What's in a number? For college football conferences over the last 20 years, there was a whole lot in the number 12.
NCAA rules long have held football conferences must have at least 12 teams in order to split into divisions and host a conference championship game. Once the SEC figured this out and held its first such contest in 1992, it didn't take long for other conferences to follow suit.
As recently as last season, the 10-team Big "12" blamed its lack of participation in the College Football Playoff on its lack of a championship game. Over in Underdog land, the 11-team Sun Belt plays an unbalanced schedule, something Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette fans would like to change.
Thus, what seems like trivial news, expected deregulation of conference championship games in 2016, could make huge waves. First and foremost it may prevent the Big 12 from raiding other conferences for an 11th and 12th team, which would trickle down through the AAC, CUSA and Sun Belt. Reports have already surfaced about the league hosting a title game next year.
Then there's the ACC, which could split into three divisions even though only two teams make the title game (and you thought they were the high academics conference).
But the Sun Belt, the only FBS conference other than the Big 12 not hosting a title game in 2015, is directly affected as well. The league is stuck on the incredibly awkward number of 11 after James Madison gave it the stiff arm. The Dukes may regret playing hard to get as this news could mean a permanently slammed door.
Even the league's current membership may not be safe. Idaho in particular, and maybe New Mexico State, could be dropped if the Sun Belt decides to go with a nine or 10-team league with a title game. No offense to the Vandals and their famous airport hangar, but they aren't a geographic fit for the league and add little on the field. They'd be a much better fit in the Big Sky.
A major positive for the Sun Belt, aside from the added exposure of a title game, will be the boosted stability of its membership if it no longer has to court new schools.
A dozen headaches
Looking back, it's amazing just how much the conference championship game has shaped college football since the early '90s. Once the SEC got one, and it was a huge hit, the Big 12 started one up after its formation in 1996. That caused issues as the Big 12 title game cost the league a shot at a few national titles. Sort of ironic they claimed that not having a title game hurt them last year.
The ACC might never have raided the Big East circa '04 without the promise of hitting the magical dozen and gaining a championship game, which hasn't always been a huge success. Then you've got the Pac-12, whose first-ever conference title game featured a 6-6 team, and its second was a rematch of a game played exactly one week prior.
We might never have had the Big 10's infamous "Legends" and "Leaders" division names without the 12-team rule. In fact, it could be argued the SEC is the only P5 conference without a major hiccup owed to the title game craze. For the G5s though, added exposure is always a good thing.
I'm getting off subject here.
Anyway, many of those hiccups stemmed from the 12-team rule itself, not the actual game. We should be able to count the Sun Belt's math problem among those now. A Sun Belt title game held at, say, Paulson Stadium, would be a nice way to close out the regular season.