• Each Power 5 conference can improve the competitive balance of its divisions with some simple fixes, like swapping Stanford and Utah in the Pac-12.
By Colin Becht
June 01, 2017

Discussions regarding Auburn’s placement in the SEC’s divisions resurfaced in the past few weeks, as SI’s Andy Staples analyzed. The talk around realigning the SEC’s divisions could lead to actual debate among the conference’s leaders, though most likely it’ll fade as just another meaningless storyline to help pass the off-season.

Still, the Auburn-to-the-East movement raises a valid point that applies far beyond the SEC: Most conferences’ divisions are poorly constructed—at least in terms of creating competitive balance given the current state of their programs. The result is that in most conferences, the must-see game that effectively decides the league title is a regular season matchup between division rivals rather than the actual title game after the season.

The good news is that in most cases a few minor tweaks to the divisional alignment could bring much better balance and lead to more competitive conference championships. The bad news is there seems to be almost no urgency among the leagues to consider any changes. (At this point, you might be wondering what’s the purpose of considering this if the conferences aren’t actually planning any changes. But remember, it’s June 1 and there’s still nearly three months until the season starts.)

Here’s how each of the Power 5 conferences could improve its divisional alignment.

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Atlantic Coastal
Clemson Florida State
NC State North Carolina
Wake Forest Duke
Syracuse Pittsburgh
Virginia Virginia Tech
Louisville Georgia Tech
Boston College Miami

The balance between the ACC’s Atlantic and Coastal divisions isn’t actually as bad as it seems. The Atlantic has topped the Coastal in regular season crossover games only 101–99. However, the imbalance is particularly stark is at the top of the conference, where the Atlantic holds an undeniable advantage. The Atlantic champion has topped the Coastal champion in each of the past six conference title games, a stretch during which Clemson and Florida State have solidified their status as the class of the ACC.

To fix the ACC’s divisions, there’s really only one thing to do: Split up Clemson and Florida State. The best way to do that is to move the Seminoles into the Coastal and move Virginia into the Atlantic.

The ACC’s eight-game conference schedule requires each team to play the six other teams in its division, one protected crossover opponent and one rotating crossover opponent. Clemson and Florida State could adopt one another as their protected crossover, preserving what has become the marquee regular season game in the ACC. Florida State currently plays Miami as its protected crossover, but these rivals would maintain their annual meeting as divisional foes. Georgia Tech would the biggest loser in this plan, as it would lose its yearly meeting with Clemson. Virginia Tech and Virginia would similarly adopt one another as protected crossover opponents to keep their annual meeting. Neither the Hokies’ pairing with Boston College nor the Cavaliers’ with Louisville held great significance. Georgia Tech could add Louisville as its crossover rival while Boston College pairs with Miami.

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The Big 12, which will hold its first conference championship game since 2010 this season, has the perfect format for its 10-team makeup. With nine conference games, each team can play a round-robin against the rest of the conference, so there is no need for divisions. The top two teams after the regular season meet in the league title game.

When the Big 12 had 12 teams, its North-South divisional alignment left it with serious competitive imbalance, as the South champion won each of the last seven title games (all Oklahoma or Texas) before the conference lost teams and the right to hold a championship game. The only way to keep the regional alignment with the current set of teams would require splitting up Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which could be protected as a crossover game but would still leave the South as a vastly superior division in most years.

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The Big Ten should go back to the Leaders and Legends, I saw only half-kiddingly. For as much as the Big Ten’s original division alignment has been mocked, it actually made a lot sense for the conference. Because, as has been made clear by the first three years of the league’s new East-West setup, any geographic division of the Big Ten creates an indisputable competitive imbalance.

The Big Ten’s consistent top tier of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all fall in the eastern half of the conference’s footprint, as does Michigan State, which until last season had been arguably the most reliably great team in the conference this decade. That topographical disparity led to the impossible-to-remember Leaders and Legends that the Big Ten abandoned in 2014.

Outside of returning to divisions drawn solely to create competitive balance with no regard for geography, the Big Ten’s best option is to do away with divisions altogether and press for a change to NCAA rules to allow it to still host a conference title game. The majority of the league's rivalries could be protected with three designated annual matchups, as SBNation has outlined, leaving six rotating conference games to ensure each team faces one another at least every other year.

