Without Conference Divisions Can Schedules Remain Fair and Preserve Rivalries?

Without Conference Divisions Can Schedules Remain Fair and Preserve Rivalries?
Photo by Jacob Rice / Unsplash

The discourse surrounding college football lately has been dominated by news of player transfers as well as name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules. If you're anything like me you've become a little fatigued by these topics. So when news broke earlier this week that conference divisions may soon be a thing of the past it came as a welcome relief from a repetitive news cycle.  

CBS Sports writer Shehan Jeyarajah was the first person I personally saw write about an upcoming rule change that could ultimately lead to football conferences scrapping divisions. The following two quotes are taken from Jeyarajah's May 9 article titled "NCAA oversight committee: Ease conference title game requirements, waive recruiting class size restrictions":

"The NCAA Football Oversight Committee has made new recommendations to remove the requirements for FBS conference championship games... Removing championship game guardrails is considered noncontroversial and will likely be rubber stamped..."
"Present NCAA rules mandate that any football conference with 12 or more members must hold a championship game and split teams into divisions with round-robin seasons for divisional opponents."

If larger conferences are no longer required to have divisions in order to determine championship game participants then what purpose do divisions serve? It turns out at least one conference has already been preparing for what a future without divisions might look like. In a May 10 article 247Sports writer Brandon Marcello reported that "the [ACC] could institute the new 3-5 rotation -- or a similar format -- as soon as the 2023 season."

This scheduling concept has been circulating in college football nerd circles for a while, and it does offer a number of benefits. The players would get an opportunity to face every opponent in the conference at least twice, and visit every away stadium at least once, over the course of a traditional four year career. It would also help avoid less competitive conference championship game matchups (Michigan's 42-3 beat down of Iowa in last season's Big Ten Championship to use one recent example). This wider variety of conference games coupled with more competitive title games should have positive downstream effects for fans, television partners, and the conferences themselves.

All of this sounds great, so as a Tennessee fan I naturally found myself wondering what this might look like in the SEC. Brandon quote tweeted one of my replies and offered some insight.

Assuming that this rule change does go into effect, and assuming that the SEC adopts a nine game schedule, then moving to a 3-6 model would seem to make sense for the league. A team would have three permanent opponents, then face six teams one year and the remaining six the next. But my question is, with this model can a schedule be achieved that is not only fair for all schools but also preserves traditional rivalries?

Speaking from a Tennessee fan's perspective, the Vols probably consider their main rivals to be Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Obviously, that group of four would be extraordinarily difficult relative to others in the conference. Plus, it would leave in-state rival Vanderbilt off of the Volunteers schedule. Similarly, newcomer Texas could in theory find themselves facing Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and LSU each season based on history and proximity. This, too, would be an overwhelmingly powerful grouping.

Alternative scheduling models have been attempted before. My personal favorite is probably this one put together by Banner Society. However, even their model still has some shortcomings. For one thing, it was done prior to the news that Oklahoma and Texas would be joining the SEC. Secondly, it assumes an eight game conference schedule (the current setup) rather than a nine game conference schedule. And third, while I really appreciate their use of SP+ data to make their case for fairness, I think a number of other factors could be considered as well (especially as NIL regulations continue to evolve).  

Ultimately I do think a schedule that is both more fair and interesting across the SEC, or any conference for that matter, is achievable. And I think this will be an overall great move for college football. What I'm not as optimistic about, though, is a fair schedule that preserves all traditional rivalries that fans love. However, playing what was a traditional rival every other season, as opposed to annually, is a sacrifice that I believe most fans will find worthwhile.

Based on the media reports it certainly seems like we're waving goodbye to divisions. Hopefully that means Tennessee is waving goodbye to Alabama every season, too. It has been a long fifteen years.

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