We're a bit more than three hours away right now from my favorite quadrennial sporting event: The World Baseball Classic. And thinking about that got me thinking about a way that the SEC could do a 16-team football schedule that would allow steady four-team divisions that preserve rivalries and a quasi-playoff without extending the season by a week. In fact, if the conference's lawyers are creative enough, they might be able to argue that nothing about this plan is outside NCAA bylaws. (Though it's quite possible something about it is.)
Of course, there are no indications (despite the constant murmurings about certain teams from North Carolina and Virginia) that the SEC is on its way to 16 teams. But should they go in that direction -- a direction that I, unfortunately, think is inevitable, even if in a 20- or 30-year timeframe -- how would you decide the conference title and still rotate the teams you play fairly regularly?
The answer is what they do in the WBC: Pool play. (Note: A lot of what you'll see here might look familiar from other plans, but I think it combines some of those ideas into a unique formula that would work better and potentially be more exciting.)
The SEC would be divided into four pools -- or pods, or whatever you want to call them. But only the games within the pools would be planned, as well as one other rivalry game. The pools, assuming that a North Carolina team (I'll pick State, since they're my favorites) and Virginia Tech are the new members:
|North Pool||East Pool||Central Pool||West Pool|
|Virginia Tech||Georgia||Mississippi State||Missouri|
|Vanderbilt||South Carolina||Tennessee||Texas A&M|
You will note that many, but not all, of the biggest rivalries in the SEC are preserved within their divisions. Don't worry about the rest -- we'll get to them too. In fact, everyone is going to start the season against a cross-pool rival of some sort. Granted, that will do away with some of the scheduling conventions, but some of that is going to happen if we go to 16. (Which is one of the reasons we shouldn't go to 16, but I digress.)
N.C. State-South Carolina
Texas A&M-Virginia Tech
The only rivalry that I would intensely want to keep that would seem to be blocked by that arrangement is Kentucky-Tennessee. Some of the "new" rivalries (Arkansas-Missouri, South Carolina-N.C. State) are easy, others (Georgia-Ole Miss, Kentucky-Mississippi State) are leftovers from the last time we had two rotating division rivals and at least one (Texas A&M-Virginia Tech) is the result of a nobody better problem. See above. But some games that you might want to see could end up being played later. Read on.
You play your rival to start the season and then go into pool play. It's a round-robin schedule. The top two teams in each pool move on, with the result of the rivalry game serving as the first tiebreaker. (If one team lost it and the other team won, the seed or place in the next pool goes to the team that won.) Because we're looking to avoid rematches as much as possible, each new upper pool will look to have one team from each first-round pool, two of them being the winners of their pools and two being runners up.
Meanwhile, the bottom two teams still play in lower pools, for everything from bowl spots to advantages in the seeding next year. It's not ideal, but many of the teams in the SEC are eliminated by the halfway point of the season under the current rules; we're just making it official. Besides, eight teams are still alive and could be until the next-to-last SEC game of the year, which is a rare thing nowadays.
To see how this works, let's just assume for the sake of argument that the first two teams in the above pools move on. They're arranged alphabetically, so I'm not really projecting for or against anyone, and it actually hurts "my" team.
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|LSU||Florida||South Carolina||Texas A&M|
|Ole Miss||N.C. State||Vanderbilt||Virginia Tech|
Again, you play round-robin in your pool. The top two teams from Pool A and Pool B move on to the semifinals, which are really just the last conference games for those teams.
The other final conference games are generated by careful pairing off segments of pools to play each other and avoid rematches. For example, the schedule for the 12 teams that aren't in the semifinals for this year might be:
N.C. State-Texas A&M
Ole Miss-South Carolina
Now if you'll notice, we've had two rounds of three games each in the pools (that's six games), a rivalry and a final conference game -- which brings us to eight conference games, just like we have now. If the need to go to nine conference games ever presented itself, you could add another rivalry game at the beginning of the year or something to that effect.
Of course, if we're still going by alphabetical order, our SEC Championship Game ends up being Alabama vs. Arkansas. And Alabama wins. Of course. Alabama wins everything.
The scheduling and logistical challenges are obvious -- fans don't know at the beginning of the season which teams their team is going to play when -- but the uncertainty is somewhat limited. Four of the games will be determined and played at the beginning. And the league will know almost immediately what the second-round pools are going to be once the first round is done. Still, to accommodate the fans, the schedule could be made out like this:
-Pool Game One
-Pool Game Two
-Pool Game Three
-Out of conference game
-Out of conference game
-Pool Game Four
-Pool Game Five
-Pool Game Six
-Out of conference game
-Final SEC Game
-Out of conference game
I placed the final out-of-conference game at the end of the season because, as South Carolina fan, I'm partial to having the Clemson game at the end of the year. You could put it at the beginning of the season to give everyone a tune-up or before the final SEC game to give fans three weeks to prepare for the final game instead of just two. Either way works. The point is that the schedule maximizes the ability to give fans as much notice as possible before they have to get to another city. (It would also help the teams with their logistics.)
There are various details that would still have to be worked out. My preference would be for the number of home games a team has in the first pool (some will have two, others will have just one) to be determined by the prior year's conference record, while the number of home games a team has in the second pool is determined by the seeding. The final game could be a mix, with some tiebreakers if necessary for the semifinals and some other procedures for the teams out of the playoff. The final logistical headache would be figuring out how to do that and try to make it where some team doesn't have two SEC home games all year.
But the advantages of this should be fairly obvious. It keeps a regional division structure in place, preserves most of the major SEC rivalries and allows for teams to play teams from other pools on a regular basis.
Again, I hope that these plans won't be necessary for a long time, or maybe ever. I like the SEC at 14 teams, just like I liked the SEC at 12 teams. But if we're going to go to 16, this is the way to do it. As long as it keeps us away from the "pods."