Reader Thoughts: A Case for Two Divisions of Eight Rather than Four Pods of Four

I got an incredibly well thought out email last night from Matthew W. that I thought I’d share.

With potential 16-team conference’s on the horizon, the SEC Network floated out the idea of having four, four-team “pods” instead of two, eight-team divisions.

Matthew goes into one of the difficulties that presents in fairness in scheduling.

Dear PFB,

I’m sure you all are getting a lot of emails and comments about what OSU should do or about what certain conferences should do. I don’t want to mess with that, so instead I have written a case for two divisions of 8 rather than four divisions of 4 in a hypothetical 16-team conference that OSU could be a part of. 

As another average Joe who cannot possibly understand the intricate workings of college football nor the depth of information that decision-makers depend on, I have consigned myself to pondering if a 16-team conference should be divided into two or four divisions rather than trying to figure out the best course of action for Oklahoma State. I trust our leadership to work hard for our state and for our alumni base and ultimately make a wise decision. However, I am concerned about the prospect of playing in a conference that is divided into four divisions of four teams each. I simply can’t get on board with it. The proposal is that you would play the other three teams in your division every year and then play two teams from each of the other divisions. You can do the math yourself, but in this scenario, you will only share five of your nine opponents with each of the other teams in your division (including the head-to-head game as a common opponent).

That leaves so much room for variation in strength of schedule! It just wouldn’t be fair to compare those W-L records against each other. This is all assuming that the conference champion would be decided by a 4-team playoff, pitting the division champs against each other. If you wanted to instead just pick the two teams with the best record for the championship game, it would be even less fair. Comparing two teams’ schedules from different divisions, they can have as low as three or four shared opponents out of the nine total. Four if they don’t play each other and three if they do (remember, I’m counting head-to-head as a common opponent). It’s absolutely ridiculous to compare W-L records between teams who only share one-third of a schedule! The only “pro” to organizing football this way is that each team would get to host each conference foe at least once every four years, rather than every eight years, which would be the case if you had two divisions.

The pods idea without a doubt hits a wall at strength of schedule. In the SEC example’s case, you’d feel shafted if one of your out-of-pod games was Alabama and someone in your pod drew Vanderbilt. And when it comes down to four teams in a pod, that could determine who makes it out.

Matthew continues:

“In two divisions of eight teams, you’d naturally play your entire division each year (seven games) and then play two teams from the other division. My main case for two divisions rather than four is fairness in rewarding teams a spot in the championship who deserve it most. The rest of this is about a deeper layer to it that may be even more controversial. I personally think that seven games is enough to decide a division champion. I would propose that the two inter-division games should not count toward the final standings. Having seven of your nine opponents in common with the other teams you’re comparing records with is better than three or four, but it’s still not entirely fair. In this scenario, I think the first two weeks of conference play should be dedicated to inter-division games. It would take four years to play every team in the other division and eight years to host. That’s not ideal, but we are talking about a 16-team conference in a sport where schools only want to play nine (eight if you’re the SEC) games against formidable opponents.

I imagine people will critique this plan saying that those two inter-division games won’t be as fun to watch knowing that the results won’t affect the division title race. It’s a fair concern since as a fan, the only criteria we have to judge on is entertainment value. My response is two-fold. First, think back to how you felt when OSU beat Georgia to open the 2009 season. And now remember how you felt when we lost to Houston the following week. How about when we almost pulled off the upset against defending champions Florida State in 2014? For the younger crowd, go back to when we sacked Boise State’s quarterback a hundred times in 2018 or to when we got upset by Central Michigan in 2016. What I love about college sports is that it elicits so many emotions and to such a great degree in ways that are difficult to come by in the monotony of life. Those non-conference games, though they had zero effect on our placement in the Big 12, reminded me of the joy in victory and the sadness in defeat. If we had a game against a top-ten ranked Oregon or USC team that was technically in-conference, but also didn’t matter as much as the other conference games, I would still pour my heart and soul into cheering on our Cowboys. And I believe you would, too.

My second argument for the entertainment value of these inter-division games is that most conference games in the current state either don’t have title implications because our team is already out of the race or don’t have the perception of title implications because it is against a team that we are supposed to beat. It is only near the end of the season, against another top team, that we start to think about how the result of the game will affect our shot at a conference championship. Yet, we still get fired up every Saturday to see if our team can earn a W. OSU has won one conference championship since 1976, so you cannot tell me that you only care about OSU football when conference championships are on the line. If we were independent and scheduled 12 games ourselves against random opponents, we’d still want them to win each game just as badly. In summary, even though only seven of twelve games would determine if we get a shot at a conference championship, those two inter-division games would still be just as fun to watch. And I didn’t even mention having to build a resume to impress the CFP committee! 

Another question that some may ask is “why not have five non-conference games?” Having two games locked in every year will take a lot of work off the hands of the people in charge of scheduling non-conference games and it will guarantee stiff competition. Looking at OSU’s track record, we could definitely benefit from the first two conference games not counting!

A definitive, well thought out proposition, but one thing that trumps all else that Matthew didn’t mention: money.

The pod system allows for the more hyped up games to be played more often, drawing in eyes from outside of the two fan bases. For example, a lot of people would tune into watch Oklahoma and Alabama play who aren’t fans of either team.

As far as out-of-division conference games not counting, I don’t foresee that ever happening. They count in the NFL, and they should count in college. But it is something to think about. There is more parity in the NFL than in college, so playing a big bad wolf that someone else might not have to play would be a bigger disadvantage at the college level.

Matthew wraps up his email with one more thing I think we can all get on board with:

Alright, one more fun idea I have to go along with this is to end the year with a division vs division challenge. The first place teams from each side would obviously play each other for the conference championship, and then there would also be matchups between the two second-place finishers, third-place, fourth-place, and so on. Whichever division wins the most games wins the challenge, and a 4-4 tiebreaker would go to who won the championship game. I love the conference challenges that occur in basketball, so this simply sounds fun to watch. It could also help out a team who got second in the division, but is still vying for a spot in an expanded playoff.

This would be a ton of fun, and could maybe even work in a pod format where the second place teams have their four-team bracket and the third and the fourth. You’ll never find me arguing for less football, and I don’t think the TV networks would either.

My closing thoughts on this are that I’m even more sad that the Big 12 is likely toast. What made the Big 12 fun was that no matter what, every year, everyone played everyone. And if you were good/lucky enough to be one of the top teams after all that, you had to play one of those teams again.

If these conferences start to get bigger, we’ll never see anything like that again, which will be sad.

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