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Football: Conference football title-game rule passes

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, January 13, 2016


Even after a key decision was made Wednesday, the Sun Belt Conference is no closer to soon staging a league title game.

But a big hurdle is out of the way should the SBC vote Idaho and/or New Mexico State out of the league and decide, with fewer than a dozen members to play a championship game.

A compromise rule change approved Wednesday by the NCAA at its annual convention being held this year in San Antonio makes it now possible for a conference to stage such an event even if it has fewer than 12 football-playing programs.

That currently includes not only the Big 12, which has 10 members, but also the Sun Belt, to which UL belongs.

Previously, a league needed to have 12 teams play and a round-robin schedule with two divisions in order to pit the winners of the two divisions in the championship game.

According to an Associated Press report, the Big Ten “initially wanted to keep divisions as a requirement.”

But after passage of an amended proposal, according to NCAA.com, “Conferences that want to play championship games must either play their championship game between division winners after round-robin competition in each division or between the top two teams in the conference standings following full round-robin, regular-season competition between all members of the conference.”

For a 10-team league without divisions, that would mean having nine regular-season conference games.

“We felt that this more flexible amendment with two options was the best way to help our conference colleagues to play a championship game without the uncertainty that comes with complete deregulation,” Jim Phillips, Northwestern University athletic director and NCAA Division I Council chairman, said according to NCAA.com.

The Sun Belt has been studying the issue, but has not determined if it even wants to stage a title game.

The earliest it could possibly now do so is 2017, since the league already is committed to just an eight-game schedule in 2016.

UL coach Mark Hudspeth previously has said he’s in favor in having a title game, but only if perceived pros (including exposure for the league, and financial windfall if it’s televised) outweigh the cons (including an undefeated team risking a loss and losing out on a New Year’s bowl bid).

“It’s something we’ve discussed for a number of years,” Sun Belt associate commissioner John McElwain said of a potential championship game. “And it’s something we’ve taken in close consideration, especially when we look at what our membership composition is.”

No decision has been made yet and “there is no timetable,” McElwain added Wednesday night.

The Big 12 also has not voted on if it will indeed stage a title game.

Wednesday’s ruling presents interesting options for the Sun Belt.

One choice: It could split into divisions, keep an eight-game schedule and hold a title game as a 12-team league once new member Coastal Carolina joins.

Another choice: It can drop football-only members New Mexico State and Idaho, and hold a title game either by increasing its conference schedule to nine games sans divisions or by having two five-team divisions and going round-robin with four of the games being against division opponents.

Some schools might not favor that, though, because of how it would impact their non-conference schedule, which usually includes one or two money games against Power 5 programs.

One more option: It can chose to not stage a title game, and to maintain an imbalanced eight-game regular-season whether it has 10 teams, 11 or 12.

Coastal Carolina will join the league as a member for football transitioning up from the FCS level in 2017, and as a full-fledged, bowl-eligible member in 2018.

New Mexico State and Idaho are two years into a four-year deal with the Sun Belt that allows the SBC to review their membership status after those first two years.

A decision on whether or not to retain New Mexico State and/or Idaho could come as soon as this March, when the presidents of Sun Belt schools meet during the league’s basketball tournament in New Orleans.

Wednesday’s rule adoption arguably makes either or both of those two more disposable for title-game advocates who otherwise would have needed to keep them around (when 12 were needed).

Voting the two former members of the now football-defunct WAC out of the Sun Belt seemingly would make football travel more geographically sensible for the rest of the conference’s schools, but it remains to be seen if there is a consensus opinion among member presidents in that regard.

Wednesday’s amended measure passed 77 percent to 23 percent, with – according to AP – the ACC and the American Athletic Conference voting no and the Pac-12 not voting.

Votes from the Power 5 conferences counted twice, while votes from Group of Five conferences including the Sun Belt counted once, according to NCAA.com.