Why Divisions within Conferences are a Terrible Idea

Never mind all the faults of the BCS system; the organization of conferences into divisions needs to change first.  The goal of this post is to demonstrate exactly what the title says.  Let’s just examine this issue theoretically at first.  Say you have a 12 team conference, which is divided into two divisions of 6 teams.  The winner of each division (e.g. the team with the best record against its divisional opponents) will play each other to determine the best team in the conference.

It’s possible that the top 2 teams in the conference are in one division; let’s assume this happens.  This means that in the regular season, the best team will likely beat the second best team.  Then, when it comes time to play for the conference championship, the best team will play (at most) the third best team for the trophy!  This is because since the two best teams are in the same division, the winner of the other division can, at best, be the third best team in the conference.  Am I the only one that thinks this is completely asinine?  Isn’t the point of a conference championship game to allow the two best teams to play for the championship?

In a given year, it’s theoretically possible that the 6 best teams in the conference are in one division, with the 6 worst teams in the other.  This would mean that the best team in the conference would play the 7th best team (!) for the conference championship.  Obviously this is highly unlikely to occur, but this wouldn’t even be possible if it weren’t for divisions.

Unfortunately, this issue isn’t theoretical at all.  It happened just last year in the SEC.

Morris Claiborne, pictured above, was the best member of a secondary unit that will probably put an absurd 5-6 guys in the NFL before all is done.  His top ranked LSU Tigers beat Trent Richardson’s Crimson Tide (pictured below) in the regular season.

Because LSU and Alabama are both in the SEC West, however, Alabama didn’t get to face LSU again in the SEC Championship game.  Instead, LSU beat a clearly outmatched Georgia team 42-10 (I know it was close for a while, but Georgia had nothing on LSU).

Alabama and LSU were the two best teams in America last season.  There is (somewhat) objective proof, since they played each other in the national championship game.  They were certainly the two best teams in the SEC.  Both teams have truckloads of NFL bound talent, and both teams increase their talent levels by very unethically toying with kids’ scholarships.  In short, both teams were stacked and both absolutely demolished the rest of their SEC foes in blowout fashion.  Each teams’ average margin of victory against SEC competition was roughly 25 points.  May I remind you again that the SEC is the toughest conference in America.  In any rational person’s view, Alabama and LSU were 100% the two best teams in their conference.

Why, then, did Alabama not get a chance to play for the conference championship game?  The foolish organization of divisions.  Alabama would go on to win the national championship, but it didn’t even have a shot to play for its own conference championship.  That, to me, is asinine.

The reason this bothers me so much on a personal level (other than being utterly stupid and irrational) is that with the recent addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten has moved to a divisional system: the much lamented “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions.  I don’t want the possibility of my Wolverines to be the second best team in the conference and not get a shot in the conference championship game due to a foolish system.


13 thoughts on “Why Divisions within Conferences are a Terrible Idea

  1. I understand that LSU absolutely destroyed Georgia in the SEC championship game but if they would’ve played Alabama they might of lost and both teams would be 11-1 would they both still play in the BCS Championship. Or if LSU won again and Bama was 10-2 but only loses to LSU. Would they still get in the championship. If they didn’t then would it still be the two best teams in the Championship? Plus no one wants to see them play 3 times. I think conference divisions are needed.

    • Michael, I’m looking at things independently of the BCS right now. My view of college football (hence the idealist part) is that the best teams should play regardless of what people want to see. If that means LSU plays Alabama three times, then that’s the way it should be. It would be unfair to screw over either team just because fans don’t want to see a matchup.

      However, if LSU did play Alabama in the SEC Championship, I doubt that they would play again in the NCG. If LSU beats Alabama twice, then Bama has two losses and LSU has adequately demonstrated they are better. If Alabama wins convincingly, like they did in the actual NCG, then LSU probably doesn’t play them again in favor of a different one-loss team like Oklahoma State. The only scenario I would see LSU playing Bama for a 3rd time in the NCG is if the score is ridiculously close again, like 9-6. Then they would have to play again.

  2. There are plenty of reasons to have divisions that while may not be “good” ideas are completely rational.

    Easy arguments for divisions include making rivalry and divisional games more important. For example, the UM-OSU rivalry needs no additional meaning. No matter what the situation in terms of a Big Ten championship, that game will have significant meaning. However, before this year, when would the Michigan-Northwestern game potentially mean more than the UM-OSU game? Now I am not suggesting that UM-NW is actually more important, however, the division system creates additional interest in games that otherwise may not be interesting.

