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Hot Reads: Eliminating Divisions Doesn't Help the Big Ten

December 7, 2018
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Easy there, Big Ten. Let's not do something rash just because a conference team hasn't made the College Football Playoff since 2016.

Making rash decisions isn't typically something I'm worried about with Jim Delany in charge, but he does have 14 schools to answer to and when you get that many different interests in a room conversations can go a lot of different ways.

Like to the idea of eliminating divisions and pitting the league's top two teams against each other in the conference title game at the end of the season.

"It's an item that has been discussed before," Delany said at a speaking engagement this week, adding that the frequency of those discussions has increased since the start of the Playoff era –– also the first year of West and East Divisions in the Big Ten –– in 2014. The hope behind those conversations, I assume, is that pitting the two best teams against each other on the final week of the season gives the winner, no matter who it might be, the best chance of landing one of the four spots.

Makes sense in theory, so let's see how it would've worked over the past five seasons of Playoff football.

2014: You have No. 5 (CFP rank) Ohio State at 8-0 in conference play, No. 8 Michigan State at 7-1 and No. 13 Wisconsin at 7-1. This is the first thing the Big Ten would need to figure out: How is it determining the "two best" teams? Conference record, you would've needed something beyond a head-to-head tiebreaker this season for Michigan State and Wisconsin. Could go with best ranking, which puts the Spartans in but it wouldn't have mattered much. The Buckeyes actually faced the Badgers, won 59-0 and jumped into the Playoff. Playing Michigan State instead wouldn't have added anything. Summary: Effectively no change.

2015: The top two teams by record and ranking –– No. 4 Iowa (8-0) and No. 5 Michigan State (7-1) –– did play in the title game. The Spartans won and went to the Playoff. Ohio State, also 7-1 in Big Ten play, sat at home at No. 6. Summary: No change possible.

2016: No. 7 Penn State plays No. 6 Wisconsin, while No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan watch from home. Two-loss Penn State beats Wisconsin, but Ohio State gets the Playoff spot. Would matching Ohio State against Michigan, a week after they'd just played, have changed anything? I don't think so, the Big Ten still gets one team in that way. Doing it the other way, with the conference title game we actually had, was the closest the Big Ten has come to landing two teams in the Playoff. Summary: Current method may have maximized chances of a Playoff team.

2017: No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State are the best by record and rankings (again) and play for the title. Ohio State wins, but has too much ground to make up to land in the final four. Wisconsin was the league's best bet here, but the loss knocked it out. Maybe they should've had the Badgers play Illinois instead. Summary: No change possible.

2018: No. 6 Ohio State beats No. 21 Northwestern and doesn't get in. The Buckeyes and Wildcats were both 8-1 in conference play, as was No. 7 Michigan, which would've been the pick based on rankings. Would an Ohio State win over Michigan have put the Buckeyes in (or vice versa)? Maybe. Assuming Oklahoma still beats Texas, if Michigan wins you'd have two teams "avenging a loss" in the conference title game, but the Sooners would have one fewer loss. If Ohio State wins, the Buckeyes get another quality win and the committee's job is more difficult. It wouldn't be hard to convince me that in that specific scenario that the committee wouldn't have looked at Oklahoma and Ohio State as the same and simply gone with Georgia. Summary: Maybe Ohio State has a slightly stronger case.

Based on all of the above, does eliminating divisions seem like an overall gain? Would you be willing to give up the clarity of divisions and division winners to slightly improve (if at all) the conference's Playoff chances as a whole?

I wouldn't. Particularly when the change that would best alter the league's chances at landing a Playoff team each year was effectively shot down by Delany at the same speaking engagement. Via Sports Illustrated:

"[The playoff] doesn't define us," Delany said. "I'm going to be disciplined about it. I know the quality of our football. I know our players, I know the coaches, I know the competition. What we created in our structure is not exclusively for the CFP. It's for the season-ticket holder, it's for the players, it's for our institutions to build a conference. That's why they play nine. If we wanted to get in and that was the holy grail, the No. 1 objective, maybe we would be at eight. Maybe we would be playing [more FCS opponents]. But that's not the only objective."

That's more like the Delany I've come to expect. It's very Big Ten-y to say the playoff "doesn't define us," but I'm fine with that point of view.

It's why I was so surprised to hear Delany give the "eliminate divisions" talk some legs and launch a hundred headlines. That would be change simply for change's sake.

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