DESTIN, Fla. — Auburn to the SEC East? It has come up so many times over the years around the SEC’s spring meetings, without even a shred of legitimacy behind it, that it’s practically a punch line by this point.
But it was clear Wednesday that Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs wants to start the dialogue, in the media, among his fan base and eventually within high-level SEC meetings.
“I think it’s a legitimate conversation for us to have at some point as a league,” Jacobs said. “We’re not going to talk about it formally this week, but at some point we will.”
Here’s the thing, though. If Jacobs wants to have a conversation about a major change in the way SEC football is structured, why not go all the way with it? Why not do something that would not only protect rivalries and benefit fans but also ensure that the SEC champion makes the College Football Playoff every single year?
Why not do away with divisions altogether and play No. 1 vs. No. 2 in Atlanta for the conference title?
Even in the SEC, where there’s a strong pull toward a status quo that has served the league well for a quarter century, it’s not as crazy as you think.
“In our last AD meeting we talked about having a football-only discussion from scheduling to divisions to everything involved,” Jacobs said. “I think sometime in the next year we’ll do that, and I think everything will be on the table because (college football) just keeps changing. We have to keep finding ways to fill up our stadiums and stay competitive and have the best experience for our student-athletes. We have to set some time aside and just talk about football in the SEC.”
To be clear, no changes to the SEC’s scheduling or divisional model are imminent. Everything Jacobs talked about is purely hypothetical, a point underscored Tuesday when SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey quite directly said Auburn-to-the-East was only a conversation in the media.
But Jacobs has some good points. Geographically, Auburn belongs in the East instead of Missouri, which joined the league in 2012. Aside from Alabama, Auburn’s two biggest historical rivals are Georgia, which it plays every year, and Florida, which will only visit Jordan-Hare Stadium once every 12 years in the current schedule format. Jacobs said he’s also done research that shows the majority of Auburn’s out-of-state students are from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina.
If there was a way for Auburn to change divisions without sacrificing the Iron Bowl — that’s non-negotiable — Jacobs would be all for it.
“The bottom line is, we’re going to keep playing Georgia and we’re going to keep playing Alabama, and wherever we land we land,” he said.
Changing the divisional format in the SEC has long been a tricky conversation because of the traditional rivalries the league is determined to protect, Alabama-Tennessee most of all. If Auburn moved to the East under the current setup, where teams play only one permanent crossover game outside of the division, Alabama would have to drop either Auburn or Tennessee as an annual opponent.
But if the SEC just did away with divisions, this becomes very simple. If you gave teams two permanent rivals — Alabama would have Auburn and Tennessee, Auburn would have Georgia and Alabama, Florida would have Georgia and Tennessee, LSU would have Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and so on — they could rotate their other six games around the rest of the league. That would ensure a player who stayed four years at a school would play at least once in every single SEC stadium. Then, at the end of the season, the top two teams in the standings would meet in Atlanta for the SEC title, which is now possible under after the NCAA changed its rules in 2016 deregulating championship games so the Big 12 could have one with 10 teams.
Though coaches wouldn’t necessarily like it — there are big, fat bonuses attached to division titles — it’s questionable in the playoff era how much winning them really matters.
And if you haven't noticed, the imbalance between the SEC East and West hasn’t exactly served the league very well lately. Five of the last seven years, the game has been a dud — and the last two have been complete mismatches thanks to Florida winning the hapless East.
One of these years a mediocre team is going to find its way into the SEC championship game and win it, knocking an Alabama or Auburn out of the College Football Playoff. Wouldn’t it make more sense, knowing this process is now driven by a selection committee, to match your top two teams?
It’s at least a conversation worth having
“You have to move into those things carefully, but things change, and we have to keep our eye on what’s changing,” Jacobs said. “Since our last scheduling discussion (as a league), there’s a 13-member committee that determines who the top four teams are. What do we have to do as a league to make sure we’re always in that conversation? Sometimes that revolves around scheduling.
“I think all that would be on the table when we talk about football because when we established the SEC championship, NCAA rules said you had to have two divisions. That’s no longer the case. That doesn’t’ mean we’re not going to have two divisions, but I think everything will be on the table. Commissioner Sankey is always trying to see around the curve, what’s next, what positions us to keep us the toughest league in the nation?”
Jacobs said the athletics directors will sit down with Sankey at some point this year to talk it all out, and things like keeping the stadiums full and positioning the SEC for the playoff will drive that discussion.
Moving Auburn to the SEC East is an interesting flashpoint and a huge conversation starter around these parts, but it doesn’t go far enough. If the SEC is going to start changing around divisions, it should do away with them completely.