Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Conference championship games across NCAA football feature two teams, one from each division in that particular conference. Power Five conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Big Ten, the Pacific 12, and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) all have a championship game, while the Big 12 will be adding back theirs after next season. These conference title games feature the team with the best conference record in one of the conference’s two divisions against the team with the best conference record in the other. There is one major problem with this. What if the best two teams in a conference are in the same division?
Unfortunately, that question is not really a “what if” question. This unfortunate situation has happened, it looks like it will happen this season, and it will continue to happen unless something is done about it. The NCAA cannot let this happen because of the implications it can have on the national scheme of things, including the College Football Playoff. Let’s have a look at the various situations where this unfortunate occurrence has happened over the past five seasons in the NCAA, and where it could possibly and probably turn up this season.
In the 2011 season, there was a game dubbed as the “Game of the Century” between the #1 Louisiana State Tigers and the #2 Alabama Crimson Tide in early November. The teams were clearly the best two teams in the nation, and were ranked as such at the end of the regular season as well, with the only loss between the two teams belonging to Alabama in this game. However, because both teams were in the same division in the SEC, only Louisiana State played in the SEC championship game, and they played against the #16 Georgia Bulldogs, while the #2 Alabama Crimson Tide stayed home and did absolutely nothing. Even still, Louisiana State and Alabama ended up meeting in the 2011 BCS National Championship, which further proved that there was absolutely no point in having an SEC championship game featuring Louisiana State and a mediocre Georgia team. Alabama was good enough to play in the national title game, but not their conference title game? Just let the best two teams in the conference compete in the conference title game, for Pete’s sake!
In the 2012 season, the there were two extremely notable examples of this situation. One of them was the ACC championship game. In the ACC title game, the #12 Florida State Seminoles took on the unranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, while the #14 Clemson Tigers sat at home on their couches watching the action unfold. What on earth kind of business does an unranked team have playing in a Power Five championship game while a ranked team of roughly equal skill to the superior team in that conference championship sits at home and watches? Because the Seminoles and Tigers were in the same division, despite both being 7-1 in conference play, the Yellow Jackets snuck into the title game with a 5-3 conference record and a pathetic…PATHETIC…6-6 overall record.
The other extremely notable example of this situation from the 2012 season is the Pacific 12 championship game. In this game, the #7 Stanford Cardinal went up against the #17 UCLA Bruins. Seems like a nice matchup, right, with two top 20 teams? Not when the #4 Oregon Ducks (Yes, #4, three ranks higher than Stanford) are sitting at home watching it! But, because of the fact that both Stanford and Oregon were in the same division with the same conference record of 8-1 and Stanford won the tiebreaker based on beating Oregon in the regular season, the UCLA Bruins got into the Pacific 12 title game from the other division after a mediocre year, going just 6-3 in Pacific 12 play.
In 2013, the most notable example of this situation included the eventual national champions, the Florida State Seminoles, in the ACC title game. The #1 Florida State Seminoles took on the #20 Duke Blue Devils in the ACC championship game, while the #12 Clemson Tigers, whose only regular season loss in the ACC was to Florida State, did not participate in the title game due to the fact that they were in the same division as the Seminoles. Both the Seminoles (8-0) and Tigers (7-1) had better conference records than the Blue Devils (6-2) did that season. What, exactly, does beating the Blue Devils, which they did in a 45-7 “thriller”, do for the Seminoles’ resume? Anything? Did it cement them as championship contenders or something?
In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, we were fortunate enough to not have to deal with any of these extremely poorly set up conference championship games. There were a few games here and there which could have featured a better team on a side since there clearly were better teams in the conference, but none that really stood out on paper as having the potential to be a lopsided competition based on who was playing. There was not a really notable case where the team from one division in the conference championship was far superior to the team from the other division simply due to the fact that the actual best two teams in the conference were not getting to go head to head due to being in the same division within the conference. These seasons served as a nice break from having to deal with the many ridiculous situations that some conference championship games had brought over the previous couple of seasons.
