Tuesday, March 18, 2014

College Football No Longer Needs Divisions

With realignment once again taking center stage in the 2014 season, a new question has popped up. Should FBS conferences dispense with the divisional setup in football?

Next season, three of the Big Five conferences will have 14 teams each, divided into seven-team divisions. Of the 10 conferences that play FBS football, seven of them will have divisions, with their respective winners meeting in conference championship games. By 2015 (assuming there are no other changes), only the Big 12 and Sun Belt will not stage conference title games.

This is in stark contrast with college basketball. Of the 32 Division I conferences, only three (Big South, Mid-American, Ohio Valley) have divisional splits. The other 29 conferences, including all of the "Big Five," play without an internal split of teams.

College football may be moving in that direction, too.

The ACC has submitted a proposal to "deregulate" football conference championship games, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. It's seeking to discard legislation that requires conferences to have at least 12 teams divided into two divisions in order to have a conference title game.

This proposal has wide-ranging support among all FBS conferences, and it's not difficult to see why. Divisional setups have been typically arbitrary—just look at the thankfully euthanized "Legends" and "Leaders" divisions in the Big Ten or the fact that Missouri is in the SEC "East" since joining the conference when Columbia, Mo., is west of every SEC campus except Arkansas and Texas A&M.

And with the advent of the 14-team divisions, if the current legislation is upheld, a team could conceivably go 12 years between visits to the stadium of a fellow conference member that's not in its division.

Since it's obvious that conference championship games are here to stay—there's just too much money to be made from television revenue—there's no way these conferences will voluntarily discard the divisional setup unless it's no longer required to stage a title game. But if they're freed from the binds of divisions, then conferences will have a much freer hand in how they want to stage the title games.

They may decide to match up the teams with the best records, thus maximizing the potential of their champions' chances of qualifying for the College Football Playoff. They also would be able to stage a title game without having 12 teams (think of the 10-team Big 12), thus eliminating the pressing need that fueled realignment in the first place.

For the fans and television executives, this is also a no-brainer. There will be more varied matchups within all conferences and theoretically the championship games would be more attractive since they won't be subject to the whimsical nature of the divisions.

It just makes too much sense. But since this is the NCAA we're talking about, the approval of the proposal is far from a sure thing.


Demosthenes said...

When the Big XII was in danger of being raided by the Pac-10 a few years ago for five teams, instead of the one they got, I doodled up a regionally-based "pod system" for a nine-game Pac-16 schedule. It would have resulted in a) preservation of most important regional rivalries on an annual basis, b) every team visiting every other team's campus at least once every four years, and c) every team having access to Southern California and/or Texas recruiting on an annual basis.

The sticking point was the championship game, which could not have worked given NCAA restrictions. The obvious solution, to take the two best teams by record and match them up in a championship game, ran into violation of the insistence on divisions. (There was also the possibility of more than two undefeated teams, but one nightmare at a time.) And even with constantly rotating divisional alignments, you couldn't preserve both regional rivalries and California/Texas recruiting. So I shelved it.

All of that is a prelude to an observation: the removal of divisional requirements might lead to another attempted expansion. With divisions gone, pod scheduling that would be advantageous to all members of a superconference would become feasible. In that case, you might see one last round of expansion which would lead to the formation of as many as five 16-team to 18-team superconferences, further consolidating major-conference power. (Heck, with the ACC at 15 and the Big Ten and SEC at 14, we're almost there already.)

The Guru said...

Very good points all. I agree with you that, if you look at the two conferences pushing the hardest to shelve the divisions - ACC and Big 12 - there's definitely some more realignment in store.

I can see the Big 12 raiding UCF, USF, Cincinnati and possibly BYU to get to 14. But without the need for divisions the Big 12 also has the flexibility of staying put, so more money for each school while being able to stage a championship game.

Demosthenes said...

True, they could stand pat. But if the SEC and Pac-12 take advantage of the abolition of division rules to grab a couple more schools, the Big XII will have to do the same or die. They're a conference of ten teams who are looking at very slim pickings for new members to maintain a high football standard. And once the BYUs of the world are raided, the last remaining place to find quality teams (or any teams) for a superconference will be in the Big XII...television rights be damned.

Simply put, if there is one last round of expansion, it will either be the Big XII or the AAC on the chopping block. The Big XII might end up having to raid a few teams from the AAC (examples: SMU, Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Louisville, Cincinnati) and pick off the odd independent or minor conference team (examples: BYU, Boise State, Colorado State, Notre Dame -- if they can break from their semi-alliance with the ACC, and if the Big Ten doesn't nab them first) just to survive.

If not, the SEC and the Pac-12 will both go after Oklahoma and Texas, the Big Ten may make a play for Iowa State, the ACC might try to nab West Virginia, and you'll have teams like Baylor and the Kansas schools left with no option but to look to the Mountain West and a league that will suddenly be one of the premier basketball showcases in the country, while missing out on a lot of the big football action.

The Guru said...

The AAC is going to be chopped up again, no question. Somebody will snatch UConn and Cincy, and also the Florida schools. I think there's a strong possibility of the Big 12 getting both UCF and USF to put their footprint in that state.

As for the Big 12 itself, as long as UT and OU get more money than the rest, it'll stay intact. For now.