College Football’s Emergent Absurdity: Why It’s Time For Divisions To Be Eliminated

This weekly survey of the absurdities in the college football world normally acquires the form of a look back at various in-game developments.

This past weekend, we saw Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst fail to center the ball for a short field goal at the end of regulation in the Panthers’ game against Duke. Pittsburgh’s kicker (Chris) “Blewitt,” but Chryst “Blewitt” as well. That’s absurd.

This past weekend, referees missed two clear personal foul penalties on TCU in the Horned Frogs’ game against West Virginia. That’s absurd.

South Carolina blew its third fourth-quarter lead of at least 13 points in the same season, something Steve Spurrier couldn’t handle. That’s absurd (and so was Spurrier’s reaction, even though his complete exasperation is supremely understandable).

The refusal of Maryland’s captains to shake the hands of Penn State’s captains before Saturday’s contest between the Terrapins and Nittany Lions? Also absurd. Kudos amidst the absurdity to the Big Ten, for rightly coming down hard on Maryland coaches and players in the aftermath of that appalling display.

Yet, for all the absurd things that happened on the field in week 10, the biggest absurdity to emerge in college football transcends any one game or event. It flowed from Florida’s blowout of Georgia in Jacksonville, but it’s a larger issue which needs to be thought about on a deeper level.

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REMOVING DIVISIONS: IT’S NOT A CALL FOR PEACE AND RECONCILIATION AMONG PEOPLE — IT’S A CALL TO MAKE COLLEGE FOOTBALL BETTER

The maddening reality of college football as a collective entity is that the playing field in each conference is different.

The Big 12 does not have a conference championship game.

The Pac-12 joins the Big 12 in playing nine conference games, while the other Power 5 leagues play eight. The Pac-12 and Big 12 go their separate ways as far as the conference title game is concerned, however, so the Pac-12 actually involves 10 conference games for the two teams that contest its crown in San Francisco.

The SEC, Big Ten, and ACC have 14 teams, while 12 reside in the Pac and 10 in the Big 12. This is an uneven landscape — not necessarily unfair (though there’s an argument to be made for such a contention), but certainly uneven.

Logic — something foreign to college football throughout its existence — would suggest that with all these inconsistencies in place, conferences would have flexibility in terms of how they arrive at determining their conference champions and, more precisely, their conference championship games. However, since logic and college football don’t often mix, there is — weirdly — a constraint placed on all the Power 5 conferences that want a conference championship game: You have to have divisions, and you have to have at least 12 teams, allowing for a minimum of six teams per division. Ben Kercheval, the terrific college football writer for Bleacher Report, explored many of these tensions from the Big 12’s vantage point in a piece written during the offseason.

In light of Florida’s wipeout of Georgia this past Saturday, combined with Missouri’s not-very-impressive slog through a resoundingly mediocre SEC East, it’s clear that college football’s power conferences need to be given the freedom to eliminate divisions. This would, in turn, enable the conferences to exercise a lot more creativity in how they schedule games.

Moreover, flexibility in conference scheduling would only be the first benefit of such a shift. Bigger benefits could await college football if conferences are given the ability to do away with divisions.

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When you read Ben Kercheval’s article above (I sincerely hope you will take the time to do so), consider the larger significance of this issue: All the power conferences have had to worry about whether they should have a conference title game or not, and whether they should play nine or eight games. These questions have been wrestled with; it’s not as though they’ve been ignored or set aside. Doing away with divisions in college football’s power conferences — or at the very least, allowing conferences to do so — would change the way these issues are processed by the conferences and their commissioners. What you could get, in the age of the College Football Playoff, is a new way of thinking which would blend the best of the conference championship game era and the era which preceded it (before the SEC brought the conference title game to college football in 1992).

How would this work?

Let’s use the 2011 season as an example — and not as a way of promoting only one line of thinking, but many different lines of thinking, in order to underscore the importance of allowing for creativity in shaping college football’s annual regular season schedule.

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THE 2011 CASE STUDY: HOW REMOVING DIVISIONS COULD HAVE WORKED… AND HOW COLLEGE FOOTBALL CAN OPERATE IN THE FUTURE IF IT CHOOSES TO (WITH ESPN’S HELP, OF COURSE)

In 2011, LSU and Alabama could have staged their rematch in the SEC Championship Game if divisions had not been a prerequisite for the existence of a conference championship game. Yet, that's only one option the SEC and college football could have considered in a division-free framework.

In 2011, LSU and Alabama could have staged their rematch in the SEC Championship Game if divisions had not been a prerequisite for the existence of a conference championship game. Yet, that’s only one option the SEC and college football could have considered in a division-free framework.

The 2011 regular season ended with one key matchup remaining unplayed as far as the national title race was concerned: Alabama never got to play Oklahoma State.

After the 2011-2012 bowl season, Alabama-Oklahoma State remained unplayed. Oregon — the winner of both the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl that season — didn’t get to play either the Crimson Tide or the Cowboys. LSU, forced to play Alabama a second time, defeated Oregon but didn’t get to play Les Miles’s old school, Oklahoma State.

How did the conference championship games work that year? This is why the 2011 season was picked — this wasn’t a random selection. Some very important things happened that year, and they’re all germane to this discussion.

