As the dust finally starts settling on the shifting college football landscape, the Mid-American Conference will have 12 schools next season, with the 12 unevenly split between two divisions.
But MAC commissioner Rick Chryst said there's a bigger question that needs to be addressed before determining if Bowling Green or another West Division school might switch divisions to balance them.
"As part of this process, we're having discussions to evaluate divisions" as a concept, Chryst said recently. "We are having some pretty deep philosophical discussions on whether we need divisions for all sports."
All-sports member Marshall and football-only school Central Florida leave for Conference USA next fall, giving the MAC an unbalanced conference alignment. If things remain as they are, next year the league will have seven schools in the West Division, including BG and Toledo, and five schools in the East.
The consensus is that divisions are a must for football. A division format aids in scheduling, this season giving each team six games within its division and two against teams from the other division. It also produces two division champions, setting up a pairing for a conference championship game.
"But the only sport that needs divisions is football," Chryst said.
In basketball, for example, divisions are used in seeding for the MAC tournament only in that the two division champions are given the top two seeds.
Chryst said other conferences have moved away from divisions in recent years.
"In the Big 12 there are no divisions listed in the standings, but the teams are scheduled that way," he said. "And Conference USA got away from divisions completely."
The 11-team Big Ten also does not use divisions.
The MAC held conference-wide discussions recently on this topic and others, including a membership-standards plan. That plan, BG athletic director Paul Krebs said, will address several questions that need to be answered to determine if divisions are necessary.
"We need to address the issues of expansion or contraction, to establish criteria to add teams, and to get a commitment from teams to stay in the league," Krebs said. "We also need to develop some standards. Are we all committed to being good, to being competitive?
"You can't look at any one of those questions without looking at the others."
MAC presidents will discuss the topic at a meeting on Nov. 1, with any answer to be announced after league meetings held in the first week in February.
In men's basketball, MAC schools play an 18-game league schedule that does not rely solely on divisions. For example, last season West member Bowling Green played Kent State from the East twice but only faced fellow West member Central Michigan once.
BG coach Dan Dakich said he favors a divisional set-up with a balanced schedule. That balance would come from playing each school in a team's division twice for a total of 10 games, then facing each school from the other division once for six more games.
"That schedule would mean everyone would play the same schedule, and that's what I would like," Dakich said. "Also, with two fewer league games you can schedule a couple more games, either to improve your RPI or to get a couple more wins."
Toledo coach Stan Joplin has mixed feelings about moving from 18 games to 16.
"It's so tough to get games," he said. "But are we beating ourselves up too much [with 18 games]? Maybe it would be good to beat up on someone else."
MAC women's basketball already plays a 16-game schedule based on divisions, and the BG and UT coaches say they hope that continues.
"We just finished a meeting of the women's basketball coaches, and the consensus is that we like divisional play," said Toledo's Mark Ehlen. "I guess it's all perception, but it presents a better spin on the season. It's better to be third in your division than sixth overall. And having two [division] champs gives more teams something to shoot for."
Bowling Green's Curt Miller agreed, adding, "I'm open-minded to listen to the advantages of one division. But for scheduling and for competition, I think we're better off with East and West Divisions."
Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien expects that divisions will remain in place for basketball as well as the league's other core sports, which are volleyball, baseball and softball. The league's "core " sports are the six sports all MAC schools must field.
"My sense is that this will stay as it is in terms of divisions," O'Brien said. "All indications are there won't be a radical change."
For any sport that retains a division format, the question becomes whether or not Bowling Green or another West school moves to the East. When the MAC developed division in 1997, Bowling Green was placed in the East. It moved to the West in 2002 when Central Florida was added in football.
"When we moved to the West, it was with the understanding that we would revisit going back to the East should that opportunity arise," Krebs said.
Ball State is another possible candidate to switch from the West to the East, based primarily on its proximity to East member Miami and its perceived distance from West schools. But the next three closest schools to Ball State's Muncie, Ind., campus are in the West; three of the four schools farthest away from Ball State are in the East.
"I've heard the same things," said Ball State athletic director Bubba Cunningham. "But we haven't even talked about it. We've been working on the MAC's membership standards plan instead."
Krebs said one reason Bowling Green is a logical candidate to return to the East Division is its long-time connection with other East schools. In 2005 that division will comprise Akron, Kent State, Miami and Ohio, along with Buffalo.
"We are benchmarked with schools such as Ohio, Kent State and Miami in funding and other comparisons," Krebs said last December. "When we agreed to change divisions, we did so with the understanding that we would have a chance to look at changing back."
Krebs also said he is concerned by confusion that could be caused by the Falcons making their second divisional move in four years.
"It's not in anybody's best interest for us to bounce back and forth. It's cumbersome and confusing. We'd like to make sure there's some closure, some finality to a move."
Even when BG was in the East and Toledo was in the West, the MAC arranged for the two schools to meet in all sports. Should Bowling Green return to the East, O'Brien hopes that plan will accompany the move.
"The rivalry and the proximity of the two schools make that a great series," O'Brien said. "The fans look forward to it, and the coaches and teams look forward to it.
"I hope we can see that series continue."
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