The Final Four of College Football in the SEC? Dare to Dream
By looking to the NFL and adopting its four division AFC or NFC format. Yep, the SEC should go ahead and scrap the SEC East and the SEC West and instead create four divisions of four teams each: the SEC East, the SEC Central, the SEC South and the SEC West.
All four division winners should advance to a Final Four pairing, the overall No. 1 seed in the conference would play the overall No. 4 the overall No. 2 would play No. 3 and the two winners would meet in Atlanta to crown a league champion.
In one fell swoop, the SEC would make its championship race the most followed event in college athletics.
So what if the rest of college football won't create a playoff? Create one yourself.
It's the future, grab it.
As a preliminary, next week the Southeastern Conference meets in Destin, Fla., for one of the most interesting spring meetings in recent memory. (FanHouse will be there). It has been nearly five months since Alabama walked off the Rose Bowl turf with a national championship trophy held high. Yet for the past several months, little of the conversation about college football has been on-the-field related. Instead, the Big Ten's rumored expansion has set off alarm bells throughout the country. One of the potential plans has the Big Ten adding five teams to get to sixteen, a heretofore unsuccessful number of major conference teams.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive has said he has a contingency plan in place in the event the Big Ten expands, and at least one report has surfaced, rapidly denied by the league, that the SEC has already met with CBS and informed them of the league's expansion plans. The rumored schools per that report: Texas, Texas A&M, Clemson and Florida State.
If Texas and Texas A&M say no, then, according to that report, the SEC would look to gut the ACC by taking away Georgia Tech and Miami, leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference with no teams south of North Carolina.
I've already ranked the SEC expansion candidates. So instead of doing that anew, I'm going to include the first four teams most recently mentioned above and give you some sense of what a four division SEC could look like. (Clearly, depending on what four teams are added, you could move around teams as rivalry and competitiveness necessitated).
Before I show you those divisions, let's consider five of the attractive elements of a four-division format.
1. It increases scheduling flexibility.
Presently, in a 12-team SEC, each team plays all five division rivals plus one traditional rival from the other division and two rotating opponents from the other division.
That adds up to eight conference games.
In a 16-team format you'd only play three division games each year, so you could actually add one more traditional rivalry game every year, meaning there would now be two, to make sure you didn't end up wrecking old rivalries. Then, with your other three conference games, you'd rotate through the other three divisions (skipping the regular rivals).
If you wanted to play home and homes -- that is you'd play the same team for two years in a row -- every six years you'd complete the conference circuit and begin anew.
Or if you wanted the teams to play more frequently, as I think makes more sense, then you could wait for the return home game until after a circuit is complete and complete the circuit in just three seasons.
2. It keeps more teams alive for the championship for the length of the season.
As the NFL has shown us, allowing your team to compete for a championship increases fan interest. Presently, by October, many of the SEC teams are aware they have no chance of advancing to Atlanta.
But with a four-team division, creating substantial separation would be more difficult than before.
It would also, and this is key, brand the SEC championship as an even more valuable attainment.
3. It gives lower-tier teams a chance to get to the Final Four, win one game and advance to the championship game.
If you expand to 16 teams and have an eight-team division, the lower half of the SEC is never, ever going to advance to Atlanta.
There are simply too many hurdles to overcome.
There's a reason South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky have never, and probably will never, win the SEC East as it's presently constituted. Because they have to overcome three traditional heavyweights to get there -- Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. It's not enough for any two of those programs to stumble in a given year, all three must.
Add in another couple of top teams in any expansion and that probability becomes even tinier.
But with just three divisional rivals, anything is possible.
Suddenly every fan base in the conference can dream of a league championship.
4. The SEC can create its own loophole that allows more regular-season games to be played.
In the process, put every city with a major stadium in your region into competition for these two neutral-site semifinal games.
Here's how: Basically design your two divisional round games as bowl games. Take them out of the usual roster of regular-season games and play them in neutral site venues.
Then they aren't regular season games, they're SEC-owned bowls.
This offers a potential sidestep of the rules regarding maximum number of games in a season. Right now that number is 14. Adding a four-team SEC divisional playoff would lead to two teams, the victors in the Final Four, playing 15 total games.
