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December 7, 2019
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Why SEC needs to scrap divisions and more Week 6 college football thoughts

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You’ve probably heard by now that Auburn and Florida, who meet in Gainesville on Saturday, have played each other only once in the past 11 seasons. This is a long-standing rivalry, and this will be the eighth time the programs meet as top-10 teams, but they barely play anymore.

Georgia won’t play Texas A&M for the first time as a conference rival until later this season. LSU won’t visit Missouri for the first time until 2023, 11 years after A&M and Mizzou joined the SEC.

This barely qualifies as a conference.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen said as much last week, noting that Florida has more games scheduled against USF than Mississippi State. “I think it’s an injustice for the kids. We should mix those games up, and you should play more teams from the West and get the opportunity to play more SEC games.” When you have 14 SEC teams playing eight-game conference schedules, and when seven of those eight spots are occupied by the same seven teams every year (six division foes, plus one permanent inter-division rival), you’re barely going to play the other six teams.

Going from eight conference games to nine would put an extra inter-division foe into the rotation and assure you’re playing everybody twice in six years. However, the SEC probably isn’t going to move to nine-game schedules anytime soon — the current structure works out pretty well for the league, which has placed at least one team (and on two occasions, two teams) in the national title game in the past 13 seasons.

Luckily, there’s an even better way. It doesn’t even require adding a conference game, and it would serve the additional purpose of solving occasional problems with unequal divisions.

Just ban divisions altogether.

I’ve written about this before, but it has picked up steam in the run-up to Auburn-Florida. Let’s walk through the basics of what we’ll call the conference pod structure.

1. Instead of divisions, each team has a set of three permanent rivals. We have taken to calling them pods. Having three for each team satisfies most rivalry needs, as you’ll see below.

2. You play your three permanent rivals every year, and you rotate between the other 10. Home-and-homes against five of them for two years, then home-and-homes against the other five the next two years. Within a student’s four years on campus, you have played everyone in the league at least twice. Now that’s a conference.

This same structure, by the way, would work beautifully for the ACC, which also plays eight-game conference schedules, doesn’t even use geography for its divisions and features even more divisional imbalance than the SEC. And while the three-five structure works with perfect symmetry, it would work for conferences with nine-game conference schedules, too. (Hello, Big Ten.)

A simulation

To see how this would work in the future, I looked to the past. I simulated how it might have played out had the SEC adopted this structure from the moment it became a 14-team league in 2012.

Here are the permanent rivalries I chose:

Hypothetical SEC rivalry pods
Alabama: Auburn, LSU, Tennessee
Arkansas: Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Auburn: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State
Florida: Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee
Georgia: Auburn, Florida, South Carolina
Kentucky: Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt
LSU: Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Mississippi State: Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss
Missouri: Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M
Ole Miss: Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State
South Carolina: Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt
Tennessee: Alabama, Florida, Vanderbilt
Texas A&M: Arkansas, LSU, Missouri
Vanderbilt: Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee

For balanced scheduling, I referenced teams’ five-year average SP+ ratings (2007-11, which can be found at Football Outsiders). I used as many real-life games as possible, and for the new matchups that didn’t actually happen, I kept things simple and determined the winner by who would be favored by that year’s SP+ ratings. (No, this wasn’t intended to be perfectly scientific.)

Here are the results.

2012 Standings
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Georgia (7-1, 11-1)
Florida (6-2, 10-2) (-1 win from real life)
LSU (6-2, 10-2)
Texas A&M (6-2, 10-2)
South Carolina (5-3, 9-3) (-1 win)
Vanderbilt (5-3, 8-4)
Ole Miss (3-5, 6-6)
Mississippi State (3-5, 7-5) (-1 win)
Arkansas (3-5, 5-7) (+1 win)
Auburn (2-6, 5-7) (+2 wins)
Tennessee (2-6, 6-6) (+1 win)
Missouri (1-7, 4-8) (-1 win)
Kentucky (0-8, 2-10)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. Georgia

The title game doesn’t change, but we see some shifts further down in the standings. From the start of the league’s 14-team existence, the West has been far stronger than the East, and we see here that West teams pick up a net two wins.

http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/27759331/why-sec-needs-scrap-divisions-more-week-6-college-football-thoughts

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