For those who are unaware, there is currently a rule in place that says that FBS conferences that consist of 12 or more teams must split into two divisions in order to hold a conference championship game, whereas conferences with less than 12 teams – such as the Big 12, which ironically has 10 teams – do not need to split into divisions and can pit the teams with the two best records against each other in the conference championship game.
How would this rule change impact Penn State Football, and the entire Big Ten, if it goes into effect?
First and foremost, it would eliminate the glaring imbalance between the East and West divisions in the Big Ten.
Since the Big Ten switched from Legends and Leaders divisions, to East and West divisions, beginning in the 2014 season when Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference, the East is 8-0 in the title game, with an average margin of victory of 20 points.
Plus, the East division is the only one to have sent a team to the College Football Playoff in its eight-year existence, with Ohio State making it four times, and Michigan and Michigan State each making it once.
Finally, in the 2022 recruiting cycle, seven of the top eight recruiting classes in the Big Ten were all teams from the East, with Iowa being the lone exception.
It’s quite easy to see the disparity between the two divisions.
With the elimination of the divisions, the first thing that changes is scheduling.
Rather than the teams in the East beating up on one another all season, while the top teams in the West face a much easier road to the conference championship game, the scheduling could now be much more balanced.
Presumably, certain rivalry games would be preserved, such as Ohio State vs Michigan and Minnesota vs Wisconsin, with those matchups still occurring annually. After that, the conference schedule will be randomized, similar to how the crossover games are currently selected.
It could fluctuate by year, and some teams may get easier draws than others in certain seasons, but over the course of time, the scheduling will be much more even than it is in the current format.
Another potential scheduling format would be the addition of pods in the Big Ten.
Pods would be small groups of a few teams that are guaranteed to be on each other’s schedule year in and year out.
For example, let’s say the Big Ten adds a 15th team to have three pods, each consisting of five teams. For this hypothetical, Penn State’s pod will consist of themselves, as well as Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, and Maryland.
Those five teams will all play each other annually, and the rest of their conference schedule would be randomized with teams from the other two pods.
Pods would have no implication on the conference championship, and the top two teams in the Big Ten (based on conference record, followed by tiebreakers), would square off in the Big Ten Championship, regardless of which pod they are a member of. The same would be true if there were no pods, and just one big, open conference. The top two conference records would meet in the title game, just as the Big 12 currently does.
More often than not, this would allow the Big Ten to have their two best teams play each other in the Big Ten Championship, whereas in previous years, the two best teams resided in the East, but only one could go to Indianapolis to take on a somewhat inferior team from the West division.
That would allow for more rematches in the championship game, such as Penn State vs Ohio State in 2017. This adds another level of excitement to an already important game.
Having the two best teams play each other in the conference championship also increases the likelihood that the Big Ten could send two teams to the College Football Playoff.
From a competitive standpoint, this change is a huge advantage for teams in the East, while it could drastically hurt some teams in the West. This is true of all teams too, not just the division frontrunners.
For a team like Rutgers, who essentially has four guaranteed losses on their schedule each year with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, it makes it a lot tougher on them to become bowl eligible. However, if they are not forced to play all four of those teams every year, it could lighten the load for them, allowing them to qualify for a bowl game.
As for how this affects Penn State Football … it allows for a much greater chance that they reach the Big Ten Championship game, and once you get that far, anything can happen.
The Nittany Lions certainly need to play better than they have the past couple seasons if they hope to get back to Indianapolis, that is true regardless of format, but in seasons such as 2017 and 2019, Penn State Football likely would have qualified for the conference championship game, in turn increasing the likelihood they hoist the Big Ten Championship trophy and find themselves on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff.
The landscape of college football is extremely fluid, and this latest (prospective) change could prove to be very beneficial for Penn State Football and many other teams in the Big Ten.