The Case for Eliminating Football Divisions

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One of the biggest problems to arise out of conference realignment has been the logistical difficulties of scheduling 12 and 14 team conferences. The problem is further complicated by what is perhaps the most loved but at the same time most hated NCAA rule amongst conference commissioners. 

The regulation is officially known as 17.9.5.2 (c) and unofficially referred to as the “conference championship game rule” states:

Twelve-Member Conference Championship Game. [FBS/FCS] A conference championship game between division champions of a member conference of 12 or more institutions that is divided into two divisions (of six or more institutions each), each of which conducts round-robin, regular-season competition among the members of that division;

This rule is great for the FBS conferences for the following two reasons;

     1. It allows a conference to propel one of their teams even higher up the BCS rankings and into the national championship game or 4-team playoffs.

     2. It adds A LOT of extra revenue. How much revenue? Well, in 2009 the SEC made $14.5 million on their conference championship, which amounted to about $1.1 million per school.

However there are several problems which arise from of this rule. 

     1. Disparity in conference strength of schedule (SOS)

 This issue is most notable in the SEC where their 8-game schedule plus a fixed cross division rivalry causes a vast disparity in SOS amongst conference members. The 2012 SEC Championship Game featured Alabama and Georgia. That year, Alabama faced cross division opponents (Tennessee/Missouri) who went a combined 3-13 in SEC play. Meanwhile, Georgia faced cross division opponents (Auburn/Ole Miss) who also went 3-13 in SEC play. The SEC teams that finished 2nd in each division were LSU and Florida who faced cross division opponents ending up 13-3 and 12-4 in SEC play.

     2. The two best teams don’t always make it to the Conference Championship Game.

 The problem here is relatively simple. No conference is guaranteed to have its two best teams in opposite divisions. This means the #1 and #2 teams in each conference won’t always play in their conference championship game.

The problem becomes magnified when bowl bans get thrown into the picture. In 2012, the ACC saw Georgia Tech finish 3rd in their division but ended up in the ACC Championship Game because UNC and Miami were bowl banned. That same year, the Big Ten saw Wisconsin finish 3rd in their division and make the Conference Championship Game as well because Ohio State and Penn State were bowl banned.

     3. Conference Dodging

 This is by far the most notorious consequence of the 2-division setup.  The biggest beneficiary of this system is Alabama who won recently won three National Championships. However, in those three years Alabama dodged the SEC powers of Florida (2x), Georgia (3x), and South Carolina (2x) in the regular season.problems to arise out of conference realignment has been the logistical difficulties of scheduling 12 and 14 team conferences. The problem is further complicated by what is perhaps the most loved but at the same time most hated NCAA rule amongst conference 

 The issue goes beyond strength of schedule. In a 12-team conference, it isn’t unusual for some schools to have gaps as large as 6 years in-between meetings. The consequences of this means certain conference members will have unequal access to a conference’s best markets and recruiting grounds. The issue will only continue to become more problematic with 14-team conferences.

 The problem has been brought up in the ACC. In December, an email from Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross to his fellow ACC colleagues surfaced addressing this very issue. Gross argued that certain programs are at a disadvantage when the schedule keeps them from regularly playing in major markets such as Boston, Atlanta and Miami. Gross also noted that teams from the Atlantic division (with the exception of FSU) have large gaps between games in the talent-rich Miami area. Gross also cited the burden this causes on student-athletes.

“The thought of a student-athlete returning to his home area to play in front of his family is minimized in one division and maximized in the other.”

For Syracuse, the problem is painfully clear. The Orange played Georgia Tech in Atlanta this year but is not slated to play in Atlanta again until 2027 at the earliest. The recruiting implications of this are devastating for Syracuse. New York produced just 27 Division I signees while Georgia produced 184 Division I signees last year.

The ACC appears to be the most vocal proponent of eliminating the current 2-division setup.  In January, ACC Commissioner John Swofford said he was in favor of conferences having “the autonomy” to determine how teams qualify for their league championship games. Swofford further stated that the NCAA is likely to further evaluate these rules in the spring.

 However, the truth is the NCAA should have fixed this problem a long time ago. The rule 17.9.5.2 (c) was never designed for FBS football. It was passed in 1987 for Division II purposes and didn’t become famous until the SEC exploited it in 1992.

Since 2007, the Mid American Conference has been in violation of this rule. The 13 member MAC has 7 members in its eastern division but only 6 in its western division. To make up for the imbalanced schedule, the western division plays true round robin while the eastern division plays only partial round robin. The teams in the eastern division skip one of their division opponents each year. This hasn’t been a problem for the NCAA or the other conferences as they have never pressed the issue.

 I don’t see why the FBS conferences shouldn’t have their cake and eat it too. The conferences should be allowed to have a championship game AND decide how to determine its participants. The NCAA has already proven that this rule is not written in stone when they gave the MAC a free pass to break it.  Changing this rule would be better for the conferences, the fans, and better for college football as a whole.

3 Comments

  1. SouthernboiSB

    “This is by far the most notorious consequence of the 2-division setup. The biggest beneficiary of this system is Alabama who won recently won three National Championships. However, in those three years Alabama dodged the SEC powers of Florida (2x), Georgia (3x), and South Carolina (2x) in the regular season.problems to arise out of conference realignment has been the logistical difficulties of scheduling 12 and 14 team conferences. The problem is further complicated by what is perhaps the most loved but at the same time most hated NCAA rule amongst conference ”

    FWIW, UGA & Alabama were to play in 2012, but was dropped due to the “bridge scheduling” the SEC created to include the 2 new teams. So it wasn’t like they purposely didn’t play each other?

    “The issue goes beyond strength of schedule. In a 12-team conference, it isn’t unusual for some schools to have gaps as large as 6 years in-between meetings. The consequences of this means certain conference members will have unequal access to a conference’s best markets and recruiting grounds. The issue will only continue to become more problematic with 14-team conferences.”

    This is totally false! When the SEC had 12 teams, we went through the entire conference H/A in 5 years. Each team had the following:
    5 games – div. teams
    1 game – perm. cross-div. rival
    2 games – rotating cross-div. team***

    ***I don’t have my spreadsheet handy, for specifics, but it went like this:
    Year 1 – A / @B
    Year 2 – B / @C
    Year 3 – C / @D
    Year 4 – D / @E
    Year 5 – E / @A

    In other words, the longest you would go without seeing any team in the other division is 3 years.

  2. SouthernboiSB

    The 1 thing that I’ll never understand is WHY the SEC did NOT have some sort of scheduling format set when they planned & added 2 new teams to the conference. It’s common sense that if you INCREASE the # of members, you INCREASE the # of conf. games!

    & some of my fellow SEC fans were trying to figure out if the bridge schedules were still following the rotation from the 12 member setup.

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