Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rocky Top You'll Always Be La Segunda To Me

Georgia is emerging as a chic pick to win the SEC East this fall, but I'm a little bothered by the reasoning. There is legitimate cause for optimism among Dawg fans. Aaron Murray looks like a difference-maker at the most important position on the field. There is a new, exciting option at running back. The defense is in its second year in Todd Grantham's system and finally has a natural fit for one of the key positions in the 3-4: nose tackle. In a lot of ways, last year looks like a season in which Georgia took their lumps and will come out stronger.

However, the second part of the argument is that Georgia's SEC schedule is significantly easier than those of the other contenders in the division. The broad consensus this summer is that Alabama and LSU are top five teams nationally and then Arkansas is behind them in the 10-20 range. Georgia doesn't play any of those three teams. Florida plays LSU and Alabama on consecutive weekends. Tennessee plays all three of the top teams in the West and like Florida, plays Alabama and LSU back-to-back. South Carolina's load is a little lighter, but they do have a trip to Fayetteville on the schedule. In short, Georgia comes into the season with a major advantage that has nothing to do with the team's merit on the field.

I've been struggling to come up with a way to make SEC football more equitable and it took a riot for me to arrive at a solution: two tiers with promotion and relegation. SEC football takes a back seat to nothing in terms of raw passion, but imagine if the stakes were so high that winning or losing would decide whether your team would be in the first or second division the following year? Would the results maybe match this:

Near the end of the game that doomed them, inside River's stadium many wept, and some rioted in fury. The match was abandoned after 89 minutes as seats and missiles rained on to the field. A sense of sinking was swallowing up the River support. Players were distraught leaving the field under heavy police escort. Mayhem continued in the streets of Buenos Aires. The local hospitals were busy treating wounds on fans and riot cops. Misery and depression sent Help phone-lines into overdrive - I am a River Plate fan. It's the end of the world.
Conversely, imagine the fun that rival fans would have at mocking the supporters of elite teams that got sent down. How much fun would Georgia and Alabama fans have had over the past several years making jokes at the expense of Tennessee playing in SEC-B? Also, relegation would be a useful way to punish bad management. As The Economist points out, River Plate's ignominious drop from Argentina's first division is the result of inept decisions at the boardroom level:

Since its last championship in 2008, River has tried to reinvent itself from scratch after every setback, churning through two club presidents, six different coaches and 64 different players. Its management’s desire for a quick fix and need to service its $19m in debt has caused it to sell off young talent prematurely and place too much faith in washed-up, overpaid veterans. Although Argentina’s promotion-and-relegation scheme is designed to prevent clubs from tumbling to the second division following brief periods of poor performance—the formula is based on a team’s record over the preceding three years—River was unable to halt its downward spiral. After finishing 17th out of 20 clubs in the top league, it needed to hold off Belgrano in a two-game series to keep its spot. River lost the away match 2-0, and mustered only a 1-1 draw at home, when it could not hold an early lead and had a penalty kick saved.
Doesn't Tennessee deserve the same fate for Mike Hamilton's reign? They are coasting merrily along despite the debacles that were the end of the Fulmer era and then the inexplicable decision to hire Lane Kiffin. (Note to Dave Brandon: I'd bet that Kiffin interviews really well.) They ought to be in SEC Segunda, playing Vandy and Ole Miss.

The advantage of this approach would be three-fold. First, it would make for important November games for more teams in the conference. Not only would the best teams in the conference be playing for the conference title, but the teams at the bottom of the top division would be fighting for their lives to avoid relegation and the teams and the top of the second division would be busting their tails to get promoted. Second, it would make expansion a viable prospect. Right now, it makes little sense to add attractive targets like Florida State and Texas A&M because a 14- or 16-team league would be unwieldy. However, if you break the league up into two seven- or eight-team divisions? Magic. Third, the format increases the likelihood of top teams playing one another. Right now, if there are top teams in the East and West, they only have a 50% chance of playing one another in a given year. Those odds would drop to near zero with a two-tiered system.*

* - The only way that it wouldn't happen would be if a second division team turned out to be top shelf. For instance, last year's Auburn team might have been in the second division based on the results of the past two seasons. The odds of such a radical turnaround are fairly low, so the benefits of ensuring that the best teams are in the same division outweigh the downside, but I should acknowledge that there are potential negatives to this plan.

So how would this work? Based off of last year's standings, SEC Primera would be:

Mississippi State
South Carolina

Those teams had the six best records in the conference. Florida and Mississippi State were tied for sixth and we give the nod to the Other Bulldogs based on a head-t0-head win. Those teams would all play one another, with the winner being the team with the best divisional record.* They would then play three games against teams from SEC Segunda:

Ole Miss

The games against the teams from the Segunda would be tie-breakers. Those games would also allow the preservation of rivalries, so Georgia would still play Auburn, the Egg Bowl would still happen, etc. The advantages of this approach aren't as great when power has shifted to one division, as it has in the SEC over the past several years, but in short, we would replace a number of games in which top 25 teams from the West will massacre Ole Miss with games between those teams and South Carolina. In the end, we get more good games.