This season, however, it would appear that the cycle of “championship games that aren’t” is going to continue, and it looks like it is going to continue in a big way, possibly in each of the four Power Five conference championships. It is clear that the best two teams in the ACC are in the same division. The Clemson Tigers and Louisville Cardinals, who are clearly the best two teams in the ACC at this point, put on one heck of a show in Week 5 in Death Valley, but because of the divisions in the ACC, there is no possible way that these two teams will meet in this year’s ACC championship game despite being the best two teams in the conference.
It is also clear that the best two teams in the Big Ten are in the same division. The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines, both among the top teams in the country at this point, will meet one time and one time only this season through conference championship weekend, and that is in their Week 13 duel, a game that will most likely determine which of those two teams gets the right to participate in the Big Ten championship game, but not against the other. Honestly, that regular season matchup will probably be a better game than the Big Ten championship, seeing as how the best team either Ohio State or Michigan could play in the Big Ten championship is probably the Wisconsin Badgers or the Nebraska Cornhuskers, two teams that are nowhere near the level of Ohio State nor Michigan in terms of overall talent.
It is less clear in the Pacific 12 and the SEC than it is in the ACC and Big Ten as to who the best two teams in the conference are, but right now the best two teams in the Pacific 12 appear to be the Washington Huskies and the Stanford Cardinal, who are in the same division, and the best two teams in the SEC appear to be the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies, who are also in the same division. The best two teams in these two conferences are less clear than the other two because you could make an argument in the Pacific 12 that teams like the Colorado Buffaloes or the Utah Utes could be the 2nd best team in the conference, and both are in the opposite division that the Huskies, the clear best Pacific 12 team right now, are in. You could also make an argument in the SEC that a team like the Tennessee Volunteers could be the 2nd best team in the conference, and they are in the opposite division that the Crimson Tide, the clear best SEC team right now, is in. Regardless, there is a sizable possibility that looms over the NCAA that none of the four Power Five conference championship games this season will feature the actual best two teams in each conference. That would be a real shame, and I don’t think there is a person out there who could logically disagree with that statement.
The NCAA should do away with divisions in each conference to determine who gets to play in each conference’s championship game. Instead, the NCAA should select the teams with the best two conference records in each conference to compete in that respective conference’s championship game. If there is a tie, then the College Football Playoff rankings should be used as a tiebreaker, much like the AP Poll rankings were used as a tiebreaker in the 2010 season to determine which of the three teams in the Big Ten, which did not have a championship game at the time, with 7-1 conference records would be crowned the champion of the conference and go on to play in the Rose Bowl.
This way, conference championship games would not be limited to teams in conferences with divisions, and each conference championship game would actually feature the best two teams from the conference. It would also provide a chance for all teams on the bubble of the College Football Playoff to further solidify their bid to be one of the nation’s four teams that takes on the big stage in the national semifinals. So what if the #1 and #2 teams in the nation end up facing in a conference championship? If the game is a blowout, then clearly the loser does not belong, while if the game is close, clearly both are contenders for the national title. This situation is much better than having the best two teams in the nation in the same conference and having the #1 team go up against the #14 team just because they are in different divisions and having the #1 team lose the game and lose their bid for a playoff spot while the #2 team in the nation gets into the playoffs solely by not having to play in the extra game, which would be totally unfair.
This argument could raise the question about the topic around other sports leagues as well, but college football is different. College football has so many more teams than the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NHL, and there are a total of 10 conferences, eight of which with two divisions in them. Each conference in college football is essentially its own league, while in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, the two and only two conferences in each league make up that entire league. Also, in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NHL, even if you are the 2nd best team in the league but are in the same division as the best team, you are guaranteed to get a spot in the postseason every single time. Meanwhile, in NCAA football, you are not even guaranteed a spot in your own conference’s championship game. Therefore, the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have absolutely no need to change their current divisional and conference formats, but the NCAA football does, and this issue needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.