Many fans assume that the recent legislation by the NCAA, allowing conferences to hold championship games even without divisions, will have a widespread effect on the College Football landscape. But fans don’t realize that this change eliminates mostly arbitrary systems whose effects are marginal at best and countervailing at worst. The biggest effect, however, would be felt in the College Football Playoff. The CFP has had a significant effect on college football in its short-lived existence since 2014. Beyond allowing two more teams to compete for the national championship, the CFP has changed how schools compete against other schools in their conference. After years of fans and schools complaining about competitive balancing issues, the NCAA has finally responded with legislation that appeases the masses while changing very few postseason outcomes.
Did divisions negatively affect the postseason opportunities available to schools? The PAC-12 seems to think so, announcing soon after the legislation that they were doing away with their divisions. The ACC, meanwhile, announced they are considering a 3-5-5 scheduling model that is more easily understood than explained. Essentially, this would mean that a school would face the same three teams every year while the rest of the conference would be split into two “pods” of five teams each such that the school would alternate which pod they were playing each year. I’ll reserve judgment for now on a system that, at first glance, looks like divisions with extra steps. Instead, I’ll take a quick look at the history of divisions in the CFP era and some counting statistics to assess whether divisions were a problem in the past, as well as how the lack of divisions may change the future of the CFP.
As a disclaimer, all of the following numbers omit the 2020 season due to the high variance in player availability, scheduling, and overall uncertainty leading to outcomes from differing numbers of games between schools to a second-place team competing in a conference championship.
The History of Divisions
The first question is, what is the logic behind the current division system? The Pac-12 arguably has the most logical delineation of the Power 5 conferences. Except for the University of Colorado, the North and South divisions were justifiable in terms of proximity. This is aided by the fact that the Pac-12 has three pairs of state schools (i.e., Arizona and Arizona State, etc.) and two schools inhabiting the same city. This geographic clustering probably streamlined logistics and minimized travel time.
However, objections to the logic behind division determinations are well-founded in the other conferences. The SEC has such oddities as Missouri in the East despite being the third city from the Pacific. If one were to divide the conference by longitude, Alabama and Auburn, who share a state, wouldn’t even be in the same division. Switching Auburn and Missouri wouldn’t solve anything, considering the forthcoming additions of Texas and Oklahoma.
The Big Ten is much more faithful to the geographical definitions but suffers from a perceived lack of competitive balance. Though the schools are all relatively clustered in the northern midwest of the continental U.S., it is difficult to argue that West and East schools’ performance has been roughly equal. In the CFP era, for example, Ohio State has had one of the top-two best overall records in the entire Big Ten every year. Meanwhile, from the West, only Wisconsin has multiple seasons finishing in the top two of the conference with three.
This brings us to the Big 12. With the departures of Colorado and Nebraska to the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, Big 12 membership fell to only ten teams. By NCAA rule, they were no longer allowed to hold a conference championship, and the conference also eliminated divisions. This became an issue when Baylor and TCU felt they were cheated out of an opportunity to compete in the first CFP in 2014 because they were crowned conference co-champions. So, in 2016 the NCAA granted the Big 12 an exception such that they could hold a conference championship despite having neither enough teams nor divisions.
Versus Division Records
So, did teams perform significantly differently when playing in their division than when playing out of division? Not necessarily. The difference in means between a team’s record in division vs. other conference games, for all Power 5 schools with divisions, is not significantly different than zero (CI: (-.043, .048)). Perhaps only specific conferences suffered from this difference? Even the Big Ten West, arguably the biggest beneficiary of unequal levels of competition, does not have a significant difference in records against the West vs. the East from 2014-2021 (-.096, .14). Interestingly, the SEC East has a statistically significantly better record within its division than against the West (.025, .28). So the answer to the above is at worst inconclusive and, at best, maybe.
Perhaps discussing the conference championship, where conference and division records hold the most weight, can provide the most insight. How often would it change which teams participate if we were to select the participants in conference championships based on the overall or entire conference record? In the CFP era, 11 of 32 conference championships (including the Big 12) would have had different participants had teams been selected on overall record instead of conference record. In comparison, seven of 28 championships would’ve had different teams if participants were chosen strictly on conference records regardless of division. Eight of 28 championships had a participant who didn’t even have the best overall record in their division (after tiebreakers). If participation in the conference championship were as important to qualify for the CFP as 2014 Baylor and TCU argued, then should conferences even be selecting participants based on conference record?
