The subtraction of divisions is becoming the new math in college football.
That's the result of action taken Wednesday, when the NCAA Division I Council relaxed the restrictions on how Football Bowl Subdivision conferences can determine their league title game participants. No longer are conferences required to have their division champions play each other in the title game. Conferences can use different criteria if they choose.
The Pac-12 wasted no time making its change. The league responded to the NCAA ruling Wednesday afternoon by announcing its championship game qualifiers will be the two teams with the highest winning percentage in conference games, regardless of division finish. That change will start this fall, with a North vs. South title game no longer a guarantee.
Whether the Big Ten Championship Game participants will change from the winners of its East and West divisions — or if the conference gets rid of the divisions altogether — remains to be seen. The conference originally split into the Leaders and Legends divisions when it added Nebraska in 2011, then went to East and West divisions when Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference in 2014. In the East-West format, the East champion has won all eight Big Ten Championship Games.
Had the Big Ten used winning percentage in conference games in 2021 to determine its title game participants, Michigan and Ohio State, both 8-1 and in the East division, would have played in a rematch of the Wolverines' 42-27 win in the regular-season finale. Instead, Michigan beat West champ Iowa 42-3.
The Gophers have yet to appear in the Big Ten Championship Game but have come close to advancing to Indianapolis in the past two full seasons played. In 2019, a victory over either Iowa or Wisconsin would have given them the West Division title outright and a date with Ohio State for the conference title. Last year, a win at Iowa would have sent the Gophers to Indy to play Michigan.
Penn State's James Franklin, for one, has been a vocal proponent of changing the division format. "You'd like to split it up as evenly as you can,'' he said during the 2021 season.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle stressed the need to preserve rivalry games and the tradition they bring. The Gophers have faced Wisconsin 131 times, the most-played rivalry in FBS. Minnesota and Iowa have played 115 times. The Gophers have played Michigan 104 times but only twice in the past six years.
"Whatever we end up doing, I just hope we protect those rivalries, because that's a big part of who we are and what we're about,'' Coyle told ESPN on Tuesday at the Big Ten meetings.
When the Big Ten last summer entered into the Alliance for future scheduling with the Pac-12 and ACC last year, the plan would have each conference playing eight league games – the Big Ten currently plays nine — and play one school of each of the other conferences in the Alliance. If the Big Ten moves to eight conference games — and there has been hesitance among athletic directors to do that — the question remains how many rivalry games could be played each year while still trying to create a balanced schedule among 14 teams.
The ACC, however, is considering a league scheduling model in which a team would have three permanent opponents and five opponents that would rotate each year.
Class size rule relaxed for two years
The NCAA Division I Council also removed the 25-player limit for football recruiting classes at the FBS level for the next two academic years. Teams still must stay at or under 85 scholarship players total each season, but its recruiting classes in 2022-23 and 2023-24 can exceed 25.
The easing of the limit comes as teams deal with turnover resulting from the transfer portal, allowing a program to increase the number of first-year players it brings in to help fill roster spots.