Why the SEC needs to scrap divisions, and more Week 6 thoughts

You've probably heard by now that Auburn and Florida, who meet in Gainesville on Saturday, have played each other only once in the past 11 seasons. This is a long-standing rivalry, and this will be the eighth time the programs meet as top-10 teams, but they barely play anymore.

Georgia won't play Texas A&M for the first time as a conference rival until later this season. LSU won't visit Missouri for the first time until 2023, 11 years after A&M and Mizzou joined the SEC.

This barely qualifies as a conference.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen said as much last week, noting that Florida has more games scheduled against USF than Mississippi State. "I think it's an injustice for the kids. We should mix those games up, and you should play more teams from the West and get the opportunity to play more SEC games." When you have 14 SEC teams playing eight-game conference schedules, and when seven of those eight spots are occupied by the same seven teams every year (six division foes, plus one permanent inter-division rival), you're barely going to play the other six teams.

Going from eight conference games to nine would put an extra inter-division foe into the rotation and assure you're playing everybody twice in six years. However, the SEC probably isn't going to move to nine-game schedules anytime soon -- the current structure works out pretty well for the league, which has placed at least one team (and on two occasions, two teams) in the national title game in 12 of the past 13 seasons.

Luckily, there's an even better way. It doesn't even require adding a conference game, and it would serve the additional purpose of solving occasional problems with unequal divisions.

Just ban divisions altogether.

I've written about this before, but it has picked up steam in the run-up to Auburn-Florida. Let's walk through the basics of what we'll call the conference pod structure.

1. Instead of divisions, each team has a set of three permanent rivals. We have taken to calling them pods. Having three for each team satisfies most rivalry needs, as you'll see below.

2. You play your three permanent rivals every year, and you rotate between the other 10. Home-and-homes against five of them for two years, then home-and-homes against the other five the next two years. Within a student's four years on campus, you have played everyone in the league at least twice. Now that's a conference.

This same structure, by the way, would work beautifully for the ACC, which also plays eight-game conference schedules, doesn't even use geography for its divisions and features even more divisional imbalance than the SEC. And while the three-five structure works with perfect symmetry, it would work for conferences with nine-game conference schedules, too. (Hello, Big Ten.)

A simulation

To see how this would work in the future, I looked to the past. I simulated how it might have played out had the SEC adopted this structure from the moment it became a 14-team league in 2012.

Here are the permanent rivalries I chose:

Hypothetical SEC rivalry pods
Alabama: Auburn, LSU, Tennessee
Arkansas: Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Auburn: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State
Florida: Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee
Georgia: Auburn, Florida, South Carolina
Kentucky: Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt
LSU: Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Mississippi State: Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss
Missouri: Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M
Ole Miss: Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State
South Carolina: Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt
Tennessee: Alabama, Florida, Vanderbilt
Texas A&M: Arkansas, LSU, Missouri
Vanderbilt: Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee

For balanced scheduling, I referenced teams' five-year average SP+ ratings (2007-11, which can be found at Football Outsiders). I used as many real-life games as possible, and for the new matchups that didn't actually happen, I kept things simple and determined the winner by who would be favored by that year's SP+ ratings. (No, this wasn't intended to be perfectly scientific.)

Here are the results.

2012 Standings
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Georgia (7-1, 11-1)
Florida (6-2, 10-2) (-1 win from real life)
LSU (6-2, 10-2)
Texas A&M (6-2, 10-2)
South Carolina (5-3, 9-3) (-1 win)
Vanderbilt (5-3, 8-4)
Ole Miss (3-5, 6-6)
Mississippi State (3-5, 7-5) (-1 win)
Arkansas (3-5, 5-7) (+1 win)
Auburn (2-6, 5-7) (+2 wins)
Tennessee (2-6, 6-6) (+1 win)
Missouri (1-7, 4-8) (-1 win)
Kentucky (0-8, 2-10)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. Georgia

The title game doesn't change, but we see some shifts further down in the standings. From the start of the league's 14-team existence, the West has been far stronger than the East, and we see here that West teams pick up a net two wins.

