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Tennessee’s Alabama problem is really an SEC problem

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Tennessee’s “Alabama Problem” — it’s annual rivalry game with the Tide on the Third Saturday in October. The Knoxville News Sentinel’s John Adams kicked things off on June 5 by publishing an article entitled Tennessee Vols shouldn’t have to play Alabama every year. That framed the issue as “whether Tennessee should play Alabama every year.”

Adams makes some valid points on the way to his conclusion that Tennessee should not play Alabama every year, namely that ten consecutive losses is too high a price to pay for tradition and rivalry.

He’s right that the annual rivalry game has put the Vols at a huge disadvantage in the SEC East recently.

His conclusion, though — that the SEC should do away with the idea of permanent cross-divisional rivals altogether — is all wrong.

Playing the game isn’t the problem

A couple of minor points first, based on a couple of things that Adams actually conceded before concluding that they didn’t matter enough to change his opinion. Rivalries are cyclical, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that Alabama’s rivals will eventually return the favor with a period of dominance over them. You don’t throw out 100 years of tradition because of a bad 10-year stretch. Also, it is “[b]etter to get run over by the Tide than appear to run away from them.” It’s not just that no one wants to back down. It’s also that that game provides a real opportunity to do something special every year.

But here’s the main point: The problem isn’t permanent cross-divisional opponents, it’s that those games are given too much weight when deciding which team should represent the division in the SEC Championship Game.

Losing sight of the question leads to wrong answers

An extreme example illustrates the point that such games may not provide the right answers the right questions. Suppose that a high school team plays the New England Patriots and, as expected, is absolutely destroyed. Does that tell you anything at all about how good that team is relative to other high school teams? Of course it doesn’t.

And cross-divisional games don’t answer questions about the division, either.

The SEC Championship Game ostensibly pits the best team in the East against the best team in the West. That’s the goal. If they happen to also be the league’s two best teams, great. But if not, it doesn’t matter. It’s best of the East against best of the West.

So, one of the SEC’s highest priorities should be a system that accurately identifies the best team in each division. Their current system, though, is faulty because it relies too heavily on the results of dissimilar cross-divisional schedules. Playing and losing to the Patriots says little to nothing about your standing in the SEC East, and neither does playing and losing to Alabama. Especially when the other teams in the East play Mississippi State instead.

And yet that one extra loss to the Tide can make all the difference when it’s time to decide who represents the East in the SEC Championship Game.

Why is it that the SEC doesn’t count non-conference games when determining SEC standings? Is it because games against MAC or FCS opponents (or Clemson or Ohio State) are simply not relevant to the SEC hierarchy? When determining which team is the best in the conference, the SEC says that only SEC games matter.

But even as the SEC completely (and appropriately) discounts non-conference games when calculating SEC standings, it gives equal weight to cross-divisional games when determining division standings.

The solution

The answer to Tennessee’s current Alabama problem isn’t to do away with the rivalry by persuading the SEC to toss out the notion of permanent cross-divisional rivals. Bring ’em on. Let’s keep making progress toward the top of that hill, and when we get there, let’s return the favor for a while.

No, the problem’s not that the SEC has permanent cross-division rivals, it’s that the conference improperly uses the results of those games to draw conclusions about division standings. And while Tennessee seems to be taking the brunt of it lately, this is really an SEC problem more than it is a Tennessee problem, and everyone in the conference should care about it.

It’s not a question of fairness, it’s a question of accuracy. If the SEC truly wants its championship game to feature a contest between the best team from the East and best team from the West, it doesn’t need to eliminate permanent cross-divisional rivals, it just needs to de-emphasize the impact of those games on division standings.



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