It’s often said that a house divided cannot stand. Well, college football’s power conferences aren’t just divided—they’re split in baffling, stupid ways that make every season less exciting than it should be.
The SEC has long taken pride in its status as college football’s preeminent conference. For the past decade, though, that distinction has really applied to only half of the league. In the period since an SEC East team last won the league’s championship game, in 2008, West division teams have made the national championship game eight times, taking home five titles, and produced three Heisman Trophy winners. SEC West teams are 8-2 against East division counterparts this year, furthering a recent trend: West squads finished 10-5 against the East last season, 13-2 in 2015, and 11-4 in 2014. Alabama has won 20 games in a row against SEC East foes since losing to South Carolina in 2010. Tennessee feels like it should be one of the East’s perennially marquee programs, but it hasn’t won a game against a West division opponent since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2012.
This year, at least, there’s hope for an interesting SEC championship game, as the East boasts a worthy challenger to take on all-but-certain SEC West representative Alabama: Georgia is 8-0 and is ranked second in the AP poll. But half of the Bulldogs’ wins thus far have come against SEC East teams: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Florida, which rank 103rd, 84th, 57th, and 90th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+, respectively. That’s a damn Sun Belt schedule. For comparison’s sake, I looked up Idaho’s conference opponents thus far: South Alabama (85th) Louisiana-Lafayette (110th), Appalachian State (48th), and Louisiana-Monroe (104th). The Vandals’ average Sun Belt opponent is ranked 86.8, according to S&P+; Georgia’s average SEC East opponent is ranked 83.5.
Divisional imbalance isn’t just a problem for the SEC, though. The Big Ten’s East division was so good last year that one of its runners-up, Ohio State, reached the College Football Playoff. After the Buckeyes’ thrilling 39-38 comeback victory over Penn State on Saturday, the two teams are both in the thick of the playoff conversation once again. It’s entirely plausible that both could crack the four-team field come December.
Meanwhile, the strongest team that unbeaten Big Ten West division leader Wisconsin has played this fall is probably Florida Atlantic. (Shouts to Lane Kiffin.) Big Ten East teams are 9-4 against Big Ten West squads, and even Rutgers is joining in on the fun, registering back-to-back wins over West opponents Illinois and Purdue. I have ceaselessly mocked every aspect of the Rutgers program since its induction to the league in 2014, so allow me to say in all seriousness that Rutgers football is in better shape right now than multiple Big Ten West programs.
Still, at least the SEC and Big Ten have geography to blame for divisional structures that feel like they break up into a major league and a minor league. The ACC picked its divisions arbitrarily, coming up with the “Atlantic” and “Coastal.” If you can successfully parse why one set of teams is more “Atlantic” and the other more “Coastal,” I’ll buy you some Bojangles’. I write about college football for a living, and I have never bothered learning which division is which, outside of knowing that one has Clemson and Florida State and the other does not. And yet there’s a massive disparity between the two: The Atlantic produced last season’s national champion (Clemson) and Heisman winner (Lamar Jackson), as well as the 2013 national champ (Florida State) and Heisman winner (Jameis Winston). A Coastal team hasn’t won the ACC championship game since 2010.
The gap between ACC divisions is smaller than usual this fall, as Atlantic headliners Florida State and Louisville haven’t lived up to their preseason billing. But Clemson, the top-ranked team in the Atlantic, is a true national title contender; Miami—which, of course, resides in the Coastal, because it sits on the coast of an ocean whose name I forget—is 7-0, but has won its past four games by one possession, including over 1-7 North Carolina. I don’t have much faith in the Hurricanes’ staying power.
Each of these conferences essentially exists as two leagues—one that’s a powerhouse, the other a wasteland. The imbalance puts those conferences’ best teams through a gantlet, leading to losses that alter the national title picture while gifting lesser teams spots in league championship games. It has often made those title games extremely predictable, putting a damper on what should be one of the best weekends on the college football calendar.
Why does college football do this? And what can be done to fix it?
Competitive imbalance always seems to exist when sports teams are divvied up into two large groups. There’s no good reason for the NBA’s Western Conference to be significantly better than its Eastern Conference, and yet the West has almost all of the league’s 2017-18 championship contenders, while the East features LeBron James and a collection of lucky intramural champs from local colleges. Western Conference teams have won more combined games than Eastern Conference teams in 17 of the past 18 seasons. In MLB, American League teams have a superior record against National League teams in interleague play for 14 years running, although that may be at least partly attributable to the fact AL rosters are built to include a designated hitter, while NL rosters are not. There’s no such rule difference in the NFL, however, yet AFC teams posted a better record than NFC teams in interconference play for 15 straight seasons.
College football doesn’t have to be this way. Divisions aren’t a widely held aspect of college sports—most conferences don’t use a divisional setup in any sport other than football—and they haven’t existed in the NCAA’s landscape for very long. The SEC has the oldest divisions (dating back to 1992), but I’m older than they are, and I’m not old even enough to remember when Nebraska was a football powerhouse.
The conference concept used to be simple: A bunch of teams from the same geographic region banded together; everybody played against everybody else; and the team that won the most games was named the league’s champion. Sometimes two teams tied for the title, a horrible structural breakdown that resulted in multiple fan bases being happy about sports.
Over the past few decades, though, college conferences discovered two things that earned massive amounts of cash. The first was holding annual championship games. And how did most conferences determine which two teams should play in that championship game? Easy: They split themselves in two, and made the best team from each division play each other.
