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Even Without Texas A&M, SEC in Need of Realignment

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The SEC isn’t going to add any more teams - for now. But it should consider another change, fixing competitive balance in the powerhouse conference. The SEC West makes the East look like a weak link, meaning it’s time to realign the divisions. - Anthony Olivieri

Florida president Bernie Machen, chairman of the SEC presidents and chancellors committee, said that the SEC’s movers and shakers “reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment” after meeting Sunday.

But the league left open the possibility that it could add teams in the near future.

“We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league,” Machen said. “We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion.”

Yes, we know that the SEC has its eye on expansion. Some reports said that Texas A&M, which has been rumored to be the league’s next member, still will join within the next three weeks.

But Bernie, forget prospective members, how about making the current version of the league markedly better?

The more pressing matter is making sure that the league’s current format squeezes the best product out of what no doubt is the most-competitive football outside of the NFL.

At least, it is in the SEC West.

Consider the numbers: The East posted a 3-16 record against the West in 2010. The East’s champion, No. 22 South Carolina, finished ranked behind No. 1 Auburn, No. 8 LSU, No. 10 Alabama, No. 12 Arkansas and No. 15 Mississippi State - all members of the West.

ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel detailed well in this piece how far the East is lagging behind. He pointed out that Steve Spurrier even admitted that his Gamecocks aren’t a top SEC team, and they were in the title game for crying out loud.

“When we tell our players we were seventh in defense and offense (in the SEC), that means we’re mediocre. That’s what we were,” Spurrier said at SEC media days, speaking about his team’s 2010 performance.

“… We’ve got a ways to go to really be a good team.”

That’s the champion of one of the divisions in the nation’s toughest conference we’re talking about here - a 9-5 team that finished ahead of 8-5 Florida in the East standings.

The Gators and Gamecocks were the only East teams with overall records above .500. Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky all finished at 6-7 and Vanderbilt at 2-10.

Granted, the Gators are coming off a period of dominance, while Georgia and Tennessee both are proud programs that no doubt will bounce back to prominence at some point.

The question is: When? The Gators may never again reach the success they had under Urban Meyer, the Bulldogs might be set to fire coach Mark Richt and transition their program into the unknown. The Vols are wallowing in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s cameo in Knoxville; it’s going to take some time for them to get off the mat.

If you’re arguing for South Carolina as an SEC power, remember that the Gamecocks won their first SEC title last season since joining the league in 1992 - also the first year of divisional play.

And Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the same division? That makes no sense at all.

By contrast, the SEC’s West has much more stability. Alabama, LSU and Auburn have won national titles in the last four years thanks to proven titans of college coaching, Nick Saban and Les Miles, as well as the emerging Gene Chizik.

Bobby Petrino and Houston Nutt have a history of success. Petrino, coming off a Sugar Bowl appearance, has won 23 games in three years for the Razorbacks. Nutt started his tenure at Ole Miss with consecutive bowl wins.

And there’s Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, who has won 14 games in two years with the Bulldogs.

The point? Teams in the SEC West, if not already national title contenders, are programs on the rise. Their Eastern counterparts are just trying to stay afloat with no end in sight.

That’s why I’m willing to go one step further than Maisel - realign the divisions with our without Texas A&M. Split up the league’s two worst teams, and its two best. Scrap the East and West format.

Simply, take a page out of the Big Ten’s book. After the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten reformatted into two divisions - the Legends and Leaders - and will have its first championship game in 2011.

Yes, the names are ridiculous, but the alignment works. The new layout of the Big Ten split rivals Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions, while keeping the Wolverines and intra-state rival Michigan State both in the Legends Division.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at the time of the realignment that the conference’s focus when choosing which teams belong in what division centered on competitive balance, maintaining rivalries and, lastly, geography.

The SEC should do the same.

We know that the SEC never will scrap its divisional format because it helps to easier form a championship game - the winner of each division goes to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome with a shot at all the marbles. And we know that the championship game always will be around. Just look at the money it rakes in.

But the championship game of the nation’s premier league should be a battle of the titans, rather than a David vs. Goliath affair, like Auburn’s 56-17 plundering of South Carolina last year.

With the West holding almost all of the conference’s heavy hitters for now and the foreseeable future, it turns the championship game into a one-sided contest or, if a shocker is pulled off, allows it unnecessary weight in determining who is the league’s best.

If South Carolina had beaten Auburn in the 2010 SEC title game, would it really have deserved the SEC’s automatic berth into a BCS bowl after losing to Kentucky? I’ll save you some time - no.

Something needs to be done, just as the league did for its basketball set-up, which leaned in the opposite direction - the East’s squads have been more dominant. So the SEC did away with seeding by division for the conference tournament.

How would a new-look SEC football conference shake out?

At this point - and it’s certainly arguable - Alabama and LSU are the league’s current football powerhouses. Start by splitting them up, and then alternate the rest of the schools on each side approximately in descending order of power.

Then, make sure to keep Auburn and Alabama in the same division. Since they play annually in the last game of the regular season already, there’s no need for them to face off two weeks in a row; it would take the meaning out of what has been a clash with a healthy once-per-year buildup.

Intra-state rivalries will be casualties of the process - Ole Miss and Mississippi State are in separate divisions, and so are Vanderbilt and Tennessee - but all the league’s teams are relatively confined to the southeast. Check out the new alignment:

Division #1: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt

Division #2: LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Kentucky

It’s really not that different from the current set-up. Here, LSU and Ole Miss have been switched to what was the SEC East in exchange for Georgia and Vanderbilt.

Call them what you want: The Bear Bryant Division and the Lane Kiffin Division are as good as any names, right?

No? Well, it’s clear that all this talk about new members and change to the conference can grate at a traditional SEC fan’s soul. But this proposed change would be for the good of the league in its major revenue sport.

However, change in college football comes slower than it does in Washington.

“We realize if we do this, we have to have the 14th (team),” an SEC official told the New York Times prior to Sunday’s meeting, speaking of expansion.

“No name has been thrown out. This thing is much slower out of the chute than the media and blogs have made it.”

So you can expect more teams in the SEC, and a better format - maybe even one that resembles the aforementioned layout.

In 2030.

Anthony Olivieri is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears each Wednesday.

 
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