For two conferences that made aggressive plays to grow their brands, they got awfully conservative last spring when it came time to applying their new competitive structure. By electing to maintain eight-game football schedules and two seven-team divisions, their expansions have weakened their unions and made them more segregated.
It doesn’t have to be that way. A simple shift in thinking could bring their larger conferences closer than ever. Lose the divisions. Retain the rivalries. Expand the schedule. Bond everybody.
If that seems radical, it’s no more extreme than when the SEC created divisions to establish a championship game in the first place.
It’s just common sense to expand the conference schedule to nine games to create more familiarity in a 14-team conference. Ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
“I’m all for playing as many good quality games for players, fans and the betterment of our game,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “But I think some fundamental changes have to be made before anybody would be interested in that. I know that everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think that, you know, every player that comes to an SEC school should play every team in the SEC. ... Well, you can’t expand the conference and not expand the number of games you play to be able to do that.”
When the SEC first adopted its divisional system in 1992, it established a model that other major conferences hustled to duplicate. With 12-team conferences, it was a relatively perfect fit.
But when a second wave of expansion pushed the SEC and ACC (and Big Ten) to 14 teams, those divisional alignments and protected crossover rivalries only made things more restrictive. Retaining an eight-game schedule allows only one rotating non-division game among six opponents.
The word “conference,” after all, is defined as “a group of sports teams that play against each other.” Playing 43 percent of affiliated teams twice every 12 years hardly fits that definition.
The ACC’s decision to keep an eight-game schedule was complicated by the Notre Dame situation, with the Irish maintaining football independence but agreeing to play five ACC teams per season as non-conference games. If Clemson played a nine-game ACC schedule, the Tigers would have only one free week to bring in a patsy in the years they play Notre Dame because of their annual rivalry with South Carolina.
The SEC’s reasoning for standing pat was mere hubris, so why change it?
“The strength of our conference without question is at the top,” said Greg McGarity, Georgia’s director of athletics. “Other (conferences) that want to schedule nine games, perhaps their strength of schedule is not that tough from top to bottom.”
Fair enough, but is that really a good reason to limit competition within the conference?
The SEC locked in a schedule rotation for the next 12 years. Georgia will play at Louisiana State in 2018 and get a return home game against LSU in 2025.
South Carolina will similarly go to Auburn this season and not play the Tigers at Williams-Brice Stadium until 2021. Every 12 years, season-ticket holders can count on seeing Alabama once – which is better than whole classes of football players who miss that chance unless luck aligns them in an SEC Championship game.
Is this really the kind of segregated conference they want? That fans want?
“I think sometimes these players don’t care when they play A&M,” McGarity said. “Their memory of history is last year. I think it’s a fans-type thing – the frequency or infrequency. So the fans’ recall is totally different than these young people.”
Since the fans will be the ones footing most of the growing bill for collegiate sports with their booster contributions, ticket sales and cable fees, perhaps their perspective should count a little bit more.
Here’s my fan-friendly solution: The best way for the SEC and ACC to become fully integrated again is to embrace a paradigm shift — a complete break away from the divisional thinking while establishing a rivalry-rich “pod” system.
Done properly, it can open up more frequent matchups with everyone in the league while still retaining essential rivalries that are the heart of college football. Every year, each school plays the same four opponents — three pod mates and a crossover rival — leaving the other nine schools to rotate for the remaining conference games. If you also expand to a nine-game conference schedule, it’s possible to never go two seasons without playing every team at least once.
At the end of the year, the two teams with the best records play for the championship. If that means a Georgia-Florida or Iron Bowl rematch, so be it. You want your best represented for playoff consideration.
It is a rare day when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany – a longtime roadblock in the quest to establish a legitimate college football postseason playoff – is the progressive voice of reason. But Delany has the most sensible take on why his expanded 14-team league elected to switch to a nine-game conference schedule (albeit with the same divisional system).
“We’re going to get larger, we’re going to play each other more,” Delany told USA Today. “We want to be a conference.”
That alone is reason enough, but the changing college football landscape makes it even more essential to build up from within.
“We want our fans to come to games,” Delany said. “We’ve got to give them good games. We also have a (TV) network. We also have season-ticket holders. ... What I really like is that every athlete in the Big Ten who plays football will play every opponent inside the four-year period. That’s what I like.”
Asked if the coaches were on board with the plan, Delany spoke like a boss and not an enabler.
“No, they weren’t on board. We agree to disagree,” he said. “There are certainly things where it’s great if you can get everybody on the same page, but there are certain things you have to do because you have to do them.”
Saban agrees: “People should make those decisions beyond us. They should do it based on what is in the best interest of our league and college football in general.”
For now, the SEC and ACC chose not to deal with the complication of enhanced competition.
“With a nine-game schedule you rotate around quicker, but what it would do for schools that have a 10th game – like for us against Georgia Tech?” McGarity said. “Then it would not have been practical to play a Clemson or have 11 out of your 12 games be against Power 5 opponents. I don’t think there was anybody for that at all.”
If they’d just unwrap their heads from typical thinking and look at it from a new perspective, the leagues we love might be surprised how good a more inclusive future can be.
INTERACTIVE: Proposed ACC, SEC Schedules