6 min read

The NCAA Finally Did Away With Divisions

The NCAA Finally Did Away With Divisions
Photo by Gene Gallin / Unsplash

Yesterday, the NCAA governance something or other voted to allow each conference to select their championship game participants however they see fit. The PAC-12 immediately announced that the 2 teams with the best conference winning percentage would participate in the game - a decision that would have changed the match-up in 5 of the games played in their history.

The SEC played the first ever CCG in 1992. In 1987, the NCAA voted to allow conferences with 12+ teams to split into divisions and stage a championship game. The SEC capitalized on that by adding Independent South Carolina and Arkansas from the Southwest. The Big 8 and WAC were the next conferences to follow suit by adding Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech from the SWC to form the Big 12 and whatever the cluster(edited) of the Super WAC was.

The MAC added a game in 1997 (and hardly anybody noticed, because, well, it was the MAC). When the ACC expanded pulling Big East teams in 2004/5, they added a game. The Big East backfilled from CUSA and CUSA added heavily from the WAC to add a game for themselves as well.

While they seem commonplace now, the idea of a championship game is relatively young. For a solid decade, only the SEC and Big 12 had them as major leagues. The PAC-12 and Big Ten didn't start theirs until expansion in 2011. The Mountain West and AAC started theirs in 2013 and 2015 respectively when they hit the 12 member mark.

The 2016 potential Big 12 alignment where we thought we were so close was driven by the need for that extra data point of a quality game - ultimately Texas and Oklahoma politicked the NCAA enough to deregulate the games some and allow games to be played if a single round robin schedule was played (which the Big 12 did) or 2 even divisions were formed and a round robin was played within the division (which the Sun Belt did - splitting 10 teams into 2 divisions - wanting to keep at 8 games to try to get some extra OOC road games for the money).

But there are problems with divisions: parity.

Look at the Big Ten - since instituting their current alignment in 2014, the Big 10 East is 8-0. Over that time period, the average SP+ rating of the East division is 4 points higher than the West - and if you drop Wisconsin, it's 6 points. That disparity is even more prevalent in the SEC - the West is a full touchdown better per SP+, but there really isn't another logical way to align the divisions. (side note: if you pull Bama and Georgia out of each side it drops from 16.6 vs 9.2 to 14.2 vs 6.8).

This is where you end up with scenarios like people on Twitter yelling about "HOW CAN YOU BE A NATIONAL CHAMPION WITHOUT WINNING YOUR OWN CONFERENCE?!?!?!?!"

Well, sir, first of all, this is a Wendy's. And secondly - that's how tournaments work. The CFP has never had the goal of picking the 4 best conference champions to pit against each other. It has always had the stated goal of putting the 4 best teams. When divisions are extremely lopside and full of blue bloods (ahem - Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State all being ont he same side of the table) - it's really easy to drop one game against a playoff caliber team and get left out. Or rather than the CCG serving as a play in by getting to square off against another top 10 team, you are playing an unranked opponent because the other division was trash.

There's also the problem of not seeing teams often enough. A&M and Georiga have played each other once in the SEC rotation. UNC and Wake Forest play each other so rarely being in the same league and being 80 miles apart from each other, they've started scheduling each other as non-conference opponents.

With 16 teams the SEC is supposedly going to pods. They enjoy playing 8 conference games, so I'm not sure how they will play the numbers. When the WAC did it, 7 conference games was the norm so you had 3 games against your pod, and played an entire other pod - basically created rotating divisions. But that doesn't work with 8 - unless you have six 3 team pods and play 2 others. Maybe they will do your pod, one other pod and one protected rivalry - but then what do you do when you're scheduled to play your rival's pod? It's a mess.

3 + 5 = 8

This is the answer. It's what the ACC is suggesting. And it's what's good for college football.

Standardize on 8 conference games. Stop the infighting (hey PAC-12, by playing an extra conference game, you're guaranteeing 6 more losses to your overall win total for the league) and give the fans variety. We love the big non-conference matchups. We love seeing random games where teams that rarely square off face each other.

3 protected rivalries, then rotate the other 5 through the rest of the league. In a 14 team league, you play the entire league 2x in a 4 year cycle - a home and home with the other 10 non-annual teams. That covers the Big Ten, ACC, American and Sun Belt. In the 16 team SEC, you would end up in the same spot if you did 6 rotating instead of 5, or you can do 4 + 4 (which is more likely - they are very proective of building the brand by beating non-conference teams) and you play every team at least once in a 4 year cycle, with 4 teams that you'll have played twice in the rotation.

In a 12 team league, it's trickier. If you have 3 protected games, that leaves 8 remaining schools. The PAC already did 5+4 with their divisions. If you drop to 5 + 3, you're just keeping the division and seeing cross division teams less often - nobody wants that.  If you did 4 + 4, you're kind of in the same spot, becuase you play 4 and then have to rotate through 7 other teams - so you play 4 one year and then have 3 left the next year. That's basically 5 + 4, or you have one lagging team that changes a little more slowly, but then you're seeing 5 of the same teams every year in the 4 year cycle. 3 + 5 still works, you'll just have 2 teams that stay on for 4 years, then move out (eg: play teams 1-5 in years 1 and 2, then teams 4-8 in years 3 & 4, so in the 4 year cycle you play your rivals and then teams 4 & 5 every year).

Still better than the current setup.

But weird ties?

There may be some issues that come up - for example, how the heck do you rank teams?

The PAC 12 has announced they will use conference win percentage. That's what the divisionless ACC did in 2020 as well. It works. If you end up in a tie, the only way that's possible is if you lost a game. That's your own fault. Don't lose. It is impossible to have 3 undefeated teams in this setup.

Standard operating procedure would then be - look at head to head against the tied team. If they didn't play, then you go down the table and look at common opponents in order of their winning % until one team lost and the other didn't. But that's also kinda boring.

This is where the teams should take a lesson from rugby (use just use SP+ or another computer rating the way the WCC did with KenPom): The Bonus Point.

In rugby, the standings are not determined by wins and losses, but by a point system:

  1. 4 points for a win
  2. 2 points for a tie
  3. 0 points for a loss
  4. 1 bonus point for scoring at least 4 tries
  5. 1 bonus point for losing by 7 or less

So let's take this and look and say 4 touchdowns scored and 8 points since 2 point conversions are a thing. Hockey does something similar with no ties, so let's make the football standings:

  1. 3 points for a win
  2. 2 points for a 1 score win (OT wins will always be by 1 score
  3. 1 bonus point for 1 score loss (OT losses will always be by 1 score)
  4. 1 bonus point for 35+ points (the pace of play and scoring opportunities are different, so just going off of touchdowns doesn't translate fully IMO - but 5+ touchdowns worth of points is a good target)

Scoring it this way pushes teams to not just mail it in and run out the clock when getting a 4th touchdown. Can't sit on a 4 point lead when getting another touchdown will push you ahead in the standings. And if the score is 31-28, getting that last score rather than running out the clock will get you 2 extra points in the standings.

Here is a table where you can filter P5 leagues in the CFP era to see how things would shift if things went away from divisions:

You can filter by season/conference. If the embedded table doesn't work, here's a link you can look at and share:


I for one, welcome our new found variety and lack of rigid divisions.

PS: Big 10 schools - you have too many trophies. You don't need to protect 5 different rivalries. Nobody cares that much about that many schools. 3 is enough.