2013 Standings
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Auburn (6-2, 10-2) (-1 win)
Mississippi State (6-2, 9-3) (+3 wins!)
Missouri (6-2, 10-2) (-1 win)
Georgia (6-2, 9-3) (+1 win)
LSU (5-3, 9-3)
Texas A&M (5-3, 9-3) (+1 win)
South Carolina (5-3, 9-3) (-1 win)
Ole Miss (4-4, 8-4) (+1 win)
Vanderbilt (3-5, 7-5) (-1 win)
Florida (1-7, 2-10) (-2 wins)
Arkansas (1-7, 4-8) (+1 win)
Tennessee (1-7, 4-8) (-1 win)
Kentucky (0-8, 2-10)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. Auburn

Here, we encounter what some might consider a drawback of the no-divisions structure: immediate rematches. Auburn finished the 2013 regular season with maybe the most dramatic pair of wins in college football's 150-year history, beating Georgia via Ricardo Louis' miraculous deflected touchdown, then beating Alabama via Chris Davis' 109-yard missed field goal return.

In this reality, the Kick Six merely sets up a rematch the next week. Missouri, which would have otherwise won a tiebreaker due to its road win over Georgia, ends up screwed by the Kick Six, not Alabama, which would have been the odds-on favorite to win the rematch and play in the BCS title game.

2014 Standings
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Mississippi State (6-2, 10-2)
Missouri (6-2, 9-3) (-1 win)
LSU (5-3, 9-3) (+1 win)
Georgia (5-3, 8-4) (-1 win)
Texas A&M (4-4, 8-4) (+1 win)
Auburn (4-4, 8-4)
South Carolina (4-4, 7-5) (+1 win)
Ole Miss (4-4, 8-4) (-1 win)
Florida (4-4, 6-5)
Arkansas (3-5, 7-5) (+1 win)
Tennessee (2-6, 5-7) (-1 win)
Kentucky (2-6, 5-7)
Vanderbilt (0-8, 3-9)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. Mississippi State

Missouri, which won the real-life East in both 2013 and 2014, instead narrowly misses out on the title game twice in a row, this time due to a head-to-head loss to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, who spent a chunk of the season unbeaten and No. 1 in the country, get a late shot at redemption after faltering late in the year.

2015 Standings
Ole Miss (7-1, 10-2) (+1 win)
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Georgia (6-2, 10-2) (+1 win)
LSU (6-2, 9-2) (+1 win)
Arkansas (6-2, 8-4) (+1 win)
Florida (5-3, 8-4) (-2 wins)
Auburn (4-4, 8-4) (+2 wins)
Tennessee (4-4, 7-5) (-1 win)
Texas A&M (4-4, 8-4)
Mississippi State (3-5, 7-5) (-1 win)
Kentucky (2-6, 5-7)
South Carolina (1-7, 3-9)
Vanderbilt (1-7, 3-9) (-1 win)
Missouri (0-8, 4-8) (-1 win)

SEC championship game: Ole Miss vs. Alabama

In this reality, the amazing Hunter Henry Game doesn't cost Ole Miss its first spot in the conference title game. Meanwhile, Georgia and LSU each fare better than in real life, making the Mark Richt and Les Miles firings even more awkward than they already were.

2016 Standings
Alabama (8-0, 12-0)
LSU (6-2, 8-3) (+1 win)
Texas A&M (5-3, 9-3) (+1 win)
Auburn (5-3, 8-4)
Florida (5-3, 8-3) (-1 win)
Tennessee (4-4, 8-4)
Georgia (4-4, 7-5)
Mississippi State (4-4, 6-6) (+1 win)
Arkansas (3-5, 7-5)
Ole Miss (3-5, 6-6) (+1 win)
South Carolina (3-5, 6-6)
Kentucky (2-6, 5-7) (-2 wins)
Vanderbilt (2-6, 5-7) (-1 win)
Missouri (2-6, 4-8)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. LSU

The West picks up four net wins here, and a Florida team that won the East in real life, instead finishes fifth in the conference. Meanwhile, with fewer games against the worst teams in the conference, the Mark Stoops era is really struggling to get off the ground. He has yet to make a bowl.

