With conference governing bodies as diverse and varied as college football itself, there’s no reason for championship structures to all follow the same rules. Finally, the powers that be have agreed.
The NCAA Division I Council voted Wednesday to, clearing the way for conferences to decide on their own how to determine a champion. That will allow them to get creative with scheduling and choosing a champion, and they should take full advantage.
Literally minutes after the NCAA Council’s rubber stamp, the Pac-12 did just that by announcing it wouldby selecting its top two teams based on conference winning percentage. The Big 12 has long lobbied for conferences with fewer than 12 members to field a title game, inspiring that same No. 1 vs. no. 2 model. Some conferences may follow. Others could go a different direction.
At the core of conference scheduling structure is accomplishing a specific goal: putting the best teams in position to win as many quality games as possible. With five major conferences entering vastly different realities, their strategies should reflect it.
For conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-12, creating a meaningful 13th data point remains the top priority. The Big 12 missed two of the first three College Football Playoff fields, and Baylor and TCU infamously split the vote to finish No. 5 and 6 in 2014. Meanwhile, Oklahoma made three consecutive playoffs after the Big 12 brought back its championship game in 2017. The Pac-12 hasn’t made a playoff since 2016, but revamping its title game should give contenders like Oregon, USC and Utah a clear runway to get back. Maximizing chances for quality wins helps.
Not every conference would benefit the same way, however. Before missing the ACC Championship Game in 2021, Clemson won its three previous title games by a combined 112 points. In a conference without any real peers, the Tigers’ pursuit was simply perfection. Beating Virginia in the 2019 ACC title would have accomplished the same thing as beating 2013 Florida State.
Perhaps most importantly, the system opens the door for creative regular-season scheduling. The ACC has already announced it is looking into a 3-5-5 system with three permanent opponents and five others that alternate each year. The SEC will likely look into similar pod scheduling with the league expanding to 16 by 2025. Perhaps expanded nonconference partnerships or intra-conference tournaments could enter the fray.
If administrators need a guide to understanding the power of flexibility, look no further than college basketball. The West Coast Conference tournament bracket slotted top-seeded Gonzaga all the way in the semifinals to start. The Bulldogs had to win less than half as many games as the no. 7 through No. 10 seeds to claim the tournament. If you’re the WCC, though, why make Gonzaga’s path harder than necessary?
Mid-major conferences are wily with schedules, too. In an attempt to get the NCAA’s attention, Conference USA created a standings-driven scheduling format that grouped the conference’s top five teams into a round-robin pod for the final segment of the regular season. That way, all five teams would get a major RPI boost with opportunities for quality wins in hopes of becoming a two-bid league.
As college football continues to evolve, the calculus could change. If the College Football Playoff expands, the SEC might choose to angle scheduling in a way that protects multiple contending squads. If a contender doesn’t rise out of the ACC, providing a showcase could prove more valuable. A Group of Five conference could grow to the point of having a borderline playoff team each season.
Ultimately, that’s the point. The NCAA Council’s decision to eliminate conference championship mandates allows college football’s major conferences to make decisions for the right reason. It allows them to decide what’s best for the game.