SEC Permanent Crossover Games: Unfair?

“Who did you play?” is always a consideration in the polls and rankings. As the presumptive best-conference in the country, the SEC matchups matter most of all in determining who gets to play in the National Championship Game. Are the SEC permanent crossover games affecting some teams’ ability to win titles?


Auburn lost to Georgia this season, all but ending the Tigers’ hopes of being chosen for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Known as “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” the teams have met 118 times since 1892. Historically, it’s been a competitive battle – each team has won 55 times, along with 8 draws.

This game is also one of seven annual SEC permanent crossover games in which two teams from opposite divisions meet each year. The others: Alabama-Tennessee, Arkansas-Missouri, LSU-Florida, Mississippi State-Kentucky, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M-South Carolina. (Prior to 2014, Arkansas played South Carolina, and Texas A&M played Missouri in 2012 and 2013.)

When the SEC consisted of 12 schools, a team’s 8-game conference schedule had a 5-2-1 format: five divisional games, two rotating non-divisional games, and the crossover game. After the conference expanded to 14 teams, keeping the 8-team schedule meant eliminating one rotating non-divisional game. The current format is 6-1-1: six division games, the crossover game, and a rotating inter-division game, meaning each team now only plays two conference games against the other division. The crossover games don’t rotate, which levies a different amount of fairness to each pairing. But how unfair is it?

To find out, I compared the final division standings since the SEC started divisional play in 1992 to see how those divisions would have fared without the crossover game. This eliminates the crossover and presumes a 7-game conference schedule. The goal: to determine whether any division titles would have changed hands and, if so, how many:

 

SEC East – Yearly Order of Finish

Actual Actual w/o Crossover w/o Crossover
Year 1st Place 2nd Place 1st Place 2nd Place
1992 Florida 6-2* Georgia 6-2 Tennessee 5-2* Georgia 5-2
Florida 5-2
1993 Florida 7-1 Tennessee 6-1-1 Florida 6-1* Tennessee 6-1
1994 Florida 7-1 Tennessee 5-3 Florida 6-1 Tennessee 5-2
1995 Florida 8-0 Tennessee 7-1 Florida 7-0 Tennessee 6-1
1996 Florida 8-0 Tennessee 7-1 Florida 7-0 Tennessee 6-1
1997 Tennessee 7-1 Georgia 6-2
Florida 6-2
Tennessee 6-1* Florida 6-1
Georgia 6-1
1998 Tennessee 8-0 Florida 7-1 Tennessee 7-0 Florida 6-1
1999 Florida 7-1 Tennessee 6-2 Florida 6-1 Tennessee 5-2
Georgia 5-2
2000 Florida 7-1 Georgia 5-3
S. Carolina 5-3
Tennessee 5-3
Florida 6-1 Georgia 5-2
2001 Tennessee 7-1 Florida 6-2 Tennessee 6-1 Georgia 5-2
Florida 5-2
S. Carolina 5-2
2002 Georgia 7-1 Florida 6-2 Florida 6-1* Georgia 6-1
2003 Georgia 6-2* Tennessee 6-2
Florida 6-2
Georgia 5-2* Tennessee 5-2
Florida 5-2
2004 Tennessee 7-1 Georgia 6-2 Tennessee 6-1* Georgia 6-1
2005 Georgia 6-2 S. Carolina 5-3
Florida 5-3
Georgia 6-1 Florida 5-2
2006 Florida 7-1 Tennessee 5-3 Florida 6-1 Tennessee 4-3
2007 Tennessee 6-2 Georgia 6-2 Tennessee 6-1 Georgia 5-2
Florida 5-2
2008 Florida 7-1 Georgia 6-2 Florida 6-1 Georgia 5-2
2009 Florida 8-0 Georgia 4-4
Tennessee 4-4
Florida 7-0 Tennessee 4-3
2010 S. Carolina 5-3 Florida 4-4 S. Carolina 5-2 Florida 4-3
2011 Georgia 7-1 S. Carolina 6-2 S. Carolina 6-1* Georgia 6-1
2012 Georgia 7-1* Florida 7-1 Georgia 6-1* Florida 6-1
2013 Missouri 7-1 S. Carolina 6-2 Missouri 6-1 Georgia 5-2
S. Carolina 5-2
2014 Missouri 7-1 Georgia 6-2 Missouri 6-1 Georgia 5-2

2nd-place ties listed in order of tiebreaker
* Won 1st place tiebreaker
^ Moved up via another team’s post-season ban

 

