Conference Realignment: Goodbye to East and West Divisions in College Football
With next year’s conference realignment just around the corner, the PAC-12 isn’t the only college football institution that we’re losing. The SEC and Big 10 will do away with their East and West division format of deciding the participants in their conference championship games.
Everyone feels some type of way about conference realignment, with what feels like a considerable majority being against it. But this is one change that’s an objectively good move, at least if your goal is watchable conference championship games. The PAC-12 and ACC already did away with their divisions in the past few years. And now the last two Power 5 (4?) conferences to have this format are following, leaving the Sun Belt as the only FBS conference to have them.
It’s silly to arbitrarily divide a conference by geography without little consideration for how unbalanced the divisions might be, but I’ll be sad to see them go anyway. It’s almost inexplicable the way divisions evolved their own styles of play (and quality of team). When you hear the words “Big 10 West,” you picture a different type of game than when you hear “Big 10 East.”
In the 13 years that the Big 10 has had this format, the West (or Leaders divison, yes, that’s what it was called) has won just two conference championships, and it was in the first two years of the format. No more will we have to watch Iowa’s offensive coordinator fail to reach his points-total incentive and then play the No. 1 team in the country for a championship. But isn’t that kind of sad? Face it: You don’t hate the Big 10 West nearly as much as you love making fun of it.
No more will there be gems like the possibility of a seven-way tie, even through Week 9.
Yes, all these teams could still tie in a division-less Big 10, but what’s the fun in that? If there’s a seven-way tie, but it’s only for fifth place, does anyone hear it?
Again, it’s a good thing that the format is changing, but it’s okay to have mixed emotions. Be kind to yourself.
The SEC’s imbalance was nowhere near that egregious, with Georgia emerging as a power to match Alabama, but that was only a recent event. Everyone is all too soon to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that 14th-ranked Missouri was representing the East. The team representing the West has won the SEC championship in 13 of the last 15 years, with nine of those being Alabama.
Getting rid of divisions will not only lead to championship games being more balanced, but it’ll hopefully break up the monotony of the regular season, as well. SEC teams were competing against six others for a spot in the championship game, whereas now, they’ll be competing against 15. Having a head-to-head tiebreaker makes total sense — you should reward the team that wins — but with divisions, it cheapens the remaining conference games.
Alabama played eight conference games this year, but only two of them mattered. As long as they were able to beat Ole Miss and LSU, and secure tiebreakers over the only two teams that were remotely close to them in the standings, they could’ve mailed it in for everything else. It would’ve taken three conference losses in their other six games for them not to win the division, which of course wouldn’t happen in a million years.
Now we’ll get some scenarios where teams like Alabama and Texas are in the running for the last spot in the championship game, but they aren’t on each others’ schedules. Then every one of their regular-season games will actually matter as they’ll have to try to outperform each other and win a secondary tiebreaker. No longer will Alabama vs LSU be the only regular season SEC game with any big implications? Same goes for Michigan vs Ohio State in the Big 10, as they’ll have more high-profile programs that aren’t on their schedule that they’ll have to contend with.
The point is that for many reasons, this was a change to the college football landscape that was overdue. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still weep for what we had. The Big 10 West was so bad that it was almost magical. It captivated the imagination in ways that supposedly high-level sports never have. Just how low can we go? Lower. The Big 10 West will live on in the hearts and minds of those who woke up early on Saturdays and sat close enough to have their winter coats dirtied by the dust from a “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.” So in that sense, it will never really be gone.