College Football is in many ways entering a new era. The introduction of the one-time transfer rule, NIL, and conference realignment is changing how the sport is structured. As conferences respond to the changes within the sport, they are looking to maximize their competitiveness both on the field, and in retaining, or adding to, their current member schools.
One of the main changes conferences have looked at making is restructuring the scheduling systems for conference games and the selection process for conference championship games. This could have major impacts on how the college football postseason, both conference championships and bowl games, is structured in the future.
The Pac-12 Leads the Way
As the NCAA Football Oversight Committee and the Division I Council makes changes in recommendations and policy regarding scheduling and conference championship games, nearly all of the Power Five conferences have begun analyzing how to best implement potential changes and the benefits they could have for each conference.
The first major conference to make a change was the Pac-12, who, for the first time in 2022, will still play a division schedule, but will not pair the two division winners in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Instead, the two conference teams with the highest conference winning percentage will take part in the conference’s title game.
This move makes a lot of sense for the Pac-12 and could make sense for all of the major conferences. It guarantees that the two best teams will play for the conference title, which sounds simple in theory but has not always taken place over the last several years. It is true that this new rule would have had a limited impact on most Pac-12 title games over the last several years, but it is important to think about the potential scenarios it could help resolve.
It is hard to argue that the best two teams in any conference shouldn’t meet in the conference title game due to them being in the same division. This very scenario often played out in the ACC.
In 2018, the ACC Atlantic Division was won by Clemson, who eventually reached and won the College Football Playoff. A surprise Syracuse team finished second in the ACC Atlantic and 15th in the country, while the best team in the ACC Coastal Division was Pittsburgh, a 7-7 team that lost by 32 to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game (although they did defeat Syracuse in overtime).
In 2016 another scenario that may have benefitted this rule played out. Louisville, led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, went 7-1 in the ACC on the way to the best season in program history. The Cardinals’ only in-conference loss was to Clemson by six points, on the road, in the fifth week of the season. Clemson, much like in 2018, went on to finish as consensus No.1, winning their first National Championship since 1981.
Instead of a rematch of what was clearly the conference’s two best teams, Clemson faced ACC Coastal Division winner Virginia Tech, a solid 10-2 (6-2 ACC) team that won the Belk Bowl but finished one game behind Louisville in the conference standings.
In 2013 and 2012 similar scenarios would have played out, both times involving Clemson and Florida State. In the Big Ten, a similar scenario played out last season, Michigan and Ohio State both finished conference play at 8-1, with Ohio State’s only conference loss coming in the final game of the season against Michigan. Both teams finished a game ahead in the standings of West Division Champion Iowa, which finished with a 7-2 conference record.
It is easy to look back at what may have been and wonder how those seasons, or the ACC or Big Ten Championship Game, may have played out had different rules been implemented. However, there is a compelling argument to be made that the ACC in particular may have had a stronger reputation nationally, or at the very least more competitive conference title games, had the same rule the Pac-12 is implementing been in place for the ACC over the last decade.
Reassessing the Rules
As a result of these particular seasons, of which the ACC or Big Ten are not the only examples, the dialogue about changing the structure of conference championship games and scheduling has taken place. One of the driving motivations is that the best teams should play in the biggest games.
To get to that reality, the changes can, and most likely will, extend beyond just the rules for who plays in the first week of December. The ACC has looked at implementing a “3-5-5” scheduling model. The model would ensure each program plays three opponents every year while rotating through the other five each year.
This potential solution would ensure each program plays every other program during a two-year stretch while protecting rivalries and other marquee games, in addition to balancing each team’s schedule.
The analysis of how to implement new schedules extends beyond the ACC. As the SEC expands the conference is deciding the best scheduling practices to create the best balanced, competitive environment for a 16-team league. The Pac-12 is also exploring scheduling options after changing their conference title game rules, with the Big Ten and Big 12 both expected to follow.
There are other benefits for conferences beyond just competitive integrity. As television and other media revenue play an increasing role in impacting decision-making, whether for better or for worse, major conferences see a huge opportunity to increase revenue with more marketable schedules and games. After all, the SEC added Texas and Oklahoma because it increased revenue, and ensuring that those two teams are added to the schedule in a way that maximizes marketing and revenue opportunities is a logical step for the SEC to take.
As college football, and all college sports, reorient to a new environment, the changes will extend beyond the schedule or conference championship games. It is not hard to see why, and the benefits are clear for everyone. Players are on a more level playing field and get to have their play on the field better reflect the results of their season, rather than having the rules, well-intentioned when they were created, determine the results of their season. For administrators, conferences, and media-rights holders the benefits are also clear, increased marketability, revenue, and, they hope in the end, increased viewership.