While reports have surfaced early this year that the Big 12 is contemplating splitting the conference into divisions once the new members come aboard, the Big 10 and the SEC are apparently considering going the other direction to look more like the current division-less Big 12.
While divisions have some clear advantages, particularly when it comes to scheduling issues; however, the case against divisions is easily made: Divisions often mean that the two best teams in the conference do not play in the championship game because the two best teams are in the same division. For evidence of this, just look at the Big 10, where the West has defeated the East in the conference championship.
ROUND-ROBIN HAS WORKED
When the Big 12 shrunk to ten members, it made lemonade by embracing a round-robin format and dispensing with the old North/South divisions. The North/South split had never worked out all that well. People often cite the years where the South dominated the Big 12, but the North also had its turn as the dominant division in the early years of the conference when Nebraska and K-State were Top 10 teams every season.
Once the NCAA allowed conferences with only ten members to play a conference championship game, the round-robin format has worked extremely well for the Big 12 as the lack of divisions meant that the two best teams in the league made the title game every year.
NO DIVISION WITHOUT ROUND-ROBIN?
While a division-less round-robin conference makes perfect sense from a scheduling standpoint, the picture gets messier when the league balloons to 12, 14, or even 16 teams. While there is certainly great merit in ensuring that the two best teams in the league play in the conference championship, scheduling becomes a headache.
An advantage of divisions is they can be arranged for geographic convenience. No sensible divisional format would have BYU and UCF in the same division, which spares these two from having annual games against each other. Moreover, no reasonable divisional format would separate West Virginia and Cincinnati as each is the nearest conference rival to the other.
However, divisions aren’t needed to protect regional rivalries and cut down on the frequency of long trips. Two options outside of divisions are having protected rivalries and moving to a pod system.
PROTECTED RIVALRIES > PODS
Protected rivalries have some great advantages because the numbers do not need to be even. That is, one team can have just two protected rivalries while its neighbor can have four or more. This is important for ensuring that each team gets to face its two closest rivals.
In a pod system, three or four teams are grouped into a mini-division. This solves some geography and scheduling issues but creates others.
For example, let’s consider the fates of the two most far-flung members of the new Big 12, UCF and BYU.
UCF’s two closest Big 12 rivals are WVU and Cincinnati. BYU’s are Texas Tech and K-State. While a three-team pod consisting of UCF, Cinci, and WVU makes sense, who would be the fourth team if the league wanted four-team pods? Any team you add to that pod would be cut off from much closer rivals.
Then there’s the case of BYU. While the Cougars’ closest road rivals are Texas Tech and K-State, K-State and Tech are not close to each other. Tech is much closer to TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma State than K-State. K-State is much closer to Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State than Tech.
In other words, with a conference covering three time zones, what makes life easier for one team could threaten to break-up long-standing regional rivalries for another.
ROAD-RIVALRIES & AIR-RIVALRIES
As stated above, BYU’s closest road rivalries are Texas Tech and K-State. However, the road miles are still so great that road trips would not be very practical. Most BYU fans would need to fly in order to catch a game in Lubbock or Manhattan.
However, flying to Lubbock would require flying from Salt Lake City to Phoenix (PHX) or Dallas- Fort Worth (DFW) and switching flights. Similarly, in order to fly to Manhattan, KS, BYU fans would have to first fly to DFW. This means that TCU in Fort Worth is BYU’s closest air-rival, and flying direct to Houston is roughly equivalent to flying to DFW from Salt Lake City. Instead of Texas Tech and K-State, BYU may well prefer to have protected rivalries with TCU and Houston. Or maybe Kansas should be considered?
Flights from Salt Lake City to Kansas City (KCI) are numerous, but getting to a game at Kansas would still require renting a car at KCI and then driving for about 45 minutes to an hour to get to Lawrence. However, given the fact that getting around Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth also requires car rentals and long drives (and through amazing traffic), maybe that 45 minute-drive through the KC suburbs isn’t so bad.
Meanwhile, flights to games at Baylor, Texas Tech, and K-State would require two flights. Games at Oklahoma State could require three flights. Games at Iowa State could also require flying into DFW and include long layovers.
Thus, for some teams, road-rivalries are the heart of the matter while it’s all about air rivalries for others, and air rivalries aren’t so easy to sort out.
HOW MANY PROTECTED RIVALRIES?
The next concern is how many rivalries to protect. Some teams will end up with more protected rivalries than others, and that’s fine, but what should the minimum per team be? My first thought was two, but that doesn’t do much to shape the conference or limit games between teams two time zones apart.
So what if we made every team a division unto itself, protecting a minimum of five rivalries for each team? This would allow each team with true road-rivalries to play all of those games while ensuring that teams without true road-rivals get the best air-rivalry match-ups each season.
For the sake of simplicity, this plan focuses on the league after Oklahoma and Texas’ departure; however, because the two departing schools may well still be in the league when the new members join, they are included parenthetically as additional, short-term protected rivalries.
As a benefit to the new members, each gets a short-term protected rivalry with either Oklahoma or Texas.
Due to being near major airline hubs, Houston, Kansas, and TCU end up with six long-term protected rivalries.
Baylor: BYU, Houston, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, (Texas)
BYU: Baylor, Houston, Kansas, TCU, Texas Tech, (Oklahoma)
Cincinnati: Houston, Iowa State, TCU, UCF, WVU, (Oklahoma)
Houston: Baylor, Cinci, BYU, TCU, Texas Tech, UCF, (Texas),
Iowa State: Cinci, Kansas, K-State, Oklahoma State, WVU, (Oklahoma)
Kansas: BYU, Iowa State, K-State, Oklahoma State, UCF, WVU
K-State: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, West Virginia (Oklahoma)
(Oklahoma): BYU, Cinci, Iowa State, K-State, Oklahoma State, (Texas),
Oklahoma State: Iowa State, Kansas, K-State, TCU, Texas Tech, (Oklahoma)
TCU: Baylor, Cinci, Houston, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, UCF (Texas)
(Texas): Baylor, Houston, TCU, Texas Tech, UCF, (Oklahoma)
Texas Tech: Baylor, BYU, Houston, Oklahoma State, TCU, (Texas)
UCF: Cinci, Houston, Kansas, TCU, WVU (Texas)
West Virginia: Cinci, Iowa State, Kansas, K-State, UCF
Whether the Big 12 continues to play nine conference games or cuts back to eight, the remainder of the schedule becomes fairly easy. BYU, for example, would rotate through home-and-home games with Cinci, Iowa State, K-State, Oklahoma State, UCF, and WVU every four or six years to fill out its remaining schedule.
Houston, Kansas, and TCU would have less variety in their schedules, but they would have the advantage of an extra long-term rival. If the unevenness in the number of the protected rivalries creates problems down in the long-term schedule, the number could simply be evened out once Oklahoma and Texas depart so each team has the same number of protected rivalries.
IS IT PERFECT?
No, of course, this is not perfect, but a perfect solution is probably not forthcoming. Divisions create unevenness within the league, and figuring divisions out to mitigate geographic headaches still presents problems.
With protected rivalries, each team can be treated as the center of its own universe while setting the Big 12 up to feature the best two teams in the conference championship every season.