As any college football fan has noticed, the rivalry between conferences has been stepped up a notch or two over the past few seasons, to say the least.
Just a few seasons ago, Big Ten fans' primary concerns were Ohio State and Michigan, and all that really mattered was who earned the annual trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Now, we see weekly conference power rankings popping up across the internet, daily discussions on TV and radio sports talk shows concerning whose conference is superior, and even conference-related chants on Saturdays at various stadiums.
In light of Michigan's win over Notre Dame and Ohio State's last-minute loss to USC last Saturday, the conference rivalry talk has come back into the forefront, and isn't likely to die down again, even with Big Ten conference play beginning next week.
Instead, the talk will continue into bowl selection season where the "which conference deserves two BCS bids" discussion will begin, followed by the actual playing of the bowl games and analyzing the relative records of each conference.
So, what has changed that has made college football fans so focused on these "my conference is better than yours" arguments?
This despite the fact that regular-season high profile inter-conference matchups are rare, with many teams sticking to lower profile non-conference opponents and holding off the big out of conference games until bowl season.
The following are some reasons why, which are important to understand in this new-found discussion.
The number one driver of the conference ranking discussion is the Bowl Championship Series, which began play following the 1998 season. Finally, college football could have a guaranteed number one versus number two matchup following the regular season.
Previously, many bowls' hands were tied by their conference affiliations, most significantly the Rose Bowl who hosted the Big Ten and Pac 10 champions every season, which restricted those teams' availability for a national championship game.
Now teams had more to play for than just a conference title and a chance to win their big bowl game. There was a national championship game to play for, and that began to shift scheduling strategies and how teams approached each season. Fans' mindsets shifted as well, putting more focus on the ultimate prize rather than just a conference crown.
In fact, on a couple of occasions (Nebraska in 2001 and Oklahoma in 2003), there were teams that made the national championship game without even winning their conference (in Nebraska's case, they notoriously failed to win their division and didn't reach their conference championship game.)
Now when teams suffer an early out of conference loss, especially traditionally successful colleges, some fans throw in the towel because of lost national title expectations.
And, of course, there are the controversies. Along with the Nebraska and Oklahoma situations above, there have been multiple other controversies where teams with legitimate national championship resumes were left out of the title game thanks to the BCS ranking system.
In 2000, one-loss Florida State was selected over one-loss Miami (FL), who beat FSU in the regular season, and one-loss Washington, whose only regular season loss was to Miami (FL). In 2003, USC was left out in favor of LSU and Oklahoma. In 2004, an undefeated Auburn team was left out of the title game. And those are just to name a few.
It has become imperative for teams and fans to play up and talk up their own conferences in order to give them high enough prestige to propel a member to the title game.
If teams have the same records and similar resumes, it likely comes down to conference prestige in the voters' minds (coaches and media) to determine who goes to the title game. Therefore, the entire season has become a positioning battle to determine which conference deserves a chance to send a member for a shot at the national championship.
Proliferation of ESPN and Cable Television
The rise of the "worldwide leader in sports" and the proliferation of cable into the vast majority of US homes over the past decade and a half have led to a huge availability of college football games from around the nation.
Gone are the days of just a handful of games on TV any given Saturday, with most of those being regional matchups restricted to over the air networks.
Now fans can find games from coast to coast on their TV or online, thanks to the availability of ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNNews, ESPNClassic, ESPNU, Fox Sports Network, Versus, the Big Ten Network, pay-per-view, and even ESPN360.com which streams games online.
And there is plenty of college football talk hitting the airwaves between every Saturday on ESPN's College Gameday, SportsCenter, and other cable TV sports networks. Not only can fans watch other teams live in action but can get plenty of analysis on what they saw and compare it to performances from teams in other conferences.
This was something that just wasn't possible about 20 years ago, when sports fans were stuck with whatever highlights their local network affiliate decided to throw in the nightly news programming.
And the networks (ESPN, in particular) know that focusing on such controversial topics (like relative conference ratings) drives ratings and fan interest, so of course they will keep up the debate. And there's even more, almost unlimited, content for fans considering the next point.
As the internet became readily available for most people in the mid-90's at home, at work, at school, at the library, etc., college football content began pouring onto the web. First came the availability of press articles from around the web, allowing people from far and wide to read coverage of their favorite teams, previously only available to those within coverage of the local newspaper.
Then came the recruiting websites and message boards, allowing people to track potential recruits nationwide then have lively conversations (at the least) with fellow and rival fans.
Then came blogs and other fan sites (like the one you're reading), allowing plenty of amateur writers to spread content about their favorite team, giving fans a ton of information to pour over.
And now, there's even more content, with the availability of streaming video and audio online: podcasts that allow talk shows from and for anyone, twitter which allows people to comment on just about anything instantly, online video for analysis and interviews.
And plenty of additional media allowing fans across the globe to connect to their favorite teams (and to rip on their most hated rivals.)
This, of course, gave fans and commentators plenty of ammunition to talk up those conference rivalries.
Previously, fans would rarely see more than the box score of a game on the other side of the country. Now, one can get highly involved in essentially any FBS/I-A team from their living room, no matter if that team is a traditional power such as Nebraska or an upstart program like Florida International.
The availability of information and game broadcasts have changed college football from a regional, conference-associated game to a national level sport on par with professional sports in terms of interest.
The conference ranking argument is just an effect of the nationalization of the game, which has led to a snowball effect of even further fan interest.
The fact is that unless a major shift occurs in conference memberships and non-conference scheduling, there will never be a "right answer" to the conference rivalry debate, but it will fuel plenty of intense arguments and keep people interested.
Maybe someday this will frustrate the people in power enough to make a drive towards a playoff system for FBS/I-A football, but it's unlikely to do so by itself (that's a topic for another discussion). In the meantime, enjoy yet another reason to discuss college football.
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