Just two (ACC, SEC) of the five power conferences have made every College Football Playoff so far, while the others have been left out at least a couple times apiece — three times for Pac-12, twice each for Big Ten and Big 12.
The Big 12 missing out on two of the first three was a direct driver in partial deregulation of the sport’s conference championship system that allowed leagues to hold a title game without divisions. Now, after the Big Ten missed the last two playoffs, it might be the final piece of the puzzle for complete conference championship deregulation.
B1G commissioner Jim Delany mentioned getting rid of divisions last week as a potential response to being left out. Like the ACC and SEC, the B1G has 14 teams and two divisions of seven apiece. Also like the ACC and SEC, one of those divisions is significantly better than the other as a group.
By removing divisions, the conference would then pit the two best teams (by conference record) against one another in the championship game, rather than the winners of each division. This year, Ohio State beat Northwestern for the league title — and despite an impressive victory for the Buckeyes, it wasn’t enough to compete with Oklahoma’s better win over Texas in the Big 12 championship, or erase OSU’s 29-point loss to Purdue.
If the Big Ten actually makes progress on this, the ACC has to pursue the same idea as soon as possible.
The ACC doesn’t have the same motivations as the B1G to better situate its best team (one might argue they’re better off having Clemson stomp the lesser Coastal champ most years), but that end result fixes a much bigger problem for the league. Instead of going six years without facing fellow conference opponents, removing divisions creates the potential to face every other team every two or three years.
Rewarding the “top” teams by record only creates a different result in seven out of 14 years in the ACC — though that doesn’t apply this year, as Pitt and Syracuse both finished 6-2 in league play, but the Panthers did beat the Orange head to head (much to our chagrin).
Still, perhaps that isn’t the case with a better league structure that eliminates divisions and the needless annual games and lack of conference identity they create.
Over two years ago, I wrote a bit about how the ACC could go about a division-less structure that protects rivalries and also have each team in the league face one another at least twice every four years. The “three permanent rivals” setup is sort of like the internet-popular pod replacement for divisions, but without locking in a group of three to four teams together. Instead here, each team’s rivals get to be considered on their own merit.
This resulted in the following permanent rivals for each team:
There are some concerns about the balance of these permanent rivals, of course: Particularly for teams like FSU, Georgia Tech and Miami, who face what annually look like tougher schedules than some other teams might in terms of their three rivals. However, I’d counter that with: a) everything’s cyclical and b) the other five opponents help balance that out.
In the previous exercise, the five rotating opponents looked like this:
Fan bases will likely quibble a bit about some of the even/odd splits here, and of course some may be easier than others for one or two years. But is that really any different than the current divisional setup? If you must swap a couple teams to make yourself more at ease with this setup, go for it.
Also, for reference, Syracuse likely would’ve compiled the same 6-2 ACC record this year under the format, once again losing to Pitt and Clemson, but beating Boston College, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Pitt, comparatively, would’ve gone 3-0 against its permanent rivals, and 3-2 against the same teams it actually went 3-2 against in Coastal play to also get to 6-2 and jump SU for the conference title shot via head-to-head tiebreaker.
Last time around, one of the biggest pushbacks on the whole idea is the idea that there could be a three-way tie between teams that didn’t face one another. And that’s true, sure. But there are easy enough fixes for this: Record versus common opponents and/or College Football Playoff rankings.
For reference, here’s how tiebreakers for one/both of the top two spots would’ve worked themselves out in recent seasons:
- 2018: Pitt over Syracuse for No. 2 (head to head tiebreaker)
- 2014: Georgia Tech over Clemson for No. 2 (head to head tiebreaker)
- 2009: Virginia Tech over Clemson for No. 2 (5-1 vs. common opponents, vs. 4-2)
- 2008 (4-way tie): Boston College and Georgia Tech advance over Florida State and Virginia Tech, since each has 2-1 record against other teams (FSU, VPI went 1-2)
- 2007: Boston College over Virginia for No. 2 (5-1 vs. common opponents, vs. 4-2)
- 2006: Virginia Tech over Wake Forest for No. 2 (head to head tiebreaker)
You’ll notice a lot more randomness early as the ACC was stuck in a bit of a rut in terms of quality teams at the top. None of those seasons even required the CFP rankings to get involved. Record vs. common opponents was only needed on two occasions.
Is it perfect? No. But would the three permanent rivals be a much more sustainable idea than the current, pointless Atlantic/Coastal split? Absolutely.