FISCHER: Outside the Box
Conference expansion likely ends SEC’s national title run
Twenty years ago, the SEC made the radical decision to bring in Arkansas and South Carolina and increase the league’s participants to an unprecedented 12 teams.
That, of course, allowed the league to incorporate a conference championship game, sell that game to the highest bidding network and bring in more dollars than the league had ever seen before.
Financially it was a no brainer.
But from a competitive standpoint, many both within the league and from afar had their doubts.
Would forcing the league’s best team to play one more game against a quality opponent cause the SEC to “cannibalize itself” and keep it out of national championship contention?
It was a legitimate concern, because late-season losses kill national title dreams, right?
Well, in the inaugural SEC Championship game, the league had its first chance to ruin its own national title aspirations. Three-loss Florida had scored 14 straight points and had the momentum versus undefeated No. 2 Alabama late in the fourth quarter before Antonio Langham stepped in front of a Shane Matthews pass and took it to the house to keep the Tide unbeaten and send it to New Orleans. League commish Roy Kramer, and everyone in the SEC office, breathed a huge sigh of relief.
As the years progressed, the game seemed to bolster a team into national title contention as often as it knocked one out of it.
In 1993, No. 3 Alabama lost a possible shot at the national title after Florida got the best of them in Legion Field by just one point, but it’s unclear if the voters would have raised them over undefeated Penn State, lopsided winners of the Rose Bowl.
In 2001, No. 2 Tennessee had its title dreams shattered by a three-loss LSU squad. Little did we know this was the start of something special.
But apart from those two instances, the SEC Championship game has largely been a national title bolster for the winner with eight national championships in the BCS era (including Alabama’s last year despite not competing in Atlanta).
In 1996, No. 4 Florida’s 45-30 victory over Alabama in the SEC Championship Game went a long way in helping them finish with the nation’s top ranking following a regular-season ending loss to Florida State.
Then in 2007, No. 5 LSU beat Tennessee in Atlanta and found its way into the national title game despite also losing the regular-season finale.
So much for losing late killing your season, huh?
Needless to say, the 1992 conference expansion and the addition of the SEC Championship game have been overwhelming successes.
Fast-forward 20 years, and the SEC was ready to inflate its boarders once more by bringing in Texas A&M and Missouri.
Once again, financially it was a no brainer to bring in the viewing audiences of large media markets (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, St. Louis and Kansas City), only adding more ammunition for “Project X” (cough, cough, the SEC Network) coming down the pipe soon.
But unlike last time, there were no qualms from a competitive standpoint. If anything, playing fewer teams from the opposite division would stand to increase your chances of finishing with a great record because you don’t have to play as many quality opponents in the regular season. In a way, it’s worked. There’s currently six teams in the top nine of the BCS rankings - all because there hasn’t been a true round robin in the regular season.
But just when they least expected it, conference expansion reared its ugly head, and in a way that no one could have predicted, cost the SEC not only a shot at a national crown, but its seventh consecutive national crown.
The culprit: Johnny Football and the newcomers from College Station for their improbable victory in Tuscaloosa this weekend, derailing a perfect Alabama season and likely another national title for Nick Saban (Oh by the way, a game that Alabama wouldn’t have had to play if the league didn’t expand).
Now, of course, Alabama ain’t dead yet. Two of the three between Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame can certainly lose, placing the 12-1 SEC Title Game winner between Bama and UGA in Miami for all the marbles. But don’t count on it.
As great as the addition of Texas A&M will be for the future of the league, it likely just removed the SEC from the national title picture, against all odds.
Funny how things work out. Isn’t it?
Richard Fischer is the associate editor of Tiger Rag Magazine covering football and baseball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.