When the Pac-12 announced its two-division alignment for the 2011 football season, Arizona State receiver Gerell Robinson smiled.
"I was happy because I'm a senior and this is my last shot," Robinson said. "In the past few years, if you lost a game in the Pac, you'd kind of be down and out. That's not the case this year."
Were the format like any previous season, Arizona State would have opened conference play with a realistic shot at the Sun Bowl or Holiday Bowl while Oregon, Stanford and USC battled for BCS bids. In the new-look Pac-12, the Sun Devils enter their conference opener Saturday against USC dreaming much bigger dreams.
With the No. 5 Cardinal and No. 10 Ducks in the Pac-12's newly created North Division, Arizona State has a legitimate shot at representing the South Division in the inaugural conference title game. Among its South Division brethren, USC is postseason ineligible for another year and Arizona, UCLA and Colorado are floundering, making first-year conference member Utah the Sun Devils' biggest roadblock to that championship game.
If they can make it that far, they're one game and a few lucky bounces away from a date with the BCS.
"It's a great opportunity for us," Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler said.
Great opportunity, yes. But is it a great idea?
There are a host of reasons for conferences to split into two divisions. The most obvious is sheer numbers.
With a 12-team conference, it's unrealistic to determine the standings on the field, with head-to-head matchups against every conference opponent. That would allow teams only one nonconference game, which doesn't facilitate exposure in recruiting markets beyond the conference's geographical borders and doesn't help pad the win-loss record to achieve bowl eligibility.
"(With divisions you) have the opportunity to play head to head," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose Spartans are lumped in with Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota in the Big Ten's Legends Division. "You have the opportunity to settle it on the field and come away with a clear-cut champion."
While the Big Ten's and Atlantic Coast Conference's divisions seem somewhat arbitrary, others have used a geographic split. The SEC has East and West; the Pac-12 has North and South. For a far-flung conference like the Pac-12, that can help schools reduce travel costs by cutting down on the number of road trips to distant locales. Arizona no longer has to make the 1,500-mile trip from Tucson to Seattle to play Washington every other year.
With the probability of further expansion in both numbers and geographic reach, the puzzle could be split into even more pieces.
"Who knows what will happen," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "Maybe we will have four divisions, be like the NFL and have playoffs."
With each expansion, finding the proper competitive and geographic balance while maintaining established rivalries becomes trickier. That challenge played a significant role in the Pac-12's decision Tuesday to remain at 12 teams for the time being.
The Pac-12 is only in its first year, and its first football season provides a perfect example of some of the competitive complexities.
Stanford and Oregon appear to be significantly stronger than the other 10 teams, tilting the balance of power to the north. But programs ebb and flow from year to year, and it wasn't that long ago that Stanford went 1-10 and USC - not Oregon - was the "perennial" power.
"Everything goes in cycles," Erickson said. "In a few years, it'll change again."
That same truth applies to scheduling, another arbitrary exercise that can appear unfair. In this year's Pac-12 South, Arizona has to play Stanford and Oregon but doesn't get to fatten up on Washington State. Meanwhile, Arizona State misses Stanford and newcomer Utah gets a welcome-to-the-Pac-12 gift basket by dodging both Stanford and Oregon.
"Those things always balance out in the end," Erickson said.
No matter the imperfections, divisional play, unbalanced schedules and conference championship games are here to stay because the hype surrounding them is too valuable to ignore.
"It does create excitement for the fans," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
More than that, the financial gains are too big to ignore.
Conference championship games mean one more televised game and more national exposure. That helps coaches on the recruiting trail, but it can also help a conference's bottom line when the entire college football nation is focused on one game.
What's wrong with that? Well, what if your best two teams aren't playing in that championship game?
The Pac-12 provides one likely example. So does the SEC, whose greatest powers, No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama, both reside in the West, leaving the door open for a Florida or South Carolina to play for the conference crown.
And in the Big Ten, Michigan State and Nebraska should benefit, long-term, from being separated from Wisconsin and Ohio State, much the way the Cornhuskers benefitted from being in a different division from Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12.
At least that's one line of thinking.
"I don't buy that," Michigan State's Dantonio said. "If you have the two best teams in one side of the conference, they've already played each other, so that's already been settled."
Dantonio's point makes sense. But he also unwittingly acknowledged the counter-point when he lauded another possibility in the two-division format.
"You can falter because you have two divisions and still have an opportunity to play for the conference championship," he said.
And if the inferior team pulls off an upset and ends up in a BCS game?
Injustice or uplifting? It's all a matter of perspective. Some of the NCAA basketball tournament's greatest storylines are Cinderella teams like George Mason and Butler running through the field. Wouldn't that same storyline translate to college football if Arizona State were somehow to upset mighty Oregon in the Pac-12 title game?
Major League Baseball and the NFL discovered long ago that expanding the list of contenders only generates more interest because more fans bases believe they are in the race until the very end. While the media and some purists may decry the decline of the college game, the reality is its popularity continues to grow, and the division format will probably enhance that growth.
"You have to do what you have to do to get to a championship game," Nebraska's Pelini said. "There are pluses and minuses to every format, and every year is different. There's no perfect scenario. It's the same way people criticize the BCS, so I don't put a lot of stock into that line of thinking."