When the SEC first expanded to 12 teams in 1992 by adding Arkansas and South Carolina, the move was exciting because it created new rivalries such as Tennessee-Florida, Arkansas-LSU, and South Carolina-Georgia. However, it was also bittersweet because once-cherished rivalries such as Auburn-Tennessee and Auburn-Florida were kicked to the curb.
Then, in 1996, the creation of the Big 12 effectively ended the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. The 12-team ACC that began in 2005 did not really damage any traditional rivalries, but the creation of divisions took some of the luster away from what the Miami-FSU rivalry could have been once they finally joined the same conference. In 2011, the Big Ten expansion separated Michigan and Ohio St. into different divisions.
Now, with the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC all with 14 teams and two divisions, the conferences either have to scrap more “untouchable” rivalries or shorten the interdivisional rotations, so SEC fans may not see a team from another division in their home stadium for more than 10 years.
This column is not an attack on the expansions. It’s an attack on the divisions.
Getting rid of the divisions will allow all three conferences to keep every rivalry they love and pair up teams more often. Instead debating about whether or not you need an eight-or-nine game schedule, how you should handle potentially playing only two inter-divisional games a year, and what rivalries should be protected, change the format. Conferences can have a set number of scheduled games every year, then put the rest into a rotation.
For instance, in the SEC, Tennessee can keep its annual yearly games with Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. The other three conference games can be rotated on a yearly basis.
In the Big Ten, Michigan can stick to playing Michigan State, Ohio State, and Minnesota, and if the conference wants to create a couple more rivalries for them, that is fine too. Just have a set number of protected games each year, then put the rest into a rotation.
The move will keep the traditional rivalries, add some new rivalries, and allow more games among different teams in the conference.
There are also upsides outside of the rivalry issue. How many times have we seen a conference championship game where a team was completely outmatched because their division was so mediocre? Even worse, what if a mediocre team wins one of the conference divisions in a year that division is down, and in the conference championship game that team pulls an upset against a team from the other division that was in contention for a National Championship? The conference is stuck with that mediocre team representing them in one of the major bowls.
Getting rid of the divisions allows the two best teams in the conference, regardless of where they stood in their own division, to play for the championship.
Of course, like anything, the system won’t be perfect or fair. Some teams will get easier draws with their rivalry games and their rotations, but with an eight-or-nine game schedule in a conference of 14 teams, it’s very rare for scheduled strengths among teams to be too far apart. If you compare any two teams in a conference, at least half of their schedules would be against the same teams.
As we know, basketball conferences have already gotten rid of the divisions. They should do the same in football. The decision is good for traditionalists and business.