What if I told you that prior to 1982, the SEC didn't care how many conference games you played in a season? For instance, in 1970 Auburn played 8 conference games, but LSU only played 5?
During the Big Six era, which I wrote about in detail in yesterday's post, most teams played at least six conference games. There were some seasons where teams played as many as 8, and some where they played as few as 4 (Vanderbilt and LSU played only 4 in 1968, Georgia and Auburn in 1933, among others).
How then, do you choose a conference champion? Well, you do it by winning percentage. The SEC champion was chosen based on every team's winning percentage in conference. That allowed for some gaming of the system by teams (*cough*Alabama*cough*).
Ok, so it wasn't just Alabama. Almost every team during that era had seasons where they played as many as eight conference games. Alabama rarely needed the help of an extra game to win the conference, anyway. Auburn often played one fewer because the Tigers kept Georgia Tech on the schedule through 1987 even after they left the SEC. How often did that affect the SEC Champion, though?
There is one glaring example for Auburn fans. 1972. The Amazins. Gone were Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley. Yet a scrappy Auburn football team fought to a 10-1 overall record. Their lone loss was a 35-7 shellacking at the hands of LSU (in one of the rare times for that era that Auburn played LSU).
That bunch of over-achieving Tigers entered the Iron Bowl to face undefeated #2 Alabama and were not expected to do much. Every Auburn fan knows the story of how that game ended. It ended in a fashion even more improbable than the Kick Six.
Auburn ended the regular season with only one loss in the SEC. Alabama was the lone other SEC team with a single loss. That loss was to Auburn. At first glance, that would imply Auburn was able to claim a share of the conference title, if not an outright title due to the head-to-head victory.
That's not the case, however. The Tigers were 7-1 in the conference. The Crimson Tide were 8-1. By virtue of their extra game, they had the higher winning percentage and were therefore the SEC Champions for 1972.
How Often Did It Really Happen, Though?
In my search through SEC history for yesterday's article, I noticed a few times that this type of thing happened. So, I decided to go back through all of those records from the conference's beginning in 1933 and find out just when that extra conference game helped a team claim an outright title over someone else. Or, possibly, even hurt them.
The 1942 Georgia Bulldogs finished the SEC season at 6-1. Two other teams (Georgia Tech and LSU) also finished the season with only a single loss. The problem? They were 4-1 in the SEC. Georgia was awarded the conference title by virtue of their .857 winning percentage to GT and LSU's .800.
Ole Miss finished the season 9-2 overall, 6-1 in the SEC. Georgia Tech finished 10-1 overall, and 4-1 in the SEC. Again, those extra two conference games helped Ole Miss and hurt Georgia Tech. That's twice the Yellow Jackets lost out on a conference championship due to their smaller number of games. This one is hilarious, though. One of the reasons Tech played fewer conference games is because of their refusal to travel to the Mississippi schools (and as a result, the Mississippi schools not coming to them).
Kentucky won the SEC in 1950, their first - and only - outright conference football championship. They finished at 11-1 (5-1). Tennessee finished 11-1 (4-1).
This is, by far, the strangest example of a team benefiting from the extra game. Alabama won the SEC with a record of 4-0-3. Yes, you read that right. Three ties. There were three other teams behind the Tide with 4-1-1 records. Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Had Alabama played one less game, say they finished 4-0-2, then their winning percentage would have been .714 and fallen just behind the other three's .750. I don't know if head-to-head would have played into determining the champion among those three, but since Georgia Tech didn't play either of the other two, and Kentucky lost to Ole Miss, it would have been quite the conundrum.
There's a small possibility that Florida playing an extra game in 1969 kept them from earning a tie for the SEC title. I say small because their loss and tie came to Auburn and Georgia, respectively. Those are two teams that the Gators always played, so those are not games that the Gators would have not played, otherwise. They finished 4-1-1 in conference, with LSU finishing 4-1.
This one has already been discussed, above. It's also probably the most glaring example given Auburn's head-to-head victory.
Another example of a team possibly being hurt by playing an extra game. The Crimson Tide finished 5-2, with losses to Ole Miss and Georgia. Georgia finished 5-1 with a loss only to Ole Miss. Had the Tide not played Georgia, then perhaps they would have garnered a tie for the title.
Here's where things get interesting in my research, though. I was not aware that Kentucky's 1976 SEC title is claimed retroactively because of their loss to Mississippi State being forfeited. They also lost in the head-to-head with conference "co-champion" UGA. This kind of throws the whole "blip in the Big Six" thing out the window. That does lead us to the very next year, however.
