- Adam Rittenberg, College Football
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Auburn's run to the 1983 SEC championship began with a 37-14 rout of Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Five weeks later, the Tigers beat No. 5 Florida behind Bo Jackson's 196 rushing yards.
Back then, Auburn's path through the SEC always included games with both Tennessee and Florida. Auburn and Tennessee played every season from 1956-91. Auburn and Florida met every year from 1945-2002, and in all but three seasons between 1927-2002.
"They were great, I miss those games," said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, a starting offensive tackle for the 1983 Tigers. "I miss playing Tennessee and Florida every year."
The Auburn-Tennessee and Auburn-Florida matchups are among those swept up in the wash of divisions and expansion. Divisions are popular among most college football coaches, players and fans, mainly because they provide clear paths to league championship games. But divisions also have a downside, especially in 14-team leagues, as they contribute to unsatisfying schedule rotations that dilute historic rivalries.
The ACC's proposal to deregulate the requirements for a conference championship game should put divisions -- the pros, cons and potential alternatives -- in the spotlight.
"The way it is right now has served us well, but there's also been some opportunities missed," Jacobs said. "A lot of our students come from states like Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina. ... [They] say, 'Why aren't we playing in my home state?' Plus, those have been great rivalries for us in the past."
The SEC's expansion to 12 teams in 1990 and its adoption of divisions and a championship game in 1992, followed by further expansion to 14 teams in 2012, has not only ended Auburn's annual meetings with Tennessee and Florida, but made them increasingly scarce. Auburn and Florida last played in 2011 and have had only three games since divisions were added. Tennessee and Auburn have played just three times since the Tigers beat the Vols in the 2004 SEC championship game to extend their perfect season.
Divisions do have their pluses. If structured correctly, they create easier travel for fans and teams. They provide second chances for teams that struggle in cross-division matchups. In many seasons, they deliver more drama for more teams during the stretch run.
They also preserve rivalries and fuel new ones. Jacobs faced LSU just once during his Auburn career (the teams met just twice between 1973-88). Since 1992, Auburn and LSU have played annually as West Division opponents -- both teams were ranked in 12 of those meetings, including six straight between 2003-08.
"It’s the only way to do it at this point with a large conference," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It boils down to a championship game. I can’t imagine any other system."
But for every compelling matchup division play guarantees, there seem to be two or three guaranteed duds on each team's schedule. These games take place annually only because division play dictates them. They're bad for TV ratings and, in some cases, bad for attendance.
They also replace games people would rather see. Longtime ACC rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest recently announced a nonconference series in 2019 and 2021 because they now play so infrequently in cross-division games. Some are quick to dismiss the Wake-UNC series, but it means something to both schools -- Why else would they schedule non-league games? -- and represents the ACC's third-longest rivalry.
Divisions aren't the sole source for deadened series. Expanded leagues without expanded league schedules, at least in the SEC and ACC, coupled with protected cross-division games like Auburn-Georgia and Florida State-Miami, create extended droughts across leagues.
We're not talking about two- or three-year gaps, as was the case in the pre-divisions Big Ten, ACC, SEC or Pac-10. Teams in opposing divisions are regularly going more than four years without games. Players can play their college careers without playing every team, and not visiting a handful of opposing stadiums. What's the point of being in a league?
There's also the equability question. Divisions fluctuate and rarely match up evenly. Permanent crossover opponents also vary, although long-term trends can't be ignored. Coupled with weak rotations, teams must traverse vastly different terrain on the way to a championship game.
"It’s not equitable and fair over a 20-year period," said LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, a longtime opponent of protected crossovers in the SEC, which includes LSU-Florida. "Over the course of time, you say, 'Well, it all evens out.' But over the course of time it doesn't all even out. Over the course of time, Florida’s going to be good a lot more times than they’re not. Alabama's going to be good over the course of time.
"Permanent partners is not the most equitable way to have a schedule."
But what if a handful of permanent rivalries remained -- games of significance with both sides are on board -- and divisions dissolved? It's an extreme concept for many to digest, especially because of the trickiness in determining league championship matchups. But here's what it would create:
More permanent matchups that both schools and both fan bases want to see
Broader schedule rotations that produce more attractive matchups for TV partners and fans
Fewer extended gaps between league games
More opportunities to play in and visit different stadiums for players and fans, respectively
Better championship game matchups
Determining the top two teams for the title game would undoubtedly cause controversy, but the actual games could be much more compelling because you wouldn't have the frequent divisions imbalance. How often in recent years would you rather have seen two teams from the same division (hello, SEC West) meet in a championship game? If the CFP selection committee picks conference champions for the playoff, as it did last fall and as many think it will going forward, why not have the strongest and most equitable gauge for a league's best team?
The number of permanent rivalries would need to be limited to preserve a workable schedule rotation.
"From a scheduling standpoint, I think we can manage that," Jacobs said. "It really goes back to, how do we make sure we're filling up our stadiums every Saturday with the best matchups? Does that mean we keep playing everybody in the West because it's traditional and our fans know what kind of a game it's going to be and their fans know the hospitality here and they're going to come? Or is it because you’ve got a variety? That’s really, really tough to tell."
Every league with a division setup should closely monitor the deregulation debate. If divisions are no longer needed for a championship game, leagues should take a long look at whether they're truly necessary.
"I could see the flip slide," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has coached in the Big Ten both with and without divisions. "Instead of having divisions, you just have the two top teams play. If that’s what we decided to do as a league, I'd be all for it. But right now, especially when we get in divisional play, everybody feels like they can win, and that’s exciting for the game."
Maybe divisions are still the answer. They're neat and tidy. They also have some dirty downsides.
It's why leagues must have an open mind about what's best for the game.
"It's always wise to have flexibility," Jacobs said, "because nothing ever stays the same."
The advent of divisions ended longtime rivalries and created too many poor matchups. What would college football look like if divisions dissolved?