As status quos go, you could do a lot worse than the Southeastern Conference.
Having come within 13 seconds of winning an eighth consecutive BCS title last season, the SEC elected not to disrupt a good thing when it tweaked its future football schedules starting in 2016 as it enters the playoff era. For Georgia and South Carolina, the new mandates mean nothing new at all.
Securing the self interests of coaches and athletic directors instead of the desires of fans, the SEC will continue to play an eight-game conference schedule with one permanent crossover rivalry. That means there will continue to be decade-long droughts between facing some marquee non-division opponents. Whole classes of Bulldogs and Gamecocks will exhaust their collegiate eligibility without ever facing Alabama or Louisiana State, which is a shame.
The only leveling factor the league powers adopted was a strength-of-schedule demand to play at least one regular-season game annually against an opponent from one of the other four power conferences – Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12. This doesn’t even matter in terms of conference standing, so it’s barely relevant.
Again, this means no change for Georgia (Georgia Tech) and South Carolina (Clemson) with their annual in-state rivalry games.
Truth is, only three SEC schools don’t already have an eligible nonconference opponent on their 2014 football schedule – Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. In fairness, Mississippi State does open against Boise State, which is better than most qualifying teams under the new parameters.
Sadly, this means there will still be three weeks on each team’s yearly schedule for patsies – a situation that only coaches and bench reserves love. Few teams will ever do like Georgia and schedule legitimate challenges (some even on the road) like Clemson, Boise State, Oklahoma State, Arizona State or Colorado in one of those nonconference slots. There’ll be an abundance of Florida Atlantics, Western Carolinas and Murray States to pad out the fall until bowl season.
It’s too bad the coaches and ADs couldn’t have placed the fans above their own selfish interests and adopted a nine-game conference schedule in addition to the premium nonconference mandate to minimize the schedule clutter. Two cupcakes and a bye week are enough for any seasonal diet.
So what if every other year you had to play five conference road games and only four at home? Too bad if you have to move neutral site games like Georgia-Florida back to campus. Or, alternatively, require every school to have one annual neutral site conference game – Alabama-Tennessee in Atlanta; Auburn-Mississippi State in Birmingham; South Carolina-Missouri in Nashville; LSU-Texas A&M in Houston; Ole Miss-Arkansas in Memphis; Vandy-Kentucky in Charlotte. Giving your fans and TV partners a better product in the long run is worth jumping through a hoop or two.
The SEC actually used this reason as part of the rationale for sticking with the eight-game conference schedule: “Accommodates varying institutional non-conference scheduling philosophies.” Aren’t “varying scheduling philosophies” the problem you’re trying to address?
Turns out that Georgia presents one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of substantive restructuring. Not that the Bulldogs are vetoing anything, it’s just they have the most logistical items that impede change. Like South Carolina, Florida and now Kentucky, they have a long-standing in-state rivalry against an ACC opponent. With Florida, it shares a mutually lucrative neutral-site border bash. And with Tennessee-Alabama, it has a historically rich crossover rivalry with Auburn that it doesn’t want to relinquish.
Instead of viewing all those things as hurdles, the rest of the SEC should use Georgia as a model. If every school established its own nonconference peer rivalry, everything else would fall into place.
Some of them already exist if egos would get out of the way. Texas A&M-Texas and Missouri-Kansas should never have been stopped over petty realignment squabbles. For your fans’ sake, get over yourselves.
Everybody else, grab a dance partner or two. Tennessee and Virginia Tech make a perfect fit. Vandy and Duke are kindred academic spirits. Surely somebody could establish long-standing links with Notre Dame, Miami, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor or West Virginia (or some combination of like entities) that could blossom into cherished associations for years to come.
If everybody gets on that equal footing, the obstacles to advancement disappear. The college football landscape is changing for the better with the advent of a playoff this season. No doubt that playoff format will eventually grow beyond four teams to eight or more as the money dictates.
At some point the status quo won’t be enough. The SEC – and the ACC as well – need to grow along with it to give the fans who foot that bill what they want. And we don’t want any more cupcakes. Give us more in-conference material for those networks we’ll be paying for on our cable bills.