2017 Standings
Auburn (7-1, 10-2)
Alabama (7-1, 11-1)
Georgia (7-1, 11-1)
LSU (6-2, 9-3)
Ole Miss (5-3, 8-4) (+2 wins)
Mississippi State (5-3, 9-3) (+1 win)
Missouri (4-4, 7-5)
South Carolina (4-4, 7-5) (-1 win)
Texas A&M (4-4, 7-5)
Arkansas (2-6, 5-7) (+1 win)
Florida (2-6, 3-8) (-1 win)
Kentucky (2-6, 5-7) (-2 wins)
Vanderbilt (1-7, 5-7)
Tennessee (0-8, 4-8)

SEC championship game: Auburn vs. Alabama

Here, in addition to immediate rematches, we encounter another potential problem with pods: awkward tie-breakers. Auburn, Alabama and Georgia all finish 7-1, but Alabama and Georgia didn't play each other. Auburn finishes first with wins over both teams, but the Bama/Georgia tie pretty much has to be broken by who has the higher CFP ranking. (Alabama was fifth at this point in real life, Georgia sixth.)

The way this plays out, though, Georgia probably still makes the CFP at 11-1 in addition to the Auburn-Bama winner.

2018 Standings
Alabama (8-0, 12-0)
Georgia (7-1, 11-1)
Auburn (6-2, 10-2) (+3 wins!)
Kentucky (6-2, 10-2) (+1 win)
Texas A&M (5-3, 8-4)
LSU (5-3, 9-3)
Mississippi State (4-4, 8-4)
Florida (4-4, 8-4) (-1 win)
Missouri (3-5, 7-5) (-1 win)
Ole Miss (2-6, 6-6) (+1 win)
South Carolina (2-6, 5-7) (-2 wins)
Vanderbilt (2-6, 5-7) (-1 win)
Tennessee (1-7, 4-8) (-1 win)
Arkansas (1-7, 3-9) (+1 win)

SEC championship game: Alabama vs. Georgia

The title game matchup doesn't change, but one-loss Georgia (which still loses to LSU) gets a pretty stiff challenge from both an Auburn team dealing with a far lighter conference schedule and a Kentucky team that finally found its rhythm (and, in this example, lost to only Tennessee and LSU).

Over the course of seven seasons, the West teams have benefited as you would expect, gaining a net 26 wins. Auburn and Arkansas each score six extra conference wins, and Ole Miss gains five, while the East's Florida loses eight, Missouri loses five, and Vandy and South Carolina lose four each.

This simulation pretty clearly spells out the pluses and minuses to a pod approach.

Plus: Everybody plays everybody frequently.

Minus: Some games that are awfully important to certain fan bases -- Arkansas-LSU, Tennessee-Georgia, etc. -- are still played frequently but no longer annually.

Plus: The schedules within the conference are far more balanced, to some teams' benefit and others' detriment. (This makes certain annual coaching hot seat conversations play out quite differently, from Derek Dooley reaching a bowl and maybe not getting fired from Tennessee in 2012, to Stoops or Vandy's Derek Mason reaching fewer bowls and perhaps finding trouble more quickly.)

Minus: The tiebreaker process will end up breaking ties among teams that didn't play each other. That's awkward and potentially unsatisfying.

Plus: Conference title games are far more likely to pit the best and second-best teams against each other, not best and fifth-best.

Minus: If you're not a fan of immediate rematches (but want to keep all the key rivalry games, such as the Iron Bowl, on Thanksgiving weekend, when they should be), you might be occasionally unhappy with the title game pairings.

It's important to note, the positives far outweigh the negatives. I'll trade occasionally awkward tiebreakers for a greater sense of rivalry, balance and fairness.

The SEC was the first FBS conference to implement a conference title game. Though doubters were legion at first, it benefited the conference greatly and became commonplace within the sport. The league could choose to make a similarly progressive move right now; among all the other benefits, it would get Auburn to Gainesville quite a bit more often.

Week 6 playlist

Here are 10 games -- at least one from each weekend time slot -- that you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.

All times Eastern.

