Resurrection of the Conference Belts

Back in 2013, we here at Uncle Popov came up with “Conference Belts,” a concept rooted in the awesome College Football Belt project that (apparently) began in the mid-1980s.  The idea behind the latter was to have some sort of title that could be actually won on the field within the parameters of the scheduled season; a title that is perpetual and rolls over with each season.  Currently, TCU is the College Football Belt holder [and three-time champion] and will defend that belt tonight against Minnesota, itself a former belt holder (1981…for one game).

The concept makes sense.  We can come up with our own point systems and ideas of promotion and relegation, but we have no way to truly implement that system and directly alter the college football landscape.  The belt concept allows for the declaration of champions within the framework already established.  And so, in 2013, we expanded upon the College Football Belt concept and applied it to conferences.

However, while the belt was placed on initial holders and current holders were noted, the system was not an easy one to order.  For one, the history was painstakingly pieced together manually and left room for possible omissions [say, overlooking a time when the champ actually lost, or counting tie as a loss].  Furthermore, there was no way to easily update the defense of the belts and the various stats involved.  And so, the concept died shortly after birth.

But alas, there is still air in those lungs!  And the conference belts are being resurrected!  After coming up with a way to pull information and games using various Excel formulas, we were able to create a seemingly more reliable method to chart the history.  And, by extension, we are now able to input current games and see how defenses go.  SO, as long as we do not get bored with it or overwhelmed with other projects, the conference belts should continue to live on here at Uncle Popov.

Now, before we revisit the criteria for the four different types of belts, a note.  The system and formulas used to get to this point are by no means perfect.  The historic scores and results are derived from College Football Reference and we are operating under the believe that their data is accurate.  We attempted to use media guides for teams, but two issues.  FIRST, it is a tedious process to do so.  And SECOND, guides differ in how they record year-by-year results.  Some have scores on either side of the opponent [e.g.,  55 Auburn 44]; some had scores separated by a dash and appearing after the opponent’s name [e.g., Auburn 55-44]; some used “at” or “@” to show the game is on the road [e.g. at Alabama 44-55], while others capitalized when it was a home game and used lower case for road games [e.g. AUBURN 55-44].  There were various ways to display the date of the game while in a couple of cases there were no dates at all!  There were even cases of score discrepancies for the same game between two different teams’ media guides!  Thus, having it all organized in on location like College Football Reference was better overall, even if there were occasionally a mistake in score.

Another issue was the MAC.  College Football Reference did not classify the MAC as a “major conference” until 1962, despite the fact that the conference began playing football in 1948.  Thus, it was necessary to dig through media guides and piece together the historical scores.  This was further complicated by the fact that Western Reserve would eventually merge with Case University to form Case Western, which while does still play football does NOT have the history of Western Reserve prior to the merger.  So, Western Reserve’s schedule needed to be “triangulated” using the media guides of other MAC schools, as well as any university that might have played Western Reserve during that time.

It is hoped that the lineage of all belts are as accurate as possible.  The full history of games used here stretch back to 1896, when the antecedents of the Big Ten Conference were created.  Below are the criteria for each of the four conference belts — Unified Conference; Conference Battle; Middleweight; and Heritage.

UNIFIED CONFERENCE BELTS

RULES:

  1. to qualify, a team must be a current member of the conference and have defeated all other teams of the conference that were members at the time they joined the conference.  first team to complete this task becomes the initial belt holder
  2. title defenses can only take place between two eligible members, with one obviously being the belt holder
  3. both regular season games AND bowl games count in title defenses, as do conference championship games and the College Football Playoff
  4. a title can change hands only due to a loss that occurs on the field
    1. games forfeited by the NCAA after the fact will still be judged based on the on-the-field result
    2. ties are judged as “split decisions” and the title holder retains possession
  5. teams that leave the conference lose access to the unified belt; if they leave with the belt, the team will relinquish the belt and the next two qualified teams will compete for the vacated title

DEEPER EXPLANATION: The Unified Belts are belts that only teams in that particular conference can win.  To qualify, a team must be a member of that particular conference and have beaten all teams that were members of the conference at the time that they joined.  So, for example, the Big Ten (formerly the Western Conference) started with Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  For Illinois to become eligible for the Unified Big Ten Belt, they would have to log a victory against each of the other six members.  Once new members joined, say Ohio State, Illinois would NOT be required to beat the Buckeyes in order to become eligible.  Ohio State, however, would have to defeat all members of the conference at the time of admission, which for them also included Indiana and Iowa, but NOT Michigan [more on that in a second].

