There is a very good reason why Alabama vs. South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game might be the safest prediction for the 2013 college football season.
It has little to do with recent history, though the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide and a Gamecock squad that has won 11 games in each of the past two seasons have both proven themselves to be powerhouses in the modern game.
It also has nothing to do with the talent on the field. While Alabama might have more future pros on their roster than any other team and South Carolina is led by the best player in college football, there are several other teams in the SEC who can put comparable talent out on the field.
The reason Alabama and South Carolina will meet in the title game is because they happen to play fewer of those teams than any of the league’s other contenders.
SEC teams riding favorable schedules to greatness is nothing new; in the 21-year history of the SEC Championship Game, only six have been between teams that faced each other during the regular season. This is always going to be an issue for any league that does not have every team play each other every year.
But the SEC’s recent expansion to 14 teams has taken this phenomenon to dizzying new heights.
When the conference added Texas A&M and Missouri, they elected to keep the same eight-game conference schedule that had proven so successful for the 12-team format. They also guaranteed that every divisional opponent would face each other every year and kept every team’s permanent rivalry game, which pairs up cross-divisional opponents that match up well historically.
This format worked reasonably well when there were only 12 teams in the conference, as each team’s cross-divisional schedule consisted of the permanent rival and two of the five other teams in the division. While there were a few instances in which radical imbalanced influenced the SEC Championship Game (Arkansas in 2006 immediately comes to mind), things tended to balance themselves out reasonably well. Bumping it up to 14 teams, however, means that each team has only two cross-divisional games, one of which is against a permanent rival and the other being one of six possible teams.
It’s easy to see where this could lead to schedules that are wildly unfair.
Last season was likely a sign of things to come in the SEC. One of the most top-heavy in the history of the conference, six different SEC teams spent time in the top ten of the national polls. Everything looked quite balanced on the surface, with Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina sitting atop the East and Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M in the West.
The schedules played by each of those six teams, however, were radically different.
Right off the bat, Florida and LSU were put at a scheduling disadvantage, as the Gators and Tigers were guaranteed to play each other as permanent rivals. By contrast, the permanent rivals of the other four contenders went a combined 5-27 in SEC play.
But the inadequacies did not end there, as Florida and LSU were scheduled to play contending teams in their other cross-divisional matchup as well. The Gators drew Texas A&M in the conference opener, while LSU took on South Carolina at midseason. By contrast, Alabama and Georgia were scheduled against the teams that wound up finishing in fifth place in their respective divisions.
It is no coincidence that the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs wound up playing each other in the SEC Championship Game.
This year looks like more of the same for Alabama, whose cross-divisional games are against Tennessee and Kentucky teams that hired new coaches after finishing at the bottom of the East last season. Texas A&M (Vanderbilt and Missouri) drew a slightly less favorable slate, while LSU (Florida and Georgia) can practically be eliminated from day one.
In the East, South Carolina’s slate against Arkansas and Mississippi State is about as favorable as can be expected. Georgia, whose favorable schedule pushed it ahead of a Gamecock squad that crushed the Bulldogs during the season, drew LSU and Auburn; Florida, meanwhile, has Arkansas and LSU.
More than anything else, Alabama and South Carolina will be favored to win the SEC because they drew very favorable conference schedules – and this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Adding a ninth conference game would help to fix the problem, as would eliminating the permanent rivalry games. But the SEC needs to make the necessary changes so that the Championship Game is not quite so influenced by which conference teams actually played each other during the regular season.