The fight for the top two spots among Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and whatever team from the conference’s middle tier is peaking would be epic each season—far better than the battle in the Big Ten West, which this season is again shaping up to be Wisconsin followed by a clear gap before the rest of the division. Some seasons might still produce a team from the eastern half against a team from the western half, but the potential of a rematch of The Game with a conference title on the line would be thrilling. And while last year’s battle between Wisconsin and Penn State was wildly entertaining, it lacked some stakes due to the fact that neither team controlled its destiny for the College Football Playoff. Under a division-less setup, Ohio State could have gotten a rematch against the Nittany Lions with the winner earning a spot in the national semifinals.

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North South
Cal Stanford
Utah Colorado
Oregon Arizona
Oregon State Arizona State
Washington USC
Washington State UCLA

Remember this time two years ago when a big off-season debate was whether the Pac-12 South had surpassed the SEC West as the toughest division in college football? Yeah, that didn’t hold up, and the division produced only three winning teams last season. In the six-year history of the Pac-12 championship game, the North Division representative has won every time, and apart from UCLA’s three-point loss to Stanford in 2012, the South hasn’t even come close. USC should enter the 2017 season as the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12, so perhaps this is the year the South finally wins the conference. But apart from the Trojans, the rest of the conference’s strength still plays in the North.

Looking ahead, it’s necessary to consider that the programs most likely to be consistently successful are USC, Stanford, Oregon and Washington (you could argue for UCLA, but the Bruins seem unable to maintain an elite level of success for longer than a few seasons). So to create balance between the two divisions, two of those four teams need to be in the South and two in the North. That makes Stanford the most natural candidate to move.

In exchange, the North takes on Utah, a solid replacement that in the right years could contend for a division title, albeit not as regularly as the Cardinal. With this swap, the North should feature a compelling race in most years between Washington and Oregon plus Utah or Washington State in some years. The South would pit Stanford against USC with UCLA as the most regular challenger to those two. And under this divisional alignment, the North would hold three of the already played conference championship game victories (two for Oregon, one for Washington) while the South would also possess three (all Stanford).

The biggest obstacle here is how to schedule the four California schools. All four play each other each year, which means that with the current division setup, each plays one of the others as a divisional opponent (Cal vs. Stanford, UCLA vs. USC) and the remaining two as protected crossover games. If Stanford moves to the South Division, that would require Cal to play three protected crossovers, leaving only one conference game left to rotate among the three other teams in the South. That’s not a terrible outcome; few tears will be shed over such premier matchups as Cal vs. Colorado, Cal vs. Arizona or Cal vs. Arizona State being played only once every three years. Or if there’s robust resistance to that outcome, perhaps Cal vs. Stanford could be protected as an annual game with Cal vs. USC and Cal vs. UCLA being played three out of every five years.

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West East
LSU Alabama
Mississippi State Auburn
Missouri Kentucky
Vanderbilt Tennessee
Ole Miss Georgia
Texas A&M South Carolina
Arkansas Florida

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs seems intent on forcing a serious debate about moving the Tigers to the SEC East, with Missouri taking its geographically accurate place in the conference’s West Division. But unless the SEC is willing to add a ninth conference game to its schedule, there’s no way to move just Auburn and Missouri without sacrificing either the Iron Bowl or the Third Saturday in October.

Thus, as Andy Staples explained, the best solution may be to move both Auburn and Alabama to the East, with Vanderbilt joining Missouri in its move to the West. This move isn’t quite as good as just moving Auburn from a competitive balance standpoint. The West could be weaker in many years while the East could be loaded. But it’s still an improvement on the current setup. Setting aside expectations for teams’ 2017 seasons, LSU and Texas A&M would likely be the biggest threats in the new West (we’ll see what Ole Miss’s future could hold once the fate of its NCAA sanctions is settled). The East would boast a fierce battle in most years between some combination of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. That’s definitely tougher, but it would still probably create better balance in Atlanta, where the current division structure has led to eight straight conference titles for the West.

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Unlike swapping just Auburn and Missouri, moving the Tigers and the Crimson Tide would preserve more of the conference’s biggest rivalries. Alabama could play Auburn and Tennessee as divisional foes while taking on LSU as a protected crossover opponent. LSU would have to give up its annual matchups against Auburn and Florida, but with an easier division, would LSU really complain much?

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