But, what about if a team leaves a conference before a remaining member has defeated that team?  Well, that departing team is taken off of the list of teams needed to conquer before eligibility.  For example, when Arizona State left the WAC, New Mexico had yet to beat the Sun Devils.  But, because ASU was no longer a WAC member, the Lobos gained “forgiveness” for that team.  It was also the last team they needed to defeat, therefore making New Mexico eligible for the Unified WAC Belt at the beginning of the 1979 season.

Ah, but what about Michigan?  The Wolverines left the Western Conference only to rejoin later.  If a team leaves and rejoins a conference, they must then beat any additional teams that joined (and remained) during their absence.  This was the case with Marshall and Northern Illinois in the MAC, as well as Temple with the Big East/American.  However, in the case of the latter three, none became eligible during their initial run.  Michigan did become eligible before they departed.  For the Wolverines, they still needed to become eligible once again.

Now, what decides which team first gains the Unified Belt?  Simple — the first team to defeat all conference foes becomes the initial belt holder.  So, for the Unified Big Ten Belt, the first title holder was Chicago University.  The Maroons then needed to wait for other teams to become eligible in order to defend their title.  It took three years before Michigan became eligible and won the Unified Belt in their first match-up.  From there, the more teams that become eligible, the more opportunities for defenses.

What happens if a team leaves a conference with the belt?  It is “vacated” and then the belt is put up for grabs in the next matchup of two qualified teams.  When Louisville left the American Athletic Conference, they held the Unified American Belt.  So, it was vacated and awarded to the winner of South Florida versus Connecticut.  The Bulls defeated the Huskies and thus South Florida took control of the vacated title.  This was the most logical way to resolve this dilemma.

Finally, should a conference fold or cease to support football, the Unified Belt is converted into a “Heritage Belt” (explained below).  This was the case with the WAC after it ceased football operations beginning with the 2013 season.

CONFERENCE BATTLE BELTS

RULES:

  1. the initial belt holder is determined by the first outright champion of that particular conference
  2. title defenses occur anytime the game has both (A) the title holder; and (B) at least one member of that particular belt’s conference.
    1. if the title holder is a conference member, then they defend it at all times.
    2. if the title holder is NOT a conference member, then they defend it any time they face an actual member of the belt’s conference
  3. for actual conference members, titles are defended ONLY during the regular season.  for non-members, it is defended during both the regular season and bowl games.
  4. titles can only change possession due to a loss
    1. games forfeited by the NCAA after the fact will still be judged based on the on-the-field results
    2. ties are considered “split decisions” and the title holder retains possession
  5. games against lower tier opponents are non-title matches
  6. if a team drops football or goes down to a lower tier while holding a Battle Belt, the belt is “vacated” and will be awarded to the next outright conference champion
  7. if a non-conference belt holder is inactive in defense of the belt for three consecutive full seasons, they will vacate the belt to the next outright conference champion

DEEPER EXPLANATION: The Battle Belt is one that is defended more as a “any time; anywhere” type of title.  While it initially starts off in a conference — given to the first outright champion in the conference’s history — it can actually be held by non-members.

The team in possession of a Battle Belt must defend the belt any time there is at least one conference member playing in that game.  Since a conference member that holds the title meets that qualification, every game that they play while in possession of the Battle Belt is a title defense.  So, when Alabama gained control of the Battle Belt after the 1933 season, they initially defended against SEC foe Sewanee.  But later, they also defended it against a non-SEC team — Clemson.  They held onto it until the Tide lost to Mississippi State in 1935.

