ATLANTA – Max Duggan’s bleary eyes conveyed the truth. The TCU quarterback coveted the Big 12 Championship. To come literally so close – Duggan was less than a yard away from scoring a go-ahead touchdown in overtime – but not attain that prize seemed to wound his soul.
TCU’s College Football Playoff fortunes weren’t at the front of Duggan’s mind in the immediate aftermath.
‘There’s nothing more that I want than to bring this school a championship,’ an emotional Duggan said after a 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State.
Fans and media types squabbled about whether the majority of conference championship games last weekend truly mattered, because only one outcome affected the playoff field, but that feeling of indifference toward conference championships doesn’t penetrate locker rooms.
Even in the playoff era, players consider winning a conference championship a priority. That’s true even for the defending national champion.
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“Winning the SEC championship, there’s only one of those. It’s a banner,’ Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV said after the Bulldogs celebrated their first SEC title since 2017. ‘It’s the same thing as a national championship, just a little bit smaller scale.”
And here’s the best part: Conference championships will carry more weight in the 12-team playoff era.
That may sound counterintuitive, but consider this: Six conference champions will earn automatic playoff bids. And some of those auto bids may be captured by teams that were not previously positioned for the playoff, even in an expanded field.
Take Utah, for example. The Utes were ranked No. 11 entering the Pac-12 Championship. By beating Southern Cal, Utah knocked the Trojans out of the playoff and clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl.
But if the 12-team playoff were here – it launches in 2024 – Utah not only would have seized a playoff spot Friday, it would be among four teams to earn a first-round bye. That’s because the four byes in the 12-team bracket will be reserved for the top four conference champions.
Clemson would have joined Georgia, Michigan and Utah in receiving a first-round playoff bye in 2022. And Kansas State would be competing in the first round.
As it is, the Wildcats are Big 12 champions for the first time in a decade and are Sugar Bowl bound for the first time ever. That matters. That’s a special season. However, an upset of TCU that catapulted K-State into a 12-team playoff would have made Saturday’s win more significant.
Think of this evolution like college basketball, where, for many teams, earning entry into the Big Dance requires winning a conference tournament. That will be the case in a few football conferences, too.
If Utah and Kansas State had lost last weekend, they probably would not have qualified for a 12-team playoff. Each would have been saddled with four losses. With triumphs, though, each would be safely in an expanded playoff. Talk about adding fuel to the conference championship fire.
The stakes will increase for top-ranked teams, too.
If Georgia had lost to LSU on Saturday, the Bulldogs would not have faced much penalty within the four-team playoff. They would have flipped with Michigan and claimed the No. 2 seed.
In a 12-team playoff, though, an LSU upset not only would have unlocked a playoff bid for the Tigers, it would have stripped Georgia of its first-round bye and created a longer – and more difficult – path to the national championship.
Here again, the fruits of winning a conference championship will become sweeter within a 12-team playoff format, while losing will take on a more intense bitterness.
A 12-team playoff bracket will have the potential to fluctuate more greatly based on conference championship results than the four-team format.
Look back to last season. When Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC Championship, the Bulldogs slipped just two spots from No. 1 to No. 3.
No big deal, clearly, because Georgia beat Alabama in a rematch to win the national championship.
In a 12-team playoff, though, Georgia would have been seeded fifth, ineligible for a first-round bye because it did not win the SEC. That would have put Alabama and Georgia on course for a rematch in the semifinals, instead of the national championship.
Conference championship games are not deep-rooted in college football’s history. They spawned in 1992 after the SEC took advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed a conference to conduct a championship if the league featured at least 12 teams and split into divisions.
For 30 years, winning a conference championship has meant something to the athletes competing in these games. Notice, you don’t see players opting out of conference championship games in droves.
Once the 12-team playoff arrives, winning a conference championship will come with even greater reward – while a loss in those games will cut deeper.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.