Has College Football Outgrown Divisional Play?


Today I came across an article Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a year ago about the “12-year rotation of non-division opponents for football schedules through 2025.”  It’s absurd that Georgia will not play in Tuscaloosa until 2020 or College Station until 2024.  Texas A&M will have been an SEC member for 13 years before the Aggies host the Georgia Bulldogs for a home game in Kyle Field.  I will be in my mid-30’s before Uga and Reveille get to hang out in the Texas.  Georgia might play Nebraska in three more bowl games by then.  Why is it so difficult for all the SEC teams to play each other?  Because the NCAA thinks divisions are still necessary in determining a conference champion.  And the fans are paying for it.

Instituting divisional realignment was a necessary evil back in the day to select which two teams would play in a conference championship game.  The SEC led the charge back in 1992 by expanding to twelve teams with the additions of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the South Carolina Gamecocks.  With twelve teams, the SEC could split their conference in half with two six-team divisions: East and West.  Other conferences later followed suit (ACC and Big 12).  Twelve team conferences could support an eight-game schedule and a championship game just fine.  And then the Big 10 wanted to expand from 11 to 12 and everything started falling apart.

In 2011 the Big 12 started getting harvested.  Nebraska joined the Big Ten and Colorado left for the newly christened Pac-12 with Utah.  Missouri and Texas A&M accepted bids to join the SEC in 2012 to make it fourteen-team conference.  The last few years the ACC and Big Ten have also expanded to 14 teams.  While these mega-conferences are expanding their reach into newer television markets, fans are left wondering: So when do we get to play these guys?

Since the College Football Hall of Fame is now in Downtown Atlanta and Georgia is home to two Power 5 programs in different conferences (UGA and GT), why can’t some guy from Atlanta come up with a solution to this divisional madness?  My idea isn’t perfect but I believe that it is a step in the right direction.  Fourteen team leagues can’t keep strong conference integrity with divisional play, so let’s abandon divisions all together.

The NCAA mandates that for a conference to have a championship game, it must have two outright divisional champions competing on a neutral site.  Now that we are in the midst of the College Football Playoff Era, why can’t a committee within each conference decide who are the two most deserving teams to play in a conference championship.  The representative of the team up for discussion politely leaves the room while the thirteen other representatives confer among themselves.  It makes too much sense for the NCAA to allow it.

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Arguing that divisional play creates rivalries is a bit of a stretch.  I wouldn’t say that South Carolina and Vanderbilt, Utah and Arizona State, Boston College and Louisville, or Rutgers and Michigan are bitter rivals by any stretch of the imagination.  Don’t worry, what I’m proposing won’t get rid of The Big Game, The Iron Bowl, or FSU-Clemson.

My suggestion is that each member of a fourteen team conference have THREE annual rivalries and FIVE conference opponents that rotate every other year.  This way major annual rivalries remain intact and every four-year player gets to play each conference opponent at home and on the road.  For Georgia, their 3 annual conference rivalries would be Auburn, Florida, and South Carolina.  The reason for South Carolina over any other conference opponent in this situation is that the Gamecocks’ biggest SEC rival is Georgia.  Whether you’re a powerhouse like Alabama or a basketball school like Kentucky, each team will have 3 annual football rivals.  Here’s what UGA’s conference schedule could look like.

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For Georgia Tech, their 3 annual conference opponents would be Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Miami.  Clemson and Virginia Tech are rivals of the Jackets in the ACC and I think Tech would enjoy going to South Beach every other year to continue playing The U.  Here’s what GT’s conference schedule could look like.

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The cool part about having the five rotating games is that biennial rivalries can develop against teams that aren’t playing regularly at the moment.  Georgia and LSU, Georgia Tech and FSU, Wisconsin and Penn State.  These would be great games that would happen at least every other year under this proposed format.

While a 3 and 5 rotating format doesn’t solve conference championship bids, I really don’t think having an intra-conference selection committee is all that farfetched.  Power 5 football conferences kind of run themselves anyway.  If bitter rivalries like Auburn-Alabama get in the way of diplomacy between conference members, then let’s just have another fourteen-team Power 5 conference decide that league’s two best teams.  ACC does SEC, SEC does Big Ten, Big Ten does ACC?  If the conference championship selection committee decides that the SEC needs a rematch of the Iron Bowl, so what?  So long as the two best teams play, I’ll be fine with it.

My idea isn’t perfect, far from it probably.  I’m open to any suggestions and dialogue about improving college football.  As far as I’m concerned, college football has never been as popular as it is now, so why not try to think of ways to improve the game we live and die by on Fall Saturdays?