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Post Georgia in an expanded SEC

Thursday September 8, 2011

I’m ticked to have to be writing about this during a game week, but it’s pretty much unavoidable. I’m not especially concerned with the mechanics and drama, but it seems inevitable that the SEC has opened the door to expansion. I won’t pretend to guess where it will stop, but I doubt that 13 is the magic number. I’m a lot more concerned with what it will mean for Georgia. What will their division and schedule look like in the coming years?

Divisional Lineup

The structure of the SEC’s divisions depends of course on whether the SEC stops at 13 teams, adds a 14th team, or goes all the way to 16 teams. The extent of realignment will also depend on which team(s) get added. If you add an eastern school such as West Virginia, no one would have to change divisions. If the 14th team is another former Big XII member, the conference would be unbalanced to the west, and you’d expect a school like Auburn to be moved to the SEC East. That wouldn’t affect the Auburn-Alabama rivalry (or even Florida-LSU) as long as the “permanent rival” system remains a part of the scheduling.

If Auburn moves to the East, that would require Georgia to take on a new permanent rival. To cause the least amount of disruption, that new opponent would probably be the new school, Texas A&M. Trips to College Station every other year?

How many conference games?

Coaches are predisposed against a ninth conference game, and with good reason. It takes away a certain amount of freedom in scheduling, and it by definition would spread more losses around a conference. If other conferences don’t follow suit, you’re at a relative disadvantage. Mark Richt put it this way: “As far as I’m concerned, you can add more teams, but I just don’t want to play any more league games.” It’s not just a question of bowl eligibility for a number of borderline teams, though that’s certainly a factor. BCS bids can also be torpedoed by those extra games.

A nine-game schedule is almost unavoidable if you go to 16 teams, especially if the permanent rival is maintained. You’d never play anyone else from the other division otherwise. But let’s assume a 16-member SEC and a nine-game conference schedule. Under the current SEC system of a divisonal round-robin, a permanent opponent, and a rotating cross-divisional schedule, it might be over a decade between trips to places like Baton Rouge, Oxford, and Fayetteville.

Why? Here’s a sample 9-game SEC schedule against a 16-team league. Assume for now that Auburn stays in the West.

  • Year 1: 7 games against the division. 1 against permanent rival (vs. Auburn). 1 other cross-divisional game (@ Ole Miss)
  • Year 2: 7 games against the division. 1 against permanent rival (@ Auburn). 1 other cross-divisional game (vs. Ole Miss)
  • Year 3: 7 games against the division. 1 against permanent rival (vs. Auburn). 1 other cross-divisional game (@ Alabama)
  • Year 4: 7 games against the division. 1 against permanent rival (@ Auburn). 1 other cross-divisional game (vs. Alabama)

Under that model, it would be Year 15 before you saw Ole Miss again as you rotate home-and-home through the other 6 teams in the West. The only way around that is 1) Increase the number of conference games to 10. Good luck with that. 2) Eliminate the permanent rival and add another rotating cross-divisional opponent. Possible, but you’d kill some of the conference’s oldest rivalries (UT-Bama, UGA-Auburn). 3) Don’t play a true round-robin against the division. That would free up a cross-divisional game or two, but it would kind of defeat the point of having divisions and divisional champions.

The Division as Entity

This is a side-effect of expansion we talked about a bit last summer. As conferences become larger and more abstract, the identites of the individual division becomes stronger.

The larger megaconference is just an administrative abstraction between its divisions. It exists for revenue-sharing purposes and for the clout it brings negotiating for collective deals and postseason positions.

Look at our schedule example above – a school you play twice a decade isn’t much different than Clemson or some regional rival from another conference. The only bond is that the paycheck comes from the same address, and you bump into each other in the buffet line at the spring meeting.

Consider an SEC West of the current members plus Texas A&M and Missouri. That’s a pretty good 8-team league unto its own. It wouldn’t be a stretch to rate it above the Big East and, in many years, the ACC. The idea of the Pac-16 pushing for two BCS automatic bids gave us a good chuckle last summer, but many of these eight-team divisions will have the membership and mass of what we’ve heretofore considered power conferences. I don’t suggest you’ll see the SEC East Network any time soon – the SEC is still the brand, and the conference will still do the negotiating and finance. But I do think we’ll come to look at divisions, even more than we already do, as more or less distinct entities that begin to take on identites of their own.

Who knows – in 15 years, we might be talking about the decentralization of the megaconferences as the divisions start to chart their own courses.

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