an extra game.
“It’s not a level playing field. Florida proved (last year) you can (win a conference championship game and the national title), but you’re doing it the hard way.”
Former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder sees benefits for schools on both sides of the argument.
He was on the losing end against Texas A&M but later won a Big 12 championship in 2003 over consensus No. 1 Oklahoma. Before the ‘03 game many opinion-makers considered the Sooners one of the best teams ever, led by an offense that averaged 48.3 points a game under the guidance of eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White.
Despite its 35-7 loss against KSU, Oklahoma played for the national championship (and later lost to LSU), because it had such a large lead in the BCS rankings entering the Big 12 title game.
“It depends on where you happen to be,” Snyder said. “There’s a reason for several programs in the Big 12 Conference to not favor having the championship game. If I were Oklahoma (in 2003), I would certainly not be in favor of having the conference championship game.
“The championship game is the best answer for some schools in our conference. To have the game isn’t in the best interest of other schools in our conference.”
The conference championship game is a trend that won’t likely change anytime soon. Miami and Virginia Tech, previously of the Big East, joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. In 2005 Boston College also left the Big East and joined the ACC. The ACC held its inaugural title game later that year in Jacksonville, Fla.
There is speculation that if the Big Ten, which has 11 members, decides to add another team it will form a conference-title game. As the situation stands Ohio State, which ended its season with a 14-3 victory against Michigan on Nov. 17, will have more than seven idle weeks before playing in the BCS title game on Jan. 7, 2008 – should Missouri lose.
Last season, Ohio State lost the BCS title game to Florida, 41-14, after more than seven weeks off.
“Ohio State is in a good and bad spot,” said former Colorado coach Gary Barnett, who is now a college football analyst with Fox Sports. “They’re in a good spot to get in the (national) championship game and a bad spot to win it.
“With Missouri playing last week, then playing this week, you keep things going. That’s what you want to do. Once you get a rhythm, you want to keep that rhythm going.”
Should conference title games be a part of the college football landscape? Should Missouri have to pass an extra test before clinching a national championship berth, while Ohio State watches from afar?
Arguments may rage. But for the spoiler success stories such as Brown and his 1996 Big 12 champion Texas Longhorns, the debate is mute.
“I think the conference championship game is necessary, because with so many teams, you have to sort it out,” he said. “I think that’s fair. It gives it that extra championship feel before you go to a bowl game. It’s nothing more than another big conference game.”