The spark for this post was the absurd situation that got Utah into the 2022 Pac-12 Championship game, but the goal is to share a very clever idea1 for radically changing how college football works. But first, some outrage.
Utah had a good 2022 and earned championship game consideration, but something is wrong when the invite comes down to the 4th tie-breaking rule: the “combined win percentage in conference games of conference opponents (i.e., strength of conference schedule)”. In 2022, those percentages were 0.47 (Utah), 0.46 (Oregon), and 0.40 (UW).
Many of the conference opponents are common, which nets out in the math. After removing the common opponents, Utah, Oregon, and Washington each played at least one trash team (either ASU or Cal, both 2-7). Washington played both. Utah’s other game was a loss to 8-1 USC (who they faced again and beat in the PAC-12 championship). Oregon’s other game was a win against 7-2 Utah. So Utah won the 4th tie-breaker over Oregon because they lost a game to Oregon, which hurt Oregon’s strength of schedule. This hurts my brain.
The potential for this kind of nonsensical outcome is inevitable given weird tie-breaking rules, and the rules are weird because of an impedance mismatch between scheduling norms and conference sizes. College teams play 12 regular season games—9 in-conference and 3 non-conference—two fewer conference games than needed to play everyone else in a 12-team conference. This leads to all sorts of absurd situations because we’re trying to stack rank teams that don’t play the same slate of opponents.
There are two obvious fixes: add two conference games to the season or trade two non-conference games for conference games. The schedule is already up to two games longer than it was decades ago because of conference championships and the 4-team playoff.2 (Before, a team might have a single post-season bowl game. Now the top two teams play a in conference championship (probably), then in a semi-final, then in the National Championship.) Fifteen is a lot of games for student athletes, so I think proposed solutions should try and decrease the number of games.
Other factors work against reducing the number of non-conference games (although I’m about to propose just this). One is money: small schools get revenue from playing away games against big, prestigious programs. Big schools also like to shake off the dust by beating up on weak opponents, at home, early in the season. It would also be a shame if bowl games were the only mechanism for non-conference teams to play each other. It’s fun when Auburn or Michigan St. come to Washington, or when the Huskies go down to Miami.
If we don’t increase the number of regular season, in-conference games, the next most obvious solution is reactionary: go back to 10-team conferences (i.e., the halcyon days of the Big-10 having 10 teams). This enables every team to play every other team, every season. With a full round-robin it’s pretty easy to figure out who is the best, so there’s no need for a conference championship.3
But the implosion of the PAC-12 has me daring to dream a little bigger. Let’s scrap the entire system and replace it my friend’s very sensible idea, which is inspired by—of all things—soccer.
- Disband the current conferences. Good riddance. The greedy hacks who run them can do something more reputable with their lives, like chase ambulances.
- Establish a new “Premier” Conference populated with the previous year’s top 24 teams.
- Divide the Premier into two geographic divisions. I propose Southeast (green) and Northwest (blue). The divisions might need to be updated every year, based on what happens with #7 below. 5
- Every team plays every other team in their division, 11 games.
- The one out-of-division game is reserved for a rivalry (e.g., The Apple Cup), but it can be repurposed if rivals are in the same division.
- The division winners play for the national championship. There are consolation bowl games all the way down the bracket: 2 vs. 2, 3 vs. 3, etc. The division that wins the most bowls claims bragging rights and takes custody of a ridiculously named, traveling trophy.
- This is the best part. The 11th and 12th placed teams don’t play each other; instead, they play the 1st and 2nd place teams from their respective divisions in a lower-tier, Championship Conference.4 If the Championship-tier team wins they’re promoted to the Premiership and the losing team is relegated to the Championship.
- This same pattern repeats with lower-and-lower conference tiers, until you get to a tier low enough to accept Cal.
This proposal eliminates the Selection Committee, which is just a hack that uses expert judgement to stack-rank teams in lieu of having actual results from head-to-head games. It avoids absurd tie-breaking rules, preserves a bit of regionality and core rivalries, and borrows from the best thing about soccer: Premier League scheduling.6
I feel comfortable saying “very clever” because the core idea isn’t mine. ↩
Wow, I used the word two a lot there. ↩
It is possible for three teams to be tied for first with 8-1 conference schedules, where Team A beat Team B, B beat C, and C beat A. But even in this case, since everyone had common opponents, it’s easy enough to establish straightforward tie-breaking rules where further ties are practically impossible. I’d suggest total point differential against the other two opponents and then point differential vs. the conference as a whole. ↩
Yes, the naming is absurd. Thanks to Ted Lasso for giving me this arcane knowledge of English soccer leagues. ↩
Based on the standings as of 2023-11-22, the “Northwest” would be Ohio State, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Oregon State, Iowa, Notre Dame, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State; the Southeast would be Georgia, Florida State, Alabama, Missouri, Louisville, Penn State, Ole Miss, LSU, Tennessee, NC State, Tulane, and Clemson. This is just my first rough cut. Some of the old SEC teams are geographically west of the Midwest teams, but the old Pac-10 and Big-10 teams have a long history of playing in bowls so I kept Michigan and Ohio State in the Northwest. It would actually need to be built by someone who knows a lot more about rivalries and other practicalities. ↩
The Premier League schedule is pretty elegant: a double round-robin with home and away games against every other team. As discussed above the college football season can’t really have enough games to play everyone twice, and not having a playoff or championship game is the least American thing ever, so my proposal took a few liberties. ↩