Another disadvantage of this approach is the end of the SEC Championship Game, but as someone who doesn't love the idea of a playoff in which a less deserving team gets a neutral site shot at a better team (see: 2001 LSU-Tennessee), I'm not crying over this. The SEC was at the cutting edge when it went to the two division, championship game format. Every major conference has copied that format. (The Big East is arguably not major. It would certainly go to the format if it could find 12 teams worth having.) The SEC could be cutting edge again by being the first American sports league to introduce the concept of a relegation riot.


Anonymous said...

I've been intrigued by relegation for College Football/SEC, but the reliance on recruiting creates problems for the model. Teams in the second division will be less attractive to top talent, as the chance to play for immediate championships/tv exposure still hava a lot of sway. Without any draft, salary cap or other leveling mechanism, there's too much risk of creating a permanent underclass. As it stands now, Ole Miss can still possibly play for MNC this year, however unlikely, rather than having to accrue several "break-out" seasons in a row for a title shot.

Sean C. said...

Agreed. The recruiting model would likely condemn those teams relegated to the lower division to perpetual mediocrity, minus the occacsional abberration.

Ryno said...

Those watching ACC football for the past 5 years would struggle to make distinctions between Primera and Segunda divisions.

jayelk said...

What about if you took it even further, lets redesign college football around A and B conferences. If you found a few more teams to make the number of teams 120 then you could have six 20 team conferences with A/B divisions. The B divisions would be the non BCS teams for the first cycle followed by mixing through promotion and relegation. There would be an even 9 game division schedule with the other 3 games divided up by out of conference games and preserved A/B rivalries. It could be even more interesting if you awarded the extra home division game to 1-5 thus giving meaning to the 1/2, 5/6, and 9/10 placements. Berths in the national championship would obviously be restricted to A sides. This would have the additional benefit of giving all the mid majors a chance at the national championship, they would just have to earn it by building a good program to be promoted as opposed to just being a flash in the pan.

Recruiting is a problem, but this is no different than teams in Europe because teams that are relegated have a hard time signing players. Anyways, programs with excellent management and coaching would be able to at least get promoted and thus enter the more fertile recruiting division.

Robert said...

I went to a River game (a win over Botafogo in the Copa Sudamericana) in Buenos Aires in 2007 and became a fan. A great experience, as the fans are psychotic. They were nearly rioting during that win, and kept on turning their backs on the field to scream at the owners' box.

My Boca-fan Argentine friend said that if he had to choose, River being relegated is even better than Argentina winning the World Cup.

Jack said...

Great read. Enjoyed it as usual. There seem to be quite a few of us college football/futbol types springing up lately.

As to your previous point about Cesc to Arsenal - well taken, but given the fact that 35M just bought Joey Carroll, surely you can see how I as an Arsenal fan want a little more. I would take Thiago in a heartbeat, but I doubt Barca include him in this deal. That being said, I don't remember there being much of a market for C.Ronaldo when he went to Madrid for 80M...

Jack said...

That should read multi-team market, not just market.

Anonymous said...

If the Big East is not major, neither are the Big Ten or Big Twelve. Frankly, "not major" is starting to mean "not SEC."

John M. said...

"I've been struggling to come up with a way to make SEC football more equitable."

There's your problem. This is sports. It's not supposed to be equitable. Do you think Usain Bolt's competitors should get a 10-meter head start, or Rafa Nadal's opponents get a one-set lead? One of the things I love about sports is that it's a true meritocracy. The best man/woman/team wins.

All the SEC teams face the same scholarship limits and NCAA rules. That's sufficient. If Vanderbilt can't compete under those guidelines, that's Vanderbilt's problem, not the SEC's.

Michael said...

Georgia missing the three best teams in the West is the equivalent of a sprinter getting a ten meter headstart. Maybe equitable wasn't the right word. I'm trying to figure out a way to equalize the schedules that teams in the SEC play.

Robert said...

Unfortunately for Arsenal, I don't think that Andy Carroll's value has anything to do with Cesc's. First, Liverpool overpaid for Carroll because they only had a few hours left in the transfer window, and they felt they had to do something (always dangerous). Cesc has been on the block for years now. Second, Cesc doesn't want to be at Arsenal, and he only wants to be at Barca. So whatever Cesc's actual value, he's going to go for less than that because at least for now it appears that he has to leave, and there is only one suitor in the market. But look at it this way, Arsenal's loss of Cesc won't hurt their ability to win trophies....

Hobnail_Boot said...

Georgia missing the three best teams in the West is the equivalent of a sprinter getting a ten meter headstart.

This is a projective fallacy that you even alluded to above when mentioning the '10 Auburn aberration.