No. 18 UCF at Cincinnati (8 p.m., ESPN)
Dartmouth-Penn should be an outstanding second option during commercial breaks, but it's hard to beat this one for a Friday night affair. Despite a loss to Pitt, UCF is still the AAC East favorite, but Cincy QB Desmond Ridder is playing excellent ball, and after slipping to 62nd in SP+ after getting thumped by Ohio State, the Bearcats are back up to 38th. The winner is your East fav.
SP+ projection: UCF 29, Cincy 22

Early Saturday
No. 14 Iowa at No. 19 Michigan (12 p.m., Fox)
Michigan handled Rutgers like it should have (and got RU's Chris Ash fired in the process), but this is the Wolverines' first chance to really prove something after their debacle against Wisconsin. Iowa probably should have lost to Iowa State but is extremely well-rounded -- top 30 in offense, defense and special teams, per SP+ -- and if Michigan's not a true top-20 caliber team, we'll probably know after this one.
SP+ projection: Michigan 26, Iowa 22

Tulane at Army (12 p.m., CBS Sports)
Tulane hasn't finished in the SP+ top 50 since 1998's undefeated run, but the Green Wave are currently 51st and 3-1 overall. Army, meanwhile, is Army -- relentlessly option-heavy on offense, aggressively efficient on defense, and 57th overall. This could be the most run-heavy game of the week this side of Air Force-Navy, and SP+ projects it as a dead-on tossup. Sounds worth your while.
SP+ projection: Army 27.2, Tulane 27.1

North Dakota State at Illinois State (1 p.m., ESPN+)
After a couple of warmups to start the year, NDSU played at what was then FCS' No. 18 team, Delaware, before returning home to face No. 4 UC Davis. Now, play begins in FCS' most rugged conference, the Missouri Valley. Illinois State is 3-1 and No. 6 in FCS, having lost only to Northern Illinois. ESPN+ will carry this one; can young quarterback Trey Lance and NDSU keep rolling?
SP+ projection: NDSU 32, ISU 25

Saturday afternoon (besides Auburn-Florida)
Baylor at Kansas State (3:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Each week, the Big 12 features at least one game key to the race for the second spot in the conference title game. This week, it features three: TCU-Iowa State, Oklahoma State-Texas Tech and this one. Baylor has the second-best defense in the conference, per SP+, but Kansas State has one of the best pass defenses in the country. The Wildcats need this one.
SP+ projection: Baylor 27, Kansas State 23

Virginia Tech at Miami (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Auburn-Florida and Baylor-KSU should address most of your viewing needs, but I'll be keeping an eye on this one, too, because Tech is a bit of a disaster at the moment. The 2-2 Hokies barely survived Furman and got crushed by Duke in their past two games, plummeting to 72nd in SP+. Can they keep the bottom from completely falling out against a Miami team that is mostly promising but can't block anybody?
SP+ projection: Miami 31, Virginia Tech 17

Saturday evening
No. 25 Michigan State at No. 4 Ohio State (7:30 p.m., ABC)
The biggest game of the evening. Ohio State has been damn near untouchable so far, not only sprinting to 5-0 but beating three SP+ top-40 teams by an average of 41.3 points. That Indiana team Michigan State barely beat last week? Buckeyes 51, Hoosiers 10. But ... this is exactly the kind of situation in which the Spartans sometimes engineer an out-of-nowhere scare, right?
SP+ projection: Ohio State 33, Michigan State 16

Tulsa at No. 24 SMU (7:30 p.m., ESPNU)
LANDMINE ALERT: SMU is ranked for the first time since 1986 and has looked the part of a true New Year's Six bowl contender. But plenty of teams relax when they have a reason to congratulate themselves, and SMU can't afford to do that against a Tulsa team that beat Wyoming and made both Oklahoma State and Michigan State sweat.
SP+ projection: SMU 34, Tulsa 22

Cal at No. 13 Oregon (8 p.m., Fox)
Cal probably doesn't have the offense to be a serious Pac-12 North contender, but the Golden Bears still have a defense, and they have already proven their spoiler potential by beating Washington twice in two years. In his first game against a lively defense since the frustrating Auburn loss, can Oregon's Justin Herbert prove his draft hype and keep the Ducks unbeaten in conference play?
SP+ projection: Oregon 30, Cal 13

Late Saturday
No. 15 Washington at Stanford (10:30 p.m., ESPN)

Honestly? It would take a pretty dramatic rebound from Stanford for this to actually be a game. Washington should cruise. But the rules are that I pick something from every time slot, and the only other options were Boise State at UNLV and SDSU at Colorado State. I'm just being honest here. You can probably go to bed early this Saturday.
SP+ projection: Washington 38, Stanford 18