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A College Conference is essentially a league. A Conference will have its own governing body and administators but will also be required to comply with a higher governing board at the College Division level. (Div I,II,III,NAIA,Jr college). For example, there are rules and limitations on scholarships to athletes that must be adhered to by conferences.
Though most colleges are organized geographically to reduce travel time for already busy College Athletes who are also required to perform somewhat academically, Division I combines both calibre and geography. Not all Conferences are created equally. Certain conferences have more money and resources to put into their program and they attract better athletes and so it makes sense to group these schools together into a competitive league (SEC,ACC,Big12 etc). Some Division I conferences have less resources and though their conference (e.g. Ivy League,MAC) is still highly competitive, and will send players to the Pros, they are still less competitive than the bigger conferences. The lower down in calibre you go, the more likely the teams will be closer geographically.
Each Division I Conference will produce a Conference Champion who will be representing the conference in the NCAA Division I tournament with the rest of the "at-large" teams primarily coming from the top Conferences based on selections made by a committee.
Conference Tournaments take place in late May and are mostly double-elimination week-long tournaments with a winner being declared on the Sunday. Some Conferences annoint their regular season champion as the tournament representative and do not run a conference tournament.