When it comes to realignment, it’s time for the Southeastern Conference to bow to fate.
The league has been geographically out of whack for a while, having grown and expanded over the years and even added a television headquarters in a state that doesn’t include any of its participants.
A simple glance at a map reflects the issue, with Missouri playing in the SEC East against schools that are a short drive away from the Atlantic Ocean. The farthest, Florida, is over 1,000 miles away, a 15-hour-plus drive should anyone want to take in a game.
Granted, long trips are now pretty much par for the course in the conference, especially for Texas A&M fans. But, in general, they should be minimized as much as possible.
Actually, the division problem extends far beyond the latest round of expansion in 2011.
For example, Alabama, now probably the SEC’s most centrally located school, has both Arkansas and Texas A&M in its division, both a 10-hour-plus drive from Tuscaloosa, while SEC East programs Georgia and Vanderbilt are both roughly four hours away, depending on traffic.
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While visiting with reporters during April's Associated Press Sports Editors southeastern regional meeting in Birmingham, commissioner Greg Sankey said, “I don’t know,” when asked when the next realignment shift could occur.
He continued, saying, “We’re doing well as the Southeastern Conference with 14 members and the SEC Network, and we’ll look at maximizing our strength each and every day.”
Consequently, the subject wasn’t discussed during the recent spring meetings in Destin, Florida, and it probably won’t be at length until the league's hand is forced.
After all, it took this league three years to figure out a schedule rotation that everyone could agree on—the controversial 6-1-1 format (each team plays every division opponent, one permanent opponent from the other division and a crossover game)—and it will last through the 2025 season.
Yet sooner or later, there will be a correction, and assuming further expansion (the possibility of which appears to be as unpredictable as a Steve Spurrier press conference) isn’t on the doorstep, there’s really no reason it shouldn’t be sooner.
It’s certainly something the coaches are considering. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recently told ESPN.com’s Chris Low he'd be OK with Auburn moving to the SEC East:
Meanwhile, Tennessee coach Butch Jones made it clear in Destin that he’s against realignment. This, despite the fact that an SEC West representative has won the last seven conference championships and 11 of the past 15.
With opinions all over the place, coming to a consensus on the issue won’t be easy. Concessions in other areas will probably have to be negotiated.
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Some have suggested completely doing away with the divisions, which would make scheduling extremely controversial every year. Others suggest a quick fix by swapping Missouri with a team in the SEC West, or even Missouri and Vanderbilt for Alabama and Auburn, even though it would separate two in-state rivals.
An even more radical approach would be to throw out travel concerns and put the strongest rivals in different divisions, making them the permanent crossover games. It would look something like this:
- Division 1: Alabama, Mississippi State, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU
- Division 2: Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Texas A&M
Except for the rivalries, there’s barely any rhyme or reason to it, since teams from the same geographic region would hardly play. So that, too, is unappealing.
Region, though, is the key word. It's one the NCAA has embraced—especially with the way it makes postseason pairings—and the National Football League discovered when it went to four-team divisions.
The SEC ought to think of the conference as having four regions and use that as the basis for determining the divisions both now and if it eventually expands again.
The breakdown would be as such:
- Eastern: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina
- Southern: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State
- Northern: Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
- Western: Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Texas A&M
From there, combining the four- and three-team regions into two divisions is pretty easy, particularly since the Eastern and Western regions shouldn’t be paired for obvious reasons. So the Eastern and Southern schools would go together along with the Northern and Western.
We’ll call them the Northwest and Southeast Divisions.
- Northwest: Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
- Southeast: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina
Is it perfect? No.
Separating LSU from the Mississippi schools isn’t ideal, but you have to draw the line somewhere and it’s better than splitting two in-state schools. Alabama and LSU also wouldn’t play annually, but this setup provides the possibility of a meeting in the championship game.
With this plan, there would still be some long road trips, but not as many. And with divisional games like Auburn-Georgia, there would be less of a need for the permanent crossover game. Alabama-Tennessee would be a sticking point, but that—along with playing a nine-game conference schedule—is a subject for another day.
Moreover, most of the conference’s greatest rivalries would be preserved. Even though Tennessee-Vanderbilt may not be the league's most competitive rivalry, it doesn't mean they shouldn't play every season. Outside of Alabama, Auburn's biggest rivals all lie to the east. Crimson Tide fans would certainly rather travel to Florida, a state that they border, than Arkansas.
The Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl would go on like usual, as would neutral-site games like Florida-Georgia and Arkansas-Texas A&M. The two schools closest together, Alabama and Mississippi State, would still play annually.
Some rivalries would also be renewed, while others would be magnified. Arkansas-Missouri would only intensify if they were in the same division. South Carolina fans went crazy when the Gamecocks knocked off Alabama in 2010; how about making that a regular game? Ole Miss has actually played Georgia more times in its history than it's played Auburn.
Just think, Nick Saban could be in the same division as three of his former assistant coaches, and Alabama and Georgia would be huge rivals again.
After all, the fight song “Yea Alabama!” has a Georgia reference in it.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.