Big thanks to the folks at Delta, as their unwise choice to upgrade my seat this weekend led to a free supply of Sweetwater IPAs while I listened to the highly recommended Athlon “Cover 2” podcast. This week’s episode did a deep dive on conference championship games -- on why today’s conference titles fail to deliver interesting finales to the conference season: skewed and unbalanced divisions.
This got the creative juices flowing.
The American Athletic Conference has a strategic opportunity, and they should seize it if they are serious about the “Pow6r Six” discussion over the next decade. No one else will.
To climb that mountain, the AAC will need to consistently deliver a brand of football with national relevance on a week-in and week-out basis, and there’s no better way to do that than shaking up a system – that almost everyone else uses – that undercuts the excitement of conference races.
The AAC should declare INDEPENDENCE from the division structure, launch a dynamic schedule based on the last season’s results, and – dare I say “truly” – identify their “one true champion.”
The thing is, division imbalance is an issue across college football – Auburn is actively lobbying right now to get out of the SEC West because “their student body hails from states like Georgia and Florida that are more eastern” (cough, sure). The Big Ten has a similar dynamic that will only get worse with the re-emergence of Penn State as a relevant program.
There is a ton of potential to disrupt this system. I don’t expect the SEC to do anything about it, and that means Georgia and Florida will continue to get a shot at the king while being the 4th or 5th best team in their league at season’s end.
Today’s AAC is heavily stacked for Westworld. Using the Bill Connelly S&P+ rankings from last year, the average AAC West team was #58 in College Football, which rivaled some P5 divisions. AAC East’s average team lagged behind at #79, on average.
You could argue that we could just move teams around or wait for the natural ebb and flow of new coaches finding success to solve this issue. Few would doubt that Cincinnati will be competitive again in the future. Let’s look at an alternative instead though.
As a 12-team league, breaking up divisions creates a small math problem because you don’t have time to play everyone. In today’s world, each AAC program plays their five division rivals (for Tulane, that means Houston, Navy, SMU, Tulsa, and Memphis each year) with the final three slots filled by a rotating cast of AAC East teams on a two-year basis.
To break up divisions, the league should instead move to a “dynamic” schedule based on the results of the past year, which would prioritize matching strength with strength while serving teams coming off bad seasons a chance to bounceback.
Most importantly, you set your best programs up to play good games almost every week of their season. We’ll get to the benefits in a moment, but here’s how it would look in practice.
Take co-regular season champion South Florida from 2016 (who finished 7-1). Under a dynamic schedule, USF would face a much more interesting slate this year of Navy*, Temple, Tulsa, Memphis *, Houston *, UCF, SMU *, and Tulane. Asterisks indicate games that won’t actually happen this year.
That’s not all. For a struggling team, it would be a big advantage as well. Tulane was one of the 1-7 performers last season. This year, they would match up with East Carolina, Cincinnati, UConn *, SMU, UCF *, Houston, Memphis, and Tulsa.
In short, you take the results of the previous year, stack rank your conference, and boom, you have a schedule. Want to keep the ConFLiCT going (joking, let’s use the real UCF/USF R-I9-valry)? Allow one designated rivalry game and keep seven dynamic scheduled games each year.
It’s my view that this division-less system could not be more perfect for the AAC.
First, the lack of TV money on par with the “P5” could mean a pretty volatile league in the near future. Navy is exempt, but imagine Chad Morris and Phillip Montgomery have great years and leave for new jobs. We then may see the East quickly emerge as a power under Charlie Strong and Co. Moving teams around to new divisions won’t ever keep up in a league that has a brand of “produce great teams, hire new great coaches, and repeat.”
Second, one hit wonder undefeated teams that barnstorm through weak schedules and get left out of major bowls are the calling card of “G5” leagues. Last season, the AAC produced six Top 50 teams under Bill C’s rankings. They should be facing each other.
This serves us a few advantages – you maximize the exposure of your league on TV and in the national consciousness by delivering good games. This year could be a great case study, as USF is poised to be an excellent team under a star quarterback yet doesn’t have anything near the marquee matchups that Houston had last season (that, at least for most of the year, boosted the Cougars into the Playoff discussion). Dynamic scheduling, at minimum, would give the Bulls three more relevant matchups this year alone.
Third -- and I should note that this isn’t as unique as the first two -- we’d get a better conference championship game. Just last year, Temple unexpectedly smoked Navy in the conference championship, which deprived the league potentially of a berth in the ever-important New Year’s Six bowl games. Did the Owls win? Yes. But it sure isn’t ideal to see your league’s best shot get knocked out in the last game.
Dynamic schedules would reduce this friction by making it more likely that the conference championship provides the two teams with the best chance to claim that bowl berth. While it won’t work every year, the AAC’s margin for error is razor thin, and the league should seize every opportunity to face top competition.
That’s my pitch.