Should divisions be abolished in college football?

This morning we started our Wednesday roundtable by talking about the UAB football program. This afternoon we are back as TSS Associate Editors Bart Doan and Terry Johnson join staff writer Kevin Causey and a rotating special guest in our weekly roundtables discussing all things college football.

This morning we talked about whether the UAB football program should be reinstated, this afternoon we discuss the divisional format and whether it’s outgrown it’s usefulness. Joining us in our afternoon discussion is Ross from the Iowa Hawkeyes site Black Heart Gold Pants.

Question: Should college football abolish divisions within each conference? 


On Twitter @RossWB:

I have mixed feelings about divisions.  As a Big Ten fan, divisions are a relatively new innovation — we’ve only had them since 2010, first with the ill-conceived “Legends” and “Leaders” and now with the more palatable “East” and “West.”  On one hand, divisions make it easier to preserve certain rivalries, since they guarantee that you play certain teams every season. (Obviously, this only occurs if you put the rivals within the same division; if you don’t do that you’re left relying on cross-divisional match-ups, which can get very messy.)  On the other hand, while teams play opponents within their division as much (or more often) than they did in a pre-division era, the flip side is that they also play opponents outside of their division less often than they did in a pre-division era, which can be annoying.

Unfortunately, with ballooning conference sizes I’m not sure there’s a good answer to this problem.  Conferences that get bigger and bigger simply make it harder and harder for teams to play everyone else in the league on a regular basis (at this point teams in the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC couldn’t play everyone else in their leagues every season even if they wanted to — there’s no way to squeeze 13 opponents into a 12-game schedule). Ultimately I think divisions do more harm than good in the current set-up, though.  With conferences getting bigger, divisions make it more difficult for a team to play its non-divisional opponents with reasonable frequency.  And if teams go several years between games with one another, it’s hard to feel like they’re part of the same conference.  Technically, there might be two divisions within a single conference, but functionally they’re probably going to feel more like two different entities with a scheduling arrangement.

My preference would be for all conference to play at least nine conference games, with two to three of those games reserved for annual rivals and rotating the remaining conference foes through the other six to seven games per year.  This would mean seeing some current divisional foes less often (some current division foes would obviously remain as the protected rivalry opponents), but would ensure that a team would play everyone else in its conference every few years.  I think that’s important, since it preserves the feeling that everyone’s a part of the same conference.  It’s easier to feel like Iowa and Ohio State are part of the Big Ten if they’re playing every other year than if they’re playing each other then taking 2-3 years off until the next game between each other.

The other benefit to abandoning divisions for more rotation between the conference as a whole is reducing the problem of unbalanced schedules.  It’s rare to find a conference with perfectly balanced divisions — the East is loaded with power teams in the Big Ten, while the West has been the gold standard in the SEC for several years, and the Pac 12 North has been dominant since the rise of Oregon and Stanford.  The same division isn’t always dominant — once upon a time the East was the more powerful division in the SEC — but it often seems to be the case that one division is stronger than the other, which creates imbalanced schedules.  Imbalanced schedules wouldn’t go away entirely under a division-free system — assuming that teams in a conference can’t or won’t play everyone else in the league (and in a 14-team league, that’s functionally impossible, as we already noted), the randomness of the rotation process is always going to create some schedules that are a little bit harder and some that are a little bit easier.  (Permanent rivalries will also add to the imbalance — Kentucky playing Vanderbilt or Indiana playing Purdue every year aren’t quite the same thing as Alabama playing Auburn or Ohio State playing Michigan — but the preservation of certain rivalries trumps the need for perfect balance, I think… and I suspect fans of those rivalries would agree.)

I understand why we have divisions and in some ways they’re beneficial… but ultimately I’d vote to get rid of them and adopt a system that involves more rotation among opponents every year.  Locking in 6-7 opponents every year is simply too inflexible, creates too much imbalance in schedules, and damages the feeling of conference camaraderie.  Ideally, we’d go back to a time when conferences were small enough that a team could play all (or nearly all) of its league opponents every year… but that’s probably a pipe dream.  The genie is out of the bottle on conference expansion and it’s hard to envision things going backward.  Still, if we’re stuck with bloated conferences, there are ways to make them work better and embracing more rotation in scheduling is probably the best way to do that.

