The SEC's Final Four of Football
Lost amid the rush to four 16 team superconferences has been this question: why are 16 team conferences any better than 12 team conferences? The move to 12 teams made complete sense because two divisions of six opened up the ability to play a conference championship. But what does moving to 16 gain you? More money, potentially, but that money now has to be split 16 ways so it has be substantially more money to increase the payouts for all teams. If schools expand to 16 teams and create two eight team divisions all that does is make scheduling more complicated and eliminate lower-tier teams even earlier from any chance of winning a division.
That's why this is a fundamental truth: There is no point in moving to a 16 team conference unless you move to four divisions of four teams each.
Why does that make sense? Because it sets up the next change to the NCAA rulebook: a final four of division champions.
I'm convinced that's the end game for expansion to 16 teams, a way to increase revenue while simultaneously setting the framework for an eventual break away by the biggest conferences from the NCAA. In the meantime your division champs can play in neutral site cities and reap the whirlwind of cash that ensues from a semifinal weekend.
I've written about this in the past but the future is now. Eventually all the major conferences are going to adopt the NFL format, four divisions of four teams each.
Which conference will be the first to make this move? I'm not sure, but I've sketched out why, in particular, it make sense for the SEC to create it's own Final Four based on a four-division format. Make no mistake, that's the end game here for 16 team conferences. Otherwise expansion makes no sense. Moving to 16 teams has to get you something that 12 teams doesn't. Divisions is the only answer.
Here are four advantages to a four-division 16 team superconference:
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. (Note, this presumes staying at eight games, you could also easily add a ninth conference game which would provide even greater flexibillity).
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. Especially if you played the majority of the intra-division games in the final part of the season. You could even make the month of November exclusively for division games. That way the division champs wouldn't be decided until the final week of the SEC season. You think that wouldn't increase excitement?
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 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. Add in South Carolina of late and it's not enough for any two of those programs to stumble in a given year, all four 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.
If you're the SEC, you could put the cities of Nashville, Tampa, New Orleans and Dallas to work scrambling to host your divisional round games in their stadiums. Make them de facto bowl games, but have the conference own these games so all the funds go directly to the conference's benefit. Bang, you've got the profits of a bowl without the meddlesome middlemen bowl executives 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? Can you imagine what kind of ratings a back-to-back SEC semi-final would pull on a Saturday? This day would become a national holiday in the South.
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 one other option if creating two bowls didn't work: Demand the creation of an exemption for expanded conference championships. The SEC already created the framework for conference championships by exploiting a loophole, why not create a new one?
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, what the ratings would be, and the BCS would crumble.
And with that does of Tuesday morning excitement -- SEC football is like caffeine -- 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.
d. I added Texas A&M, Missouri, N.C. State, and Virginia Tech as my four SEC schools. You could make a case for other schools: Florida State, Clemson, or Georgia Tech if the pact to keep those schools out didn't hold, but I think these are still the most likely additions that the SEC wants to and could make. Please stop talking about the new $20 million buyout as if it keeps the ACC from being raided. It doesn't. All that buyout does is increase the penalty by $7 million. That's chump change when you're talking about a generational conference move.
These are two teams from the original SEC east melded with two new additions. I'm trying to keep the relative strength of the divisions somewhat equal, but this one is definitely a bit top-heavy. It could make sense to switch out Vanderbilt/Kentucky with N.C. State, but I've also tried to balance the top-heavy nature of the divisions by setting up South Carolina with Vanderbilt as one of its consistent rivals. That way the Gamecocks get a relatively easy yearly opponent which helps to balance out the toughness of the division.
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. 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 N.C. State)
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.
Missouri (Virginia Tech and Kentucky)
Texas A&M ( Kentucky and Virginia Tech)
Arkansas (South Carolina and Ole Miss)
LSU (Alabama and Auburn)
A bit of the old Southwest Conference brought to the SEC.
Voila, the SEC's own Final Four, the future of college athletics.
And it's not just the SEC, every major conference will eventually adopt the four division format.
What does that give us? Sixteen division champs from each of the four major conferences: SEC, Big Ten, ACC, and Pac 16.
Those 16 teams then set up a very easy road map for a college football playoff.
This is the future, embrace it.
If you're interested in FSU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, et al. basically we've talked about how conference realignment impacts all these schools in the below articles. Just scroll through and you'll be entertained and informed. I promise.
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