Pac-12 adjusts football championship game selection process: It's all about playoff bids

Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

The Pac-12 on Wednesday began repositioning its football model, announcing a change in the process for determining its championship game participants.

Beginning with the 2022 season, the teams with the highest winning percentage in conference games — not the division winners — will meet for the title. The conference will maintain the division format, at least for the upcoming season.

Almost half of the 11 previous championship game matchups would have been different using the new process.

"Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 Football Championship Game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize (College Football Playoff) invitations and ultimately win national championships," commissioner George Kliavkoff said.

"Today's decision is an important step towards that goal and immediately increases both fan interest in, and the media value of, our Football Championship Game."

The Pac-12 could take additional strategic steps in the coming months, potentially eliminating the divisions altogether and reconstructing the conference schedule model — all with an eye on increasing opportunities to reach the playoff and winning national championships.

The news Wednesday came shortly after the NCAA's Division I Council voted to remove restrictions on how conferences determine their champions.

The anticipated decision was the culmination of a lengthy legislative journey that began early this year with a proposal sponsored by the Pac-12.

"The data showed us we weren't getting our best teams in the championship game due to the divisional structure," Merton Hanks, the Pac-12's senior associate commissioner for football operations, told the Hotline.

"The only way to attack that was to look at the rule. It was Bylaw 17.11.6.2.1B. We decided we had to get that modified, and many members of the (Football Bowl Subdivision) immediately supported it."

Kliavkoff and Hanks also took their plan to the Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors. Several selection models were discussed, including the College Football Playoff rankings and total number of victories.

The use of winning percentage in conference games to determine the championship game participants passed "with unanimous support" from the coaches, ADs and presidents, according to the Pac-12.

There have been just three instances of lower-ranked teams winning the title game (Oregon in '19 and '20 and Utah in '21). But had the new process been in place all along, the matchup would have been different on five of the 11 occasions, based on data from the conference office:

2011: No. 9 Oregon vs. No. 4 Stanford (instead of unranked UCLA)
2012: No. 8 Stanford vs. No. 5 Oregon (instead of No. 16 UCLA)
2015: No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 16 Oregon (instead of No. 20 USC)
2018: No. 11 Washington vs. No. 13 WSU (instead of No. 17 Utah)
2020: No. 13 USC vs. No. 25 Colorado (instead of unranked Washington)

(The Huskies were unable to participate in '20 because of COVID.)

Any ties this season will be broken by the head-to-head outcome or other steps that focus on conference results.

For example: record against common opponents.

Hanks also believes the new approach to setting the championship matchup will "make sure the runner-up has a clear pathway into the New Year's Six" bowl games.

The policy could last for decades or only a few years.

If the College Football Playoff expands for the 2026 season, as expected, the conference might re-evaluate its football model again.

"We understand the world could change in '26," Hanks said.

"But we can't afford to sit back. We've seen what the data produced, and now we have to try to optimize for it."

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Jon Wilner
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.

Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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