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Title game gives Big 12 psychological edge it needs

IRVING, Texas -- The Big 12's psychological disadvantage, real or perceived, doesn't stem from having fewer members than the other Power 5 conferences. It stems from not having a signature event like the other big-boy leagues.

The infamous line from Oklahoma president David Boren last June about the Big 12 feeling smaller because it is smaller may have been misguided. You know when the Big 12 really felt smaller? Dec. 6, 2014.

It's a day I spent along Interstate 35, watching TCU stomp Iowa State in the early afternoon and then Baylor handle Kansas State on a postcard-perfect night in Waco. Both Big 12 champions looked playoff-worthy. Both showcased stars. And both were forgotten because of what happened in a conference championship game about 800 miles away. Rather than marveling at Baylor's quick-strike offense, those of us in the McLane Stadium press box were fixated on GameTracker and shouting, "Ohio State scored again!"

Yes, the result was unexpected with a virtually unknown Buckeyes quarterback. Yes, Ohio State is an exponentially bigger brand than TCU or Baylor. But the fact the Buckeyes' bludgeoning of Wisconsin took place in a league championship game -- on league championship weekend -- made the biggest optical difference. If Stanford had beaten Oregon last fall, it could have made the same difference during the Pac-12 championship game, while Big 12 champ Oklahoma watched from home.

And it will continue to make a difference when the playoff selection margins are razor-thin.

The playoff selections are a beauty contest, usually among one-loss teams. There's no prettier sight than a league's best team winning its league championship game.

The Big 12 needed a touchup, and Friday, it stepped to the vanity mirror. The return of a league championship game in 2017 isn't the extreme makeover that expansion brings, but it's an important step for the entire conference to feel better about itself (Texas never has that problem).

Boren looked as if he had spent a few sessions with Stuart Smalley after announcing the return of the title game alongside commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

"We were absolutely unified," a beaming Boren said. "It was strong, unanimous support for the championship game, and it was based upon both what it does to our competitive position and what it does to our financial position in the conference. We had very, very strong feelings about that and very strong positive momentum."

The details still must be sorted out. Divisions are likely, Bowlsby said, even if the Big 12 remains at 10 members. A neutral-site location is also likely, although the league will consider campus sites. Bowlsby estimates the championship game will bring in as much as $30 million.

The Big 12 brass has studied every possible configuration, including reducing the number of conference games. But league sources say it's likely the Big 12 retains its round-robin format, ensuring the championship game is a rematch but also combatting strength-of-schedule criticism.

"If, indeed, we're still playing a full round-robin and we have a championship game," Bowlsby said, "our means of determining our champion is the strongest of all the conferences. In that regard, it puts us in a very good position, a very good light. We're two years in and we're batting .500.

"We'd like to bat higher than that, and this gives us the best chance to do that."

There's risk in having a title game, and the Big 12 recognizes it more than any Power 5 league. The Big 12 has held 11 title games; in four of them, the conference lost the chance to win a national championship because of the result.

But the evidence provided to league presidents by Navigate Research and Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures thoroughly demonstrated that a title game is the right call. It's difficult to base any predictive models on a fledgling playoff system, so base it on the selection committee's favorite phrase ... the eye test.

The Big 12 needed to look like the other playoff-contending leagues on selection weekend. Beginning next year, it will.

"I was really undecided about a championship game," Boren said. "But when you look at the data, the data is really compelling."

The data is less compelling, at least right now, for expanding the membership. It isn't compelling enough for a conference television network, which the presidents effectively killed Friday, noting market changes and the increase in new technologies for content distribution.

There are still very real questions about the Big 12's long-term viability, given the financial projections. But the league released strong revenue numbers on Friday -- each member will receive $30.4 million for fiscal year 2015-16, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year. That puts the Big 12 third among Power 5 leagues. Perhaps more important, Boren repeatedly stated that being behind the Big Ten and SEC in revenue is acceptable, as long as there's a gap, not a gulf.

In recent months, Bowlsby often said that complete inaction would leave the Big 12 in peril.

Is Friday's action enough?

"It'll be enough of an action if our continued research compels us not to do anything more," Bowlsby said. "I don't know what the next chapter is, but I feel very good about the chapter that we are embarking upon, because we went through a process that made it an obvious and unanimous choice."

Expansion is less obvious and, seemingly, nowhere near unanimous right now. But Friday was a day to celebrate. It was a day for a 10-member league branded with the Roman numeral for 12 to feel a little more like No. 1 again.

Just a hunch, but Dec. 2, 2017 -- when the Big 12 championship returns -- will be a feel-good day, too.