Having a Conference Championship Game With Less Than 12 Teams

There’s some speculation going on that reason that no Big 12 team made the playoff was the last of a championship game. Now, there’s talk of the Big 12 expanding in order to get to the magic number of 12 teams in order to have a championship game. I’m not sure what the Big 12 has in mind, but they do not have to have 12 teams in order to play a championship game.
The concept of the conference championship game (CCG) has actually been around year before it got written into the NCAA Rule Book. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) played conference championship games in the 60s. The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) played conference championship games in the 70s. It was these two conferences that petitioned the NCAA for the rule relevant to the CCGs around 1988. Because the NCAA limited the number of games each school could play in a given year, each school in a conference had to play one game less than the allowed games in order to be available for the CCG if they should win the division. The requested rule asked that teams making the CCG be allowed to play an extra game over the maximum allowed. Thus the current rule was born. The CIAA made use of the rule, but ironically, the PSAC dropped their CCG the year it took effect.
The structure of the rule was that any conference with two divisions of 6 or more teams could set up a CCG and have each division winner play off for the conference title. Both teams were allowed the extra game and the whole conference did not have to give up one game. The rules in the NCAA at the time also made this rule valid for the other divisions.
The rule remained an obscure footnote until the SEC expanded to 12 teams for the 1992 season and looking for alternate cash sources, set up their conference so they could play a CCG. The game ended up being a financial windfall, and other conferences followed the example and now, over half the conferences in Division I FBS play a conference championship game. All of the power 5 conferences do, except the Big 12, who used to, but fell below the 12 team minimum.
I write all that to explain the following. The Big 12 does not need 12 teams in order to have a conference championship game. Obviously, the conference will not decide to drop one game per team in order to allow for this exemption, but there is an alternative.
In 2002 and for many years after, a Division III conference, The Upper Midwest, set up what they called, “Dome Day”. A nine team conference, The Upper Midwest split into two divisions and had the division champions play a championship game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN. It was not the day’s only game, though. The conference seeded the other teams in the divisions to have a 3rd place game, a 5th place game and a 7th place game. Every team in the conference, except one, played the maximum amount of games without using the NCAA exemption. The only reason one team missed out was because the conference had an odd number of teams. Another conference picked up this formula and is currently using it, but I don’t remember which one that is off-hand.
Another variation of this theme is to put the teams in one “division” and seed them #1, #2, #3, etc and have #1 play #2 and #3 play #4. This would result in better match-ups in championship games, but unless the conference wanted to give up an extra non-conference game per team, they’d have unequal schedules. Given the disadvantage the Big 12 already has in having only 3 non-conference games, I don’t see that happening. However, this format would generate even more excitement than the CCGs do in the other conferences, giving definite placing in the conference from first to last. What’s more likely to happen is that the rules for the CCG exemption, established in 1988, will get updated to something that’s more in-touch with what FBS football is doing today.

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