Should the SEC scrap its East and West divisions?
Some pundits are preemptively complaining about the possibility of an unranked Missouri team (with a loss to Indiana) winning the East and upsetting a West champion with a better resume. This is hardly a new complaint.
The SEC East has been underwhelming for years. Everyone recalls the 2011 season, where the West had three top-five teams and produced both the Alabama-LSU rematch in the BCS National Championship while a 19th-ranked Georgia won the East and lost the SEC Championship Game by 32 points.
The Alabama-LSU situation highlighted a key objection to the division format during the BCS era. In that case, LSU as West champion had to play an extra game—and risk a potential loss—while Alabama, as the second-place division finisher, watched from the sidelines. An LSU loss would have knocked at least one SEC team out of the BCS.
It was also unfair, critics claimed, for the second-best team in the SEC (Alabama) to be left out of the conference championship in favor of Georgia, which based on rankings was the fifth-best team in the SEC that year.
That is the crux of the issue: Shouldn’t the SEC Championship Game strive to pair the two best teams in the conference against one another? The answer is not that obvious.
Going back to that 2011 season, suppose the SEC had ignored divisions and just pitted the two best teams—LSU and Alabama—against each other. Obviously, that would have prevented them from both advancing to the BCS National Championship. But it also would have sparked outcries from LSU fans. After all, LSU already defeated Alabama during the regular season. Why should they need a second in-conference victory just to claim the SEC title?
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said back in July the possibility of such regular-season rematches cautioned against his conference reinstating its championship game. Of course, the ten-member Big 12 could not do so even if they wanted to under current NCAA rules. An NCAA bylaw adopted in 1986 requires a conference have at least 12 teams to stage a conference championship. The bylaw also mandates the two-division structure, with each school playing a round-robin schedule within its division. This is the structure presently employed by the SEC.
The conference championship rule was originally adopted at the request of a Division II conference that had 14 members. It was not originally intended for the major football conferences, none of which had more than 10 members in the late 1980s. Then-SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer still took advantage of the bylaw when the conference added South Carolina and Arkansas in 1991, paving the way for the first SEC Championship Game.
Earlier this year, the Big 12 and the ACC petitioned the NCAA to abolish the two-division requirement, in effect “deregulating” conference championship games. The NCAA has yet to act on this proposal. But if adopted, the SEC could, in theory, abandon the East and West divisions while keeping its financially lucrative championship game.
While the recent competitive imbalance in the West’s favor might lend support to abolishing divisions, it’s important to consider the practical implications of such a move on regular-season scheduling.
The two-division format isn’t just about the championship game. It provides a logical method of managing a 14-team conference. The Big 12 has the luxury of simply playing a nine-game round-robin schedule among its 10 members. Much as fans might love it, the SEC cannot play a 13-game round-robin schedule to determine a champion.
Under the current structure, each SEC school plays every team in their division and two teams in the other division. If you consolidate the SEC back into a single conference, you eliminate this balance.
This could create a tie-breaking nightmare when it comes time to selecting two teams to advance to the conference championship. Suppose the regular season ended with an undefeated Mississippi State on top, followed by Auburn and Georgia as the only one-loss teams. Let’s further suppose Auburn and Georgia did not play each other during the season due to the imbalanced schedule. How do you decide which team plays Mississippi State? Do you go with record against common opponents? Higher poll ranking? Higher standing with the College Football Playoff committee? Any way you go, one fan base will argue, not without justification, they were treated unfairly.
That said, one advantage of a single-conference format would be greater flexibility in rotating opponents. The SEC could ensure everyone plays each other at least every other year. That’s impossible to do under the two-division, round-robin format.
Then again, the SEC could keep the divisions and address the rotation problem by adding a ninth conference game. That would probably be better received by SEC fans, if not the coaches and athletic directors.
Finally, it should be noted the new four-team College Football Playoff does not provide automatic berths for conference champions. Therefore, unlike the BCS, an upset in the SEC Championship Game will not necessarily prevent two SEC schools from making the national semifinals. This offers yet another reason to view any calls to eliminate the SEC’s division format with skepticism.