In the final seconds of November's Stanford-Oregon game, the Cardinal had a chance to tie on a two-point conversion and send the game to overtime. Instead, Oregon linebacker Joe Walker batted down Stanford’s pass attempt, sealing the victory for the Ducks and knocking the Cardinal out of the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings.
That play might have been the margin between the Big 12 placing a team in the playoff this past season and the conference getting left out for a second consecutive year.
At the NCAA convention in San Antonio on Wednesday, the Division I council adopted a proposal allowing FBS leagues with fewer than 12 members to still hold conference championship games so long as the conference plays a full round-robin, regular-season schedule.
In essence, the proposal was almost exclusively a vote about the future of the Big 12 and whether the conference would be given the green light to implement a championship game at its own discretion.
A “no” vote would’ve forced the Big 12 to expand by two schools in order to add a title game, pitting the two divisional winners against one another. But in light of the proposal’s adoption, any expansion talk will probably be put back on the back burner for the time being and the debate on whether the Big 12 should re-institute a conference championship game will be propelled to the forefront.
“Gives us a lot of meat on the bone to chew,” TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte told reporters in San Antonio.
What the Big 12 leadership must ruminate on now is this: Would a championship game more strongly position the Big 12 to put a team into the playoff? Or is status quo the best way to go, no matter what financial windfall -- commissioner Bob Bowlsby estimated $25 to 35 million -- a championship game might bring?
“Our membership will continue to analyze its pros and cons, as we now know the requirements should we decide to go down that path,” Bowlsby told reporters. “[This vote] gets us to where we have control over our own destiny.”
Which brings us back to Stanford -- and whether the Big 12 actually currently controls its own destiny in the present format.
The question Big 12 presidents, athletic directors and coaches should ask themselves as they deliberate is this: Had the Cardinal completed that two-point conversion and gone on to defeat Oregon in overtime and remain within striking distance of the playoff rankings' top four, would Stanford (and thus the Pac-12) -- by winning a conference championship and playing a 13th game on the final weekend of the regular season -- been slotted into the playoff ahead of Oklahoma, which was idle that weekend and had only 12 games on its playoff résumé?
“I don’t know this, but if [the CFP selection committee] is putting points on victories, if the committee is adding points ... for that 13th game, it’s going to be hard to overcome,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said last July.
Sure, thanks in small part to Joe Walker, it worked out for Oklahoma and the Big 12 this time around. But as Stoops suggested, not having that 13th game could be hard to overcome down the line -- even when the Big 12 actually does put a team in the playoff.
It’s no coincidence that the Sooners, ranked No. 3 after thumping Oklahoma State in their last game, dropped a spot in the final CFP rankings after they were off on the same day Michigan State defeated Iowa in the Big Ten championship.
That was the difference in Oklahoma playing a de facto road game in the Capital One Orange Bowl against Clemson and the Sooners staging a semifinal in front of a semi-home crowd just a few hours from Norman in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Of course, there would be drawbacks to adding a championship game with just 10 teams.
After all, a conference championship game in a round-robin format would be an odd fit, and could force some unnatural rematches, as it would have this past season. Oklahoma, which defeated Oklahoma State 58-23 in Stillwater, would’ve had to turn around and play the Cowboys again. That would have done little for Oklahoma except put the Sooners at risk of losing and costing the Big 12 its chance at the playoff.
“I don't think that's productive,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told ESPN.com last week. “I don't see what you get out of that.”
Even when the Big 12 did still have 12 members and two divisions, the teams that had a shot at the national title went just 6-5 in the Big 12 championship game.
But at least then, the Big 12 was on a level playing field with the other major conferences, and usually still clearly controlled its own destiny.
In the coming weeks, as it mulls the pros and cons of a championship game, the Big 12 will have to decide whether it still does -- and if not, whether it wants to again.