A few weeks ago, another domino fell in the ever-changing landscape of college football. It took a few weeks to get around to this post, but it’s an important discussion in the future of the sport. Actually, two significant changes were announced a few weeks, but the second one will be for a future article. First, relaxed restrictions for conference championship games:
Division I Council relaxes restrictions for FBS football conference championship games; FBS conferences to determine their championship game participants. All Council actions are not final until today’s meeting ends. pic.twitter.com/cHjD4nfVle— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) May 18, 2022
And second, removing the limit of 25 players for a recruiting class:
While the former is less divisive than the latter (or other recent changes like the transfer portal or NIL), it is no less impactful.
The Mountain West corner of the internet eagerly awaited the news of what the conference would do. They didn’t have to wait long, as news broke that Friday.
Removing conference championship restrictions will lead to mostly positive college football changes, and it clearly will have a direct impact on the impending playoff expansion. As for what it means to the Mountain West specifically, read on.
1) What this means for conference championships
The top two teams can play in the championship game no matter what: This is what it’s really about. If the goal is to determine who the best team in the conference is, the two best teams should have to play one another to find out. The best teams should be defined as those with the best conference record. It doesn’t matter if they have already played one another or not, and although not everyone can play the same schedule, winning the games, they play certainly matters.
Regional divisions have become outdated: Back in the day, it was important for teams to play opponents who were as close as possible to them due to travel constraints and budgets. For some teams, travel costs are still a concern, but they have decreased. Plus, outside of Hawaii, the Mountain West is a very regional conference compared to others, making travel minimal.
All of that being said, divisions for regional travel purposes are outdated. The idea of trying to be better than the schools around you does not make sense in this age. Teams, fans, and the media are much more concerned with figuring out who the best teams are. Whether that is the best teams in a conference or the best teams in the country (which is the whole reason we have a championship game, to begin with), we need to figure out who is the best and the only way to do that is by having the two best teams play each other.
What this would have looked like in the Mountain West in previous years: For those who are curious, here are what the past nine years of championship matchups would have looked like if this format had existed for the past nine years (which is how the conference has existed with this current teams).
2021: San Diego State would stay, unsure if Fresno State would own the tiebreaker over Utah State. Regardless, the Bulldogs were a great team last year, even if they fell just short.
2020: Same, SJSU against Boise State as they were the only undefeated conference teams.
2019: Boise State stays but plays Air Force, who definitely deserved to be in the championship game that year.
2018: It looks like the same, Boise State and Fresno State. Utah State had the same record, but not sure if they would now win the tiebreaker over the Aggies. Or what a three-way tiebreaker rule would look like?
2017: Stays the same, Bulldogs vs. Broncos. Clearly, the two best teams that year
2016: Probably stays Wyoming vs. SDSU. But it was a three-way tie for the division that year with Boise State and New Mexico. Imagine what a four-way tie would look like?
2015: Stays the same, Air Force and San Diego State
2014: Boise State but then another team from the Mountain division, either Colorado State or Utah State
2013: Fresno State and Utah State would remain the teams who reached the championship.
In total, thirteen teams stay the same, two teams change, and four are unknowns if they change or not due to tiebreaker rules. While not a massive change, it’s a significant difference for the two to six teams (nearly 33%) who would be appearing in the championship game. It also may mean different conference champions, as the outcomes may be different with new teams playing. And those points alone make the changes worth doing.
2) What this means for conference scheduling.
Scheduling can become more creative.
This is where all teams can be impacted by the decision. It will be interesting to see what difference conferences do with their scheduling. It would be easy to imagine a few different models are tried in the first few years before people decide which one is best. Like most things in sports, college football can often be a copycat league, and it would be expected for conferences to have multiple models before all deciding on which one is best (or which one sets up conferences best for the playoff). Here are a few different models or factors the Mountain West could focus on when their conference schedule changes starting in the 2023 season.
Protecting traditional rivalries: This is the most critical factor and the one that is all but certain to happen. College football loves its heated rivalries, especially the historical ones. Casual observers enjoy rivalry games, and fans of these teams care about them sometimes more than other aspects of the season.
It will be interesting to see what rivalries are seen as essential to preserving. Obviously, games like the Freemont Cannon and the Border War are givens. I would assume Air Force vs. Colorado State, Boise State vs. Fresno State and Boise State vs. Nevada are near locks as well. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, so forgive me, it wasn’t on purpose. Perhaps each team gets to protect two games that are designated as rivalries? Maybe they have to be agreed upon by both schools? It may be a bit unbalanced between teams (New Mexico, for instance, doesn’t have rivalries in the conference to the same degree other teams do), but protecting rivalries matters to many of the schools. And even if it is a bit complicated, it’s worth it.
Chris Murray shares his thoughts on the matter for those seeking other opinions.
Pods: This has been a popular term thrown around on the blogosphere for several years now. It can also go hand-in-hand with preserving rivalries. Basically, this scheduling model means that instead of divisions, teams are grouped together in pods, which are basically divisions, but smaller. A pod would be made up of three or four teams (both divided evenly with the twelve conference teams), which are guaranteed to play one another every year. It may not protect every rivalry, but it would go a long way toward fostering the important ones. Pods could do something like this:
Pod 1: Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming
Pod 2: Boise State, Nevada, UNLV, Utah State
Pod 3: Fresno State, Hawaii, SDSU, SJSU
With three pods, the breakdown makes a lot of sense and protects some but not all rivalries. For the actual games, teams would play those in their pod every year, and then it gets tricky with the remaining five conference games.
Or, they could do four pods of three teams. Which would look something like this:
Pod 1: Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming
Pod 2: Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State
Pod 3: Nevada, UNLV, Utah State
Pod 4: Hawaii, New Mexico, San Jose State
This one gets messy in terms of the pod arrangements. 1 and 2 are the only ones that make sense, and Pod 3 preserves the in-state rivalry game, but 4 is admittedly a leftover pod. However, scheduling is easier in this model. Each pod would play the two teams in its own, plus two other pods to get to the eight conference games. Pod play would rotate each year so that a team would play all others at least every other year, and most teams two years in a row.
NFL style scheduling: This style may be helpful in terms of giving the best teams the strongest schedules in order to have a good resume for NY6/playoff consideration. While not a precise model, it is the philosophy that the teams with good years will have the toughest schedules the following year. Likewise, those with poor records one year will have the softest schedules the next. As already stated, a team that finishes undefeated with the hardest resume in the conference has to be appealing to big-time bowls. This may put the conference in the best position to succeed, or they shoot themselves in the foot if things go awry.
Like it or not, these changes are coming to a Mountain West near you. More discussion on changes next week.