Will the SEC abolish divisions when the conference expands? Why that’d be good and what it could mean

Dare I say, the ACC might be on to something.

Earlier in the week, Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reported that the conference was considering abolishing divisions and adopting a new scheduling model beginning in 2023. New Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich added that the ACC was “closer to the end than to the beginning” with eliminating the Coastal and Atlantic divisions. It would entail 3 annual opponents for each team and 5 games against other teams in the conference the next 2 years in a home-and-home format.

Under that “3-5-5” model, you’d allow everyone in the conference to play each other at least once in a 4-year career. McMurphy also reported that next month, “the NCAA Council is expected to approve a waiver allowing all leagues to play without divisions starting in 2023 but still hold conference championship games.”

If the ACC does this, does that mean the SEC will follow suit once Oklahoma and Texas join the conference?

It certainly seems possible considering that the SEC scheduling model will have to be tweaked anyway. Even if Oklahoma gets put in the East and Texas is put in the West to make 8-team divisions, you’d still need adjusting whether that’s no divisions, 4-team pods or 8-team divisions. The SEC could keep its current East and West divisions and adopt a 9-game conference schedule with 7 divisional matchups, 1 annual crossover and 1 rotating crossover. If the SEC stayed at an 8-game conference schedule with divisions, you’d essentially wipe away either the annual crossover OR the rotating crossover.

Neither of those situations would be ideal. To be fair, eliminating divisions wouldn’t be perfect, either. But would it be the best course of action for the SEC? Definitely. We shouldn’t be living in a world where Georgia and Texas A&M will have their second SEC matchup in the 2024 season (they’ve played once in 2019 since A&M joined the SEC in 2012… and UGA’s first trip to College Station will be in 2024).

From a competitive standpoint, the West won 12 of the past 13 titles. It’s time for a shakeup.

Like the ACC, the SEC could adopt a model with permanent matchups and rotating home-and-homes. Old rivalries could be preserved and new rivalries could form. Let’s not forget the benefit of adding several new rivalries into the fold with Oklahoma and Texas coming into the conference. Seeing that and more schedule variance would be a more entertaining sell to fans and future TV partners.

Unlike the ACC, the SEC couldn’t adopt the exact same model because it’ll have 16 teams. Or if it did, it would not guarantee the same amount of rotating home-and-homes. Perhaps that model for an 8-game conference schedule would be:

  • 1 permanent matchup
  • 7 rotating home-and-homes

I know, I know. That would mean we’d see some incredible annual crossovers played less often. We wouldn’t have Auburn-Georgia, Florida-LSU or Alabama-Tennessee on an annual basis. It would also mean we would lose some of the best divisional rivals on an annual basis like Alabama-LSU and Florida-Tennessee. They’d still play, but there would sometimes be a 2-year absence of those matchups.

Yes, I realize that’d be a major bummer. That’d be the biggest flu, and understandably so. Even if there was a greater buildup for those matchups with them not being played annually, it would feel a lot like the modified 2020 schedule when some of those traditional nonconference matchup staples were wiped off the board because of the pandemic. I’m not pretending that would be an easy adjustment.

In my opinion, though, that still beats the alternative. The alternative is doing as little tweaking as possible by virtue of putting Oklahoma and Texas in separate divisions. Then you’d go even longer between non-annual crossover matchups like Georgia-A & M or Florida-Alabama. If you’re going to have a super conference, that super conference should act as its own league and not become even more divided within it.

I don’t want a scenario in which Alabama and Oklahoma go 6 years between matchups. That’s basically a nonconference game at that point.

And let’s get back to the issue at hand, and why the ACC is heading in this direction. While there are schools like UNC and Wake Forest that were so desperate to play each other more often that they scheduled a nonconference game, this is still about competitive balance.

The SEC West dominating the conference title game year after year is evidence of that. Without divisions, the 2 best conference records play for a conference title, just like the Big 12 has been doing.

“But what about a potential rematch? Doesn’t that lessen the regular season? ”

Um, so like 2017 Auburn-Georgia? Or 2010 Auburn-South Carolina? Maybe 2004 Auburn-Tennessee?

Just like with the current system, yeah, we’ll probably have a rematch every few years. That’s fine. What’s not fine is pretending like divisions are woven into the fabric of the SEC in some unchangeable way. We’ll still get the Iron Bowl. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party ain’t going anywhere (except maybe to a college campus?). The Egg Bowl is still going to be the best Tryptophan combatant the world has ever known.

In fact, why don’t we run through what games would probably stay on the schedule in this division-less format:

  • Alabama-Auburn
  • Arkansas-Mizzou
  • Florida-Georgia
  • Kentucky-South Carolina
  • LSU-Texas A&M
  • MSU-Ole Miss
  • Oklahoma-Texas
  • Tennessee-Vanderbilt

Relax. You’re allowed to disagree with that. Yes, as much as I’d love to see A&M and Texas face off every year, I’d gladly settle for them at least having a potential home-and-home rotation so that they don’t go more than 2 consecutive seasons without facing one another.

And for everyone saying that it’s not fair that Tennessee gets to play Vandy every year, tell me this. Is it fair that Tennessee has to face Alabama every year now? No, but at least under a division-less model, you can’t avoid Alabama for 5 years like other SEC East teams do.

That’s the beauty of this. There would be more scheduling balance than ever. You need that. Say what you want about the current Big 12 and its inability to win a Playoff game. What you can’t say is that there’s unfair scheduling. Why? Everyone plays each other and the 2 best teams play for a conference title. What a simple concept that is.

Scheduling variance would be a welcome sight for the sport. It would be an adjustment, sure, but so will having Oklahoma and Texas in the conference. The SEC has always been about creating the best way to promote competition while making sure it isn’t sabotaging itself like the Big Ten did by unnecessarily switching to a 9-game conference schedule in 2016. That should continue to be the objective whether the Playoff expands or not.

It’s possible that the SEC decides on a 9-game conference schedule with 3 annual opponents and 6 rotating home-and-home matchups. In that scenario, I suppose you would technically have pods, but it would essentially be division-less because you’d still put the 2 teams with the best overall conference record in the SEC Championship.

The benefit of that would obviously be that you could keep some (not all) of those annual crossover rivalries intact. Here’s what a makeshift 4-team pod system could look like:

  • Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Texas, Mizzou
  • Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina
  • Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
  • LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, MSU

The downside of that is that in addition to going to a 9-game conference slate and creating a tougher path to the Playoff, you’re still eliminating some of those annual crossover games and there’d be constant debate about which pod is toughest. We could see a scenario in which there becomes significant pod imbalance and we’d be back to having similar conversations like the ones we’re having with the unbalanced East and West.

That’s why we could see a future model with 1 rivalry game and having the 7 rotating home-and-homes. Perhaps that’s an unpopular opinion both among fans and among SEC athletic directors. I can’t imagine everyone would like to play 10 SEC games like Nick Saban suggested after the Oklahoma and Texas move was announced, but I do imagine that as Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter outlined, there’s a sense of urgency to actually face everyone in the conference at least once in a 3-year stretch.

Time will tell what system is settled on. Whatever the case, change is coming soon.

The ACC might’ve just provided a blueprint of sorts to a division-less future for the SEC.

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