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The 'One True Champion' Conundrum: Do Split Titles Count?

Although it doesn't seem to appear in the archives, I've gone on record in the past with my belief that tying for a conference title with a team you lost to head to head means you are not a conference champion. In principle, I still believe that. Nobody really disagrees that, in terms of deciding who should get a BCS bid or a No. 1 tournament seed, that head-to-head results are the best tiebreaker.

But that's all that head-to-head tiebreakers are. Maybe in a perfect or purer world, we would not allow co-champions who lost the head-to-head matchup to the teams with whom they tied to count the season as a championship. But as you'll see after the jump, that's the world we live in, and if K-State and Oklahoma win this weekend, then K-State has just as much right to claim this championship as any other school that came before it.

We shouldn't even be bothering with this argument. The Big 12,via associate commissioner for communications Bob Burda, announced that a three-way tie would result in tri-champions, with all three schools receiving a championship trophy. That's the way the Big 12 has always done things.

This is the first year of round-robin schedules in football, but in basketball Big 12 teams have always played all the opposition, with "divisional" opponents played twice. During its seven-year run of conference championships, KU has three times lost the head-to-head matchup to the team with whom it tied (.pdf link). In the 2004-05 season, the Jayhawks lost to Oklahoma during the regular season, but tied the Sooners with a 12-4 record. The next year, KU lost to Texas in the regular season but forged a tie with a 13-3 overall record. In 2007-08, it was Texas and a 13-3 overall record again. Nobody bats an eye when KU claims seven straight titles.

And there's precedent for counting co-championships in football from the Big 8 days. Oklahoma counts 43 conference championships, including 1947, 1976, and 1978. In all three of those seasons, the Sooners tied with a school with whom they tied or to whom they lost. In 1947, it was a tie with KU. In 1978, it was a loss to Nebraska. We'll get to 1976 in a minute.

Oklahoma State counts 10 conference championships. Most of these are Missouri Valley Conference championships from before the Vietnam War. One is last season's Big 12 South division championship, which they shared with Oklahoma, to whom they lost, and Texas A&M. The Cowboys claim only the 1976 season from the Big 8 era. During that season, the Pokes finished at 5-2, along with Oklahoma and Colorado. Oklahoma State lost to Colorado and Nebraska during that season. Oklahoma lost to Colorado and Oklahoma State. The Buffs beat both OU and OSU, but lost to Nebraska and Missouri. Both Okie State and Oklahoma lost to at least one of the other teams with whom they tied, and Oklahoma lost to both. Yet both schools count the season as a conference championship.

Like Oklahoma, Nebraska claims 43 conference titles, although the text of its media guide notes that Nebraska has 34 outright conference titles and nine shared championships. Among those nine shared crowns are 1969 (lost to and tied with Missouri), 1975 (lost to and tied with Oklahoma), 1984 (lost to and tied with Oklahoma) and 1991 (tied with and tied with Colorado).

In other words, there's plenty of precedent for counting shared conference titles, even when the team counting the title tied with a team to whom it lost. This goes for the teams K-State could tie with this season, too. So don't worry about what Mike Gundy and Bob Stoops say. Their athletic departments aren't going to remove the seasons mentioned above from their media guides anytime soon.

Nor should they. If K-State's 2011 season results in a 10-2 record and Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State, then the Wildcats have plenty of reasons to count this as a conference title. First of all, as Panjandrum noted to me the other day, he must have missed the math class where the teacher taught that "7-2 =/= 7-2." Each of the three schools played a nine-game conference schedule, and each team (hypothetically) will come away with a 7-2 record. That sounds pretty equal to me.

But not all 7-2 records are created equal you say, or might if you were, say, ESPN blogger David Ubben. K-State lost to the two teams with whom it tied, and Oklahoma beat both of the teams with whom it tied. Indeed. But K-State beat Baylor and Texas Tech, the latter on the road. If the season ends in a tie, then K-State will have defeated Iowa State. Maybe the Okie schools beat K-State head to head. But K-State didn't lose to the lower-tier schools like its peers.

Furthermore, the mere fact that K-State is in this conversation defies the odds a lot of pundits set before the season. How often did we hear that, with the new round-robin schedule, schools like K-State, KU and Iowa State would never have another chance to win a conference title? In the very first year of the round-robin format, K-State was a defensive stand or two against Oklahoma State from possibly winning the conference outright, and even at that could tie with the two preseason favorites.

Nobody is arguing that a 7-2 season by K-State would entitle the Wildcats to the conference's automatic BCS bowl bid or anything like that. But based on a long line of precedent, K-State is more than entitled to claim a tri-championship under these circumstances.

Of course, now that I write this, Iowa State will go and do something crazy like get a win in Farmageddon and make it all worthless.