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Want SEC Schedules to be Fair? Eliminate Divisions

SEC East it just means more

Stop being polite and start getting real…alternately, stop wasting everyone’s time in Atlanta.

I’ve done my best to stay away from Tennessee news this offseason. It’s either depressing to think about a 7-5 season coming down the pipe or obnoxious to see the amount of vitriol spewed on a June Monday. But: for the first time in months, a Tennessee-based argument caught my eye.

Once owned online by God’s favorite Twitter account, Ryan C. Fowler is correct: this would not be an argument if Tennessee had defeated Alabama in football at any point in the last 10 years. Tennessee has contended seriously for victory in two of the last ten games (12-10 loss in 2009, 19-14 loss in 2015), losing by 30+ points in five of those games. The Vols have not topped 20 points against Alabama since 2003’s five-overtime victory, and 2002 was the last time they topped 20 in regulation. It is not unreasonable for Tennessee fans to be sick of facing Alabama when the result is an obvious one.

However, noted writer Seth Hughes provided points to back up his position:

Hughes is right, as Tennessee’s top two rivals in the SEC East, Florida and Georgia, are not required to play Alabama every year. In fact, Tennessee’s top two rivals still don’t play at each other’s campuses – the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party takes place in a sterile NFL stadium that hasn’t seen exceptional quarterbacking of any kind since Tim Tebow played. Inherently, this is unfair: compare this to the idea of Tennessee playing Alabama at Nissan Stadium. It makes no sense and ruins any sort of back-and-forth battles within the rivalry based on location.

Currently, Georgia is not required to play at Alabama until 2020. Florida made their visit in 2014; they will not be required to return until at least 2026. Tennessee will return to Tuscaloosa in four months, and then 24 months from that. They’ll play at Alabama six times before Florida has to go back once. Is this a situation where tradition overrides logic? Certainly. The Third Saturday in October will hit its 100th meeting in 2018, and it is routinely listed as one of the best rivalries in football, even with Tennessee’s slide into sludgy mediocrity.

However, what if we presented a pretty easy fix that would allow schedules to become more balanced while maintaining Tennessee-Alabama and nearly all current rivalries?

That’s the idea Bill Connelly and Jason Kirk at SB Nation presented last yearkill the SEC divisions, and make rotating schedules an actual real thing. Instead of getting to play teams like Auburn or Mississippi State once every six years, Tennessee would play them every two years. The Vols would no longer be required to play utterly meaningless games against South Carolina, Kentucky, or Missouri yearly. They’d lose Georgia under this idea, but we can pretend we like playing Georgia more than Vanderbilt for a minute and swap the two out. I’m sure no one outside of a small subset of the 615 area code would care for more than a day.

Plus, look at that proposed even-year schedule for Tennessee:

You’d happily take the odd-year schedule with Auburn, LSU, and Ole Miss on it for that, right?

Better yet is this: the SEC Championship Game would matter again. For years, it’s been a pointless exercise. The SEC East hasn’t won the SEC Championship Game since Florida in 2008, and it’s been 12 years since a non-Florida team from the East won the game. Blowing up divisions creates fairer schedules for both sides of the conference – look at the average S&P+ rating for each schedule – and you’re much more likely to get the two best teams in the conference together at the end of the year.

The question’s really this simple: do you want a title game where Alabama is favored over Florida by 17, or do you want Alabama-LSU part 2? Or Alabama-Auburn part 2? (Now that would be something.) In years when the SEC East decides to recruit well, then it all works out anyway: you get two great teams in the title game, and one of them happens to not play Alabama in the regular season.

So, yes, it’s okay to be frustrated about Tennessee playing Alabama yearly. But it’s also okay to root for the SEC to change more things than just that to even things up for the whole conference. Don’t treat this as a mere sideshow from idiots like the writer, either: the SEC eliminated divisions in basketball in 2011 and baseball in 1986. The Big 12 will be the first true test case for a football conference championship that’s a rematch due to no divisions. It’s not the exact same case, but we really haven’t seen anything like it yet. If it works out well for them, look for others to follow. College sports are full of copycats, and the SEC is no different.

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