Gone are the days of imbalanced conference championship games and dormant in-conference rivalries. Or at least that is the hope as the NCAA scrapped the requirement for FBS conferences to split into divisions.
In a long-anticipated move, the Division I Council announced conferences are now free to determine their championship game participants and not adhere to the divisional model.
Immediately, the Pac-12 announced it was doing away with divisions. Starting next year, the championship game won’t feature the winners of Pac-12 North division and the Pac-12 South divisions. Instead, the conference championship game will feature the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage.
“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 Football Championship Game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said.
Previously, the NCAA mandated conferences that did not play full round-robin schedules break up into divisions. The idea was to instill competitive balance. If a team could not play everyone in the conference, it could at least play everyone in a given division. The winners of the two divisions would then meet for a conference championship.
But in practice, this model was criticized. The divisions were often not competitively balanced. So conference championship games would often feature one highly ranked team with one loss and another team unranked with multiple losses.
The Big Ten East division last year, for example, featured Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State (all with at least seven conference wins and 11 wins overall). While the West division had only one team with seven conference wins and none with more than a 10-win season.
In the Pac-12, the championship game has not been played between the two best teams in five out of the last 10 years.
In 2011, the two teams the highest winning percentage were No. 4 Stanford and No. 9 Oregon. But, because of the divisional model, the championship game featured an unranked UCLA out of the South Division and Oregon out of the North.
Similarly, in 2012, No. 5 Oregon was left out of the championship game because of the divisions.
Under the new format, Utah would not have been in the 2018 Pac-12 title game. That matchup would have featured Washington and Washington State. The 2019 and 2021 conference championships games, both featuring Utah, would not have been changed under the new model.
“Today’s decision… immediately increases both fan interest in, and the media value of, our Football Championship Game,” Kliavkoff said.
The Big 12, which will house BYU in 2023, has not had divisions in football. The conference was small enough to play a round-robin schedule, so the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage have always met in the championship.
That said, with the Big 12 adding four teams starting in 2023, this move will allow the conference to avoid splitting into divisions once it gets too large to play a round-robin. The conference has discussed the possibility of splitting into pods once it expands to 14 teams.
The lack of divisions will also affect scheduling for every conference. Because teams had to play every team in their division every year, it meant that teams in opposing divisions would only meet once every few seasons. Many in-conference rivalries went dormant because of it.
Now conferences will be able to schedule more freely with-in conference and there won’t long periods of time between schools seeing each other.
The Big 12, which has not yet decided on a scheduling model yet, has discussed teams have a few permanent rivals and then a few rotating games.