If everything goes according to plan, the deregulation of conference championships could provide some nice benefits to the ACC and the Big 12. It could also really amp up the Group of Five conversation as well.
Under the structure of the College Football Playoff, there is a reserved seat at the adult table in the New Years Six for the highest-ranked champion from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference or Sun Belt Conference. These conferences have been dubbed — I’m not sure where it actually originated or who first coined the phrase — the Group of Five. While the new postseason format was introduced last season, it seemed a familiar tune was played. Boise State, three times a BCS buster under the old Bowl Championship Series postseason format won the Group of Five ticket to the New Years Six (in this case, the Fiesta Bowl vs. Arizona) after Conference USA champion Marshall had been knocked off by Western Kentucky the day after Thanksgiving. The Sun Belt champion, Georgia Southern, was ineligible for postseason play due to 2014 being its first year at the FBS level. The American Athletic Conference had a three-way split between Memphis, Cincinnati and UCF, none of which reached the double-digit win total during the regular season. Northern Illinois made a late run out of the MAC, but this was not quite the same NIU squad that was powered by Jordan Lynch that reached the Orange Bowl. The New Years Six bowl was the Mountain West Conference’s to lose in Year 1 of the new postseason format.
While most of the focus will be justifiably place don the top four teams advancing to the College Football Playoff, the new postseason format gave casual fans more of a reason to stay up to date with what was happening in those other games on the other channels whenever possible, even if just in passing. And with so much at stake for the conference that gets a team into the New Years Six, interest in every conference surely spiked as a result. Yes, the College Football Playoff era can be very rewarding to these Group of Five conferences, and that is not about to change. What could change though is how the Group of Five race continues to play out in an evolving world of college football.
This week Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby suggested the deregulation of conference championships is expected to be approved in January. Most of the talk about deregulation has focused on the ACC and Big 12, where the ACC could potentially do away with divisions and simply pair the top two teams in the conference in a championship game and the Big 12 could play a conference title game even with just 10 members in the conference. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC could also explore these options if they had a desire, although I see no reason any of those conferences should feel a dire need to mix things up in that fashion. Deregulation could also provide a boost for Group of Five conferences competing against each other to grab a spot in the New Years Six. And don’t think they won’t.
Deregulation and the Mountain West Conference
The Mountain West Conference sort of dodged a bullet last season when Boise State defended its home turf against Fresno State to win the Mountain West Conference championship game. The 6-6 Bulldogs fell behind 21-0 before halftime and simply lacked the firepower to give the Broncos a stiff challenge. But, hypothetically, had Fresno State managed to win the game in Boise then it would have knocked Boise State out of contention for a New Years Six spot completely. Remember, only Group of Five conference champions are in the running for the guaranteed spot (in theory a Group of Five could be an at-large, but this is likely a very unrealistic scenario). So not only would Boise State have been out of the running, but so would have a very strong Colorado State, Utah State or even Air Force. Between them, Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State and Air Force ended the year with a combined record of 42-12, with each team hitting double digits. Any would have been a more worthy representative from the Mountain West Conference last season before Fresno State would have been.
Boise State did not need one last impressive win to sway the selection committee, but what if the Broncos were in need of one more quality win? What if Marshall was undefeated? A two-loss Boise State, even though they may have been better, would have had a difficult time passing an undefeated Marshall, especially if only getting to play a mediocre Fresno State at home. But if the Mountain West Conference had a deregulated championship game process, it could have paired Boise State up against, for argument’s sake, Colorado State. That would have been a much higher-quality opponent for Boise State to make one last push when needed, or perhaps would have given Colorado State a puncher’s chance to crash the party itself.
The Mountain West Conference is probably the strongest of the Group of Five conferences right now, so the need to change up the championship game process may not be there for the folks in the conference at this time. However, it would be wise to pay attention to how deregulation is handled elsewhere in the Group of Five conferences, perhaps especially in the American Athletic Conference.
Speaking of which…
Deregulation in the American Athletic Conference
This season will be the first year the American Athletic Conference will field 12 members, with Navy jumping on board in football this fall. Navy’s addition to the conference has already been perceived as a hassle for the College Football Playoff selection process, but that nonsense has been put to rest. The AAC will be split into an East Divison and a West Division (Navy will actually be in the West), and the division champion with the best record in conference games will serve as the host for the conference championship game. While not exactly a fair nor accurate way to discuss this, that would have meant last year’s theoretical AAC Championship Game would have been played between Memphis and Cincinnati (although it would also have meant Cincinnati and UCF actually played in the regular season, but bear with me through this hypothetical discussion).
It is far too early to decipher which way the AAC will be heading in the next few years. The balance of power may currently reside in the East with UCF and Cincinnati, but the future looks optimistic in the West with Houston, Memphis and even SMU. And let’s not overlook Navy either. The conference may get a bad wrap, but it may have been much closer to a spot in the New Years Six than most realize. It still needed some help to get past one-loss Marshall (probably), but it was right there in the mix and would have been there had East Carolina not fallen off.
It is also too early to guess whether or not this conference would benefit from deregulation. For now, it is best to move forward with the division format in place. Let’s see where the conference stands four years down the road and revisit the idea.
What is the ultimate goal of conference championship games?
The answer to this question likely varies by conference and by fan. To me, the goal of the conference championship game is to put the very best your conference has to offer on one final stage to showcase what they are made of, both the teams and the conference. The division format has served us well for the most part, but there is something that seems so played out and passed down. We have divisions because we have become accustomed to our sports having divisions. As college football evolves, perhaps our views on conference structure should as well.
There is no perfect solution for how to best handle conference championship games. As I have said before when discussing eight-game conference schedules vs. nine-game conference schedules, what works best for one conference does not always work the best in another. The same holds true for conference championship games. There is no simple answer for any conference. There is no need to get carried away with deregulation of conference titles in any conference, be they power conference or non-power conference. The new postseason format is still very new, and much still needs to be learned on an annual basis before we figure out how best to adjust to the new way of college football. That said, if one conference feels deregulation allows for the best possible conference championship game, I’m all for it. And so will fans (and TV viewers).
Not only will it make championship week more attractive, but it will add more drama and suspense to the Group of Five race down to the final week of the regular season. That would be a win for all.