Divisions or pods? SEC schedule faces drawbacks either way in 16-team future | Toppmeyer
If the SEC selects the simplest solution that also preserves the most annual rivalry football games, then it will opt for two eight-team divisions when Oklahoma and Texas join the conference by 2025.
East: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
West: Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M
Debate persists on the two-division format, though.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Friday on “The Paul Finebaum Show” that eliminating divisions is under consideration.
“Options include the single-division structure. It doesn’t mean we would go to that, but perhaps there are no divisions,” Sankey said. “If we do that, that needs to be carefully considered.”
Yes, carefully consider this: Under NCAA rules, a 16-team conference without divisions would not be permitted to conduct a conference championship game.
The Big 12 is allowed to play a conference championship without divisions, because its 10-team conference features a round-robin schedule. A round-robin schedule wouldn’t be possible in a 16-team SEC.
Doing away with the SEC Championship Game seems untenable. It would hamstring revenue and conflict with the College Football Playoff selection process, which gives preference to conference champions.
The SEC has no plans to sabotage its playoff prospects.
“Whatever happens, the Southeastern Conference is going to be at the top of the college football pyramid,” Sankey said.
Using two divisions would preserve most of the SEC’s best rivalries, other than Alabama-LSU and Florida-LSU.
The SEC likely will expand to a nine-game conference schedule after growing to 16 teams. The expanded schedule would allow each team to play every team from the opposite division once every four years, which is more frequent than the current interdivision setup.
So, what’s wrong with eight-team divisions?
I’m thinking the seven other teams in Alabama’s division might not want to face the Crimson Tide each year.
Alabama is a persistent roadblock to playoff qualification. The SEC West has produced a CFP qualifier in each of the playoff’s eight years. Alabama snagged that playoff spot seven times. LSU is the only other SEC West team to make the playoff during the CFP era. The Tigers did so with their undefeated 2019 national championship team.
If the 2021 season and the '22 signing classes are an accurate indicator, the SEC is entering a future with Alabama and Georgia as twin powers.
Going forward, if the SEC aims to best position itself for multiple playoff qualifiers, it would need to maintain Alabama and Georgia in opposite divisions. Both Alabama and Georgia made the playoff in the 2017 and 2021 seasons.
But shifting Alabama and Auburn into the East makes geographical sense in a 16-team conference. And placing Alabama and Auburn in the East would allow for the Alabama-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries to continue annually, along with Georgia-Florida and Georgia-Auburn.
If the playoff expanded to 12 teams – the SEC backed this idea, but it failed to gain enough widespread support – housing Alabama and Georgia in the same division wouldn’t be a major issue, because multiple SEC teams from the same division would have a path to playoff qualification in a 12-team format.
But a four- or eight-team playoff increases the incentive for SEC teams to avoid being in a division featuring Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty.
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Creating a quartet of four-team pods is one alternative to the division structure. Each year, teams would play the other three teams in their pod plus two teams from each of the other three pods.
A popular suggestion for pods features:
Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina
LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas A&M
Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas
In this setup, three teams would be stuck playing Alabama every year, but Auburn and Tennessee already are accustomed to that. And Vanderbilt football is irrelevant anyway.
A pod system would allow for multiple undefeated or one-loss SEC teams, maximizing opportunities for multiple playoff candidates. Plus, a pod system would allow for the greatest schedule variety. Teams would never go longer than one year without playing a particular SEC foe.
So, what’s the catch?
Well, the pods don't preserve rivalries as well as the division structure. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry between Auburn and Georgia likely would become a casualty of the pods, although the teams still would play on alternating years.
More importantly, though, it’s unclear how a conference championship game would work in a pod system. NCAA rules don’t outline an avenue to conducting a conference championship game from a pod format.
Divisions remain the cleanest setup. Tough luck for the division that draws Alabama.
Perhaps Georgia feels so emboldened on the heels of winning its first national championship since the 1980 season that it would relish being paired in a division with Alabama.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.