Want to fix the SEC divisional divide? No need to scrap them. There's one simple (and logical) move
I enjoyed Matt Hinton’s column on why the imbalance between SEC West and East meant that the divisional approach should be scrapped altogether. I do agree that there is something wrong that might need fixing, but I’d like to make a couple of points before moving on to my proposed (and much simpler) solution to fix the West/East issues.
First, the imbalance isn’t the West versus the East, it’s Alabama versus everybody. Georgia beat Auburn, Florida upset LSU in Baton Rouge, Missouri took down Arkansas, Kentucky held off Mississippi State. On any given Saturday, any team in the East could conceivably have beaten any team in the West … well, except Alabama. And that lack of competitive balance isn’t the fault of the East, it’s the fault of all of college football — and sooner or later, it will be fixed, either by Saban’s retirement or some unforeseen fall in Alabama’s program.
Which brings me to my second point. Destroying division play because the West is beating the East about 75 percent of the time head-to-head is incredibly short-sighted. In the late 1990s, the tables were turned. Florida and Tennessee were consistent national championship contenders. The SEC West threw up division champions like Arkansas in 1995 (8-5 team that lost SEC title 34-3) or Mississippi State in 1998 (8-5 team that lost to Kentucky, and of course, also lost the SEC title game). Things change.
Basically, the big dogs in the East slumped. And “contenders” like Mizzou and South Carolina were left to carry the banner. But destroying division play because Tennessee, Georgia, and to some extent Florida, have fallen on hard times is overreacting.
The more obvious problem is geography. Here’s a map of the SEC.
Huh? Missouri is farther West than all but two teams in the West division. So naturally, there are in the … East?
Auburn is a good bit east of Vanderbilt, and is basically in a straight north-south line with East members Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Tigers are in the … West?
Let’s fix some things.
The team that was the worst in the East in 2016 — and frankly, based on recruiting base, coaching situation, and general football culture, looks like a safe bet to be one of the weaker football programs in the SEC for years to come gets moved to the West. Where it actually is. Missouri to the West.
On the other hand, one of the better teams from the overstacked West, a relative historical power, gets moved to the East, out of the division with its more powerful in-state rival, and into a position where it can reasonably compete for a division title year in and year out. Auburn, welcome to the East. Look back at the map and redraw those lines in your head.
Much better, no?
Now, the brass tacks of the move. To balance Auburn getting a slightly easier path, it will keep Alabama as its permanent cross-division opponent. Can’t give up the Iron Bowl. This does mean the death of Tennessee and Bama as an every season game. Is that a bad thing? Well, Tennessee should love it, and Alabama … well, you can’t play everybody. There’s not been much to that rivalry lately, and the two teams would still play each other every six years.
Auburn had Georgia as their old cross-division opponent, so the Bulldogs need a new matchup. Georgia can play Missouri, as the 2016 edition of the game was probably one of both team’s most interesting matchups of the year. The two schools had only played once before 2012, but the game has generally been competitive (2014 aside).
Tennessee then gets Arkansas for its cross-division opponent. Both Georgia and Tennessee have just made their schedules easier, which should also help the East regenerate into something resembling a more competitive division.
If you make this move, you’ve made one small change that makes geographic sense, and shifted the balance of power between the divisions to much closer to even. The only real loss is Alabama v. Tennessee every year, and how much of a loss is that? Don’t throw the baby of divisional play out with the bathwater of a season when nobody could compete with Bama. Instead of my suggestion, which does impact one traditional SEC rivalry, a round-robin schedule will kill literally a dozen or so a year. Let’s get reasonable, and let’s take a look at the map and fix this sucker.