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Don’t hold your breath on SEC divisional shakeup

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) holds a sign after the SEC championship NCAA college football game between Alabama and Florida, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta. Alabama won 54-16. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/AP photo

When former Auburn coach Pat Dye suggested in May that his Tigers and the Tigers of Missouri should swap divisions, it set off a nearly annual debate about the SEC’s internal alignment.

He offered up as justification both sound logic — Auburn recruits more heavily in East Division states than in West Division states — and the classic SEC conspiracy theory that Alabama always gets what Alabama wants. He recently had another interview in which he clarified that some of what he desires for Auburn is basically for the Tigers to get out of the Tide’s shadow. Mizzou, for its part, is happy to stay where it’s at.

The SEC has no plans to rearrange the divisions and almost certainly won’t ever with the current lineup of teams. The present divisional rosters plus the permanent cross-division opponents exist to preserve a certain set of key rivalries. They’re the ones you know by name: the Iron Bowl, the Egg Bowl, the Third Saturday in October, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Moving Auburn to the East would have to end either the Alabama-Auburn or Alabama-Tennessee series, neither of which the league office has any incentive to do. Dye thinks the Iron Bowl is the one that should go, and for what it’s worth, the rivalry’s contentious history does include a sizable gap when the teams didn’t play annually.

It’s easy to forget about the SEC’s history before divisional play began. Most college football fans think of Florida-Tennessee as a historic rivalry, for instance, but the teams almost never played before 1992.

Dye is right that Auburn has more history with East teams than with non-Alabama West teams, albeit with a Mississippi State-sized asterisk. Prior to divisions, the Tigers had played all five historic SEC East members more often than its third-most played West team, LSU. It also had played former SEC members Georgia Tech and Tulane along with Clemson more than it had faced the Bayou Bengals. Auburn played the likes of Samford, UT-Chattanooga, Southern Miss and Florida State more often than the final original SEC team in the West, Ole Miss.

It is unfortunate that the current scheduling system inevitably ended some of the older yet less important series in the conference for both West and East teams alike. Auburn-Florida, Florida-Mississippi State, Kentucky-LSU and Ole Miss-Tennessee are examples of commonly played series that have fallen by the wayside. Shared history is the glue that binds conferences together, but the combination of realignment and schedules where teams need 12 years to complete home-and-home matchups with every cross-division team threaten the bonds.

Back in the naïve days of 2013 when it looked possible that the SEC might go to a nine-game schedule, I proposed a division-less setup. Every conference member would have five permanent series it’d play every year. The remaining four games would rotate. It was possible to preserve every intraconference series that had been played at least half of the time up through 2010 except Ole Miss-Vanderbilt and end up with a truly balanced slate of annual games. In such a setup, everyone within the conference could play everyone else every two years if all four rotating opponents switched up every season.

It’s still possible to do such a scheme with an eight-game schedule. Bill Connelly and Jason Kirk unveiled one not long ago with three permanent series and five rotating games. The principle is the same, though it doesn’t make annual as many historic series. Even so, everyone would play everyone else on at most a biannual basis, which would help keep the old flames alive.

For all of the advantages, using a division-less setup does offer up a potential headache when it comes to the SEC Championship Game. Under that kind of scheme, the top two teams would face each other in Atlanta rather than the division champs. It would be possible to end up with three teams tied at the top in which none of them had played each other, or that had all gone 1-1 within the group. Imagine the rancor that the Big 12 experienced with its South Division title in 2008 only in the SEC and with both spots in the title game on the line. It wouldn’t happen often, but it would be awfully messy when it did.

Beyond that, the Big 12 is about to give another cautionary tale. That league is reviving its championship game this year, and its top two teams will square off. This setup means that one of the two best teams in the conference is guaranteed a loss on the last week of the season, damaging that team’s chances at making the playoff, if it’s ranked high enough, or otherwise a New Year’s Six game.

The SEC prides itself on putting teams in top postseason games, so it isn’t going to lock in a loss for one of its top two teams unless they each win a division. It’s incredibly unlikely that Alabama and LSU would have met for a third time in the 2011 national championship game had they just faced off in Atlanta, after all. The SEC office will notice when a Big 12 Championship Game loser misses out on a big bowl opportunity, and it’ll only weaken the possibility of a division-less schedule.

It’s a fun offseason exercise to imagine realigning the SEC or dreaming up systems that don’t use divisions. However, I don’t see any way the conference goes for either idea anytime soon.

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