Longhorns have a lot at risk in title game

Saturday, December 3, 2005

No. 2 Texas puts its perfect record and its spot in the BCS Championship game on the line in a second meeting with Colorado.

HOUSTON -- To earn the same $700,000 that every other school in the Big 12 will receive from Saturday's conference championship game, Texas has to work a little harder. The Longhorns must play a team they've already beaten to win a conference they've already dominated.

Win, and a spot in the national title game is theirs.

Lose, and those hopes take a hit.

Suffer a major injury and -- well -- that's one of the many issues that make conference title games one of the riskiest propositions in college football.

That No. 2 Texas (11-0), led by Heisman Trophy hopeful Vince Young, will defeat Colorado (7-4) seems like a good bet, at least if the 27-point line on the game or the Longhorns' 42-17 victory over the Buffs in October are reliable indicators.

But, as they say, there's a reason they play these games.

"They were put in there for money," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "That's what we got, and there is no reason in talking about whether they are good or not."

Indeed, it is the $10 million or so in extra revenue that the game creates that stands as the primary reason for these matchups. After some of the dough is taken off the top for expenses, travel stipends and the like, the rest is distributed evenly among the 12 teams. Last year, each team -- from Baylor to Texas Tech -- received in excess of $700,000.

Because the balance of power has been so lopsided in the Big 12, with national-title contenders Oklahoma and Texas dominating the South Division and Colorado representing the mediocre North the past two years, talk of scrapping the title game or reformatting the way the teams get in has come up at league meetings.

But only briefly.

In fact, coaches almost always vote unanimously against the title game, then athletic directors vote unanimously for it.

"Clearly, there would need to be adjustments made in how we share money to accommodate for any format change," Big 12 Commissioner Kevin Weiberg said. "And that's been, quite honestly, one of the primary issues that's come up when our members have talked about whether they should think about changing the format."

So, while Texas surely won't reject the money coming its way, it comes with strings attached and risk aplenty.

A win and the Longhorns go to the Rose Bowl where they'll go for their first undisputed national title since 1969. The likely opponent would be No. 1 USC, which closes out its Pac-10 schedule later Saturday with a meeting against No. 11 UCLA. The Trojans don't have a title game on their slate because their conference doesn't play one.

Meanwhile, a loss for the Longhorns throws the BCS into chaos.

It's a strange dichotomy: This is, after all, a sport that revels in its unconventional way of deciding champions -- insisting that polls and computers can do the job.

Yet three of the conferences that make up the core of the BCS -- Southeastern, Big 12 and, most recently, Atlantic Coast -- determine their own champions on the field.

"I still think it's the most exciting game you play all year, even more than the bowl game," CU coach Gary Barnett said.

His team, of course, has nothing to lose, except a little more of its dignity.

The Buffs are on a two-game losing streak and coming off a 30-3 pasting at the hands of Nebraska last week. Colorado backed into the game when Iowa State lost to Kansas the day after its embarrassment.

At this point in the season, few would argue the Buffs are no better than the fourth-, or maybe fifth- or sixth-best team in the conference. Last year, coming to the game under similar circumstances, they lost 42-3 to Oklahoma.

But, as the optimists on the CU side recall, there was 2001. That year, Colorado came into the Big 12 title game an underdog against Texas, which was still in the hunt for the national title.

CU won that game 39-37. That knocked Texas out and opened the door for Nebraska, which had lost to Colorado 62-36 the week before and wound up making the national title game even though it didn't even play for the conference title.

"We've talked very little to none about that game," Brown said. "It was not a positive for us. It was a great positive for Colorado."

But losing, at least in college football, doesn't always have to be negative. In fact, Texas could stand to pocket more money by losing Saturday than winning.

Here's the scenario: At present, the Big 12 is guaranteed one spot in the BCS and the $15 million-or-so payoff that goes with it, most of which will be divided among the schools. But if CU wins Saturday, it gets the conference's automatic berth and Texas could still wind up making the BCS as an at-large team. At-large berths are worth about $4.5 million, most of which would be split among all the teams -- including Texas.

"As far as the decision to have a championship game, I've never been asked except by you guys," Brown said. "So the people that made it decided it was important. Half the leagues in the country have it, so here we are, and we're going to do our best to win."

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