Spurrier, Miles Suggest Radical Title Tweaks
By Matt Smith
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A recent proposal by the two SEC head coaches to change how division champions are determined is interesting, but illogical.
Never one to shy away from a debate, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier suggested last month that rather than all eight conference games deciding the SEC division champions, only the five (now six) intra-division games should determine who makes the trip to Atlanta on December’s first Saturday.
Earlier this week, the SEC’s other candidate for most quotable head coach, LSU’s Les Miles, echoed the Ol’ Ball Coach’s sentiment during a speaking engagement in Birmingham. The Mad Hatter cited fairness and equal opportunity as to why such games as LSU-Florida, Alabama-Tennessee, and Georgia-Auburn should have no bearing on division titles.
The question came to light as a result of the 2011 season, in which Georgia rode a relatively easy conference schedule to the SEC East title despite a loss to South Carolina, which swept all five of its division games. However, losses to West opponents Arkansas and Auburn dropped the Gamecocks a game below the Bulldogs in the final standings. It’s no surprise then that Spurrier would be the first to address this issue.
The topic is sure to be discussed when conference coaches, athletic directors, and presidents convene in Destin, Fla. later this month for the SEC Spring Meetings (along with television contracts, future scheduling, and just maybe some conversation about a playoff).
There is no greater indicator for the viability of this proposal than past history. Using advanced calculus, I have determined that in the 20-year history of the SEC Championship Game, there have been 40 division winners. Should those 40 division titles have been determined purely on record within the division, 34 of the winners would not have changed. Six of the 20 SEC Championship Game matchups would have changed. Their effects, both within the league and on a national level, are discussed below.
Actual Matchup: Georgia vs. LSU
Revised Matchup: South Carolina vs. LSU
What Would Have Happened: The Gamecocks had a bit more firepower to challenge LSU for four quarters than Georgia, but they weren’t on the same level as the Tigers. It wouldn’t have been 42-10, but the Bayou Bengals would have survived by a comfortable margin, setting up a rematch with Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. Bowl destinations for South Carolina and Georgia would likely not have changed.
Actual Matchup: Tennessee vs. LSU
Revised Matchup: Florida vs. LSU
What Would Have Happened: With a 4-1 record in the division, Florida would have won a tiebreaker with Tennessee due to its head-to-head win. Georgia would have finished a game behind with losses to South Carolina and Tennessee. Florida was playing as well as anyone late in the 2007 season. LSU needed a late interception to rally against Tennessee, but they wouldn’t have been so fortunate against a Gators team seeking revenge for blowing a 10-point lead eight weeks earlier in Baton Rouge. Tim Tebow would have ended the Heisman Trophy race with a narrow win over an LSU team with a penchant for nail-biting games. Florida would’ve gone to the Sugar Bowl to play Hawaii, while Virginia Tech would have been the major beneficiary, sliding up to No. 2 in the BCS Standings and a date with Ohio State for the national title. The Orange Bowl would have grabbed 10-2 Georgia, setting up an interesting matchup with Kansas. Les Miles would have faced his alma mater, Michigan, in a Capital One Bowl filled with storylines.
Actual Matchup: Arkansas vs. Georgia
Revised Matchup: Arkansas vs. Florida
Despite an 8-4 record, Florida swept its East Division games, including a 20-13 upset of No. 3 Georgia. The West would have been won by Alabama, had they not been on probation. With its only division loss coming to the Crimson Tide, 9-3 Arkansas would have still won the West, setting up arguably the dullest matchup in SEC Championship Game history. The impact, however, could have been massive. Florida would have scored an easy victory over the Razorbacks, who needed a Hail Mary against LSU just to get to Atlanta. The Gators would have gone to the Sugar Bowl for a rematch with Florida State and avenged their November loss in Tallahassee with FSU quarterbacks Chris Rix and Adrian McPherson both missing the game. Perhaps, an SEC title in Ron Zook’s first year would have built him enough credibility for Florida to keep him around after the 2004 season. With Florida not having an opening, does Urban Meyer then take the Notre Dame job? Would the Irish have won two national titles while Florida was stuck in mediocrity? The possibilities are endless.
Actual Matchup: Florida vs. Arkansas
Revised Matchup: Florida vs. LSU
A late-season matchup in Baton Rouge between the Razorbacks and Tigers would have decided the division title, a game won by LSU, 28-0. At 6-4-1, LSU would have been a three-touchdown underdog to a Florida team that had beaten then 28-10 two months earlier. Danny Wuerffel and the second-ranked Gators would have rolled by Gerry DiNardo’s Tigers, as they did the Razorbacks, setting up a showdown with No. 1 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Nationally, this would have had little impact. DiNardo would still have been canned after the 1999 season despite having a division title in his belt four year earlier.
Actual Matchup: Florida vs. Alabama
Revised Matchup: Florida vs. LSU
With 11-0 Auburn ineligible for the division title, LSU would again have benefitted from the rule change, despite going just 3-2 in division play. That would have landed the Tigers in a tie with Alabama, whom they had upset 17-13. Thus, LSU would win the tiebreaker. The problem? LSU was 5-6. They lost all three inter-division games, and had dropped a non-conference game to Texas A&M. Sending a sub-.500 team to the SEC Championship Game would have left a major black mark on the league, and conference championship games as a whole, with this being only the second season of division play in the SEC. As for the game itself, LSU might have kept it a little closer than their 58-3 loss to Florida two months prior, but it would have been an easy victory for Florida on their way to a showdown with undefeated West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. LSU would have missed a bowl, as they did anyhow. Head coach Curley Hallman would still have been fired after a 4-7 1994 season.
Actual Matchup: Alabama vs. Florida
Revised Matchup: Alabama vs. Tennessee
Florida backed into the first SEC East title after losing to the Volunteers in September. The Vols lost three consecutive games at midseason, two to West Division opponents. Both teams would have finished 4-1 in division play, with the tiebreaker going to Tennessee. It would have set up a classic matchup for the inaugural SEC Championship Game at Legion Field between two bitter rivals. Alabama’s defense was one of the best of all-time in 1992, and Tennessee did not have the offensive firepower to score enough to beat the second-ranked Tide. There would have been no epic interception return by Antonio Langham, as Alabama would have clamped down on Vols quarterback Heath Shuler for a 14-point victory. It would have been a less stressful afternoon for SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, as Tennessee would not have put the league’s national title hopes in doubt like Florida did in its 28-21 loss. Alabama defeated Miami (FL) for the national title a month later in the Sugar Bowl, and a different opponent in Birmingham would not have changed the outcome in New Orleans.
As for the likelihood of this change actually occurring, it’s slim at best. Unless one or both teams are still in the national title race, East vs. West games would be rendered meaningless. The devaluation of inter-division rivalry games is bad for all parties. Is it fair that Georgia avoided Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU in 2011 and will do so again this year? Yes, because they played two of the three teams in both 2008 and 2009. That’s why the league has a rotation for inter-division opponents. If South Carolina wanted to play in the SEC Championship Game last year, they shouldn’t have turned the ball over four times at home last year in a loss to an offensively-challenged Auburn team.
The topic will be talked about in Destin, and Spurrier will take a verbal jab at Georgia, but it will quickly get shelved It’s a short-sighted reaction to a somewhat rare circumstance from this past season. Spurrier would have lost out on a division title 19 years earlier under this system. It would have ticked him off then, and it probably still would. After six national titles, and with record profits to be divided amongst league members at the meetings, why should the SEC change a thing?