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Carson: Deregulate conference championship games

| Monday, December 5, 2016

The committee got it right.

If Penn State fans should have a complaint, it shouldn’t be that their team was left out — it should be about the opponent their team played in the Big Ten’s championship game Saturday.

Two teams finished with 8-1 records this year in the Big Ten: Ohio State and Penn State. Logic dictates the conference champion should’ve been guaranteed to come from one of those two teams, right?

But, alas, as we all know, that didn’t happen. Instead of playing the other best team in the league, the Nittany Lions played Wisconsin, a team that had the conference’s fourth-best mark at 7-2, in Indianapolis. Instead of getting a chance to prove itself one last time against a team it was competing with for a playoff spot in Ohio State, Penn State got a solid but not game-changing win Saturday night.

Irrespective of the result Saturday in Indianapolis, the results of the ACC and Pac-12 title games dictated that the outcome of the Big Ten’s championship game would ultimately prove meaningless in the playoff discussion.

Consider that alternate reality, though, where Ohio State and Penn State played for the Big Ten title instead. The winner of that game — be it the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions — would be in the field. No questions asked. Instead of “rewarding” Penn State with a chance to prove it’s the fifth-best team in the country, you could’ve rewarded it with a chance to prove it deserved a place in the top four.

Look around the country, and you’ll find a similar problem developing: Too often, a conference’s two best teams don’t meet to play for the title. We saw it two times this year alone — just like Wisconsin wasn’t the Big Ten’s second-best team, Virginia Tech wasn’t the ACC’s, either — and we’ve seen the Pac-12 get involved in the past, too, in those years where Oregon and Stanford were the class of the league.

If they’re so great and important, conference title games should make the first Saturday in December one of college football’s best days. But year after year, the slate becomes a disappointment. Instead of a Clemson/Louisville rematch — a game that would’ve been incredibly compelling despite the Cardinals’ late slide — we got Clemson/Virginia Tech, a game that continued a building tradition of Clemson or Florida State beating the ACC Coastal winner in a game that fits the, “I guess they could lose, but they won’t,” narrative quite well. The same, of course, could be said about the Big Ten.

Now, the issue: You can’t actually set up a system like the one I’m describing. If a conference is to have a championship game, it must either be split into divisions or play a full round-robin. The latter isn’t possible for four of the Power Five conferences, so the former is the necessary evil.

The funny thing about all of this? Earlier this year, the Big Ten fought a proposal from the ACC and Big XII that would deregulate conference title games entirely, allowing for leagues to conduct their championship games in whatever manner they see fit. Instead of deregulation, we got the full round-robin provision, allowing the Big XII to hold its game.

What makes it funny, of course, is that the Big Ten’s champion was kept from having a playoff chance because of the flawed system the conference fought to keep.

While eliminating divisions — a byproduct of the system I’m proposing — could create chaos with three one-loss teams tying for one title game slot, it doesn’t differ from the current situation — see: 2008 Big XII South. And what it would do, in fact, is end the silly system in many conferences that sees one group of teams — Florida and Virginia Tech were big beneficiaries this year — play a much easier schedule than other ones of a similar pedigree in the opposite division.

In three of college football’s four Power Five conferences with divisions, most of that power is concentrated in one division — it’s Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being together in the ACC Atlantic; Alabama, Auburn and LSU being together in the SEC West; Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State being together in the Big Ten East — and as long as that system persists, we’re going to continue to have the opportunity for more problems like the one presented this year.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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