Mike Casazza: Inequalities of power conferences make evaluation a challenge

MORGANTOWN — There’s something murky and maddening about what the five most-prominent football conferences are doing these days.

Well, a few things, to be precise, and it might just begin with how they choose to be referred to now that the automatic qualifier label is a misnomer in the post-Bowl Championship Series days of the College Football Playoff.

It seems they lack a consensus about calling themselves the “Highly Visible” or “Equity” conferences, or something else, and that’s dubious because while they’re determined to do things on their own now, they do so without a collective title. Given the mission, that’s the sort of thing they should have figured out already, and perhaps there will be a super summit atop a mountain in an exotic locale to settle this once and for all. (They can’t be the Big Five because that’s Philly hoops. I will not argue this.)

But what’s really unusual is what we’ve witnessed the past several days. Last week saw a concession by the NCAA and a compromise between it and the Highly Equitable so that they may continue on during stormy times under the same umbrella. The Division I Board of Directors took a long stride toward a new governance system in the NCAA by granting the 65 schools in and associated with the five major conferences greater autonomy apart from the other 275 Division I schools.

Technically, the wording is that a restructuring of the current model will allow those 65 schools to better “address their unique challenges” and that a new system would let them “make rules on specific matters affecting the interests of student-athletes.”

Realistically, it’s a fix to the unique problem of making more money than all the others, and that fix now empowers them to take the stacks of cash and provide for their performers in ways that the others cannot.

That ended the week, and it’s the beginning of a new age of college athletics and probably even amateurism. The start of this week was the end of the pursuit of equality.

Those Equally Visible teams are racing toward the College Football Playoff this season — sure it’s open to everyone, but, come on — and already it looks like the five leagues and the 65 members won’t have to operate identically.

The Southeastern Conference decided to stick with an eight-game conference schedule, and the ACC will make up its mind soon, though the hunch is the SEC’s action convinced the ACC that eight is enough.

The Pac-12 and Big 12 all play nine conference games in the regular season and the Big Ten will do the same in 2016.

On the surface, it looks like a little thing, especially when you allow the SEC’s other headline to wash over you. The conference will require of its 14 teams to play at least one team from a Highly Equal conference beginning in 2016, something 10 of the 14 will do in 2014 and something all 14 had to know would be a necessity to get into the CFP.

(Related: The ACC has three teams — Boston College, North Carolina State and Wake Forest — that don’t play a Visible Height conference opponent in 2014.

B.C. is the only school that doesn’t play at least one in 2016, though Miami, N.C. State and Syracuse only have one because of the league’s affiliation with Notre Dame. If the ACC doesn’t follow the SEC’s lead and issue a similar non-conference edit, surely its teams will find a way to play the SEC’s teams.)

But look closer at the eight-game thing and see it’s a much bigger deal. How does West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck and the other 12 members of the CFP’s selection committee treat the strength of schedules when a one-game variable is allowed for 29 schools?

The baker’s dozen have to cook up a seemingly personalized way to pick the best four teams for the playoff. It’s harder when the teams aren’t required to do the same things, and we have two major variables that will factor into the selection. The SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten play a conference championship game. The Big 12 does not. Winners of title games will have a major advantage, as will a 9-0 Big 12 squad, but there are no automatic invitations to the playoff.

What’s the difference between an 8-1 Big 12 team and a 7-1 SEC team that doesn’t make the SEC title game? Do you lean toward the Big 12 for playing the whole conference or the SEC for subjective qualifications? How about an 8-1 Big 12 team and a 7-1 ACC team that then wins its conference championship game? Is the ACC favored for taking the title? Is it the Big 12 team’s fault it doesn’t have a title game?

The better question: Why is this part of the argument?

What you have is a group of conferences who seek a separation from the majority so its minority can rule, and suddenly a fraction of that minority is now trying to allow for more uniqueness. It was going to be hard enough to pick the four best teams even if there was equality in the criteria. The variation created by the number of conference games doesn’t help and it’s further clouded by the SEC mandate.

Games in late August and September have to matter and the SEC is right to compel its membership to act accordingly. But in the same breath, the SEC falls back on the belief the quality and the depth of its conference is enough to sustain and to separate its teams from other conferences. LSU v. Florida will always mean more than Kansas v. Florida because playing eight SEC games is a more daunting gauntlet than nine Big Ten games, or so it’s been made to seem.

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