The good and bad of divisions

Shortly after Dave Clawson finished up his introductory press conference at Wake Forest, a line of alumni came up to him to offer their congratulations.

Their handshakes over, they each added one more line before leaving: "Just beat Carolina!"

Clawson later looked at the football schedule. Wake Forest was scheduled to play North Carolina twice over the next 10 years. The game his fan base considered most important had become a victim to divisional alignment.

So the Demon Deacons and Tar Heels decided to do something to remedy their plight. In January, they scheduled nonconference games against each another in 2019 and 2021.

On the surface, it sounds ridiculous -- two ACC members forced to go the nonconference route so they can play more often. But this is what expansion and, in turn, the creation of divisions has come to in college football.

That one example is enough to raise questions about the purpose divisions serve. Are they worth the lines in the sand they have formed? Not only have traditional rivalries been abandoned, but in the four Power 5 conferences that have divisions, there is an imbalance between them, creating schisms between institutions increasingly worried about where they reside and how it impacts their College Football Playoff prospects.

Throw in imbalances with permanent crossover rivals, especially in the ACC and SEC, and it all adds up to growing unhappiness with the status quo.

For all these reasons, the deregulation of league championship games has become an intriguing proposition. The ACC first submitted deregulation legislation to the NCAA in early 2014. The Big 12 has since joined as a co-sponsor.

If the proposed legislation passes next year, leagues would no longer be required to stay in divisions. Instead, each league would have the ability to determine how it chooses its championship game participants.

While deregulation makes perfect sense for the Big 12, a league with only 10 teams and no divisions, it remains nebulous why the ACC would be behind such a move.

Surely the endgame would be to eliminate divisions, creating opportunities to play league members more often, while also ensuring the top two teams in the league make it into the title game -- enhancing playoff opportunities.

But that is not the case. The majority of ACC athletic directors and coaches want to keep their division format. Commissioner John Swofford has said repeatedly the idea behind deregulation is based on principle.

"We're not sitting around anticipating that, 'Hey, this is going to change, and we're going to have the freedom to change what we're doing, so let's change it,'" Swofford said. "The overall sense around our table right now is to maintain what we're doing.

"Could that change in the future? Sure, anything could change in the future, but right now it's very evident that's where the majority are in terms of our situation."

That has created some confusion about what, exactly, the endgame is to all this.

"I'd like to know what it is people want to do," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "I don't think deregulating it just for the sake of deregulation is good. We could end up with 20-team conferences and four five-team pods. What are we trying to do? If somebody wanted to identify what it is they wanted to do, and if it were reasonable, I would say, why not?

"I'm open to creativity and deregulation, but I'm not open to just a blank check to reorganize the regular season however you choose."

The SEC was the first league to form divisions in 1992, shortly after it expanded to 12 teams. Expansion in the other Power 5 leagues followed, creating divisions in the Big 12 (1996), ACC (2005), Big Ten (2011) and Pac-12 (2011). The Big 12 eliminated divisions after losing two league members and has played a round-robin schedule since 2011, without a championship game.

Divisional play has its pros and cons. Schools like playing for a division title; they like forming rivalries with schools in their division, enhancing the fan experience; and they like the drama that is created with late-season matchups and division stakes on the line.

"My first experience with them was at Kansas State," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "We were in my second year [as an assistant, in 2003] and we had a pretty good football team, but we lost a couple games early on that weren't in our division. I remember [head coach] Bill Snyder saying, 'Hey, we still have a chance to go to Kansas City and win the Big 12 title.' I'm looking around like, how is that possible?

"Well, he laid it out all in front of us, and seven weeks later, we're playing in the Big 12 championship game and we beat Oklahoma, who was the No. 1 team in the country, and it put us in a BCS game. It was awesome. That's when I became a big fan of divisional play. It keeps you alive even after a couple losses."

Not only that, leagues are able to create television inventory for must-see annual matchups in hotly contested divisions. In recent years, Clemson-Florida State has become the marquee ACC game that draws national attention. Why? Their rivalry intensified because they have become the top two teams in the Atlantic Division. In the past six seasons, Clemson has two division titles and FSU has four.

The Big Ten presents an interesting case study, because it just recently formed divisions. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has coached under both formats, prefers the divisional setup for a variety of reasons.

"Not being a part of it for a number of years, you looked at the other leagues and thought, 'Wow, I wonder what that would be like if we went to that,'" Fitzgerald said. "Only being in divisions for a few years, I like it. It's creating some new rivalries that maybe we weren't a part of in the past. I also believe that it's great for fans."

