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Earlier this spring, ACC officials sent a letter to the NCAA board of directors requesting the league be allowed to decide for itself which schools compete in its annual championship football game.
The ACC’s divisional power structure has swung like a pendulum from division to division. Rarely do you have an even match-up. Two years ago Atlantic Division champion Florida State (then 10-2) faced Coastal Division Georgia Tech (6-6) when Clemson was 10-2. Last year, unbeaten FSU played Duke (10-2), but the league’s second-best team clearly was Clemson (11-1) at that time.
The ACC’s NCAA request might be irrelevant. If the so-called power five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12) receive autonomy to handle its business, the ACC could decide for itself how it wants to set up its championship. Likewise, so can the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12. The Big 12 could add its own title game despite not carrying the NCAA requirement of 12 teams and two divisions.
The power leagues also could abolish divisions, which would have regular-season scheduling merit for the tradition-rich Big Ten and SEC. Last month, the SEC voted to continue its current scheduling format despite lugging 14 teams. That setup consists of schools playing everyone in their division (six), the always-controversial permanent crossover opponent and then a rotating non-divisional opponent. But that also means schools will play non-divisional, nonprotected opponents only twice over a 12-year period. That’s hardly a league and more like a confederation.
The Big Ten will increase its schedule to nine games beginning in 2016. Only one crossover rivalry (Indiana-Purdue) is protected, but some series are played too irregularly. Iowa last played Ohio State at Kinnick in 2010, faced the Buckeyes in Columbus last fall and plays host to Ohio State in 2017. No games beyond 2017 currently are scheduled between them. That’s only three meetings over a 10-year period for ancient Big Ten foes.
If the leagues receive autonomy and do away with divisions, the SEC and Big Ten should protect four opponents annually for each of their schools. That way you keep the automatic events (Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama), build budding rivalries (Iowa-Nebraska, LSU-Texas A&M) and maintain historic series that mean something only to the schools themselves (Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, Northwestern-Illinois). You also could get more regularly played high-profile games like Nebraska-Ohio State and LSU-Georgia.
As for the other matchups, SEC schools would play four times every nine years. Big Ten programs would meet five times every nine years. Here’s how it could break down:
Iowa — Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Nebraska — Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State
Minnesota — Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan
Wisconsin — Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State
Northwestern — Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa
Illinois — Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State
Purdue — Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, Rutgers
Indiana — Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland
Ohio State — Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois
Michigan — Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland, Minnesota
Michigan State — Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Penn State — Ohio State, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska
Rutgers — Maryland, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue
Maryland — Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan, Indiana
Alabama — Auburn, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
Auburn — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State
Ole Miss — Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, LSU, Arkansas
Mississippi State — Ole Miss, LSU, Alabama, Auburn
LSU — Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Arkansas — LSU, Missouri, Texas A&M, Ole Miss
Texas A&M — Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, LSU
Missouri — Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina
Tennessee — Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Georgia
Vanderbilt — Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama
Kentucky — Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Florida
Georgia — Florida, South Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee
Florida — Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, Kentucky
South Carolina — Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Missouri
That still leaves out a few rivalries, but unfortunately that’s caused primarily with expansion. Alabama-LSU would be missed, but who do you boot from LSU’s lineup? The Tigers have played Mississippi State 107 times and Ole Miss 102 times. LSU has a strong series with Arkansas (which entered the SEC in 1992) and it is located closest to SEC newcomer Texas A&M. In the Big Ten you have similar issues like Northwestern-Wisconsin (95 meetings) and Illinois-Michigan (94).
With no divisions, tiebreakers likely would play a significant role for championship game match-ups. Along with a head-to-head component, record against common opponents would figure into a few tiebreakers. But some divisional tiebreakers are quite messy (see Big 12 South in 2008) and NCAA penalties can devalue divisional championships (Big Ten Leaders, ACC in 2012).
Three protected games without divisions are too few for the SEC. If you protect five games, you might as well stick with divisions. But it’s worth considering to allow the leagues to play more of their brethren on a rotational basis.
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