It is not a revelation that four of the Power Five conferences use cross-divisional competition during the college football season. However, with the Big Ten moving from eight league games to nine this year, the ways in which Power Five conferences arrange cross-division games are changing.
The SEC uses an eight-game league schedule. The ACC does as well, and because of that, some schools — such as North Carolina and Wake Forest — have taken the unusual step of “scheduling” a “non-conference” game against each other. UNC and Wake don’t often meet in the ACC cross-division schedule rotation, so they took matters into their own hands, playing a game which will not count in the ACC standings.
Scheduling frameworks are important, and they have played a role in shaping modern college football history. The SEC, by playing cupcakes in late November instead of a ninth conference opponent, has plainly saved its teams wear and tear. Since the SEC has such a robust brand in college football, voters and ranking systems don’t punish the league (not enough, at any rate) for scheduling extra cupcake games. The Pac-12 and now Big Ten, by scheduling nine league games, reduce the odds that their champion will run the table. The Pac-12’s lack of comparative visibility means that the league is lowering the chances of getting two or three teams into the New Year’s Six. Nine games, on the surface, create an impediment for a football conference in terms of revenue and postseason representation.
This is widely known.
What might not be as widely known — and which Big Ten fans can appreciate more this season, now that their league is playing nine games instead of eight — is that the Pac-12 possesses a more authentic “conference champion” than other leagues do each season. This doesn’t remove the point that the league is limiting its potential for revenue, but it does represent a more authentic competition for a conference title.
Here’s the explanation:
Making the nine-versus-eight argument as proof that the Pac-12 and Big Ten have more genuine league competitions than the SEC and ACC is reasonable, fair and accurate. Yet, it’s still an incomplete argument. The Pac-12 and Big Ten might use nine-game schedules, but the ways in which those nine-game schedules operate are different.
Let’s start in the Big Ten to make the point, since the league has moved from eight games to nine this season.
Part of what brought on the Big Ten’s move to nine games was illustrated in the 2015 season. Iowa — from the West Division — didn’t play East heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State within the pre-announced, pre-arranged 12-game schedule. Iowa did play Michigan State before the bowls, but in the Big Ten Championship Game… which it reached because (in part) it didn’t play MSU in the regular 12-game slate.
Realize this about the Big Ten’s schedule before this season: With eight league games in a 14-team league comprised of two seven-team divisions, a team played six games in its own division, two in the other division. Two represents a small minority in a group of seven. Therefore, the ease or difficulty in a Big Ten eight-game schedule was highly dependent on the luck of the draw. Five of seven cross-division opponents would not be played, allowing for a considerable degree of variance in the quality of a team’s conference schedule.
The Big Ten, by moving to a nine-game schedule this season, has created a new context in which teams play three of seven cross-division teams, much closer to half. It’s a lot fairer than playing only two of seven cross-division teams. This year, under the nine-game schedule, West contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska have to play Ohio State while defending West champion Iowa has to play Michigan. Whichever team wins the 2016 Big Ten will have done more work to win the league compared to 2015.
The Big Ten has therefore created an internal league competition which is more expansive and vigorous than the SEC and ACC. However, the Pac-12 still retains the toughest split-division conference framework of all. The 2016 season is proving as much.
First, on a purely structural level, the Pac-12 — by having only 12 teams compared to the Big Ten’s 14 — owns six-team divisions instead of seven-team divisions. This means that a nine-game league schedule translates into five division games and four non-division games. One could simply say that 9 out of 12 is a higher percentage than 9 out of 14, but it’s more specific than that. Pac-12 teams play two-thirds of the opposite division (4 of 6), whereas SEC and ACC teams play just under 30 percent (2 of 7) and the Big Ten now plays just under half (3 of 7).
This might all make sense in strictly structural terms, but it’s always good to offer an applied example, and the 2016 Pac-12 season fleshes it out.
Pac-12 teams play a much higher percentage of both the conference and the opposite division, but the difficulty and authenticity of this conference competition are best expressed in ways that go beyond percentages and numbers: In the Pac-12, it is far more likely that the results of both divisions will be highly affected by the opposite division.
In the SEC West, the top two teams — Alabama and Texas A&M — are already finished with SEC East crossover games for the season, sharing a common opponent (Tennessee). The limited extent of cross-division play in the SEC makes the back end of an SEC season almost entirely dependent on in-division play. November SEC games between Auburn and Georgia and then Arkansas and Missouri are exceptions, not prevailing realities, in the league.
In the Pac-12, it’s a very different story.
This week’s Washington State-Arizona State game is but the first of many instances in which the second half of the season will involve highly influential cross-division Pac-12 contests. The Pac-12 North leaders — the two Washington-based schools — will engage the top four in the Pac-12 South: Utah, Colorado, USC, and Arizona State. Over the next five weeks, only one — Week 10 (Saturday, November 5) won’t involve a cross-division game of consequence.
Washington plays Utah, Arizona State, and USC.
Washington State plays ASU this Saturday and Colorado in Week 12.
This situation — with five huge cross-division games occurring in the back end of the schedule, affecting the outcomes in both divisions, not merely one — would almost certainly not exist if the Pac-12 played eight league games instead of nine, and if the Pac had 14 teams instead of 12.
Just to hammer home the point, consider these twin possibilities: If either Washington or Washington State loses two Pac-12 South games, and the other team loses none of them, the losing team could enter the Apple Cup in Week 13 without a shot at the North title. It’s not enough to say that the Washington schools will affect the Pac-12 South race; the South will help determine whether the Apple Cup is a winner-take-all game or not in the North race.
Eight versus nine is relevant — highly relevant — in the world of Power Five conference schedules. Do realize, however, that from such a distinction emerges an even more particular identity in the Pac-12, from the Pacific Northwest to the Rockies, down to the southernmost point in Arizona.