Most FBS conferences have divisions. The SEC started the trend in 1992, when it added a conference championship and needed a way to pick two reps. It made sense at the time, but it makes a whole lot less sense now.
Several conferences have grown to 14 teams. That’s way too many for a division setup, because even a nine-game schedule means some teams go years without playing alleged conference rivals.
Even for smaller conferences, there’s a better way. Really, every conference should get rid of divisions and just assign a few annual rivalries, which would mean plenty of obvious benefits.
Since each conference has its own unique issues, here are custom proposals for the entire Power 5. Most non-power conferences could also adapt one of these.
1. In a pod system, the SEC gets rid of an East-West imbalance and still maintains its most important rivalries.
Scrapping divisions in the 14-team SEC would allow the protection of three annual rivalries for each team, plus ensure every other matchup happened every other year.
It would also eliminate the lopsided championship matchups that were becoming the norm before Kirby Smart’s Georgia came around. That’s because without divisions, the top two teams in the SEC (or any league not using divisions) play in the title game.
The protected rivalries we envision in the regular season, though you could tweak any of this however you’d like:
LSU and Florida fans would prefer to face each other, and Auburn fans would prefer plenty of teams over Mississippi State, so this is an imperfect attempt. However, any adjustment for one team will demand other adjustments. For example, replacing South Carolina with LSU on Florida’s list means the Gamecocks need a new rival — and Tennessee’s dance card is locked, so who else would make any geographic sense? Maybe Kentucky, with some further adjustments?
Anyway, the point is this: instead of the current setup, in which one team can go about a decade without seeing a conference foe’s stadium, every team will play every team within every two years anyway. Here’s the setup in even-numbered years ...
... and in odd-numbered years:
We researched this system, along with others in this post, in 2016. We found that the 14 conference schedules were close to even in difficulty, based on 10-year S&P+ ratings. If we did the same research in just about any other recent year instead, the schedules would grade out about the same. There’s also little difference in difficulty for anybody between even- and odd-numbered years.
Oh, and the SEC doesn’t have to give up its eight-game schedule.
2. The Big Ten can keep rivalries intact but also spread heavyweights around even more than the SEC can.
A couple of Big Ten fans from our group selected these protected rivalries, which would let the Big Ten keep a nine-game schedule and preserve all the league’s major series:
In real life, the average Big Ten East team had a 10-year S&P+ rank nine spots better than the average West team. Moreover, the East allows less upward mobility, because historical powers Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State (and occasional power Michigan State) reside in the same division.
The pod system would, we found, drastically straighten out that imbalance. Look at these average S&P+ ranks over that same span:
Michigan State fans didn’t like the idea of dropping Ohio State, but we heard few major complaints otherwise. It’s a small price to pay for a more level playing field. (And again, MSU would play OSU almost every year anyway.)
Oh, and Big Ten fans can still insist their nine-game schedule makes their teams tougher.
3. The ACC can finally make sense!
The ACC has a mingled pile of identities, and its divisions have neither coherence nor balance, because long ago someone decided Florida State and Miami must be kept apart. There are Southern football schools, teams from the Big East, private schools, and the North Carolina group, all piled haphazardly.
Let’s try four protected rivalries per team:
That’d mean all the Carolina teams play each other, and we retain other rivalries for each: the South’s Oldest Rivalry (North Carolina-Virginia), the Textile Bowl (Clemson-NC State), and a schedule-balancing Duke-Georgia Tech series with some old history. Florida State-Wake Forest is the only totally forced pairing in that group (with at least a little history to it), but it balances FSU's tough group of rivals.
Also, associate member Notre Dame is included here, because it's more fun that way. The Irish have a ton of rivals, including a couple ACC snubs, but we picked Louisville because of proximity. They can learn to hate each other and surely have basketball emotions already. Every other ACC team can rotate on ND’s schedule, one or two per year or whatever.
4. The Pac-12 is the most fun. And it’s so orderly, it sets up another option.
In the Pac-12, let’s do three pods of four teams each. 3 x 4 = Pac-12!
- UCLA-USC and Cal-Stanford have to stay annual, but all four California teams could be considered protected rivals.
- The Northwest has two state rivalries and one other big rivalry, Oregon-Washington. And, hey, Wazzu and Oregon State can keep playing every year, too.
- The Mountain’s four teams are kind of lumped together, but that group includes the Territorial Cup and Colorado-Utah, plus Arizona’s played Colorado and Utah a bunch.
It makes sense on a map:
Pac-12 Championship berth aside, it would be cooler to win a four-team regional rivalry trophy than to win a division named after a word on a map, right? Nobody’s lining up to go to a Friday night Pac-12 title game in December anyway.
For the long term, dividing the conference into pods should cut into the geographic advantages certain teams have over their peers. USC’s always going to be in a better recruiting spot than Colorado. At least the Buffs don’t have to see USC all the time.
Still, you could encourage parity by basing out-of-pod schedules on the previous year’s standings (1s play 1s, 2s, and 3s; 2s play 1s, 2s, and 4s; 3s play 1s, 3s, and 4s; and 4s play 2s, 3s, and 4s). Here’s what 2019’s opponents would look like for 2018 Pac-12 California champion Stanford, for example:
From their own California Pod:
From the Northwest Pod:
- Washington State
From the Mountain Pod:
- Arizona State
The Buffaloes and Beavers would duck Stanford, thus improving their bowl chances.
5. The Big 12 can just keep on being the Big 12.
Everybody already plays everybody every year. So, we’ll just say to each team, "The Big 12 has protected rivalries now, and you're secretly Texas’ one true rival."
6. What about non-powers and non-FBS conferences?
A little trickier, because membership for many of these has often been fluid, which makes rivalries harder to group. But any version of the above could be adapted for any conference.
For instance, the 12-team MAC could try the Pac-12 version, and that’d be plenty to protect the rivalries that matter most:
- The Directional Michigan-ish Pod, protecting annual games between EMU, WMU, CMU, and Southeastern Michigan, more widely known as Toledo.
- The Ohio, with OU, Miami, Akron, and Bowling Green.
- The Midwest, featuring Northern Illinois, Ball State, Kent State, and ... Buffalo. Sorry.
The last of those makes minimal geographic sense — welcome to the realignment era — but it does make sense to split up Toledo and NIU, who aren’t really rivals but have been by far the two most consistent programs in the conference. Tinker as you see fit.
Or we could all just do the Ivy League thing: everybody plays everybody. Done.