Crowded Conferences May Spell End For Divisions As We Know Them
The SEC was the first conference in the country to move to divisional play in 1992 to utilize an obscure NCAA rule that permitted a conference championship game to be added between the two divisional champs. It further dictates that each division must have an equal number of teams and that each team play every other team in the same division at a minimum. When we had twelve teams in the conference and an eight game conference schedule, the format was workable. Along with playing your five division mates, the SEC initially mandated playing two permanent teams from the opposite division and one rotator. This format was originally believed to be an attempt to placate Auburn, who probably should have been in the East with three of it’s four biggest rivals there. After eleven seasons with that template, the conference moved to one permanent and two rotators, with the thought that it was taking too long to work through a home and home with each rotating team and that under the new guidelines, you could work through twice the rotators each year. For Auburn, it meant the elimination of the annual rivalry with Florida, but the needs of the conference came first.
That format seemed to be working well until 2012 with the addition of two more teams to the SEC, Texas A&M and Missouri. Now we had six divisional games to play but we pared down to two games from the opposite division–one permanent and one rotator. With the conference still tossing around the idea of adding a ninth conference game, the current schedule is merely a stop gap until a permanent solution is decided upon. If we keep the one rotator with a eight game slate, it’ll mean seven years between the home and away games from the same rotating opponent. Many argue that sort of infrequent scheduling hardly constitutes a conference at all and are looking for new solutions.
With some teams having permanent non-conference rivalries, there leaves little room for cupcakes, kickoff games, and trying on new opponents if we move to a nine game conference schedule, so there aren’t a lot of options. The ACC is considering all options, including a solution where conferences can determine the free-scheduling of it’s teams provided the NCAA relaxes it’s divisional requirements. Basically that’ll mean that each school doesn’t necessarily have to play each team in it’s own division and that the conference game participants will be determined by the conference, more than likely through national ranking.
That illogical leap might be more than some fans can stand. But divisions hinder as much as they help. It does keep intact some major rivalries but it’s done away with even more. Under such a change, teams could still schedule their major rivals and perhaps add back some dormant ones, if not permanently, then at least more frequently. I doubt that the top schools would attempt to duck competition although some may have grown accustomed to the departure of certain teams during divisional play. However, if divisions are to be that loosely determined, they might just be thrown away with altogether other than what’s necessary to preserve the title game in Atlanta.
That may be the natural order of things to come now that a playoff has entered the picture. Conference championship games were always thought by some to be the de facto first round of a future playoff and there’s no reason why that notion can’t still be true, even if not winning your conference hasn’t barred entry into the BCS title game for some. The new playoff starting this year doesn’t require a school winning it’s conference either to participate; read: we’re going to take the four highest ranked teams, period. Translation: the polls still determine who’s in the beauty pageant. If it’s still not determined on the field, no reason why a divisional championship should be any different.
That may be what we need to keep our historic rivalries intact, rotate the teams thoroughly, and to still give the conference a chance at putting one or two in the playoffs. I simply don’t see a workable solution unless the NCAA amends it’s rules and allows for conferences to sort these things through under their own guidelines. Auburn misses it’s rivaly games with Florida and Tennessee, but we’ve enjoyed picking up LSU. I think we’ll also enjoy A&M, but it can’t be to the detriment of other schools that we’ve shared a conference with for 120 years.
Being in a conference with other teams means you have some familiarity with playing them on a regular basis. The NCAA playoff means that we are no longer going to expand the regular season. Growing conferences based on strategic reasons forgets the tactical experience of playing the games. We can’t keep adding teams, we can’t keep just one rotator, and we can’t go to a 9-game conference schedule. Something’s gotta give. We’re in year three of the band-aid. They better come up with something. Mike Slive, get busy before the SEC conference this spring.