CFP expansion will push conferences to reconsider divisions


ROSEMONT, Ill. — The proposed 12-team College Football Playoff would make winning a conference more important than ever, with six spots reserved for league champions.

Every major college football conference plays a title game, but how the participants are determined — division winners or best overall records —- differs.

On Thursday at the Big Ten Conference office outside Chicago, the college football leaders who manage the playoff opened two days of meetings they hope will end with consensus around the core piece of the plan: How many teams?

Already, though, the trickle down issues are starting to pop up, including finding the optimal way to determine a conference champion while also best positioning the league for playoff participation.

During the first seven seasons of the CFP, a conference has twice placed more than one team in the field of four. In 2017, Georgia and Alabama, which didn’t even win its division, made it from the Southeastern Conference. Last year, the Atlantic Coast Conference, benefitting from Notre Dame’s pandemic-induced league participation, placed both the Fighting Irish and Clemson in the playoff.

Notre Dame became the first team to lose a conference title game and reach the playoff.

If and when the playoff grows to 12, ideally conferences will want to create title game matchups that bolster their chances to get more than one team in the field because the other six slots will be filled by a selection committee.

The ACC did that last year by scrapping its divisions. Divisions are back in the ACC in 2021 and Notre Dame is gone, returning to its cherished independence.

But the future of conference’ being split into divisions is uncertain.

“My initial reaction would be, you know, divisional play has been pretty fun,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You look across the conferences, it’s created some new rivalries. It’s enhanced some longstanding rivalries. It’s been great for a lot of fan bases in some leagues.”

Among Power Five conferences, the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 use divisions to determine their championship game matchups; the Big 12 goes with the top two teams in the regular-season standings. In the Group Five, the American Athletic Conference has no divisions but the others do.

Fitzgerald’s fondness for divisions becomes apparent when looking back at those Northwestern teams.

The Wildcats won the Big Ten West and played Ohio State in the conference title game twice in the last three years.

Using the final CFP rankings from those seasons, the Wildcats would not have reached the playoff in either year after losing to the Buckeyes. But just getting to Indianapolis and being able to hang a banner for being a division winner is a big deal for Northwestern.

The 2018 Wildcats reached the Big Ten title game with an 8-4 record, having lost all three of their nonconference games. The proposed 12-team playoff plan is not friendly to that sort of division winner.

The six highest-ranked conference champions are guaranteed a spot in the playoff and the top four get byes. But no league has an automatic bid. Under that structure a conference championship game upset can do more damage than good to a league.

Would that 2018 Northwestern team, ranked 21st by the playoff committee heading into the Big Ten title game, have made a 12-team playoff and given the Big Ten an additional playoff team? Or would they have just cost the Buckeyes a bye and still been left out of the field?

The prospect of a championship-game upset costing a conference a playoff team is even more of a threat in the Group of Five conferences. Looking back at what the playoff field would have looked like with 12 teams dating back to 2014 — the CFP’s debut season — only once would more than one team outside the Power Five conferences have made the field. And that was last season, which was anything but typical because of the pandemic.

The goal for those conferences is to have a champion that is also the best hope to be chosen for the playoff and divisions are more likely to prevent that than help.

Using the final CFP standings for each playoff season here is how many times both the winner and loser of a conference’s title game would have made a 12-team playoff:

SEC – 4 (2017-20)

Big Ten – 4 (2015-17, ‘19).

ACC — 3 (2015, ‘17, ’20).

Pac-12 — 3 (2104, ’16, ’19)

Big 12(asterisk) — 2 (2019-20)

-(asterisk)Big 12 title game was restored in 2017.


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