Big Ten officials have discussed the idea of eliminating divisions in football.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told The Athletic that looming changes to the College Football Playoff format could impact both the Big Ten’s stance on divisions and how many league games it should play on an annual basis.
If the CFP expands beyond its current four-team format as expected, the Big Ten could make adjustments to give it “the best opportunity to have the most success” in the CFP, Barta told The Athletic. The changes under consideration are getting rid of divisions and returning to an eight-game conference schedule.
The Big Ten has 14 members divided evenly into East and West divisions. Each team plays all six of its divisional foes and three others from the opposite division in a nine-game conference schedule.
In the eight-year existence of the four-team CFP, the Big Ten has had one team reach the playoff in six of those seasons. Ohio State accounts for four of those appearances with Michigan and Michigan State each reaching the CFP once. Those three teams reside in the Big Ten East, as does Penn State, which has three top 10 finishes in the CFP era, including No. 5 in 2016.
Since the Big Ten switched to the East-West format in 2014, the East division winner has never lost in the conference championship game. Eliminating divisions would put the top two teams in the conference against one another in the Big Ten championship game. In 2021, the three highest-ranked teams from the Big Ten — Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State — came out of the East division. Michigan beat Iowa, the West champion, 42-3.
NCAA rules require divisions for conferences with 12 or more schools in football, though the Big Ten would almost certainly be able to petition for a waiver.
The Big 12, which currently has 10 members (but is set to add BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF in conjunction with the departure of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC), is the only major conference that does not have divisions.
Partnership with ACC, Pac-12 plays role
The Big Ten has a partnership — dubbed “The Alliance” — with the ACC and Pac-12 that plays a role in its thinking. If the Big Ten drops back to an eight-game conference schedule, it could begin scheduling cross-conference matchups with the ACC and Pac-12 as part of their agreement.
That could create high-profile matchups like Ohio State versus Clemson or Michigan versus USC. The idea is that these intriguing non-conference games would drum up nationwide interest and also serve as helpful benchmarks for a team’s playoff résumé.
Of course, there has yet to be a consensus on what the expanded CFP will look like and when it will happen as expansion talks have continually stalled in recent months.
According to Barta, the 2023 season has been circled as the season in which any potential changes would go into effect. The reason? The Big Ten’s current media rights deal is set to expire after the 2022 football season.