(Fair warning: off for Memorial Day + between semesters at seminary = this post is super long)
Tuesday-Friday of this week, the powers that be in the SEC will discuss the topics that will shape the landscape of college sports for the next several years. With Missouri and Texas A&M at the table for the first time, it's a brave new world that could get even braver and newer very soon. There will be college basketball issues up for debate, for sure - as Tennessee is concerned, the most pressing issue is the format of an 18 game schedule and the possibility that Tennessee and Kentucky might not face each other home-and-home every year - but today we'll stick to what everyone cares about most everywhere outside Lexington: the future of SEC Football.
Tennessee has a vested interest in all of these topics, though our degree of interest will depend on the quality of our own product in some areas. I'm not 100% sure which way Derek Dooley will lean on any of these issues, but we here at the campaign are happy to lend our thoughts:
I wasn't at any of the caravan stops, but reading about them you get the sense that the number one question Dave Hart was asked all over the state and throughout the southeast was, "Are we going to keep playing Alabama every year?"
The answer going into this week's meetings appears to be an overwhelming yes, from both Knoxville and Tuscaloosa. While Florida and LSU may not be overly keen on continuing their annual rivalry (and if I was a fan of a team as good as LSU is right now or as good as Florida should be every year, I'd feel like a coward), but the league's most traditional powers - Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia - should have more than enough power to make sure the Third Saturday in October and the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, among others, continue.
Even with one annual rivalry, the question of eight or nine conference games remains. I can't imagine there's a single SEC head coach who will push for nine given the way job security tends to work 'round these parts, but television money may say otherwise. Expansion has led the conference to explore its own network, and to renegotiate with CBS. I can't imagine there's a single CBS executive who will push for eight games.
It should be noted that the ten-team Big 12 currently plays a nine game conference schedule, as does the twelve-team Pac-12, not counting its conference title game. A 6-1-2 nine game schedule makes the most sense - annual rivalries remain, plus two rotating opponents (the current format used by the SEC) ensures that we don't go more than six years without seeing the non-Crimson Tide SEC West schools.
But if coaches get their way and we stay at eight, here's how the future might look for Tennessee:
This model assumes the league keeps the current rotation (no guarantee), and for UT's purposes we're just tacking Texas A&M on at the end of it (total guess). Also picking up steam is the notion that instead of playing the same rotating opponent home-and-home consecutive years - very fortunate some years, very unfortunate if you're, say, Tennessee the last two years who happened to catch LSU at the wrong time - each school would go through the entire rotation in six years. This means it would be twelve years between visits for each non-Crimson Tide SEC West team to Knoxville - same as under the consecutive home-and-home format - but only (approximately, as you'll see) six years between matchups with each team.
So, UT's future could look like this:
- 2012: at Mississippi State
- 2013: vs Auburn
- 2014: at Ole Miss
- 2015: vs Texas A&M
- 2016: at LSU
- 2017: vs Arkansas
Here's where this runs into a small problem. In this example, with A&M at the end it ensures the Vols stay in balance with the old rotation (as in, the Vols and LSU last played in Knoxville so the next meeting should be in Baton Rouge, vice versa with Arkansas), whatever that's worth. But at the end of an even-numbered rotation, you get out of balance with the annual opponents: if the rotation started over and the Vols hosted Mississippi State in 2018, they would have five home games and three road games in the SEC. This may only be an issue for list-making types like yours truly, and could easily be resolved by flip-flopping the next rotation:
- 2018: at Auburn
- 2019: vs Mississippi State
- 2020: at Texas A&M
- 2021: vs Ole Miss
- 2022: at Arkansas
- 2023: vs LSU
We brought this up yesterday, and check out Incipient_Senescence's work in the comments on how this would've changed things in the last twenty years. Steve Spurrier is pushing for only divisional games to count for the division title - last year South Carolina swept the SEC East but got left out of Atlanta thanks to losses to a pair of SEC West foes - and it's unsure how much support he'll have.
Derek Dooley might end up being a fan of this idea, whether in public or behind closed doors, because of the first issue: if you're going to play Alabama every year, the road to Atlanta will always be easier if the Third Saturday in October doesn't count.
But that's exactly why I'm against this idea: the Third Saturday in October wouldn't count, at least not as much. While a win will always mean what it means in this rivalry, a loss would become significantly less soul-crushing...and that's just not what this thing is about.
I think everyone expects the SEC to come out of these meetings in full support of a four team playoff, and rightfully so. I'd also expect the SEC to come out against the conference-champions-only model, being that Alabama would've been left out to dry under that plan last year.
