Fear Of An Extra Conference Game, 1992 Edition

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.**

As it turned out, the fear that a conference title game would create too many hurdles for the SEC to produce a national champion was totally misplaced. The SEC would win a national title in the first year of the title game's existence, two more during the rest of the 90s, and then seven more in the first 12 years of the new millennium. In at least one instance - 2006 Florida - the title game was integral to an SEC team getting a spot in the national title game, as the Gators' win over Arkansas gave the voters a reason to place Florida ahead of Michigan for the #2 ranking. The game also provided a boost for the cases of both LSU teams to win national titles in the Aughts and it removed what would have been very difficult situations for pollsters in 2008 and 2009 where Alabama and Florida produced terrific teams that did not play one another during the regular season.

The only instances where the title game acted in the way that Dye, Majors, and Goff feared was 2001, where Tennessee blew a shot at the national title because they could not figure out a rudimentary quarterback running game for which they did not prepare, and possibly 1994 (although Alabama almost certainly would have been stuck behind Nebraska and Penn State regardless of whether they went unbeaten). Although it's always dangerous to mistake correlation for causation, it's hard to make the case that the coaches were right when they complained in the summer of 1992 about the prospect of the SEC Championship Game.***

In fact, 1992 represented a more radical change than a move to nine regular season SEC games would. Not only did the SEC add a conference title game, but each member moved from playing seven conference games to playing eight. Thus, the division winners would play 28% more games against conference opponents. Schedules got significantly tougher starting in 1992. The fact that SEC teams also got better and started winning national titles with regularity after an eleven-year title drought shows that increased competition is not a bad thing. We ought to keep this in mind when our schools' coaches and athletic directors tell us that a nine-game conference schedule is too much to bear.

* - Spurrier's position might have smacked of self-interest, as Florida was coming off of a two-year stretch in which the Gators finished first in the league both times and were rarely challenged by conference opponents. As it turned out, Florida was clearly inferior to the Alabama team that they would meet in the first title game, so they ended up benefiting from the structure.

** - As usual, Spurrier was smarter than the other coaches in the league.

*** - Dye, Majors, and Goff never had the chance to coach in the game and the former two would be done as head coaches by the end of the season, so it turns out that they did not have a dog in the fight.

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