Could Pods Be An Alternative To Contraction?
In discussing the future of Mountain West football, some outside-the-box thinking may be required. Why not scrap divisions for pods?
A closer look at a newish idea.
Ever since Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson uttered the word “contraction” in an interview with The Athletic’s Chris Vannini, discussions have raged as to what he intended. Many have taken that to mean that some programs may be on the chopping block someday, most notably San Jose State, while a more cautious interpretation would suggest a simple reshaping should the Power 5 comes calling in the next realignment.
Our own Jesse Tachiquin took a closer look at the question of contraction, but I would suggest the Mountain West look in a different direction to make everyone happy. There’s always going to be an anchor of some kind, an argument I made as part of a defense of SJSU back in May, because that’s the inevitable nature of wins and losses. However, there’s a simple way to lessen the impact of teams that finish at the bottom of the standings on teams at the top.
I’m talking about pods.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, ESPN’s Bill Connelly wrote in 2016 about how Power 5 conferences could reform their schedules to help teams see each other more often. Essentially, the idea involves scrapping divisions entirely and protecting established rivalries, and it is flexible enough that the Mountain West could apply it in a few different ways and see which is most satisfactory. Here’s what I mean:
Alternative 1: Pods with slight variations by team
This would depend in part on the most convenient travel for each Mountain West team, but it would also emphasize (with a couple of exceptions) pretty much every rivalry game out there. For readers looking to compare this to Connelly’s own hypotheticals from the linked article above, look at the example of the SEC.
San Diego State, for example, would be in a “pod” with Fresno State, Hawaii, and San Jose State. Fresno State’s pod would swap out Hawaii for Boise State and SJSU’s would swap out Hawaii for Nevada, while Hawaii would draw SDSU, Nevada and UNLV.
If it sounds complicated, don’t worry. Here’s what it could theoretically look like for each team:
Air Force: Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State
Boise State: Fresno State, Utah State, Wyoming
Colorado State: Air Force, New Mexico, Wyoming
Fresno State: Boise State, San Diego State, San Jose State
Hawaii: Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV
Nevada: Hawaii, San Jose State, UNLV
New Mexico: Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV
San Diego State: Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State
San Jose State: Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State
UNLV: Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico
Utah State: Air Force, Boise State, Wyoming
Wyoming: Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State
By tinkering with the 2019 schedule just a little, you could establish the pods pretty easilly and then develop the rotation for those outside of each from year to year:
As with the ACC alternative in the linked article, you could also extend this out to four teams each. Some rivalries like the Paniolo Trophy aren’t captured cleanly in this system, but with five games outside of the pod to be shuffled each year, Hawaii and Wyoming would still get to see each other more often.
Alternative 2: Pods by region
This would most closely follow the example that Connelly laid out for the Pac-12 in the linked article above, since the Mountain West is mostly clear-cut in this regard, too:
Pod 1: Fresno State, Hawaii, San Diego State, San Jose State
Pod 2: Air Force, Nevada, New Mexico, UNLV
Pod 3: Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State, Wyoming
With firmly entrenched regions like this, the out-of-pod schedule could, as Connelly notes, be shaped in part like the NFL, where last places teams in a pod could bypass first-place teams. Based on last year’s standings and head-to-head results, for instance, San Jose State would draw its three pod foes, UNLV, Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Air Force. As a whole, the schedule would look something like this:
What exactly would this accomplish?
The biggest takeaway is that, if the Mountain West were to use pods rather than the traditional division setup, teams at the top would probably end up playing more rigorous schedules year after year, giving an edge to those good enough to run the table and challenge for a New Year’s Six bowl. In the newest edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac, they lay out an F/+ (a combination of FEI and S&P+) projection for each FBS team and, at present, here’s the average F/+ ranking for each team’s Mountain West opponents this fall and what it would be in each of the two hypothetical schedules above:
Air Force: Current: 78.125 | Varied pods: 86 | Regional pods: 76.75
Boise State: Current: 92.125 | Varied pods: 81.75 | Regional pods: 81.25
Colorado State: Current: 67.75 | Varied pods: 80 | Regional pods: 79.875
Fresno State: Current: 85.375 | Varied pods: 80 | Regional pods: 72.875
Hawaii: Current: 77.25 | Varied pods: 77.25 | Regional pods: 66.875
Nevada: Current: 82.875 | Varied pods: 70.625 | Regional pods: 68.25
New Mexico: Current: 79 | Varied pods: 84.5 | Regional pods: 82.625
San Diego State: Current: 84 | Varied pods: 85.125 | Regional pods: 95.75
San Jose State: Current: 74.875 | Varied pods: 75.125 | Regional pods: 87.125
UNLV: Current: 77.625 | Varied pods: 81.625 | Regional pods: 85.625
Utah State: Current: 74 | Varied pods: 74 | Regional pods: 78.25
Wyoming: Current: 74 | Varied pods: 74 | Regional pods: 73.875
What does all of this mean? For starters, almost all of the teams presumed to be in the mix for the conference crown would have tougher schedules than they do now. Boise State may not have have another opponent of its exact presumed quality, but a clash with Fresno State would pay dividends for the winner.
It would also be more equitable among the teams who finished last year at the bottom like San Jose State and Colorado State, perhaps improving their chances at reaching bowl eligibility. San Diego State’s disappointing 2018 would give them an excellent chance to rebound and contend for a berth in the title game, while Nevada and Hawaii would get better opportunities to back up their respective surges. Whoever emerged as the top two in either hypothetical would have earned their way there.
And for the sake of the original argument, it’s worth noting specifically that five of the top six Mountain West teams by projected F/+ would play San Jose State in the varied pods scenario, three of which would have improved schedules, anyway. Air Force would draw SJSU in the regional pods scenario but would also have a stronger overall schedule.
Long story short, ditching a team in any conference always seems like a good idea until you remember that someone else is going to have to end up in the cellar in their place. What the Mountain West should consider instead are more effective ways to protect the games that matter most to fans and create more opportunities for best-on-best games. If pods are any indication, the potential solutions are not too far out of reach for anyone smart enough to think outside of the box.