Of the five Power leagues, the ACC and SEC are the only conferences that assign each team a permanent rival from the opposing division.
They are also the only two of the five to play only eight league games (the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 all play nine). The scheduling blueprint is mirrored in both – six games against divisional opponents, one against the permanent “rival” and one against a rotating member from the other division.
Though it makes the scheme easy to follow and understand, is it fair?
While the cyclical nature of college sports – causing even the most powerful programs’ strength to fall and rise – means that the “elite” teams aren’t always “elite”, the current climate has stabilized things for those teams at the very top.
Whether it’s money, recruiting, media-manipulation, coaching or a combination of these and other factors, the rich seem to be getting richer while the less-fortunate have bigger hurdles to overcome to reach the top.
To illustrate, in the first four years of the CFP era, only nine elite programs have fielded the 16 total available bracket slots. Alabama’s made it four times, Clemson three times, and Ohio State and Oklahoma have each gone twice. That leaves Georgia, Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State, and Washington as the only one-hit wonders thus far.
The point is, the best-of-the-best have staying power in today’s cash-rich college football. One of the knock-on effects is scheduling, where some programs, because of their conference/division affiliation, are forced to play elite programs year in and year out.
It also makes the concept of “permanent” cross-division rivals seem questionable at best. Inequality in schedule strength already exists between divisions in the same conference, so why enhance this by not rotating cross-division opponents?
As an example, take Boston College from the ACC Atlantic division. The Eagles already must play, annually, Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville from their own division. Rather than mix-up who they square off with from the Coastal, they get Virginia Tech every year (as their permanent cross-division foe) and then draw an additional opponent on a rotating basis.
Compare that to Louisville, also in the ACC Atlantic, who has Virginia as it’s permanent “rival.” Where BC gets an annual game against a team that hasn’t posted a losing record since 1992, the Cardinals get to play a program that has only posted one winning season in the last ten.
To get a broader sense of how this works, take a look at the permanent cross-division rivalries in the ACC and then the SEC. They are ranked from the least to the most competitive, measured in the difference in win/loss percentage in conference play over the last decade, or since joining their current league home (in the cases of Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt, Texas A&M, and Missouri).
36.88% difference – Louisville (65.63%) vs. Virginia (28.75%)
25.97% – Virginia Tech (65.48%) vs. Boston College (39.51%)
25% – Pitt (52.5%) vs. Syracuse (27.5%)
20.75% – Clemson (77.38%) vs. Georgia Tech (56.63%)
12.68% – Florida State (71.43%) vs. Miami (58.75%)
9.35% – North Carolina (51.85%) vs. NC State (42.5%)
1.62% – Duke (35.37%) vs. Wake Forest (33.75%)
In the ACC’s Atlantic division, Louisville is the big winner with a permanent cross-division opponent that has lost 70% of its conference games since 2008. Compare that to Clemson and Florida State, who both annually play programs that have won nearly 60% of their games over the same period.
On the flip side, it means Virginia is the team that gets the biggest shaft from the Coastal division. The Cavaliers win/loss percentage is like that of Duke’s, only they must face Louisville (the third-best performer in the entire ACC since joining in 2014) while the Blue Devils get Wake Forest (ranked 12 of the 14 conference members since 2008).
Virginia Tech and Pitt are the winners in the Coastal, annually squaring off with Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic, which have only won 40% and 30% of their ACC games respectively in the last ten years. Compare that to Miami, which draws in-state rival Florida State, the No. 2 team in performance overall.
56.01% difference – Alabama (88.51%) vs. Tennessee (32.5%)
17.32% – Mississippi State (43.57%) vs. Kentucky (26.25%)
13.5% – Ole Miss (40%) vs. Vanderbilt (26.5%)
12.19% – Georgia (65.85%) vs. Auburn (53.66%)
8.5% – Missouri (46%) vs. Arkansas (37.5%)
2.75% – LSU (65.85%) vs. Florida (63.1%)
0.23% – Texas A&M (52.08%) vs. South Carolina (51.85%)
Though it’s clear that Tennessee, from the SEC East, has the biggest disadvantage by having Alabama as its permanent cross-division opponent from the West, the bigger picture involves LSU. Basically, while the Tigers – who get Florida annually – are squaring off with the fourth-strongest program in the entire conference and the second-best from the East, the Crimson Tide are playing the third-worst team in the SEC.
It gives LSU a clear one-game disadvantage vs. Alabama in winning the West division. When combined with Mississippi State and Ole Miss’ annual “rivalry” games against teams that have won fewer than 30% of their SEC games since 2008, it means that LSU may be the biggest loser in all of cross-division scheduling.
Now, you might be thinking, “it’s not Alabama’s fault that Tennessee has not played well,” which is a valid point. But, really, the only way to properly defend against the ups and downs (or cyclical nature) of college sports is to regulate scheduling. In the case of cross-division play, that means rotating through each of the other division’s representatives as opposed to designating one as a fixture.
If every team plays every other team over the course of time, it’s as close to fair as can be achieved. To illustrate, if each member of the SEC East gets Alabama on its schedule every three years, it’s more equitable than if Tennessee gets them every year and the other East members rotate through playing the Tide every six seasons.
From a long-term perspective, fairness is protected even when Alabama eventually slips from its seat at the top of the world. Imagine Nick Saban retiring, and then Auburn, LSU or even Texas A&M becoming the super-dominant program from the West. If cross-division scheduling is on a 100% rotation as opposed to how its set up today, Tennessee doesn’t gain any ground and no one else gets the shaft when the Tide recedes. Because no matter which team is the best, every member of the opposing division plays them once every three years.
The same logic can be applied to each and every scenario between the ACC’s two divisions, it’s universal.
The cost of achieving this equity would be greater for some programs than others. The biggest losers would be those who value protecting long-term, history-rich rivalries like Auburn-Georgia, North Carolina-NC State and Miami-Florida State.
The ultimate question is whether tradition trumps inequality. In the result-driven culture of major college sports, where careers and cold hard cash are on the line, a scheduling advantage is a priceless commodity. And that’s precisely what the current cross-division scheme represents, the possibility – in some cases certainty – of picking up an extra win, or loss, solely based on the blueprint of your schedule.
Ultimately, it has a direct impact on goals like bowl eligibility, division/conference titles and yes, a shot at a College Football Playoff slot.