    Second, divisions keep a conference relevant for an additional week. That is why it is argued that the Big Ten lost out in the polls at the end of the season. While the SEC and Big 12 were holding championship games, the Big Ten was sitting at home. Since the NCAA requires that conferences have at least 12 teams and divisions to hold a conference championship game, divisions become a necessary evil.

    What do these two have in common? Money. And, it is hard to say that making money is not rational. How do you sell tickets to a game that would otherwise mean little? Give it meaning. How do you boost revenue when there is a theoretically supply maxed market with extra demand? Increase the supply of games by adding a championship game. Or, if you don’t like that argument, then letting pollsters see you in an extra game boosts your chance of getting to a “good” bowl game and gives the school potential for more money.

    Now while I am sure that there are counter examples, it is difficult to argue the overall logic. The real issue, in my mind, is why does the NCAA feel that divisions are necessary? Or, why can a team that is not even the best team in its conference play in the National Championship game? Realistically though, if at the end of the day someone has a problem with the system because their team loses out, the rational person complains about why their team did not win out.

    • 1. I don’t get that logic. Ok, the game might “hold more weight,” but you don’t prove that you are the best team by only beating a subset of the conference (e.g. your own division). You prove it by beating everyone. Every conference game should be equally important.

      2. I am fine with adding an extra week. I don’t buy divisions as a necessary evil; the idiotic NCAA can simply change the rule. Why does a conference have to have 12 teams and divisions to have a championship? Why can’t #1 just play #2 to make sure they are really #1?

      3. In my mind, college football shouldn’t be about money first (hence the idealist part). It should be for the kids, making sure the best teams have the chance to play. Now, I fully recognize that money is central, however. But I’m not against having a conference championship game, so I’m on board with generating the revenue. I’m just against the current divisional format, and my intuition is that just because its a game within a division, its not like more people are going to suddenly buy more Michigan-Northwestern tickets. But it’d be interesting to see the data on that.

      I appreciate the comments and giving me something something to think about and reflect on. Keep’em coming.

      • 1. I think that you are assuming that the point of the conference championship game is to decide the best team in the conference. Now, while I agree that ideally that should be the reason, I think that it is also very clear that at some point along the way, that idea was lost. And I am also not sure that you prove that you are the best team by beating everyone. LSU did beat everyone in the regular season. Why weren’t they just automatically crowned the national champs? They beat everyone INCLUDING the #2 team in the country, which also happened to be the #2 team in their conference. But, after the season, LSU is not considered the best team in the country. I think that we, as fans, have to acknowledge that beating everyone does not necessarily make you the best (see Boise St.). Now while I would be the first person in line to change that system, I don’t see any change coming anytime soon.

        2. While us fans may be fine with adding an extra week, I highly doubt that conferences and the NCAA are. And, realistically, those are the people that you need to convince to actually make a change. For the sake of argument though, let’s say that a conference holds a championship game where a (according to the regular season) far superior #1 loses to a #2, the same arguments exist. That is why some pollsters at the end of last seasons said that they were voting for Alabama no matter what. Unfortunately, that “what if” will continually exist.

        3. Unfortunately I think that there may be too many confounding factors to say for sure that
        the divisional system has a certain effect on ticket sales (as well as not nearly enough data for the Big Ten in particular obviously). But you have to believe that in the Big Ten offices (or NCAA offices if you will) that reason is thrown around as why to have divisions. It’s like the Business Judgement Rule in law, in order for certain business actions to be legal, they just have to have a “rational” reason, not necessarily a good reason. Those two things are unfortunately not always one in the same.

        4. Just to mention another point, it is not like the system is built to exclude one given school (although I expect that in the next few years, MSU fans will claim that the current Big Ten system and divisions were built to exclude them in favor of Michigan). It is very possible, and even probable that Michigan will benefit in the future from the divisional system (in the same LSU-Alabama manner). While it may not be obvious or seem plausible right now, in the end, I think that the divisional system ends up having a net zero impact. In some years it helps, in some years it hurts. But overall, everyone knows the rules when the season begins, everyone has to play by the same rules, and winning solves any potential problems with the system.

      • This is why I started this blog, so people who love college football could discuss. Thanks for the comments.

        1. I am assuming that, correct. LSU beat everyone in their conference, and so won their conference. They weren’t crowned national champs because they lost in the title game. This does not disprove that beating everyone makes you the champion, since obviously they didn’t beat everyone. The Boise State example is simply due to them not being part of a major conference and playing inferior competition.

        2. I don’t think we are on the same page here; I’m simply advocating a different way of picking who plays in the conference championship. There is no extra week added; most of those conferences are already playing a championship game. Yes those “what if” arguments will exist, I agree.

        3. They aren’t always the same, agreed. Business judgment just protects from getting sued, which doesn’t make it a good decision. Just because they can rationalize it doesn’t make it a good idea.