(This post is long enough, so I'll make this argument again some other day, but the SEC and all powers that be in college football need to do everything they can to get college football to an eight team playoff, and then come to a full stop. A sixteen team playoff will kill what is most important about college football: wins and losses mean more in our sport than in any other, and a sixteen team postseason that allows the phrase "we'll still make the playoffs" into our sport will take away what matters most. Four is a good start, eight is better, sixteen is too far. Don't do it.)
But for the one or two SEC teams that aren't fortunate enough to be in the four team playoff every year, what will become of the bowl system?
We've already seen the SEC lead the way here by setting up the best non-playoff SEC team against the best non-playoff Big 12 team - it's our version of the Rose Bowl, only bid out to different cities each year. If this is tacked on to the rest of the bowl structure, the SEC becomes even stronger.
There are two great truths about the SEC's current bowl arrangement: it's great to be in the upper class of this league, and the lower class is expanding.
This year the SEC will again have the chance to put two teams in the BCS, as we have the last six years, and then put one of its teams in every non-BCS traditional January 1 bowl (Capital One, Cotton, Outback, Gator). The SEC also has the best non-January 1 bowl (Chick-Fil-A), giving the SEC postseason matchups with the first non-BCS selection from the ACC (Chick-Fil-A), Big Ten (Capital One), and Big 12 (Cotton).
So if you're one of the six or seven best teams in this league, life is great. But now in a fourteen team league, it's getting very crowded in the lower/middle class. Consider that of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, and Tennessee, one of those teams is guaranteed to go to the Music City Bowl or worse. That doesn't even count the league newcomers, or Mississippi State, or Vanderbilt if James Franklin is able to beat anyone who actually matters.
The new SEC-Big 12 arrangement will surely do something to the current Cotton Bowl arrangement, and there could be more fallout in the future. But as long as we don't get crazy with our number of playoff teams, we'll always need the bowls. In all the places the SEC is currently king of the castle, our bowl contract structure is at or near the top of the list. What can the league do to ensure half of its teams end up in meaningful January destinations once the playoff arrives?
Is expansion over?
And now that one that could make many of the above 1,700 words meaningless.
It's probably fair to say that the SEC was a bit reactionary in the first round of expansion, but if that was going to be the case I'm fine with the outcome we got. I think Texas A&M will be a natural fit, Missouri does great things for our basketball product, and we get all the things the powers that be care about with television markets in both cases.
It's also probably fair to guess that the SEC will be reactionary in round two. If the ACC holds together against the current advances from the Big 12 toward Florida State and Clemson, I'm not sure the SEC will want to go poaching again anytime soon. The last SEC expansion lasted twenty years, and being king of the castle means you're just fine with status quo and seeing college football chill out for a while and the league stay at fourteen teams.
But if Florida State and Clemson bolt for the Big 12, the rest of the ACC is going to get jumpy. The addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh will still make them a strong basketball conference, but their best football team since their most recent expansion won't care about that: Virginia Tech has done everything except win it all, taking the ACC title four times in eight years, falling short in the ACC Championship Game another two times. Right now everything suggests Virginia Tech wants to stay in the ACC...but an ACC without Florida State and Clemson is really a glorified version of the Big East they left in 2004, one that will find itself increasingly outside the conversation in college football.
We've all been playing this expansion game long enough now to know that rumors change every day, but the one that seems to have real shelf-life continues to be, "If Florida State and Clemson go Big 12, will Virginia Tech and NC State go SEC?"
I don't know if that answer is yes, but one thing I assume the powers that be in the SEC will discuss this week is: do we want them?
A sixteen team league would presumably change all the rules; though the SEC could wait to go to a nine game schedule if/when the league went to sixteen teams and then use a 7-1-1 rotation (with Missouri moving to the SEC West), the four division plan has been discussed on many a blog. And I'll say this for Tennessee: every version of the four division plan I've ever seen is a winner for the Vols, because they all put UT in a division with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and either Georgia or Virginia Tech. It would be, by far, an easier road to an SEC title than anything UT has seen before.
Which sounds great...except then we'd go right back to the top, and have to start worrying about the Third Saturday in October all over again.
It's all great offseason fun and creates good conversation on our site and everyone else's...but in Destin this week, the conversations will be real and meaningful, and the future direction of America's best conference can and probably will be shaped.
For now, Tennessee fights for the Third Saturday, and will almost certainly get it. But the bigger landscape decisions could have an impact on that rivalry and many other things with Tennessee Football several years down the road, and there's no way to see with 100% clarity right now which decisions are best.
The SEC does it better than everyone else. We need to make sure we position ourselves well this week in the ongoing evolution of college football so that this league can continue to lead the way in the present and the future.
And for Derek Dooley, Dave Hart, and Tennessee, there's only one way to make your voice count more than others at the table: win.