Alabama is the sole champion of the SEC in 1977, even though Kentucky finished the season undefeated in the conference, as well. They were on probation, though, so that killed their conference title hopes. If there's a year the Wildcats could make a legitimate claim to a retroactive SEC title, it's 1977, not 1976. It is interesting that the Crimson Tide played seven conference games to Kentucky's six, too.
Poor Alabama. They played an extra game and ended up with a 6-1 record to UGA's 6-0. This doesn't really fit the model, though, because as with 1969 and Florida, the Tide's loss was to a team they played every season, anyway.
The Modern Era Began in 1982
Now we get to it. The thing Auburn fans have preached for years, but no one has wanted to listen to. 1982 is the first year where it appears the SEC demanded every team play the same number of conference games. Every team played six SEC games that season.
Six continued to be the number of games through the end of the 1987 season. In 1988, the number of games jumped up to seven per season. It stayed there until 1992 when the league added Arkansas and South Carolina and split into two divisions.
With the "every team plays six" formula in place in 1982, there was no way that a team could win the conference due to playing one extra conference game than everyone else. It was definitely a risk-reward system. The teams that won that extra game and earned the title because of it still had to win that extra game. Who knows how it might have affected an SEC team who earned a second loss early in the season against a team they didn't normally play and never recovered because of it?
Vagaries In SEC Scheduling History
This leads to another point that I think people were expecting me to go more in the direction of: permanent opponents. The SEC didn't mandate a uniform number of conference games, and therefore it didn't mandate who played what other teams. As a result, Auburn rarely played teams like LSU or Vanderbilt during the 60s and 70s. It's the reason why Vanderbilt has the series lead on Auburn. Though they've been the conference door mat for decades, Auburn has hardly played them (and when we do, it seems like it's always in our off years and their best).
Not having to play some of the harder teams on a consistent basis is definitely a factor to look at when examining past championships. How often did a team win the conference by a single game by virtue of not playing one or two other of the clear best teams in the conference? Perhaps that's an article for another day.
Auburn has one of the toughest scheduling histories in football. By one metric, it's the third toughest in the sports' history behind Michigan and Georgia. That stat makes it a little more understandable why UGA and Michigan have so few national titles. It makes it more impressive that Auburn has had the number of undefeated seasons and years the Tigers could claim national titles.
It hurts to say, but given Alabama's historical SOS ranking of 5th, it makes what the Crimson Tide have done in their history the most impressive of all.
Yes, that is leaving out factors like scholarship limits, recruiting tactics, etc. Still, though, any way you cut it, winning those games on the field is impressive.
OK, the Modern Era of College Football Really Began in 1992
I said it began in 1982, but really 1992 is the year we should look to. When the SEC split into divisions with mandated round-robin play and a conference championship game, that set the stage for truly regulating how champions were chosen in college football.
The SEC was the first conference to do it, and others quickly followed suit when they saw how exciting (and profitable, of course) those games could be. Formalizing the choosing of conference champions can be said to help set the stage to formalize how the national championship is awarded. The Bowl Coalition was formed and went into effect alongside it in 1992 after two seasons of co-champions in all of college football. That led to the Bowl Alliance, to the BCS, and now to the College Football Playoff.
This article formed in my head initially as "All Your Conference Titles Prior to 1982 Are Bullshit." I quickly realized that would not really be true since, as noted, a team still had to win any of those extra games. Perhaps the only years I should have focused on were years like 1972, but that season is really an anomaly in the system (not that it doesn't still hurt, as an Auburn fan).
That led me to point to 1992 and the splitting of the SEC into divisions. It also highlights that arguing about past history in terms of college football success is somewhat pointless. Head-to-head match-ups are one thing, but the game has changed so much over time that you have to examine it in different eras and understand how those eras worked.
Looking through the eyes of the system we have now, it's hard to imagine something so unorganized. That is particularly true when you take into account that the national championship was voted on by people who never had a chance to watch the majority of teams play. The rise of ESPN and TV contracts has plenty of people up in arms about how the sport has become a money-making machine, but it has also allowed us to create ways to better decide just who is the best team in football.
With ESPN, more voters were able to see more teams. That led them to begin embracing teams they might otherwise have dismissed due to the lack of a "big name." Everyone was able to examine more teams and realize that the best way to decide a champion was to build a more formal set of rules.
In 2014 we saw the culmination of that with the first College Football Playoff at the FBS level. These are definitely exciting times for the sport we love so much. I know you're all looking forward to this season's edition of insanity just as much as I am.