Secondly, conferences learned that they could significantly increase their cash flow simply by adding schools from geographically distinct places, because the more places in which a league has a footprint, the more places it can slip its television network (the Big Ten Network, the SEC Network, etc.) onto unsuspecting consumers’ cable bills. (I have no idea what these leagues’ revenue models will look like 20 years from now, when nobody pays for cable anymore, but alas.) This was the driving force behind the most recent realignment wave: Once upon a time, leagues had eight to 10 members; now, most power conferences have 12 to 14. That’s too many for teams to play against during a given football season, so a divisional setup was relied upon to give each team a consistent set of opponents.
I’d argue that these football divisions are failing at both of their primary tasks. They’ve done a crappy job of selecting conference championship game participants. We’ve already discussed the complete dominance of the SEC West and ACC Atlantic divisions, but this trend of lopsided results doesn’t end there: Every Pac-12 title game has resulted in a win for a Pac-12 North team. The past three years have seen three different North division representatives (Oregon, Stanford, Washington) take down three different South division representatives (Arizona State, USC, Colorado) in three different blowouts (51-13, 41-22, and 41-10). The 2012 Pac-12 title game has been the only one decided by fewer than 19 points. In the Big 12’s old setup, Texas and Oklahoma came out of the South division and combined to win the final seven league championship games. A Big Ten West team has yet to win a conference title game.
I’d say that divisions also do a poor job of creating balanced or consistent schedules. Divisions are supposed to create similarly challenging schedules for every member school in a conference, but Alabama’s undefeated SEC record feels drastically different than Georgia’s. And in 14-team leagues, divisional schedules can prevent two schools from feeling like they’re part of the same conference. Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and still hasn’t played Georgia. It won’t until 2019, in what will be its eighth season in the league. The Bulldogs won’t pay their first visit to Kyle Field until 2024. You realize what this means? Reveille hasn’t met Uga yet. Enough about parity, or football, or whatever: There are sports puppies that need to play with each other. The average life span of a purebred English bulldog is simply not long enough to wait a damn decade in between dog mascot playdates.
College football’s divisional system is broken, and it’s led to plenty of justified criticism. There’s only one problem with these complaints: We’ve hated every other format that conferences have tried in the past, too.
Against all odds, one league did manage to create a decently fair division structure for a time. From 2011 to 2013, the Big Ten used an alignment based on competitive balance rather than geography. One of its divisions featured Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. (This is was not when Nebraska was good-good at football, but the Cornhuskers were important enough to warrant a mention.) The other had Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. These groupings worked well: In 2012, the teams from the two divisions split 18 games against one another; in 2013, the better league went 10-8; in 2011, the most imbalanced season under this format, one division finished 11-7 but its representative (Michigan State) lost in the conference’s title game.
So why did the Big Ten switch things up? Because it made the mistake of naming its two divisions the “Leaders Division” and the “Legends Division,” and we roasted the hell out of those dumbass names for three years. Every football aspect of the divisions was fine, but we made fun of the names so much that the league realized nobody could ever take them seriously. The conference’s 2014 additions of Rutgers and Maryland didn’t necessitate a complete geographic-formatting overhaul, as each division would have remained balanced by adding either the Scarlet Knights or the Terrapins. But lmao, are y’all really gonna call Rutgers a LEGEND or a LEADER? We WHAT ARE THOOOOOOOOSE’d the most competitively even divisional setup in college football history out of existence, and I don’t regret it at all.
The Big 12, meanwhile, doesn’t have divisions, but things aren’t exactly rosy there, either. From 2011 through last season, it did not stage a conference championship game and instead crowned its winner using a round-robin schedule. The Big 12 promoted this as creating “One True Champion”—only to look hypocritical and dumb when the 2014 campaign produced two champions of indeterminate veracity.
As of this season, the Big 12 is reinstating its championship game, a decision that presents its own set of problems. Without divisions, the league is simply having the teams with the two best conference records play each other in the title game. From a purely competitive perspective, this is great. But there’s a catch: Given how imbalanced other power-conference championship games are, it also puts the league at increased risk of being excluded from the playoff field for the third time in the past four years. In the game show that is college football, the Big 12 will always choose the door with disaster lurking right behind it.
There is one particularly good solution to the sport’s divisional problems: pods. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly laid out how and why they would work earlier this year. The idea is that a school would be placed in a four-team pod while playing a rotating schedule against the other teams in the conference. This approach could allow longstanding rivalries to remain strong (Ohio State and Michigan, for example, could always be put in the same pod) while facilitating a more frequent rotation of matchups among member schools. It’d allow for flexibility in the event of further financially driven realignment, and prevent the creation of A and B divisions within power conferences. The two highest-ranked teams from each conference could face off in the title game.
I don’t see any good reason conferences shouldn’t adopt this system besides the fact it has never been done before. Sure, if any one league adopted a pod format, it would risk running into the same problem that the Big 12 does now, by adding another hurdle for its playoff contenders. But if every league replaced its divisions with pods, then every league would put itself in the best possible position to put on a competitive championship game rather than a totally predictable bloodbath.
College football is nonsensical enough without the existence of something called the ACC Coastal. But at least many other nonsense parts of this sport are beautiful. Divisions aren’t effective or lovable enough to be kept around.