A power imbalance between divisions has been an issue for the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, though that has become cyclical. The SEC East once dominated, winning seven of the first nine championship games; the SEC West is dominant now, claiming seven of the last eight league titles.

The same goes for the formerly stout ACC Coastal and the current standard bearer, the Atlantic. But Swofford likes to point to the virtually even records Coastal and Atlantic teams have against one another.

Combine the current imbalance with permanent crossover partners that are lopsided in strength, and schools such as LSU have a right to holler about unfairness.

The Tigers have Florida as a permanent crossover. In the regular season since 2000, LSU has played Florida and Georgia a combined 19 times. Alabama has played them a total of nine times.

"You tell me, is there some disproportion?" LSU coach Les Miles said.

"If the division is more important than the traditional rivalries, then eliminate the traditional rivalries and let's play a fair schedule. Or if you have so many cross-division rivalries, maybe some school from the West should go to the East and make them happy. Or if the rivalry is more important than the division, then abolish the divisions and rotate everybody. But that would be the last thing that anybody would want to do. Certainly we wouldn't."

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin pointed out the SEC's expansion to 14 teams -- and not necessarily divisions -- as the reason for some of the scheduling problems.

"When we made the decision to go to 14, there was no way around that," he said. "Unless we're going to play a 13-game schedule and all you play is the other 13 teams, you're going to miss somebody, and there's going to be some unfairness in the randomness of the schedule that is unavoidable. The division is not the cause of that. That's the fact we have a 14-team league and we're trying to play a 12-game schedule."

The ACC also has discussed ditching permanent crossover rivals as a way to help balance out the schedule and rotate schools more frequently. But in both division alignment and crossover games, schools have focused on self-preservation.

"If it benefits your institution, this is what you want to do," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "I don't know the answer to that. I do know this -- sometimes be careful what you wish for. I'm not ready to jump at the next suggestion just because an institution or two or three doesn't like their crossover opponent."

Here, the SEC and ACC are in a radically different spot than the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

Last year, the SEC and ACC voted to stay at eight league games. The Pac-12 plays nine; the Big Ten will start playing nine in 2016. One fewer league game means fewer opportunities to play one another. As it stands, the SEC and ACC play six division games, one rotating crossover game and one permanent crossover game.

Complicating matters for the ACC is a scheduling partnership with Notre Dame, which plays five ACC teams annually. That partnership is why several schools voted against adding a ninth league game, especially those with an annual rivalry contest against an SEC opponent.

Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski and coach Paul Johnson are in favor of eliminating their permanent crossover with rival Clemson. Miami athletic director Blake James is against getting rid of an annual game against Florida State.

"If we don't want to expand past eight games, it's hard for me to believe there's a scenario that will have us playing more conference teams," James said. "As much as I would like to play everyone else on the other side, the reality is I don't want to give up my game against Florida State every year. That's a nonstarter for me.

"Beyond that, I'm open to things, but it's hard to create rivalries if you're not playing on a regular basis. Given the size of the league, I don't know how we play on a more regular basis that doesn't include expanding the games."

ACC administrators and coaches have had various discussions about the division format. But SEC athletic directors have not given much thought to the topic and have hardly talked about championship game deregulation. During their spring meetings next month, they will discuss the deregulation proposal for the first time.

"It's not crazy. It's something to think about," LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said. "It hasn't come up because the NCAA rule's always been you had to [have divisions to have a championship game]. You have to change that rule."

The rule could change, and that would force the ACC (and possibly other leagues) to take a much harder, longer look at whether it can continue to operate under the same model. The College Football Playoff is another factor that cannot be underestimated.

Eliminating divisions means there's potential to pair your two best teams in the championship game, and that could boost strength of schedule, the attractiveness of the matchup, and the potential for getting a team in the playoff. Since the ACC championship game started in 2005, the two highest-ranked teams have played just four times.

But since the playoff is in its infancy, it's too early to get a gauge for whether changing the format would make a marked difference.

"All of us realize this industry and the NCAA is changing. For the good of the group and the good of the whole, that flexibility as the College Football Playoff evolves puts us in a good position," Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock said. "It makes us more nimble as a conference. We can stay the same and that's great, and if we need to change, then we'd have the flexibility to do it."

Nobody is changing just yet, even though athletic directors have their own beefs with scheduling. No one is ready to take the really extreme step to abolish divisions.

At least not yet.