When Penn State and Wisconsin take the field in Indianapolis this Saturday, it will mark the end of the most interesting and top-heavy Big Ten football season in at least a decade. With four teams in the top 7 of the CFP rankings, the Big Ten has become a grinder where survival should likely be rewarded.
However, both of these teams will come into the game with two losses, guaranteeing a two-loss conference champion. Meanwhile, another two-loss Big Ten team (Michigan) defeated both of these squads in the regular season, and yet another (Ohio State) has a better record at 11-1! Both of those latter teams sit at home this weekend.
Sorting this mess out is indeed a difficult task.
Unfortunately, that sorting was largely predetermined by geography. While Wisconsin could afford to lose to both of the East Division powers it faced thanks to being able to sweep through the West Division, the other three competitors had to duke it out via tiebreakers after a 1-1 split for all three teams. The deciding factor for Penn State? Michigan’s November loss to Iowa, a team which Wisconsin and a few others took care of this season. Michigan vs. Iowa decided the East Division representative in Indianapolis.
Does that sound fair? Does it make sense to leave out Ohio State at 8-1 after beating both of the 7-2 teams Wisconsin and Michigan, just because geography puts them in the same division with the one team the Buckeyes lost to?
No, it does not.
Put simply, Ohio State and Penn State have earned the right to play for a conference title by being 8-1 and better than everyone else in the Big Ten this season. After that weird and somewhat fluky finish to their game in October, who wouldn’t want to see if a much-improved Penn State team could do the job again against the Buckeyes? The loser would take on a second loss and make it unquestioned who should be in the College Football Playoff.
It’s not just because this is Ohio State. If Michigan held that lead last weekend or won in overtime, then it would be better to see if Penn State at 8-1 could avenge that decisive September loss to the Wolverines (who would also be 8-1) to prove it belongs in the playoff. Yet had Michigan won, it would be UM against UW, and Penn State would be left out in the cold.
Instead, we will be treated to a battle between two teams who may not actually be competing for a playoff spot at all. And it’s all thanks to having divisions and splitting them based on geography.
Some years it works out, like in 2015 when Iowa was 8-0 and the two 7-1 teams (MSU and OSU) settled it on the field two week before the championship game with a Spartans win. Other years like 2016 are not as fortuitous.
The Big Ten is not alone in this conundrum. The College Football Playoff committee cherishes conference championships, but these are often decided between the best team in a league and the third, fourth, or fifth best team rather than the second best team thanks to uneven division splits.
Take a look at this upcoming weekend alone:
- ACC Championship is Clemson (7-1) against Virginia Tech (6-2), while Louisville and Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson (7-1) stays at home thanks to being in the same division as the Tigers. The best game of the ACC season cannot be repeated as a result.
- SEC Championship is Alabama (8-0) against Florida (6-2), and while the West Division has no other teams better than 5-3, it’s beyond doubt that the SEC East is terrible across the board and has boosted the Gators to this position while LSU or Auburn might actually be better. If the Florida-LSU game had gone the other way, LSU would still not have a chance to replay that 10-0 showdown despite having a better record than the Gators.
The two teams which played for the national championship in 2015 should receive the best tests possible to earn the conference titles and playoff berths, yet that will not happen this weekend. So the Big Ten is not alone, and the problem all comes back to divisions.
And while I like to see the committee tested with tough questions like 2016 presents, some of them would be avoided entirely if divisions were scrapped and the proper Big Ten Championship were played between PSU and OSU this weekend. How much easier would the committee’s job be if one of OSU or PSU eliminated itself this weekend?
The Big 12 has it (recently) figured out thanks to being defective enough to not be able to hold onto 12 good teams. The NCAA is allowing the Big 12 a conference championship without divisions! This arrangement guarantees there will be two data points between the best teams in the Big 12 conference to decide the title.
That setup without divisions also works better for these ever-growing mega conferences. Old school Big Ten fans have watched the games between the original 10 teams dwindle down as the league expands and divides half the league into a separate division. Nine conference games helps that problem, but it would be more fair to scrap divisions altogether and play everyone (outside protected rivals) on a full rotating basis.
Not only would teams not go five or six year stretches without playing, which is inconceivable when being in the same conference, but the conference race would end with the best two teams playing one another based on being compared with everyone else in the conference. If the conference championship games are to be valid final tests of playoff competitors, this alignment with no divisions would assure that the best matchup actually happens in each conference between top competitors for playoff spots.
The road to conference championships should be fair and equal for everyone. For now, with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in one division, that is simply not the case. It is no fluke that Wisconsin will be making its fourth championship game appearance in six years. The Badgers are far and away the best program in the Big Ten West, and it’s unclear if that will change.
Which is great if you cheer for the Badgers and maybe if you are a West Division hopeful having a rare great season (Iowa, 2015), but not at all for the “blue bloods” all sitting together in the East Division.
PSU and Wisconsin will complete a round robin between these top four Big Ten teams, but here’s where the standings sit in that round robin:
- Ohio State is 2-1
- Michigan is 2-1
- Penn State is 1-1
- Wisconsin is 0-2
No offense to Wisconsin and the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but the Badgers had their chance already against the other top teams and lost. Even with a UW win, the round robin for the Big Ten season would end with OSU and Michigan better off than the teams playing in Lucas Oil Stadium. A Wisconsin loss simply sets us back to the original conclusion that the three Big Ten East teams are the best in the conference, and evenly matched.
It’s time for divisions to be scrapped. We can’t save the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but that event and college football at large would be much better off in the future if divisions and arbitrary groupings based on geography or the like are removed from the equation. Earn it on the field, not in the gerrymandering of a conference alignment room.
Only then will there be an unquestioned “one true champion” of each conference, which would further legitimize the current CFP rules strongly favoring such conference champions over all others.