Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SEC Championship Game on the Brain

A couple posts from last week regarding the SEC Championship Game.  The first was supposed to be a short post about the fight over the site of the Copa del Rey Final and an analogy to the SEC Championship Game, but it ended up running for over 1,000 words.  I was titillated by the idea of SEC teams winning the conference title on the homefields of their rivals, as opposed to the Georgia Dome:

This scenario got me to thinking: wouldn't it be fun if the SEC Championship Game were played on a rotating basis at campus sites instead of the Georgia Dome? The title game is always a tough ticket, so it does not make sense that it is played at a facility that seats 70,000 when Sanford Stadium, Neyland Stadium, Williams-Brice Stadium, Florida Field, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Reynolds-Razorback Stadium, and now Kyle Field all have bigger capacities?

For instance, when Auburn and South Carolina met in 2010, demand for tickets was through the roof because Auburn was two wins away from their first national title in 53 years and South Carolina was playing in the title game for the first time in their 18th year as a member of the conference. If the game would have been in Baton Rouge, slightly more than 20,000 additional Tiger and Gamecock fans could have seen the game in-person. It seems like a waste for SEC programs to have giant stadia and then to relegate the culmination of the SEC schedule to a smaller venue.

Leaving stadium sizes aside, imagine the fun that would ensue with programs winning titles on their rivals' homefields? Imagine that Auburn is hosting the title game and Alabama wins the West. Imagine that Florida is hosting the title game and Georgia wins the East. Imagine those two fan bases occupying half of their bitterest rivals' sacred home grounds. Imagine 40,000 drunk obnoxious Georgia fans taking over Gainesville's nightlife. Admit it, my stuck record of finding things about European soccer that would make sense for American sports occasionally stumbles onto a good idea.

I realize that it is a little odd to advocate for the Georgia Dome losing the SEC Championship Game shortly after professing my opinion that the facility is perfectly fine and doesn’t need to be replaced, so I’ll just say that the Dome’s adequacy doesn’t make it better than the on-campus facilities in the SEC. 

In the course of writing the article, it also occurred to me that there is a correlation between stadium size and appearances in the conference title game.  There are four SEC programs that have stadia smaller than the Georgia Dome: Vandy, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State.  Those four programs have combined for one appearance in the title game in 20 years.  It turns out that stadium size has been a proxy for success in the conference.  Big stadium is proxy for fan interest, which means revenue, which means higher coaching salaries and better facilities, which means recruiting advantages, which means winning.  Or, viewed a different way, teams that have natural advantages have been historically successful and that success increases fan interest.  Chicken or egg?

I also wrote a shorter post about the opposition of certain SEC coaches to the conference title game when Roy Kramer brought it into existence in 1992:

I finally got around to watching The Play that Changed College Football, the ESPNU documentary on the first SEC Championship Game. In light of the SEC refusing to go to a nine-game schedule (and thus dooming two of the best rivalries in the Conference) ostensibly on the grounds that an extra conference game would be too much of a burden in light of the quality of the league, I was struck by the reaction of SEC coaches to Roy Kramer's decision to split the conference into divisions and stage a championship game.

Just as they are now, the coaches back then were opposed to adding an additional game. Steve Spurrier took the position that it would be unfair for a team that is clearly the best in the conference after the regular season to give a demonstrably lesser opponent an equal chance to win the title. Spurrier also noted that the East champion faced the prospect of playing Alabama on the Tide's quasi-homefield. Pat Dye, Johnny Majors, and Ray Goff all advanced the more basic position that another game against a good opponent is tough and tough is bad.

Upon reflection, it’s interesting that Spurrier’s answer displays more mental ability than those of Dye, Majors, and Goff.  Spurrier recognizes that adding a title game can help some teams and hurt others.  While it is an extra burden for the team that finishes first in the regular season, it is an extra opportunity for the team that finishes second.  Spurrier is able to think on levels, whereas the other three are just saying “more tough games are bad.”  It’s tough to gauge intelligence based on public remarks for a variety of reasons, but in this case, I’m willing to do so.  The fact that Spurrier washed the three out of the conference* with an offense that they had never seen before aids my conclusion.

* – With assistance from Eric Ramsey’s dictaphone and Phil Fulmer’s et tu brute moment.

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