By Christian Hince | November 13, 2023
With the college football regular season winding down, conference championship week next month is starting to have a more certain look for some leagues. In the Big Ten, Iowa sits at a comfortable 5-2 in the West region and 8-2 overall, with a vaunted defense which has allowed 12.3 points per game for third-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The only two teams above the Hawkeyes are Ohio State and Michigan, one of whom will almost certainly face Iowa come championship week. However I have a hard time believing that the Hawkeyes, who are the third-lowest scoring Power Five team in the country, are likely to make their probable Dec. 2 matchup very interesting.
It’s a natural symptom from the concept of conference regions, something that dilutes the competitiveness of championship week, a tradition which should solely decide supremacy between the two best teams in each league.
The B1G is the most egregious with this historically. Since Michigan State left the West after beating Ohio State in the 2013 league title game, not a single conference champion has come from the region. Ohio State and Michigan, the two teams who compete in “The Game” the week prior every year, have won the B1G in eight of the last 10 seasons, with none of the previous five championships being decided by less than 12 points.
It’s surprising that a conference that struggles so badly with regional parity has taken so long to ice this format, as the B1G will move to a straightforward best two in conference approach when it expands from 14 to 18 teams.
The Atlantic Coast Conference struggled through some of the same for years before axing regions in league standings this year. Not only did the conference see issues of supremacy in the Atlantic division, with the Coastal division representative losing in the final 12 seasons of the format, but also a lack of league parity to Florida State and more recently Clemson, who made the College Football Playoff every year from 2015 to 2020.
The ACC champion has won by an average of 22.3 points since 2011, so in a sport already dominated by blowouts at every level, this is a welcome move to make one part of championship week more interesting.
The Pac-12 also nixed regional divisions for its final season. While the North and South split the championship 3-3 in the last six years, the game’s first six seasons after the league expanded in 2011 saw the North win each time, which similarly had an average victory margin of just over 22 points. Given Washington and Oregon both hold steady the next two weeks, it’ll be rewarding to see a rematch of arguably the best game in college football this season rather than the Huskies facing a team clearly a step below such as Arizona or USC.
The Big 12 didn’t even have a conference title game between 2011 and 2016. Operating on the regional model for its first 15 years, the matchup was dominated by the South from 2004-10 with Oklahoma and Texas winning each of those years. The Sooners’ 70-3 demolition of a much inferior Colorado team in 2005 remains the most lopsided conference championship ever seen.
With a true top-two format the past six seasons, the Big 12 title game has been filled with comebacks, last minute stops, and overtime finishes that consistently make the matchup the highlight of championship week.
The SEC will be joining the B1G in axing regions next season when they welcome Texas and Oklahoma, and it’s something they can benefit from too. The league had a similar problem until Georgia’s resurgence under Kirby Smart, with the West representative defeating that of the East every year from 2009 to 2016. While now it’s often a face-off between multiple teams still riding playoff hopes, only two of the last four SEC title results have been decided by less than three scores.
Blowouts are as much of a college football tradition as school bands and rivalries, and they won’t be gone from championship week when regions are gone from the Power Four next year. However, it’s something certain to make competitive title games more frequent while allowing more deserving teams to play in Week 14, especially with next year’s CFP expansion presumably ending an era where two-loss teams can’t vie for a national title.
The sentiment has caught on outside of the FBS’s blue blood leagues too, with the MAC and Sun Belt being the only Group of Five conferences to still use regional divisions. Why don’t they join the fray?
College football is a sport of traditions, but recent years has seen massive upheaval of its old ways on the NCAA level, due to the death of the traditional student athlete in the advent of name-image-likeness payment (NIL), an unrestricted transfer portal, and especially in this case, conference realignment. Sometimes the old ways need to die, and regional divisions are one of them.