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Front Page - Friday, June 9, 2017

East is west but the SEC knows what’s best

East is East and West is West – except where the Southeastern Conference is concerned.

The SEC politburo again has scoffed at the idea of adjusting its football divisions by true geographic standards, leaving Missouri, the third most westerly conference member in terms of longitude, in the Eastern Division.

This comes after Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said it “makes sense” for his school – which, at -85.489545 degrees, is even more easterly than Eastern Division member Vanderbilt (-86.77816) – to move over to the SEC East during an interview on WNSP-FM in Mobile, Alabama.

“If we ever had the opportunity to geographically realign, it makes sense,” Jacobs added. “It really makes sense for Missouri because of the travel or other things like that.”

Can’t blame the man for trying.

Given the current imbalance of power in football, I’d do anything I could to escape the Western Division.

Is it ever going to happen? Not any time soon, based on the current stance of the league. The SEC Spring Meetings, where such decisions are made, came and went with no movement on the matter.

They were too busy passing out huge checks to do much more than play golf, go the beach, attend dinners and generally spend the better part of a week congratulating each other on what a great conference this is. Why bother to tackle anything of real substance when there’s a cocktail reception waiting?

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey went so far as to stop the ball before it ever had a chance to get rolling. In his first appearance before the media at the meetings, Sankey threw cold water on every new idea – conference realignment and nine-game football schedule included.

About a potential move to the SEC East by Auburn and a corresponding switch to the SEC West by Missouri, Sankey told reporters:

“Is that an agenda item? No. Do you talk about it in media press conferences? Regularly. … I think the next question is about a nine-game schedule, none of which are on the agenda.”

And you know what? When it comes to SEC realignment, it’s the right stance. As for adding a conference football game, he’s wrong.

Moving Auburn to the Eastern Division would cause more problems than it would solve. Sure, a Missouri-for-Auburn trade would help balance out the two divisions. But what about the annual Iron Bowl showdown between Alabama and Auburn?

The SEC would be crazy to eliminate that game. And if you made that a permanent crossover game, what about Alabama-Tennessee?

Many UT fans, of course, like the idea of not playing the Crimson Tide every October. They’re tired of getting beat. Sorry, folks, but that rivalry has been too good for too long to abandon it.

Let’s add a little context here: The decision to place Missouri in the SEC East and Texas A&M in the Western Division is one of convenience. Ignoring geography, SEC officials dropped Missouri into the Eastern Division with A&M going into the West when the conference expanded from 12 to 14 in 2012. That way everything else pretty much stayed intact.

At the time, there were indications that the conference planned to revisit the matter at some point in the future. Apparently, that time has not come.

Note that the only sports impacted by divisional play in the SEC are football and baseball. The conference abandoned the East/West divisions in men’s basketball in 2012. Other sports have no divisional borders.

The whole idea of divisional play goes back to 1992 and is rooted in – you guessed it – money.

When the SEC expanded from 10 to 12 teams with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina, the conference was split into two divisions for football. Interestingly, Arkansas was placed in the Western Division and South Carolina in the SEC East. Back then, longitude was taken into consideration.

With divisional play in place, the SEC gained the opportunity to stage a championship game at regular season’s end. And make no mistake: The SEC Championship Game has been a cash cow, thanks to ticket sales, advertising deals and a TV contract.

As for switching divisions, don’t expect Auburn to give up without a fight. Jacobs, the Auburn athletics director, made his comments after a similar statement by former Tigers football coach Pat Dye. Speaking on the “Paul Finebaum Show” on the SEC Network, Dye said Auburn and Missouri should swap divisions.

“We touch Florida, Georgia and Tennessee,” Dye added. “We need to be in the East, and Missouri needs to be in the West.”

This is a prevailing school of thought at Auburn. In April 2016, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said he would not be opposed to Auburn’s move to the Eastern Division.

Dye even went so far as to say he didn’t mind if the Iron Bowl was sacrificed in the process.

“I’d rather see Auburn in the East than us to play Alabama every year,” Dye pointed out on his weekly radio show on ESPN 106.7 FM in Auburn. “We don’t need to let Alabama dictate what we do at Auburn. We can play them on a rotation, just like everybody else.”

Jacobs took a different tack. He said it is important to keep the Iron Bowl as a late-season fixture in the SEC schedule.

“I would want to preserve the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, however we could do that,” he said. “… The Auburn-Alabama game right now, it just means too much to too many people to give that up. I think there are other ways that we could possibly change without having to give that rivalry up.”

As for a nine-game conference schedule, its time has come. None other than Alabama coach Nick Saban has gone on record as supporting a ninth SEC game. I concur.

Other conferences have taken the nine-game plunge. The Big Ten added a ninth conference game last season, joining the Pac-12 and Big 12 in determining that nine is better than eight. That leaves the SEC and ACC as the only members of the so-called Power Five conferences with eight-game league schedules.

The naysayers will point out that 10 of the last 11 national champions have come from the SEC or ACC – Alabama four times, Florida twice, LSU, Auburn, Florida State and Clemson once each. Only Ohio State from the Big Ten in 2014 has crashed the party. Would those SEC and ACC teams have been in position to play for the championship if they had been forced to endure a ninth conference game?

Sorry, but I heard the same argument in 1992 when the SEC went from seven league games to eight. Coaches, fans and media argued that the days of the SEC competing for national championships were over because an extra conference game would be too taxing for its teams.

Then Alabama promptly won the national title that very season. Florida followed suit in 1996, and Tennessee in ’98. Somehow, the cream always rises to the top.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer