Are ACC and SEC permanent cross-division rivals unfair?

By Amy Daughters -

Of the five Power leagues, the ACC and SEC are the only conferences that assign each team a permanent rival from the opposing division.

They are also the only two of the five to play only eight league games (the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 all play nine). The scheduling blueprint is mirrored in both – six games against divisional opponents, one against the permanent “rival” and one against a rotating member from the other division.

Though it makes the scheme easy to follow and understand, is it fair?

While the cyclical nature of college sports – causing even the most powerful programs’ strength to fall and rise – means that the “elite” teams aren’t always “elite”, the current climate has stabilized things for those teams at the very top.

Whether it’s money, recruiting, media-manipulation, coaching or a combination of these and other factors, the rich seem to be getting richer while the less-fortunate have bigger hurdles to overcome to reach the top.

To illustrate, in the first four years of the CFP era, only nine elite programs have fielded the 16 total available bracket slots. Alabama’s made it four times, Clemson three times, and Ohio State and Oklahoma have each gone twice. That leaves Georgia, Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State, and Washington as the only one-hit wonders thus far.

The point is, the best-of-the-best have staying power in today’s cash-rich college football. One of the knock-on effects is scheduling, where some programs, because of their conference/division affiliation, are forced to play elite programs year in and year out.

It also makes the concept of “permanent” cross-division rivals seem questionable at best. Inequality in schedule strength already exists between divisions in the same conference, so why enhance this by not rotating cross-division opponents?

As an example, take Boston College from the ACC Atlantic division. The Eagles already must play, annually, Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville from their own division. Rather than mix-up who they square off with from the Coastal, they get Virginia Tech every year (as their permanent cross-division foe) and then draw an additional opponent on a rotating basis.

Compare that to Louisville, also in the ACC Atlantic, who has Virginia as it’s permanent “rival.” Where BC gets an annual game against a team that hasn’t posted a losing record since 1992, the Cardinals get to play a program that has only posted one winning season in the last ten.

To get a broader sense of how this works, take a look at the permanent cross-division rivalries in the ACC and then the SEC. They are ranked from the least to the most competitive, measured in the difference in win/loss percentage in conference play over the last decade, or since joining their current league home (in the cases of Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt, Texas A&M, and Missouri).

The ACC

36.88% difference – Louisville (65.63%) vs. Virginia (28.75%)

25.97% – Virginia Tech (65.48%) vs. Boston College (39.51%)

25% – Pitt (52.5%) vs. Syracuse (27.5%)

20.75% – Clemson (77.38%) vs. Georgia Tech (56.63%)

12.68% – Florida State (71.43%) vs. Miami (58.75%)

9.35% – North Carolina (51.85%) vs. NC State (42.5%)

1.62% – Duke (35.37%) vs. Wake Forest (33.75%)

In the ACC’s Atlantic division, Louisville is the big winner with a permanent cross-division opponent that has lost 70% of its conference games since 2008. Compare that to Clemson and Florida State, who both annually play programs that have won nearly 60% of their games over the same period.

On the flip side, it means Virginia is the team that gets the biggest shaft from the Coastal division. The Cavaliers win/loss percentage is like that of Duke’s, only they must face Louisville (the third-best performer in the entire ACC since joining in 2014) while the Blue Devils get Wake Forest (ranked 12 of the 14 conference members since 2008).

Virginia Tech and Pitt are the winners in the Coastal, annually squaring off with Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic, which have only won 40% and 30% of their ACC games respectively in the last ten years. Compare that to Miami, which draws in-state rival Florida State, the No. 2 team in performance overall.

The SEC

56.01% difference – Alabama (88.51%) vs. Tennessee (32.5%)

17.32% – Mississippi State (43.57%) vs. Kentucky (26.25%)

13.5% – Ole Miss (40%) vs. Vanderbilt (26.5%)

12.19% – Georgia (65.85%) vs. Auburn (53.66%)

8.5% – Missouri (46%) vs. Arkansas (37.5%)

2.75% – LSU (65.85%) vs. Florida (63.1%)

0.23% – Texas A&M (52.08%) vs. South Carolina (51.85%)

Though it’s clear that Tennessee, from the SEC East, has the biggest disadvantage by having Alabama as its permanent cross-division opponent from the West, the bigger picture involves LSU. Basically, while the Tigers – who get Florida annually – are squaring off with the fourth-strongest program in the entire conference and the second-best from the East, the Crimson Tide are playing the third-worst team in the SEC.

It gives LSU a clear one-game disadvantage vs. Alabama in winning the West division. When combined with Mississippi State and Ole Miss’ annual “rivalry” games against teams that have won fewer than 30% of their SEC games since 2008, it means that LSU may be the biggest loser in all of cross-division scheduling.

Now, you might be thinking, “it’s not Alabama’s fault that Tennessee has not played well,” which is a valid point. But, really, the only way to properly defend against the ups and downs (or cyclical nature) of college sports is to regulate scheduling. In the case of cross-division play, that means rotating through each of the other division’s representatives as opposed to designating one as a fixture.

If every team plays every other team over the course of time, it’s as close to fair as can be achieved. To illustrate, if each member of the SEC East gets Alabama on its schedule every three years, it’s more equitable than if Tennessee gets them every year and the other East members rotate through playing the Tide every six seasons.

From a long-term perspective, fairness is protected even when Alabama eventually slips from its seat at the top of the world. Imagine Nick Saban retiring, and then Auburn, LSU or even Texas A&M becoming the super-dominant program from the West. If cross-division scheduling is on a 100% rotation as opposed to how its set up today, Tennessee doesn’t gain any ground and no one else gets the shaft when the Tide recedes. Because no matter which team is the best, every member of the opposing division plays them once every three years.

The same logic can be applied to each and every scenario between the ACC’s two divisions, it’s universal.

The cost of achieving this equity would be greater for some programs than others. The biggest losers would be those who value protecting long-term, history-rich rivalries like Auburn-Georgia, North Carolina-NC State and Miami-Florida State.

The ultimate question is whether tradition trumps inequality. In the result-driven culture of major college sports, where careers and cold hard cash are on the line, a scheduling advantage is a priceless commodity. And that’s precisely what the current cross-division scheme represents, the possibility – in some cases certainty – of picking up an extra win, or loss, solely based on the blueprint of your schedule.

Ultimately, it has a direct impact on goals like bowl eligibility, division/conference titles and yes, a shot at a College Football Playoff slot.

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Comments (14)

The solution to this is to go to 2 4-team pods and 2 3-team pods in each conference. Every team would play the other home and away every 4 years (every recruiting class). But for some reason the powers that be love the restricting divisional alignments.

Neither Tennessee or Alabama would want to give up that game. It’s part of the fabric of College Football. We’ve already lost so many games… Why would anyone who is a fan of the sport advocate losing Tennessee/Alabama or Georgia/Auburn?

I get the argument, but you have to weigh the history of these games, too.

ACC, SEC, & B1G should abandon divisions (as ACC proposed a couple years ago, but shot down by other Power 5s). Play 3 permanent opponents and play the other 10 with 5 H&H, then rotate to other 5 H&H. Top 2 play in championship game. That way you play everyone twice in 4 years & once at home, but still protect historic rivalries.

ACC needs to bring in ND & UConn as full-time members and realign North (BC, Cuse, UConn, Pitt, Virginia, VT, Louisville, ND) and South (Miami, FSU, GT, Clemson, UNC, NCSU, Duke, Wake) and go to 9 games. You keep lots of Big East schools together and group in-state schools so they play every year no matter what. You play 7 in-division games and rotate the other 2, no permanent game since most of those groupings would be handled in-division.

How would you determine a champion with pods? The other issue would be uneven numbers in the pods. This is the nature of the beast. When the SEC 1st made divisions Alabama and Tennessee were fighting for the championship nearly every season, so keeping this rivalry made sense at the time.

This can somewhat be solved if the SEC were to go to 9 games in conference allowing for more frequent cross-divisional games. Or it could get worse if Auburn and Missouri switch divisions, forcing either Tennessee to get a new cross-divisional or they go to 9 games with 2 cross-over games, meaning even less rotation.

The ACC could solve this problem by re configuring the divisions. For example

Atlantic
Boston College
Florida State
Georgia Tech
Louisville
Miami
Pittsburgh
Syracuse

Coastal
Clemson
Duke
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest

Many natural rivalries already in place and you would probably eliminate non ACC games being scheduled between teams for non-conference games.

Notre Dame would never go for that division alignment. They would want to be in the same division as one of the two Florida ACC schools every year.

Good read and excellent points. LSU plays Florida and Georgia in 2018. Bama plays Tenn. and Missouri. In theory, LSU could lose the eastern division games, win all games against western division opponents (including Bama) and lose SEC west to Bama if they go undefeated except the loss to LSU. Until equality is reached in scheduling, use apples to apples and only count your division games to determine division titles. Let the committee weigh the cross division games the same as out of conference power 5 games. Auburn plays Tenn. and Georgia in 2018 so at least Bama and Auburn both get a likely win against Tenn. #mimosatvdoesn’tbroadcastsecgames

I like ur thinking but Virginia wouldn’t be happy…switch Virginia and Miami, there u have almost an old Big east div and old ACC div. Also u could switch UConn for Temple and keep same concept.

Shep’s setup is the best with one caveat. There’s got to be one permanent crossover (similar to Indiana-Purdue in Big Ten or Calif. schools in PAC-12). If end of season is Duke-Wake, UNC-NCSU, Clemson-South Carolina, FSU-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Boston College-UCONN, Syracuse-Pitt, Virginia-Virginia Tech, Louisvile-Kentucky, then who do Miami and Notre Dame end with? They should end with each other, but it would require a permanant crossover. The other issue is if Notre Dame joins, then that would leave them with three out of conference dates. How do they possibly fill those? Do they rotate Stanford/USC for one slot, Purdue/Michigan St. for the second spot, and Navy for the third spot?

As for the SEC, they could solve some of the issues by moving Alabama and Auburn to the East, and Vanderbilt and Missouri to the West. That way Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee, Missouri-Arkansas, and Vandy-Ole Miss become in division games. Only permanent crossover required would be Vandy-Tennessee. Once Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (or other geographically west teams) join Vandy can move back over to the East.

Navy better than Connecticut. Traditional rivalry for Notre Dame would make joining more accommodating to their schedule. But 16 teams in a conference is just unwieldy. 12 should be the max, 10 is better. But TV is really in charge now, so if they want it, it will happen.

Keowee, you’re right about Navy. Only if you add that ND tradition as a rival does it make sense for ND to join. Divisions could be…
Atlantic: FSU, GT, Miami, Pitt, Syr, BC, ND, Navy
Coastal: Clemson, WF, Duke, VT, UVa, UNC, NCSU, Louisville
ND would have games with schools it has a history with, and have 3 OOC’s still even with a 9 game conference sked.