It looks like divisions in college football may soon be a thing of the past.
In an expected move following recommendations from the Football Oversight Committee, the NCAA Division I Council has officially voted to remove the requirement that conferences must have divisions in order to hold a conference championship game.
Previously, NCAA rules required that football conferences with 12 or more members hold a championship game and split teams into divisions with round-robin schedules for division opponents.
Now FBS conferences can create their own rules for deciding a champion. It is expected that most, if not all, FBS conferences will field the two teams with the best records in their championship games, rather than pitting the two division winners against each other. With this change, divisions could be eliminated as early as the 2023 season.
Pac-12 is the first conference to make changes
Minutes after the NCAA’s announcement, the Pac-12 became the first conference to say it will do just that. In previous years, Pac-12 North and South winners have faced off for the conference title. Beginning with the 2022 season, the two teams with the highest conference winning rates will meet.
According to 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 top two teams in our Pac-12 football championship game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to streamline CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” said Pac- 12-Commissioner George Kliavkoff. “Today’s decision is an important step towards that goal and immediately increases both fan interest and media value of our football championship game.”
The Pac-12’s current conference football schedule remains in place for the 2022 season, but “planning scenarios for seasons beyond 2022 will continue to be reviewed,” the league said.
More conferences to come?
In a hint that more changes are coming to college football, the Pac-12 noted that Wednesday’s NCAA DI Council change had “unanimous support from all FBS conferences.”
Schedules for the 2022 season – based on most conferences by department – are already set, but updated conference planning formats are on the horizon. The ACC has publicly considered a 3-5-5 scheduling model, in which its members play three permanent opponents each season and then rotate through the others over a two-year period, playing five teams one year and five teams the next year the other five play. This change could be implemented as early as 2023, according to ESPN.
Other formats, such as pods with four teams, have also been discussed at conferences. By doing away with divisions, conferences like the SEC would avoid the long periods when two teams don’t play each other. And as Kliavkoff noted, pitting the top two teams against each other can help position the college football playoffs.
There is also the problem of imbalance within conferences. In the Big Ten, for example, the current format East Division champion has won the conference title in all eight seasons.
Even without divisions, for conferences with up to 16 teams (like the expanded SEC with Texas and Oklahoma) it will be challenging to create a balanced schedule.
Another big change in college football rules
A second rule change was also formally approved by the Division I Council on Wednesday. It’s about the 25-man cap on signing classes for college football programs.
Programs may only add 25 grantees per recruitment cycle between high school recruits and transfers. However, for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years, the 25 scholarship limit has been removed entirely. The limit of 85 total grants for FBS programs (63 for FCS) remains, but the change allows for additional flexibility and maneuver for coaching staffs throughout the year.
With the one-time transfer rule in place and the extra year of eligibility being granted to players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, roster management has been more chaotic than usual.
Programs that lose a significant number of players to the NFL or the transfer portal have had difficulty getting back down to 85 scholarship players because of the limit on the number of prospects they can add in a signing class.
“Some schools had not awarded all of their scholarships and felt constrained by the annual limit,” said DI Council chair Shane Lyons, West Virginia’s athletic director. “This temporary change provides schools with more flexibility and opportunities for new and current student-athletes to get help.”
Going forward, the Football Oversight Committee will be tasked with collecting recruitment data and monitoring trends over that two-year period to “inform potential future rule changes,” the NCAA said.