Entering the 2015 season, every team in the SEC West ranks in the top 25 of ESPN's Preseason Football Power Index, including four teams in the top 10. In comparison, the SEC East, which finished 4-11 against the West last season, has three teams in the top 25, including one (Georgia) in the top 10.
The SEC is not the only conference that enters the 2015 season with divisional inequity. The top two teams in the ACC, the top three teams in the Big Ten and two of the top three teams in the Pac-12 hail from the same division.
How much does a team's division impact its conference win total? ESPN Stats & Information set out to answer this question by projecting the 2015 season for the four Power 5 conferences with divisions both in their current divisional states and in a hypothetical nondivisional format.
To project the nondivisional conference win total, preseason FPI was used to calculate each team's chance of winning a home and away game against every other team in its conference. College football is built on rivalries, so each team was assigned one rivalry game that it was guaranteed to play, and the remaining conference games were filled out with a formula that accounts for each team's chances of meeting and beating every other nonrival in their conference in a home and away setting.
Below is a breakdown of how the current divisional format affects each of the Power 5 conferences that have divisions.
Team hurt most by divisions: Alabama (minus-0.6 conference wins)
Team helped most by divisions: Missouri (plus-0.6 conference wins)
As expected, every team in the SEC West would gain at least 0.2 wins and every team in the SEC East would lose at least 0.2 wins with the elimination of divisions. Alabama, which is projected to play the hardest conference schedule in the nation next season, is hurt most by the current divisional format.
FPI projects that the Crimson Tide will win 4.8 conference games next season under the current format, fourth-most in the SEC. If divisions were eliminated, however, the Tide would have the highest projected win total (5.4) in the conference. That is based on a hypothetical situation where Alabama would face Auburn in the Iron Bowl and have an equal chance of facing every other team in the SEC.
On the flip side, Missouri and Georgia are helped most by the current divisional format. Both teams are projected to win at least 0.5 more games in the current format, compared to a nondivisional schedule. The Bulldogs' projected win total would fall from first in the SEC to third by eliminating divisions.
Team hurt most by divisions: Miami (minus-0.5 conference wins)
Team helped most by divisions: Louisville (plus-0.3 conference wins)
At first glance, the results of the ACC's nondivisional projections are surprising; the ACC Coastal (Miami, Georgia Tech, etc.) would benefit from the elimination of divisions, and the ACC Atlantic (Louisville, Florida State, Clemson, etc.) would be hurt by a lack of divisions.
The Atlantic division has the two strongest teams in the conference, Clemson and Florida State, but the bottom half of that division is weak. Boston College, Wake Forest and Syracuse all rank 75th or worse in preseason FPI. Although the Coastal division does not have the same strength at the top, no team ranks worse than 56th, and its average FPI ranking is better than the other side. Because there are no easy wins in the ACC Coastal, those teams would benefit from an increased likelihood of facing the bottom half of the Atlantic.
Looking at the 2015 season, Miami and Georgia Tech face Clemson and Florida State in their crossover games, so it's not surprising that those teams would be helped most by the elimination of divisions. Louisville, on the other hand, loses three guaranteed games against teams in the bottom half of the FBS in a nondivisional format, two of which are at home.
Team hurt most by divisions: Rutgers (minus-0.7 conference wins)
Team helped most by divisions: Wisconsin (plus-0.8 conference wins)
Highlighted by Ohio State and Michigan State, the Big Ten East is projected to be the stronger division in 2015. Rutgers and Maryland, two of the weaker teams in that division, would be helped by eliminating divisions because they would have less of a chance of facing those powerhouses.
In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin's and Iowa's win totals would be greatly affected by the elimination of divisions. Under the current format, the Badgers do not face Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan and are projected to win the third-most conference games (5.7 wins) of any Big Ten team. By eliminating divisions, Wisconsin would be expected to win 0.8 fewer games, making the Badgers the biggest beneficiary of the current divisional format of any Power 5 school.
Team hurt most by divisions: California (minus-0.3 conference wins)
Team helped most by divisions: Stanford (plus-0.2 conference wins)
The Pac-12 currently plays nine conference games, including four against crossdivisional opponents, so eliminating divisions would have not a major impact on each team's projected win total. Additionally, the Pac-12's divisions are the most balanced of any Power 5 conference, meaning no one division would be drastically affected by playing more games against the other. For these reasons, the Pac-12 is fairly unaffected by the nondivisional projections. California, which faces the top three teams in the South division next season, would be the biggest beneficiary of the updated format.