SEC West – Yearly Order of Finish

Actual Actual w/o Crossover w/o Crossover
Year 1st Place 2nd Place 1st Place 2nd Place
1992 Alabama 8-0 Ole Miss 5-3 Alabama 7-0 Ole Miss 5-2
1993 Alabama 5-2-1^ Arkansas 3-4-1^ Alabama 5-2^ LSU 3-4^
1994 Alabama 8-0 Miss. St 5-3^ Alabama 7-0 Miss. St. 4-3^
1995 Arkansas 6-2 Auburn 5-3 Arkansas 5-2 LSU 4-2-1^
1996 Alabama 6-2* LSU 6-2 Alabama 6-1* LSU 6-1
1997 Auburn 6-2* LSU 6-2 Auburn 5-2* LSU 5-2
1998 Miss. St. 6-2* Arkansas 6-2 Miss. St. 6-1 Arkansas 5-2
1999 Alabama 7-1 Miss. St 6-2 Alabama 7-0 Miss. St 5-2
2000 Auburn 6-2 LSU 5-3 Auburn 5-2* LSU 5-2
2001 LSU 5-3* Auburn 5-3 LSU 5-2 Alabama 4-3
2002 Arkansas 5-3^* Auburn 5-3^
LSU 5-3^
Auburn 5-2^ Arkansas 4-3^
2003 LSU 7-1* Ole Miss 7-1 LSU 7-0 Ole Miss 6-1
2004 Auburn 8-0 LSU 6-2 Auburn 7-0 LSU 5-2
2005 LSU 7-1 Auburn 7-1 LSU 6-1* Auburn 6-1
2006 Arkansas 7-1 Auburn 6-2
LSU 6-2
LSU 6-1* Arkansas 6-1
Auburn 6-1
2007 LSU 6-2 Auburn 5-3 LSU 5-2* Auburn 5-2
2008 Alabama 8-0 Ole Miss 5-3 Alabama 7-0 Ole Miss 5-2
2009 Alabama 8-0 LSU 5-3 Alabama 7-0 LSU 5-2
2010 Auburn 8-0 Arkansas 6-2
LSU 6-2
Auburn 7-0 Arkansas 5-2
LSU 5-2
2011 LSU 8-0 Alabama 7-1 LSU 7-0 Alabama 6-1
2012 Alabama 7-1 LSU 6-2
Texas A&M 6-2
Alabama 6-1* LSU 6-1
2013 Auburn 7-1* Alabama 7-1 Auburn 6-1* Alabama 6-1
2014 Alabama 7-1 Miss. St. 6-2 Alabama 6-1 Miss. St. 5-2

2nd-place ties listed in order of tiebreaker
* Won 1st place tiebreaker
^ Moved up via another team’s post-season ban

 

On five occasions in four different seasons, the division champions would have been different without the crossover game:

Actual Actual w/o Crossovers w/o Crossovers
Year East West East West
1992 Florida Alabama Tennessee Alabama
2002 Georgia Arkansas Florida Auburn
2006 Florida Arkansas Florida LSU
2011 Georgia LSU S. Carolina LSU

 

On net, Tennessee, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU all add one title game appearance, while Georgia and Arkansas each lose two.

Right away, we see that the inaugural SEC East Championship (1992), would have gone to Tennessee. The Volunteers actually went 5-3 and finished third after losing its crossover game against Alabama. Florida and Georgia, both 6-2, won their crossovers against LSU and Auburn, respectively. Without crossovers, all three would have finished 5-2 and Tennessee would have won the tiebreaker against Florida and Georgia, having beaten both teams head-to-head. The Vols would have played Alabama in the SEC title game. Instead, Tennessee fired head coach Johnny Majors following the season after dropping his 7th in a row to the Crimson Tide.

In 2002, both divisions would have had different winners. In the East, Florida would have avoided LSU and finished 6-1. This would have left the Gators tied with Georgia, whom they beat head to head. In the West, Auburn would have avoided a loss to Georgia, while Arkansas would not have had the advantage of beating a 5-7 South Carolina team. In actuality, the two teams tied and Arkansas won the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Would Ron Zook have been fired so quickly had the Gators reached (and perhaps won) the SEC title game? Meanwhile, much-maligned Tommy Tuberville would have added a third conference championship game appearance to his résumé.

In 2006, LSU would have jumped from third to first. Arkansas again won the division, with a crossover win over 8-5 (3-5 SEC) South Carolina. Without crossovers, LSU and Auburn would have avoided losses to Florida and Georgia, respectively, and pulled into a three-way tie with Arkansas. The deadlock would have been broken by the fifth tie-breaker, record against common non-divisional opponents. LSU and Arkansas both beat Tennessee, while Auburn had no common non-divisional opponent. It would then have reverted to the head-to-head game between LSU and Arkansas, which LSU won. Florida was a juggernaut that season, so it’s doubtful whether LSU would have won the title game.

Lastly, in 2011 the Ole Ball Coach Steve Spurrier would have made it two title games in a row if the Gamecocks could have avoided Arkansas. They would have tied Georgia, who beat a Cam Newton-less Auburn team in Gene Chizik’s penultimate season. South Carolina held the tiebreaker with a head-to-head win over the Bulldogs.

Georgia eventually lost the 2011 SEC title game, 42-10. Would the Gamecocks have been more of an obstacle to LSU than the speed bump Georgia presented?

The SEC’s crossover arrangement is sometimes unfair, but perhaps not overwhelmingly so. Five division title changes over 46 divisional seasons aren’t very many (10.9%). There are also a number of teams that would have moved up in the bowl-selection pecking order, with their fans heading to a more desirable destination. However, with so much at stake ‒ BCS berths, other bowl games, coaching jobs, and division bragging rights ‒ the downstream impacts could have been significant. For the five teams that lost a division crown based on SEC permanent crossover games, their players and fans can only wonder what might have been.

Andrew Pina has covered LSU’s running game, the historic season of Marcus Mariota, the disadvantages of being Kansas State, why Thanksgiving is the obstacle to expanded playoffs and whether SEC crossover games are unfair.

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