        4. Good point, you might be right with this one. I just don’t want to ever see a number two team get screwed when a number five team has a chance to play in a conference championship game, but you’re certainly right that it could happen to any team. A flawed system for everyone equally is still a flawed system, however.

  3. I don’t mind divisions. Every team should have the right to control their own destiny within a conference.

    Teams that don’t win the games they need to don’t have a leg to stand on, at least that’s what I consider rational. For Alabama to ‘deserve’ or ‘earn’ (or whatever words people throw around) the right to play in the conference championship game, they needed to win their division and didn’t do it when they lost to LSU. Alabama lost; that was their shot.

    Why should LSU have to beat Alabama again in a game that renders the first matchup irrelevant? I still don’t see any logical reason for the national title rematch and I don’t see a reason for this in a conference championship game, especially when the sample size for evaluating one team as ‘better’ than another is so small in college football.

    I don’t really have a problem with divisions. Just win, baby, win – then you don’t have to worry about it.

    • Thanks for your comments Adam. What I don’t get about your argument, though, is that objectively teams have easier or tougher paths to winning all the games needed to win their division. Looking at the SEC standings, the West had LSU, Bama, and Arkansas, the top three SEC teams. Your telling me that Alabama didn’t earn its spot to play in the conference championship because it lost to LSU, but 10-4 overall Georgia earned a spot by beating the soft SEC East? That doesn’t make sense. That’s just a function of having a softer schedule, aka being luckier.

      The national title rematch’s logic is easy. They were the two best teams in the country. LSU was undefeated, and Alabama had only lost to LSU 9-6. The next best team was commonly held to be Oklahoma State, which lost to Iowa State. There is no way they had a better claim as the nation’s second best team than Alabama.

  4. I think it comes down to whether or not we should crown the best team as the champion, or the team that was best in one game. Lets say that the #1 and #6 team meet, with the #6 team prevailing. Does that make them the best team in the conference? Probably not. So what exactly are we trying to find from the conference champions (or even national champion, I’ll get to that)? If we are trying to find who can play just well enough to make it to the championship game but then show up and win, then the split conference makes sense. However, if we are attempting to find the best, the very best team then the current system is flawed. I’m wondering what the best way to find the best team would be.

  5. I wish MW had pressed his first point harder, or at least a little bit differently. The point of a conference championship game isn’t to allow the two best teams to play for the championship. It’s to allow the winner of each division to play each other for the championship. If you get rid of divisions, you get rid of the championship game. Divisions and the championship are inextricably wrapped up in each other.

    Two questions:

    1) Do you propose a conference championship game for conferences that do not have divisions? In a 12 team Big 10, how would you determine a champion if two teams finished undefeated?

    2) Do you think, e.g., Major League Baseball should eliminate divisions and/or allocate playoff spots differently? The current MLB structure does not reward the “best teams”, but rather the best team in each division plus the remaining best team. Is your anti-division sentiment limited just to college football, or does it extend across all sports?

    Go Blue!

    • BL, you’ll find my answer to the first question in my next post on this topic. As far as your second question, I don’t really follow any sports outside of college football and some soccer (in soccer, everything is a tournament/league play where every game matters), but I don’t see why my anti-division sentiment wouldn’t apply to MLB. However, again, that’s a professional sport. The goal of professional sports is to maximize revenue, not find out who the best team is, so it’s a bit different.

  6. Interesting take, but what about the Big 10 this year? Michigan State would be in the title game with their 7-1 conference record. But who would they play if there were no divisions– Michigan or Wisconsin? There is no precedent for a tiebreaker for this since in case of a two-team tiebreaker, the head to head matchup decides who plays in the Championship Game (since they will invariably have played in the regular season.) For shits and giggles let’s say Michigan wins this arbitrary tiebreaker and the eventual Big 10 winning Badgers go onto a BCS at large as Michigan did this year and an improved Michigan squad not playing in a trash tornado makes the Rose Bowl. I’m not sure of the meaning of this, but something like what you propose would sometimes victimize a team like Wisconsin that lost a very strange game (MSU and Ohio for that matter). Your system would have worked particularly well in the Pac-12 this year with USC’s postseason ban.

    • The only way to overcome that problem is to have every team play every other team in their conference. However, conferences have now gotten too big for that to happen. In order for that you would have to play either no non-conference games, or play 15-16 regular season games. The divisions create somewhat sub-conferences, with the championship game being almost a bowl game. Is it completely fair? No. But it’s what we have for now. I can’t see a different, viable option that keeps the championship game, removes conference divsions, and doesn’t have to make the teams all play each other.

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