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Opinion

Smeltzer: The Case for Divisions in College Football

Penn State Football

It’s looking like the days of divisions in major college football will soon be no more.

A lot of fans are happy about it.

Four of college football’s “power five” conferences— the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC— have had a prominent kingpin over the past decade.

Ohio State owns the Big Ten, Oklahoma runs the Big 12, Alabama dominates the SEC and the ACC belongs to Clemson.

The fact that none of these teams won their conference in 2021 doesn’t help my point.

Still, since 2011, Ohio State has won the Big Ten five times, Clemson has six ACC titles, Alabama has seven SEC championships and, until this past season, Oklahoma had won the Big 12 every year since the conference re-installed a championship game in 2016.

College football fans don’t want to see the same teams on top every season, and many blame some of the problem on conference divisions.

It’s hard for two divisions to have the same quality of teams, and one school from the “weaker” division has to make it to the title game.

As a result, college football fans watched Michigan beat Iowa 42-3.

I’m not necessarily a proponent of college football divisions in their current structure, but there are some good things about the current system, however, that I think are worth considering before completely dismissing the idea of divisions in major college football.

REGULAR-SEASON EXCITEMENT

Northwestern is hardly a college football power, and it’s been to the Big Ten championship game twice.

Every team in the ACC Coastal Division has won it at least once. Not bad for parity, eh?

Sure, it’s not fun watching Pitt or Virginia get slaughtered by Clemson, or Northwestern get shut out in the second half against Ohio State.

But what about everything leading up to that?

What about the regular season?

When less prominent schools like Duke and Virginia have a chance to do something significant, it’s good for the sport, and that would be one thing college football would likely miss out on by taking away divisions.

REPETITIVE TITLE GAMES 

If the Big Ten took only the top two teams every season, Penn State and Ohio State would have met in the conference championship game three times between 2016 and 2019.

Sure, that would have been good for Penn State fans and might have led to another ring or two for James Franklin but would the average fan enjoy such a repetitive matchup?

Penn State and Ohio State indeed play every year anyway, but that’s by design. Seeing the same two teams represent the Big Ten three times in four years could be intriguing depending on the quality of the games, but it could also run stale the way Alabama and Clemson meeting in the College Football Playoff did.

Speaking of Clemson, would its dominance of the ACC between 2015 and 2020 have been any less obvious if it played, say, NC State or Florida State more often in the ACC title game? I don’t think so.

BLOWOUTS, SNOOZERS UNAVOIDABLE

Every year, the top four teams in the country play in the College Football Playoff.

And every year, at least one of the games isn’t competitive.

From Oregon beating Florida State 59-20 in the first playoff game to Georgia smoking Michigan 34-11 in this year’s semifinal, playoff snoozers have become routine.

If the No. 1 team in the country can beat the brakes off the No. 4 team, why is it hard to imagine the top team in a conference routinely doing the same to the next best team in the conference title game?

Ohio State’s most significant threats in the Big Ten over the past half-decade plus have been Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

The Buckeyes are a combined 20-3 against those teams since 2014, with each team getting just one win.

Ending divisions in college football would have its benefits. The best two teams getting to play for the crown can easily lead to some epic games and moments.

But like anything else, there would be drawbacks to it as well.

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