Bart Doan:

On Twitter @TheCoachBart

I honestly don’t know if it matters either way if you’re not going to go to tiered scheduling. While yeah, we sometimes see a significant drop off in the success of divisions that can span multiple years (the SEC West versus the SEC East being a good example currently), and while, yeah, it looks kind of ugly to have 7-5 Wisconsin playing for and winning a conference championship (2012), abolishing divisions does very little unless the logic of scheduling forces teams into scheduling sort of like the NFL does.

The way the NFL does it is perfect if you dig yourself some forced parity. I think they call it socialism in the political world. But either way, the top teams in the NFL divisions from the previous season play other top teams from other divisions while the last place teams play last place teams from other divisions the previous season. While it’s unfair to the winners, you know the rules going in and let’s be honest … no one’s trading division championships for easier scheduling the following season. In college football’s case, you’d need to have a system where traditional rivals still are locked into playing one another, but once you get past that one protected rival, the teams you miss versus play vary by year based on where everyone finished the season prior.

It’s not particularly easy for teams like an Indiana in the Big 10 to turn a program’s fortunes around when you’re locked into playing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State annually versus the Big 10 West, which features only really Nebraska and as of late, Wisconsin as consistent powerhouses over the last 30 years. So if you need to abolish divisions … so be it.

Kevin Causey:

On Twitter @CFBZ

Call me old school but I kind of like having separate “divisions”. If we didn’t have divisions then what would we have?

For a conference like the Big 12, that has a limited number of teams, it makes sense not to have divisions. In the Big 12 everybody can play each other and then at the end of the day a clear cut champion can be claimed. Oh wait, that didn’t work out so well last year…did it?

The argument against divisions is that some are tougher than others and all schedules are not created equal. I get those arguments but sports are never going to be 100% fair. There will always be something to complain about in terms of scheduling and how conferences are set up.

Should divisions be broken up? No. But, I do reserve the right to change my mind in the future. If the conference lay-outs change then I think it’s a discussion that we should come back and re-visit. I also think that once we have a few years of data from the College Football Playoffs that it will be something that we need to re-explore but for right now, let’s stick to the way it is although I wouldn’t mind seeing some tweaking with scheduling within each conference.

Terry Johnson:

On Twitter @SectionTPJ

No, college football should not abolish divisions. It’s nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to something that’s not an issue.

Don’t get me wrong, the divisional format isn’t perfect. It seems like every year there’s at least one conference where one of the divisions is clearly better than the other.

However, it’s important to note that these things are cyclical and balance themselves out over time. Just look at the SEC. In the early years, the East division dominated, winning every conference title from 93-98. But, the teams in the West eventually closed the gap over the next several seasons. Today, the West is the more powerful of the two divisions, capturing seven of the last eight SEC titles.

Given that relative strength in a conference can change over time, why should college football attempt to legislate something that can – and should – be settled on the gridiron?

It shouldn’t, especially since abolishing divisions would actually hurt college football.

Let’s be honest: getting rid of the divisional format wouldn’t actually be an upgrade over the system we have now. Sure, it sounds good on paper to say, “pick the two best teams to play for the conference championship”. Yet, as the now-defunct BCS system taught us, it’s possible for there to be more than two deserving teams. Consider the 2008 Big 12, where Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech all finished with a 7-1 conference record, with each squad finishing 1-1 against the other two. How could the league pick the two participants for the conference championship game without invalidating at least one of the three regular season meetings?

The last sentence is why I strongly oppose scrapping the divisional format. What separates college football from every other sport is that every game counts, making the regular season just as meaningful as the postseason. If we were to abolish divisions, the likelihood of a rematch in the conference championship games will almost certainly increase. This would result in more league title games with the potential to nullify the regular season result.

Does college football really want to be like the NFL, where a team can get hot at the end of the season and hoist the Championship Trophy? Or like the NCAA where the 20th best team captures the title because it was able to disregard the regular season meeting(s) by winning the “right” matchup?

I doubt it. After all, the first major paragraph on the College Football Playoff website reads, “The playoff preserves the excitement and significance of college football’s unique regular season where every game counts.”


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