(FYI, it's likely that the Big Ten, if it went to 16 teams, would consider playing two big games in neutral site cities rather than one championship game.
Twice the championship game revenue.
Then the team that finished with the best record of those two victors would go to the top BCS game, the other would hope to make the BCS as well. It would also leave open the potential that the top two teams in the final BCS rankings could both be from the Big Ten.)
If you're the SEC, you could put the cities of Nashville, Birmingham, Tampa, New Orleans and Dallas to work scrambling to host your divisional round games in their city stadiums. Make them de facto bowl games, but have the conference own them so all the funds go directly to the conference's benefit. Bang, you've got the profits of a bowl without the meddlesome middlemen skimming the profits.
One of the biggest criticisms of the SEC championship game is that it never moves from Atlanta.
So why not expand the conference footprint by playing in two neutral SEC crazy cities?
What if the BCS muckety-mucks make too much noise about trying to skirt the rules with the creation of an SEC Final Four? To heck with them. A well-run SEC Final Four would bring in more money than the SEC garners from two BCS bowl bids, anyway.
Plus, the BCS isn't going to squeal too loudly because it needs the SEC, the biggest brand in collegiate sports, more than the SEC needs the BCS.
(There would be two other options if creating two bowls didn't work: a. Demand the creation of an exemption for expanded conference championships and b. Play 11 games in the regular season instead of 12. Neither is optimal.)
You could even make an argument that the SEC's Final Four would be the event that finally leads to a college football playoff. Every other conference would see how lucrative running just a four team intra-conference playoff is, how crazy fans would be for it, and the BCS would crumble.
And with that, here is a proposed four divisional alignment in an expanded 16-team SEC.
a. I tried to keep in-state rivals in the same divisions.
b. The primary goal of the divisions has to be mixing up the would-be powers of the conference. That is, they can't be too top-heavy.
c, The two parenthetical teams are an attempt at yearly rivals. As you can see, the top teams have the toughest out of division rivals. The goal is to keep any one team from having too easy of a path. As is presently the case in a 12-team SEC, the toughest teams in conference have the toughest SEC matchups from other divisions.)
Florida (Tennessee and Georgia)
Florida State (Texas and Texas A&M)
South Carolina (Vanderbilt and Arkansas)
Clemson (Texas and Miss. State)
Put together the two South Carolina and two Florida teams for a solid new division. As a bonus, all four teams would have a tough out-of-conference rivalry game locked into the SEC slate. So those schools could either go schedule another national name from another conference or use the additional date as a home game to bring in more revenue for the athletic department.
Georgia (Florida and Auburn)
Tennessee (Florida and Alabama)
Kentucky (Miss. State and Texas A&M)
Vanderbilt (Ole Miss and South Carolina)
Four of the six teams of the original SEC East remain minus the two teams that went to the SEC South. Georgia and Tennessee are the traditional powers in this division, and you've also created a blockbuster basketball division, the best in the conference.
As you can see, the top teams in this division, Tennessee and Georgia, have absolutely brutal rivalry games every year against top teams from outside their own divisions while Kentucky and Vanderbilt have easier rivalry games.
Alabama (Tennessee and LSU)
Auburn (Georgia and LSU)
Ole Miss (Vanderbilt and Arkansas)
Miss. State (Kentucky and Clemson)
The name is also flexible here, I've abandoned the SEC North (since these teams aren't north) in favor of the SEC Central, but as you can see, four of the original teams from the SEC West are actually included in this division.
All season long the Iron Bowl would still loom as the ultimate challenge, although now it would likely determine who wins the division and advances to the Final Four of the SEC.
Texas (Florida State and Clemson)
Texas A&M (Kentucky and Florida State)
Arkansas (South Carolina and Ole Miss)
LSU (Alabama and Auburn)
A bit of the old Southwest Conference brought to the SEC. You'd entice Texas and Texas A&M to the conference by dangling much more money and prestige. Then you'd keep them here by driving their fan bases mad with desire over a race to the SEC's own Final Four.
If Mike Slive (above, right) and the SEC are thinking intelligently, they won't be attempting to make a move to equal the Big Ten's. They'll be thinking of a move that takes all of college football to a new horizon.
That's this plan.
The SEC's own Final Four.