One might argue that it would behoove conferences to only select teams with the best overall record, so they might have a higher chance of being selected for CFP. Seeing as most Power 5 divisions were settled long before the CFP era, it’s unlikely that conferences have intentionally been writing the rules to benefit only their most prolific programs. However, we’ve already seen that the current organization of teams has likely resulted in at least one case in which a deserving team might have been left out of the CFP due to divisions. The opposite of the 2014 TCU and Baylor case might be the 2016 Ohio State team that qualified for the CFP despite not even playing in their conference championship. The Buckeyes could weather the ranking storm from losing to Penn State because it happened early enough in the season and regained the pole position by the end of the season to qualify for a CFP spot. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship and were only awarded an invitation to Pasadena.
Should a team even be allowed in the CFP if they don’t win their conference championship? In both cases in which two teams in the CFP represented the SEC, the national champions were the team with the worse conference finish. 2021 Georgia even showed that losing late in the season, even in the conference championship, doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a school’s CFP hopes. Granted, in 2021, Georgia had a historic defense (even after losing their entire defensive secondary to the draft) and was undefeated going into conference championship weekend.
These irregularities seem more commonplace than exceptions to the rule, as is to be expected when a committee decides on admission to the dance. Some suggest that the CFP needs to be expanded to include a third round, thereby doubling the number of teams in contention for the title. Some addendums proposed include a permanent seat for each of the Power 5 conferences as well as one spot reserved for a Group of 5 standout. While interesting, logistics alone probably kill the chances of this model being adopted.
Another limitation might be that the CFP already takes the place of two existing bowl games. Four, or even six, might be too much of an ask from sponsors. There are already systems that effectively label teams as contenders before the season even begins. No team has made the CFP while receiving zero votes in the AP Preseason Poll. The average preseason ranking of all teams that have ever made the playoff is 6.28 (keeping in mind that if the top four preseason ranked teams made the playoff, the average would be 2.5), which, except for 2021 Michigan, all fell in the top 20. The preseason poll’s number one ranked team has also made the CFP in every year except for 2015. While teams from conferences without divisions were rated lower on average during the preseason (8.5 vs. 5.5 for teams from conferences with divisions), there were only eight cases where division-less schools even made the playoff, half of which was Oklahoma.
So how does any of this change if conferences do away with divisions? The short answer is that there probably won’t be any significant changes, at least in the short run. Schools will still have to beat the teams within their conference schedule. The ease by which blue bloods may enter postseason play may vary marginally, but the number of “good” or “difficult” teams in the conference each year doesn’t change just because the probability of having to play one may change. Similar to NFL scheduling, there may be a higher variance in outcomes caused by a particularly easy schedule in a given year. However, coaching staffs are not likely to recruit or develop players based on the schedule, as sustained success probably remains the goal.
I would conjecture that the CFP may see countervailing effects on selection to the tournament in the absence of divisions. Consider that out-of-division games for schools in the Big Ten already consisted of 33% of their conference slate, 25% for the ACC and SEC, and 44% for the Pac-12. Theoretically, doing away with divisions would mean that those numbers (averaged over time) approach 50%, which isn’t nearly as large of a difference as the headlines may make it seem. By any metric, teams who have had the most success in their respective conferences will have to play another team who has demonstrated relatively similar levels of success in the conference championships. Second-place teams sometimes come out on top, potentially knocking out a favorite.
At the same time, teams with good records may be less battle-tested in a favorable schedule year than some schools with similar or weaker records. Either way, the committee can technically overrule paper tigers in favor of a team that is perceived to be stronger, with or without divisions. It remains to be seen how the lack of divisions affects the committee’s perception of strength in the top teams, but this author would guess that there likely won’t be substantial changes in who participates in the CFP.
Barnabas Lee is a data scientist by day and an All-22 NFL Draft enthusiast by night. He roots for the tape, Korea, Cowboys, Terps, Nats, Mavs, G2, and Noles, in that order.