Defending Divisions: Why the SEC is Getting It Right on Expansion and the Championship Game

The week that the conference championship game is going to be played seems as good a time as any to return to a topic that got some discussion during the conference realignment saga a few months ago: Whether the SEC should have divisional play to pick its title game contestants or whether the top two should go after a series of conference games that don't rely on divisional play.

Several ideas were batted around, but at least two Team Speed Kills members took time to put together concrete proposals: Eggplant Wizard and AllTideUp. Both of the ideas were obviously well thought-out and wouldn't bring about the end of the SEC as a superconference or any terrible fate. But I happen to strongly disagree with the premise.

The SEC should keep divisions, even with the geographical mish-mash that will come with one of the conference's westernmost members being in the SEC East. There are too many problems with changing the current set-up, particularly if the SEC office eventually comes up with a workaround to the Missouri issue, and too many advantages to keep divisions as a way to create a cohesive conference and fairly determine a winner.

First off, it's not going to happen. There's a rule for holding a championship game in the NCAA, and I don't think that members left in the cold by the recent realignment saga or institutions outside of the two budding superconferences (ACC and SEC) are going to be quick to endorse a change.

(c) Twelve-Member Conference Championship Game. [FBS/FCS] A conference championship game between division champions of a member conference of 12 or more institutions that is divided into two divisions (of six or more institutions each), each of which conducts round-robin, regular-season competition among the members of that division;

There's one relatively simple reason for that rule: It eliminates the possibility of co-champions. Every team in the division plays every other team in the division, so only one can be undefeated, and a collection of one- or two-loss teams has to go through a series of tiebreakers that often rely heavily on head-to-head results. It's not perfect, as the Big 12 South mess proved in 2008, but it works pretty well most of the time.

Eliminate divisions, and you eliminate that certainty. Here's a nine-game schedule for the proposed SEC in which Alabama, LSU and Florida do not meet.

Secschedule_medium

I chose those three teams intentionally -- no one is going to call me insane for proposing that, with the possible exception of Florida this year, all three of those teams could run the table against an SEC schedule -- but it could work out with several combinations of teams. The counter to this, of course, is that the SEC office would probably rarely let LSU miss Alabama -- they're one of the protected rivalry games in AllTideUp's proposal -- but that would not necessarily ensure that the same scenario could not play out.

In fact, considering Florida as a regular competitor for the SEC title 30 years ago would have met with some derision -- which simply highlights that there are any number of combinations of three teams that would end up with the same record -- and particularly if all three teams are undefeated, who do you send to the championship game? Maybe Kentucky, Ole Miss and Missouri are the teams that miss each other one year -- no one would think to make sure they catch each other, but it could cause the same kind of tie-up if all of them somehow manage to go undefeated.

AllTideUp's idea might prevent that by providing for more rivals -- but I doubt it, though it would certainly prevent the Alabama-LSU-Florida axis from avoiding each other. A mathematician might be able to help me out here, but I believe the only way to absolutely avoid having more than two teams go undefeated would be a 12-game conference schedule. That means no out-of-conference schedule at all, and an insane gauntlet that could eliminate whoever emerges for the championship game from the national title hunt.

This year highlights another one of the pitfalls of a division-less conference: It would have been a rather dreary affair this year. The season would have clearly turned into a march by LSU and Alabama to the eventual championship game. Everyone else would have been playing for bowl positioning, with the possible exception of a challenge by Arkansas that we now know would have amounted to nothing. If you thought the 2009 Alabama-Florida march was boring, wait until you see that one play out over three months of Gary Danielson commentary. Oh, and the argument about a rematch is nothing when compared to the potential discussion of a re-rematch if Alabama managed to beat LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

Instead, we had a race in the SEC West that is still providing us with plenty of fodder for discussion and a still-entertaining battle for the SEC East that ended up turning on the one true upset (Auburn-South Carolina) among either of the two contenders. If you remember that sports is more about entertainment than some larger battle for justice or the American way, that's a pretty good deal.

* * *

And it's not just that a divisionless conference with a championship game is a bad idea; there are many reasons to like divisions on their own merit. They provide some predictability for schedulers and fans, they create a series of mini-rivalries among the teams in a division, and they can actually increase the drama in a season.

As a South Carolina fan, I despise Georgia, a hatred that is only surpassed by my disdain for Clemson because I respect Georgia more than I respect Clemson. Some of that is rooted in games that stretch back to the Gamecocks' ACC and independent days. But I also have no warm feelings for Tennessee, given a series of close games during the best Lou Holtz years that often ended any reasonable SEC East hopes before South Carolina played Florida, and close games afterward that often meant the difference between a bowl berth and another losing record.

I'm also not terribly fond of Florida, given a losing streak that stretched to almost 70 years at one point. Kentucky's constant chirping about finally beating South Carolina was grating until they did so, probably in the same way that South Carolina fans' "just wait 'til next year" talk probably got on the nerves of Georgia fans. Vanderbilt is annoying simply because Vanderbilt spoiled the 2007 and 2008 seasons before South Carolina finally ended the losing streak in 2009.

In other words, there's often a little bit more at stake emotionally when the Gamecocks play even a team like Kentucky than when they square off against Ole Miss. It's not the same thing. That doesn't mean I like Ole Miss, or want the Rebels to beat South Carolina. But my team doesn't play Ole Miss every year or jostle with them for position in the SEC East, so while it technically is the same in terms of the standings and the arc of a given year, it doesn't feel the same.

Particularly with two new members joining the conference next year, that will help. Texas A&M will immediately be playing annual, extremely important games against LSU, Arkansas and Alabama. Missouri might be far away from places like Columbia, S.C., and Gainesville, but distance doesn't matter quite as much when you're playing those teams every year for a shot at the conference championship.

After all, we've seen what it can do to a conference if it decides not to take time to build tight bonds between members of the league. A conference championship game with the contestants decided in divisional races does that. It's good for the teams, and good for the fans.

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