However, since non-members can win a conference Battle Belt, the belt can actually leave the conference.  In 1944, Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech and took possession of the SEC Battle Belt, thus causing it to leave the conference.  While Notre Dame did successfully defend it a few times, they did not defend it in 195, 1955, and 1956  Thus, the Fighting Irish vacated the belt and it was claimed by the 1956 SEC winner — Tennessee.

There are stipulations about when the belt can be defended, depending on the title holder.  Conference members do not defend the title during bowl games, unless the bowl game is against another conference member.  This is to keep the title from drifting out to a team that rarely plays members from that conference.  However, non-members must defend during bowl games against conference members.  This is to help increase the chances for the belt to re-enter the conference, as was the case when UCLA won back the Pac-12 Battle Belt from Georgia in the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl.

If a conference folds operations or ceases to support football, the Battle Belt is officially retired and no longer up for competition.

CONFERENCE MIDDLEWEIGHT BATTLE BELTS

While the Battle Belts are great, especially for the big conferences (i.e. BCS conferences), it is not so great for other conferences.  The Sun Belt Battle Belt has never been successfully defended by a Sun Belt team as initial belt holder North Texas lost in their only title defense versus Oklahoma in 2003.  Though the Sooners did vacate it (after one successful defense), Arkansas State was bestowed the battle belt only to promptly lose it to Oregon.  Oregon is entering its third season holding the belt, but has been inactive over the past two seasons [the Ducks will defend the belt against Georgia State this season].

Thus, to compensate for this, the four of the “Group of Five” conferences [other than the American] were bestowed Middleweight Belts.  These belts, which reigns begin with the first outright conference champion, are defended similarly to the Battle Belts with one exception — Power Five schools are ineligible.  So, while in 1997 CUSA Middleweight Belt holder Southern Miss lost to Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Penn State and Texas A&M, those losses did not count since those teams are not classified as “Middleweight” teams.

This helps keep at least keep a form of the Battle Belt within range of these smaller conferences.  As of now, the American Athletic Conference will not be granted a Middleweight belt as their demotion from the “Power Five” has not adversely affected the conference…yet.

HERITAGE BELT

RULES:

  1. the initial belt holder is determined by the first outright champion of that particular conference
  2. rules follow those on the unified conference belts until the conference ceases operation or no longer supports football at the FBS tier.
  3. last team possessing the conference unified belt becomes the first to carry the heritage belt
  4. any former member of the conference is eligible for the heritage belt regardless of if it was a member at the same time as the current holder
  5. there is no penalty for inactivity

DEEPER EXPLANATION: The Heritage Belt was born out of the demise of the WAC.  When we first began compiling this data, the WAC was still a football-playing conference.  With its demise, it seemed fitting that something be done to carry on the memory of the Western Athletic Conference.  So, it was determined to convert the unified belt into a heritage belt.

But then, it was also determined to do the same for a few other conferences.  This includes conferences that no longer exist [the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference], as well as ones that dropped football [the Big West and WAC].  It also includes the Southern Conference, a conference that was home to teams that eventually formed the SEC and the ACC.  While the Southern Conference continues to support football at the FCS tier, it seems appropriate to give a heritage belt to a conference with such a long and storied pedigree.  It also means that many FCS teams are eligible for the belt.  The start date for the Southern Conference Heritage Belt is 1982, which is when the conference moved down to Division I-AA.

The Heritage Belt is one that is contested between ANY former member of the conference.  This is true even if two teams were not members at the same time.  Boise State defeated Arizona to win the Heritage Belt even though the Broncos were WAC members long after the Sun Devils left the conference.  This also means that teams from the FCS could potentially win the belt.  That is especially the case with the Southern Heritage Belt, where West Virginia defended the belt against William & Mary in 2013.

A decision was made to NOT give the Big East a heritage belt as the American Athletic Conference maintains the history of the conference.

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