It looks like divisions in college football could soon become a thing of the past.
In an expected move following recommendations from the Football Oversight Committee, the NCAA’s Division I Council officially voted to eliminate a requirement for conferences to have divisions in order to hold a conference championship game.
Previously, NCAA rules mandated that football conferences with 12 or more members hold a championship game and split teams into divisions with round-robin schedules for divisional opponents.
Now, FBS conferences will be able to create their own rules for deciding a champion. It’s expected that most, if not all, FBS conferences will put the two teams with the best records into their championship games instead of pitting the two division winners against one another. With that change, divisions could be scrapped as soon as the 2023 season.
Pac-12 becomes first conference to make change
Minutes after the NCAA’s announcement, the Pac-12 became the first conference to say it will do just that. In years past, the winners of the Pac-12 North and South would face each other for the conference title. Beginning with the 2022 season, the two teams with the highest conference winning percentages will meet.
According to the Pac-12, the updated rules would have resulted in a different title game matchup in five of the past 11 seasons.
“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 Football Championship Game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said. “Today’s decision is an important step towards that goal and immediately increases both fan interest in, and the media value of, our Football Championship Game.”
The Pac-12’s current conference football schedule will remain in place for the 2022 season, but “scheduling scenarios for seasons beyond 2022 will continue to be reviewed,” the league said.
Other conferences to follow?
In a hint that additional changes around college football are coming, the Pac-12 noted that Wednesday’s change by the NCAA D-I Council was “unanimously supported by all FBS conferences.”
Schedules for the 2022 season — based in most conferences on divisions — are already set, but updated conference scheduling formats are on the horizon. The ACC has publicly mulled a 3-5-5 scheduling model that would have its members play three permanent opponents each season and then cycle through the others over a two-year period, playing five teams one year and the other five the next year. That change could be implemented as soon as 2023, according to ESPN.
Other formats, like having four-team pods, have also been discussed among conferences. In getting rid of divisions, conferences like the SEC would avoid the long periods of time where two teams do not play each other. And as Kliavkoff noted, putting the two best teams against one another can help with College Football Playoff positioning.
There’s also the issue of imbalance within conferences. In the Big Ten, for example, the East division champion has won the conference title in all eight seasons with the current format.
Even without divisions, it will still be a challenge for conferences with as many as 16 teams (like the expanded SEC with Texas and Oklahoma) to create a balanced schedule.
Another big college football rule change
A second rule change was also formally approved by the Division I Council on Wednesday. It involves the 25-man cap on signing classes for college football programs.
Programs are only allowed to add 25 scholarship players per recruiting cycle between high school recruits and transfers. But for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, the 25 scholarship limit has been totally removed. The limit of 85 total scholarships remains in place for FBS programs (63 for FCS), but the change allows for additional roster flexibility and maneuvering for coaching staffs over the course of the year.
With the one-time transfer rule in effect and the extra year of eligibility provided to players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, roster management has been more chaotic than usual.
Programs that lose a substantial amount of players to the NFL or the transfer portal have had a difficult time getting back to 85 scholarship players due to the limit on the number of prospects they can add in one signing class.
“Some schools hadn’t given out all their scholarships and felt constrained by the annual limit,” said DI Council chair Shane Lyons, the athletic director at West Virginia. “This temporary change provides schools more flexibility and adds opportunities for incoming and current student-athletes to receive aid.”
Moving forward, the Football Oversight Committee will be tasked with collecting recruiting data and monitoring trends over this two-year span to “inform potential future rule changes,” the NCAA said.