If Texas A&M is voted in as a member of the Southeastern Conference and begins competing in football next fall, it appears that the league will have to figure out a way to squeeze 13 teams into its current divisional format.
Why keep divisions? As we’ve already stated once today, in order to hold a championship game, the NCAA requires a league to have at least 12 teams split into divisions. Unless the SEC wants to petition the NCAA to change that rule, there’s little chance of having one big free-for-all league. In the current set-up, if you want a title game, your league has to be split into divisions.
If divisions are a must, would the SEC just place A&M in the West Division? Makes sense. But we can’t imagine West schools would like the idea of having a harder road to Atlanta than their neighbors in the East Division. Also, under the SEC’s current scheduling format, schools play every other team in their own division. Would the league force West Division teams to play more league games than East Division teams. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the West signing off on that even for a year.
Eventually, if the league does go to 14 schools, you can expect a nine-game conference schedule to emerge. Coaches would howl. Those of us in the media would shout that no SEC team would ever win another national title.
We’ve lived through that scenario once before. In 1992, when the SEC split into divisions, went from six conference games all the way to eight, and added an SEC title game, league coaches suffered a collective conniption. (Correction: SEC coaches complained as the league went from six to seven games in 1988 and then from seven to eight in 1992.)
“There’s no way we’ll ever win again with such a brutal schedule!”
And Alabama promptly went undefeated and won the national title in Year One of the new set-up. Matter of fact, in 19 seasons of eight-game, divisional play the SEC has won nine national crowns (handed out to five different schools). In the 19 seasons prior to 1992, the SEC had won just four national titles (and three of those went to Alabama). The SEC went 11 seasons without a title before the tougher set-up. It’s since won nine in 19 years. The tougher schedule gave the league more credibility.
At any rate, the SEC currently uses a 5-1-2 format. Each school plays five divisional foes, one permanent foe from the other division, and two rotating foes from the other division. If the league were to expand to 14 schools and bring in another Western team, Auburn would likely move to the East and that would require the league to go to a 6-2-1 format. Doing so would enable the league to preserve some longtime rivalries — namely Alabama-Tennessee — that might otherwise disappear. If, however, a team is added from the Eastern part of the US, the league could go to a nine-game schedule and use a friendlier 6-1-2 format. It all depends on who School #14 turns out to be (if there is one).
1. It’s unlikely the league would do away with divisional play.
2. It’s also unlikely that West Division schools would agree to put themselves at a disadvantage by adding a team to their side of the ledger.
So how can the SEC add Texas A&M to the 2012 football schedule?
The best possible fix might be a single “transition” year schedule for the Aggies. The key would be finding eight league schools — four from the East and four from the West, if the league wanted to keep things balanced — that would be willing to schedule the Aggies in what would amount to “non-conference” conference games. A&M would get a full schedule and full share of SEC money, but they wouldn’t be eligible for a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. They would, however, be eligible for an SEC-connected bowl trip. (And, yes, new bowl contracts will have to be drawn up once the league expands, too.)
Arkansas already has Texas A&M on the books for their rivalry game in Arlington, Texas next year. That means the league would need to find just three teams in the West and four in the East willing to schedule A&M. Sounds easy enough.
But what about the non-conference foes already locked on to SEC schedules next fall? The schools adding A&M in this scenario would each have to buyout one non-conference foe from next year’s schedule. Would they be willing to do that for the good of the league? Would the SEC office be willing to kick in the cash to cover seven buyouts (a figure that would probably total about $7 million)?
Also, most SEC schools play the majority of their non-conference games early, leaving one spot later in the season for a homecoming dud (in most cases). Could A&M find seven SEC dance partners and make sure all those games fell in such a way that the Aggies would have 12 games spread neatly over the NCAA’s 13-week season?
We wanted to examine next year’s schedules to determine which schools might best be able to finagle their schedules. So we grabbed this year’s SEC Media Guide. Usually one can find the current year’s schedules as well as upcoming year’s schedules right there in the guide.
This year the SEC has not officially released its schools’ 2012 schedules yet. Not in its media guide. Not on its website. Not on its schools’ websites.
In addition, every 10 years the SEC re-examines — and possibly re-works — the schedule rotation for non-division games. This is the final season of the current 10-year rotation. But to date the SEC hasn’t announced a new rotation of non-division foes either.
Why is all this interesting? Because Texas A&M and the SEC have said that the Aggies first made contact with Mike Slive in late-July. Yet the SEC has — for some reason — not released its 2012 schedules or even set its non-divisional rotations.
Again, it’s pretty standard for the SEC schedule to be put to bed early enough that it’s listed in all of the media guides and on all of the league’s websites by mid-July. But that’s not the case this year.
Why it’s almost as though league officials knew that something might change.
Now, do we find it odd that in a year when the SEC looks to be bringing in a new school, the league has coincidentally been historically slow in its schedule-setting? Uh, yeah. We do. (We’re sure the SEC will provide a perfectly good explanation for the delay, however.)
We also believe that it’s likely the league is — and has been — prepared to take the path of least resistance with regards to A&M’s 2012 schedule. And that’s most likely an eight-game SEC schedule for A&M that doesn’t figure into the league’s standings at all. For a year. And that’s if the SEC doesn’t surprise us all with the announcement of a 14th school (or 15th or 16th) in the next few days.
After 2012, however, all bets are off. Whatever the league does schedule-wise next season — with presumably a 13-school conference — will not be perfect. It will be makeshift. It will be a case of making lemonade out of lemons. Or chicken salad… well, you get the picture.
If the SEC doesn’t have School #14 lined up for entry by the 2013 football season, then Slive’s office will have a bigger problem on its hands. At that point, A&M will surely want a shot at Atlanta. At that point, current league schools surely won’t want to play in a division that has seven teams when the other has but six.
For a 13-team 2012, there appears to be a solution. Beyond that, who knows?
Good thing the SEC just happened to take such an unusually long time to announce its 2012 schedule.