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The Great Divide

14 years after becoming the first divided league in Division I football, the SEC East and West have turned out to be remarkably balanced

Thursday, July 27, 2006


News staff writer

Imagine Alabama and Auburn in opposite divisions of the SEC, with the Iron Bowl a non-divisional game.

It was once discussed.

When Arkansas and South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference in 1991, the league was faced with dispersing 12 teams equitably into two divisions in order to stage college football's first conference championship game.

It was a headache.

The SEC considered three key factors: geography, traditional rivalries, and historical competitiveness. The result was the first divided Division I football conference, a concept now used by five of 11 leagues as the SEC enters its 15th season of divisional play.

"Obviously, it's been a huge success because everybody else is doing it," said Cecil "Hootie" Ingram, then the University of Alabama athletics director. "The first thing (critics) said when we did it, 'You'll never win another national championship,' and we won one the first year."

The SEC's ADs and presidents didn't give much thought to whether they had created competitively balanced divisions, said SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Mark Womack, who helped with the alignment. "Our athletic directors and presidents said, `Well, this is fair. There's rationale as to why we did it. However it turns out (on the field), it turns out.'"

Although there have been spurts of dominance by one division, it turns out that overall, the two divisions have been remarkably even in competitive balance.

The West has produced five different SEC champions to the East's three. The West also leads in overall winning percentage (.574 to .565) and SEC winning percentage (.504 to .496).

The East has more SEC titles (nine to five) and more first-round NFL draft picks (47 to 35). The East also has a slight edge in final top 25 rankings from the Associated Press poll (35 to 34) and a dominant margin in top-10 finishes (20 to 10).

National titles are even at two apiece, courtesy of LSU and Alabama in the West and Florida and Tennessee in the East.

And when the West and East play head to head, the West has won more often. By two games.

"It probably shows what we looked at from a historical perspective," Womack said. "If you look at it in short time spans, you can find some discrepancies. But if you look at it historically, it's remarkably even."

Balancing act:

One of the more underrated components of a football team's success is its schedule. Within the SEC, and other large conferences that have since expanded, teams play an unbalanced schedule, meaning a team plays only certain teams in the other division each year. That can help or hurt them in any particular year.

For instance, Florida is the only SEC team this season playing five of the league's top six teams. (When the SEC expanded, it determined Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and LSU had the most historical success and divided them accordingly.)


© 2006 The Birmingham News

© 2006 al.com All Rights Reserved.

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Somethings that kind of stuck out to me

But when the current 10-year schedule expires after 2011, Alabama, LSU and Tennessee will have never played five heavyweights in one season under divisional play. The nine other teams will have done so on average 4.4 times over 20 years, led by Vanderbilt and Arkansas (eight times each).

Dye thinks the schedule realignment helped Auburn.

"How would you like playing Georgia, Alabama and Florida to end every year for 40 years?" Dye said. "Plus, we played Tennessee. Say what you will about other things, schedule plays a big role in wins and losses. Nobody else in the conference played as tough a schedule as Auburn year in and year out" before divisional play.

In the past seven years, the West has won four SEC titles and commanded a 71-62 advantage against the East. That included a decisive 12-7 edge in 2003.

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The West has produced five different SEC champions to the East's three. The West also leads in overall winning percentage (.574 to .565) and SEC winning percentage (.504 to .496).

I think the west has been the overall most balanced division. The east may have more championships but only UF, Ut, and UGA have won the division. All six of the western division teams have won or shared the division title. Also there have been co-champions in the west 6 times and the eastern division has split the title only twice. Another point to add is that Auburn won the west in 1993 and Alabama in 2002 but were not eligible due to probation.

SEC 1992-2005


west - Alabama#

east - Florida*/Georgia


west - Alabama*/(Auburn**)

east - Florida# (note: this represents on the field. Due to forfeits Alabama finished 0-8)


west - Alabama

east - Florida#


west - Arkansas

east - Florida#


west - Alabama*/LSU

east - Florida#


west - Auburn*/LSU

east - Tennessee#


west - Mississippi St.*/Arkansas

east - Tennessee#


west - Alabama#

east - Florida


west - Auburn

east - Florida#


west - LSU*#/Auburn

east - Tennessee


west - Arkansas*/Auburn/LSU/(Alabama**)

east - Georgia#


west - LSU*#/Ole Miss

east - Georgia*/Tennessee/Florida


west - Auburn#

east - Tennesee


west - LSU*/Auburn

east - Georgia#

*SEC Championship game representative

** not eligible due to probation

# SEC Champion

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I've always thought the SEC could give lessons to the ACC or the Big 12 on equitable division and scheduling of a superconference. Nice to see the actual numbers to confirm this. I wish they could do something about the slight inequity in home/away games you see in the West, though. [E.g., Bama and LSU have practically all their toughest opponents on the road this year while we're at home for LSU, FL, and UGA. Next year, roles are reversed.]

Now let's have the "Big Ten" stop kidding itself, pick up Notre Dame as it's twelfth member, and we can give them division/scheduling help. [And the BCS can stop giving the Irish special treatment!]

Also liked this:

There were so many headaches 15 years ago that Womack does not want to even consider the consequences of another SEC expansion.

"We'll have to go back to the drawing board," he said, laughing. "It would be a nightmare but this one was, too."

Maybe this will put all expansion rumors to rest. The SEC is almost perfect the way it is--toughest conference in the nation, but with enough lightweights to give the teams some breathers.
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