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First of all, 2011 marked the Big 12’s divorce from its conference championship game, which lasted from 1996 through 2010. Realignment chopped down the league to 10 teams, with Nebraska and Colorado gone.

Second, as you can obviously deduce, the changes of realignment increased the sizes of other power conferences. What had been the Pac-10 in 2010 became the Pac-12 with the arrivals of Colorado and Utah. The Pac-12 debuted its conference championship game. Because USC was ineligible for the postseason in 2011, that first Pac-12 title game pitted Oregon against a 6-6 UCLA team, wasting the stage and spectacle of a conference title game in much the same way the SEC will do this year, pitting an SEC West heavyweight against Missouri or Georgia, neither of which can be credibly placed among the top five teams in the SEC at the moment.

What could college football’s power conferences have done in 2011? Lots of things. Let’s explore several directions the sport could have taken if divisions had not been mandated for conference championship games.

First, let’s take the SEC Championship Game, the centerpiece and crown jewel of all the conference title games — partly because it was the first and most successful one, mostly because the SEC has the highest concentration of title-contending teams in most seasons.

That year’s SEC title game pitted unbeaten LSU against two-loss Georgia, while one-loss Alabama — locked out of the SEC West’s slot by LSU — stayed home.

A key point to be made at the beginning of this discussion is that this is not an argument for conference championship games to be abolished, only divisions within conferences. The conference championship games have been an unquestioned net plus for college football; the extent of the plus is what’s at issue. Conference title games prevent embarrassments such as Ohio State and Iowa both finishing unbeaten in Big Ten play in the 2002 season but not playing each other, and lacking a conference title game in which to settle the issue. OSU and Iowa happen to be in separate divisions in the current Big Ten structure, but divisions don’t have to be seen as the only way in which conference championship games can be created.

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What the SEC could have done in 2011 was to have LSU — conqueror of Alabama and the obvious owner of the nation’s best regular season resume — sit home and prepare to play in the BCS National Championship Game. What was the SEC Championship Game slot — already set aside in Atlanta well in advance, with CBS television committed to the broadcast as its rights-holder — could have given way to two alternative games played in Atlanta at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Black Rock:

A) An all-SEC play-in game of sorts between Alabama and Georgia. The two schools did not meet during the regular season, making the event both realistic and palatable. Alabama would have been required to win a tough game if it wanted entry into the BCS National Championship Game.

B) An Oklahoma State-Alabama game, which CBS could have labeled as “The SEC Playoff,” in lieu of a conference title game. LSU would have already been the conference champion, because it had already proved that it was the league’s best team in 2011.

See how this can work, fans… and conference commissioners… and television executives?

Meanwhile, what about the Pac-12? It debuted its conference title game in 2011, but as said above, it was stuck with a divisional structure which — when coupled with USC’s postseason ineligibility — created a dog-with-fleas matchup of Oregon-UCLA.

If divisions had not existed in 2011 as a requirement for conference title games, the Pac-12 could have invited Oklahoma State — a team in a league that had just jettisoned its conference title game — to come to Autzen Stadium for a game that could have been branded as “The Pac-12 Playoff,” in lieu of a conference title game. Oregon defeated Stanford in the regular season matchup of league heavyweights. No one in his or her right mind would have objected to anointing the Ducks as conference champions without need of a title game.

Oregon and Oklahoma State could have met in December of 2011, taking the place of the awful Pac-12 Championship Game matchup between the Ducks and a 6-6 UCLA team that had to apply for a postseason waiver when it fell to 6-7 before the bowl season.

Oregon and Oklahoma State could have met in December of 2011, taking the place of the awful Pac-12 Championship Game matchup between the Ducks and a 6-6 UCLA team that had to apply for a postseason waiver when it fell to 6-7 before the bowl season.

What we have here are three basic avenues for the power conferences as far as their conference championship games are concerned:

1) If there’s uncertainty as to the best team in the conference — either due to two teams not having played each other or a tie existing in the conference standings (or both) — a traditional conference championship game can be played.

2) If the conference champion is already clear but the second- and third-place teams are both in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff, hand over the conference title game spot to those two teams, and have them contest a game for playoff leverage and, hopefully (from a conference commissioner’s point of view), inclusion in the four-team bonanza. 

3) If neither of the above scenarios are in play — the 2011 season certainly brought this to the forefront in the Pac-12 and the SEC — invite a team from another conference, especially if not in a league with a conference title game (cough, Big 12, cough).

To unpack option number three, the ACC could do this whenever Clemson finishes 11-2 as the league’s obvious number two team, behind 13-0 Florida State. The Big Ten could explore options based on how Nebraska fares over the remainder of the season. The larger contours of this structure are clear — the point is not so much to be wedded to one plan, but to be able to mix and match teams in the television slots already reserved for conference championship games.

If divisions are abolished, we won’t get saddled with a team that lost at home to Indiana — and also got blown out by a Todd Gurley-free Georgia team — playing on national television against a top-three opponent which is vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

College football can take a step forward — removing divisions sounds like something all human beings should do to begin with; it’s something this sport should do as well.

 

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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