College football conferences are supposed to make scheduling easier for teams, keep things within a reasonable geographical distance, and cultivate passionate rivalries. Sometimes, however, conferences can hurt teams, especially when major conferences like the SEC grow too big. Bill Connelly of ESPN recently brought up the problem that big conferences like the SEC present for the teams inside it.
The SEC conundrum
The SEC, or Southeastern Conference, is one of the most famous conferences in college football. Many of the nation’s top programs participate in the SEC, but several of them rarely play other members of the conference.
Although the SEC extends past football, the short football season offers a unique concern that means several schools, including rivals, do not play each other as often as one might hope or think.
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.
Within the conference, there are two divisions. The majority of the games are played within a single division, with one game being played against the other division. Connelly points out how some fixes have been proposed, such as adding a second inter-division game, but he has a better directive to fix things.
How the current system was born
According to Saturday Down South, the SEC’s dominance of college sports dates back to the 1920s, when the teams who would form the SEC were part of the Southern Conference. With college sports still smaller than it is today, there were fewer conferences and more teams. At its largest, the Southern Conference had 23 schools that stretched across ten different states.
To combat the crowded conference, the teams who were west and south of the Appalachian Mountains split off to form the SEC in 1933. The numbers fluctuated within the SEC for several decades until a 1990s rue-change allowed for conferences of 12 or more to split up into two divisions to compete for the championship at season’s end. That gave the league incentive to grow both in size and geographical footprint.
The expansion would move to its current size 20 years later as the conference desired to grow even more amidst the launch of its own television network.
Should the SEC think about eliminating divisions
Teams like Auburn and Florida have a classic rivalry that stretches back decades. However, due to the current structure of the SEC, they hardly ever play. The game they played this season was the first one played in the last 11 seasons. In college football, where rivalries are a huge part of the draw, why would anyone want a system that stifles possible rivalries within the same conference?
Florida head coach Dan Mullen seems to agree. He sees the way that things are scheduled and wonders why there isn’t more variety.
“I think it’s an injustice for the kids,” Mullen said (per ESPN). “We should mix those games up, and you should play more teams from the West and get the opportunity to play more SEC games.”
While divisions are supposed to help make things easier, they inhibit the teams in the SEC from being able to face the conference’s top talent. In football, specifically, it could mean that during any given year, the conference’s weaker division could look bad come bowl season, when the strength of schedule plays a big part in the college playoffs.
Connelly offers a fix — eliminating division, having three rivals that are played for each season, and rotating between the other ten teams. That not only allows for more diversity, but it allows the teams a greater pool of rivals to face off. Whatever the fix, however, the conferences may be growing too big. As college football finds ways to crown a more definitive champion, conferences like the SEC may be shooting themselves in the foot.