The NCAA gave the green light to the Southeastern Conference on Wednesday to create a much more fun, interesting and sensible football schedule in the near future.
The NCAA Division I Council ruled that all conferences that have championship games do not need to be in divisions as was the case in the past. They can now decide on their own which teams play in the league title game.
Immediately after this ruling, the Pacific-12 Conference announced that the two teams with the best winning percentage – regardless of division – will meet in the 2022 Pac-12 title game.
And Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey is considering the same move in the near future when Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, which will be prior to the 2025 season, unless something happens to push that move to 2024.
“The divisions worked really well for us, but when we go to 16, that possibility is front and center for the SEC,” Sankey told Yahoo at the Sports Business Journal’s Awards ceremony Wednesday night at the New York Marriott Marquis. “We’ve had almost a year-long conversation about when we go to 16 what our schedule will look like. Those possibilities include no divisions. It is on our list. We are not going to do it in a knee-jerk way in reaction to today’s decision.”
The Pac-12 went ahead and jumped in.
“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our championship game,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said. “We believe this will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize College Football Playoff invitations and ultimately win national championships.”
There may be more rematches in these title games because teams in the same division in college football play one another every season while playing just a couple or a few from the other division. But a pairing of higher ranked teams with better records will be more likely.
“This immediately increases both fan interest in, and the media value of, our championship gme,” Kliavkoff said. The Pac-12 has not had a representative in a national championship game since 2014.
The SEC does not need any extra “media value” to its SEC title game to enhance its national title chances. The league has been in the last seven national title games and 15 of the last 16, and an SEC team has played an SEC team for the national title three times over that span.
If the SEC does go to the two best winning percentage teams in its title game like the Pac-12, there could be a scenario in which two West teams play three times in one season – in the regular season, in the SEC title game and in the College Football Playoff. It could happen. That likely will not happen in the Pac-12.
The SEC just had Alabama and Georgia play in the SEC title game and again in the national title game last season. In 2011, LSU and Alabama played in the regular season and in the national title game.
Had the two teams with the best winning percentage played in the 2011 SEC title game, it would have been No. 1 LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC) vs. No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) – less than a month after No. 1 LSU beat No. 2 Alabama, 9-6, in overtime in a Game of the Century in Tuscaloosa. Then, most likely, the two would have met a third time in New Orleans for the national title.
Instead in 2011, LSU beat Georgia, 42-10, in the SEC title game, then lost the national title game to Alabama, 21-0, in New Orleans.
Ugh, three games between the same team over the last several weeks of a season would not be good viewing.
Under the Pac-12 format, Alabama and Auburn could also meet in back-to-back weeks – at the end of the regular season as usual and in the SEC title game a week later, if those two have the best winning percentages. That would not happen this year under that format, because Auburn will not be close to Alabama in the win column. But who knows down the road?
One of the reasons the SEC Championship Game has been so successful is because it usually matches two teams that have not already played that season because they are from different divisions.
“Unless the sentiment of our league changes greatly, the division format works now,” said Sankey, who was nominated for Sports Executive of the Year at the SBJ Awards, but did not win Wednesday night. “When we go to 16, that would be the time for an adjustment.”
The news out of the NCAA could also help solve one of SEC football’s biggest problems – regular season scheduling.
With seven teams in each division having to play the other six and only two from the other division in the eight-game SEC regular season format, there are too many SEC pairings that do not happen nearly enough. And there are too many SEC pairings that happen too much. The permanent opponent from the other division for every team adds to this problem.
For example, Georgia has played Texas A&M exactly once since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012. And Georgia has never played at Texas A&M, period. Tennessee has also played the Aggies just twice in an SEC game. Alabama and Florida are border states, but their flagship institutions’ football game last season in Gainesville was their first regular season meeting in Florida since 2011. Missouri has been in the SEC since 2012, and LSU’s only trip there was moved from Baton Rouge because of weather in 2020. Tennessee and Auburn are in border states and played annually from 1956-91 in a great rivalry before the SEC went to divisions in 1992. They have met just three times since 2010.
Yet, the games that are played every season for no good reason and usually lousy ratings are Texas A&M vs. South Carolina, Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State vs. Kentucky.
A move to a nine- or 10-game league schedule or a pod format could also mean more games between teams who have not played often.
So what the SEC can do with Texas and Oklahoma in the mix soon is eliminate division play, improve its scheduling and keep its very profitable league championship game with the two best winning percentage teams going. That was not possible before the rule change Wednesday. There could still be rematches and maybe a third meeting between the same two teams, but with 16 teams in the league, the odds improve for that scenario not happening.
Or maybe the SEC could do even better and eliminate the SEC title game all together. It has been great. It has been a money maker for the league. But too often in recent years, it has been a nuisance to SEC teams headed to the College Football Playoffs anyway.
And the SEC makes a lot of money from television without the SEC title game. It could survive and advance without it, especially with the College Football Playoffs basically serving as an SEC convention every year.
The SEC has outgrown its divisions, its title game and its stodgy scheduling. It’s time to move on and add Texas and Oklahoma sooner rather than later.