Aside from an indirect war of words between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema over the health effects of a no-huddle offense and an embarrassing illustration of the phrase "tempest in a teacup" regarding Johnny Manziel's departure from the Manning Passing Camp, one of the big stories coming out of SEC Media Days was the renewed focus on inter-divisional scheduling.
The scheduling issue has also been a frequent bone of contention for Steve Spurrier recently, because South Carolina has drawn more challenging opponents from the West than Georgia has (although the shoe is on the other foot this year).
The obstacles to fair (or at least truly random) non-conference scheduling are the Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia rivalries. Offer a Georgia fan fewer games with Auburn and more games with the Mississippi schools, and he won't be pleased. But offer those fans a three-week period of top SEC opponents playing one another, and he might see a worthwhile trade-off.
Enter the Modified Spurrier. The Ballcoach wants only intra-divisional games to count in the standings. That idea does not work in its pure form, because it would relegate inter-divisional games to glorified non-conference games. In essence, you would have two castes of SEC games.
However, if we divided the season into stages, a la the World Cup, then we can accomplish Spurrier's aim while still having meaningful cross-divisional games. Here's how the Modified Spurrier would work:
Teams play three non-conference games. Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina would all move their in-state rivalry games into September, an idea that has been floated independently of the Modified Spurrier.
Teams play a round robin within their divisions, which means six games each.
The top three teams in each division then play each of the top three in the other division. The team with the best overall conference record at the end of this nine-game schedule is declared the champion. This does away with the SEC Championship Game, but it is replaced by the final round of the three-week closing stage being played at neutral sites.
So for example, last year would have seen the following:
Florida at Alabama
Georgia at LSU
South Carolina at Texas A&M
LSU at Florida
Texas A&M at Georgia
Alabama at South Carolina
Florida vs. Texas A&M in New Orleans
South Carolina vs. LSU in Nashville
Georgia vs. Alabama in Atlanta
Meanwhile, the remaining eight teams would play three cross-divisional games that are assigned randomly. There would be no neutral-site games at this stage, so efforts would have to be made across seasons to ensure that teams that only play four home games one year play five the next.
1. You think that fans might enjoy three straight weeks of elite SEC teams playing one another at the end of the season? You think that this might be an SEC structure that ends like the 1812 Overture instead of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
2. This is a totally fair way to determine a conference champion. The divisional contenders would all end up playing the same schedules. There would still be an advantage for a team to play in a weaker division, but that issue exists already and would exist in any structure that includes divisions. As Nick Saban pointed out last week, the fairest way would be for every team to play every other team, but short of that, the Modified Spurrier is certainly fairer than the current structure and would be less likely to produce an undeserving champion.
3. I've gone on record as being skeptical that the selection committee for the College Football Playoff will do a much better job at valuing strength of schedule, but if the committee actually lives up to its promise to reward teams for playing challenging opponents, then the Modified Spurrier will produce a slight advantage, which is of course why most of the coaches will hate it.
4. Do you like SoCon weekend in the SEC? Does anyone? The Modified Spurrier gets rid of it. SEC teams would get their cupcake snacks in September, when we are all so giddy to see college football that we would watch our teams playing middle school outfits.
5. Mike Slive wanted to revisit the SEC's TV deals after he realized that the current deals are below market. Do you think that CBS and ESPN would be interested to bid on a package that ends with three neutral-site games featuring top SEC teams, all on the final day of the season? One at noon ET, one at 3:30, and one at 8?
1. The top teams all get one fewer home game for the top teams. Georgia and Florida would often be playing two neutral-site games per year. Thus, in a season in which Florida goes to Tallahassee, the Gators would have only six home games. Jeremy Foley would have to be mollified by the prospect of CBS being so giddy at bidding on this new package that the TV money makes it all worthwhile.
2. Coaches other than Spurrier and Saban will go from complaining about unfair scheduling to complaining about too many tough games. Remember how all of the SEC coaches (save Spurrier) were against the idea of a conference championship game when Roy Kramer proposed it decades ago? More high-pressure games are an anathema to most head coaches. G-d forbid they do more to justify their artificially inflated seven-figure salaries.
3. The last three weeks of the season would be uninteresting for the eight teams that don't finish in the top three spots of their divisions. In the same way that the BCS Championship Game has made the rest of the bowl system seem irrelevant, the Modified Spurrier is going to make Mississippi State-Vandy seem especially pointless. How can we fix this?
4. Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee are no longer annual events. There's no way to sugar coat this one, except to say that the SEC gains something in return for giving up two great rivalries.
5. Auburn-Alabama and the Egg Bowl are now played in October. Cue the gripes of Michigan and Ohio State fans when their rivalry game was going to be moved to October.*
* - Speaking of Michigan and Ohio State, this structure would work just as well in the Big Ten. Fans of traditional programs in that league, especially the teams in the East, are none too pleased about trading games against long-term opponents for games against Rutgers and Maryland. Michigan fans might be bothered by not seeing Wisconsin for the better part of a decade; the Modified Spurrier would have the Wolverines and Badgers meeting more often than not in the last three weeks of the season.
Bob Stoops voiced a criticism this summer that the SEC is overrated, because while the top of the league is very strong, the bottom is weak, moreso that the bottom of the Big XII. There is some merit to what Stoops said, although he would have more credibility if his Sooners didn't take a hiding from an SEC team the last time they strapped on pads. The solution to his complaint is not to make Kentucky magically better (that's the province of one of Bob's brothers), it's to make sure that the best teams in the SEC play one another every year.