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The South Rises Again

Regrettably, the SEC has seen only the glory of the coming of a conference playoff game

Now that the Southeastern Conference has expanded into a 12-team confederacy with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, just about everybody south of the Mason-Dixon line is singing the praises of the new SEC championship game, which will match the winners of the Eastern and Western divisions against each other in Birmingham on Dec. 5. The playoff will be the first of its kind in Division I-A, and even by the standards of the Old South, where the only thing better than football is more football, the game promises to generate big-time revenue and media attention. All the best seats in 76,000-seat Legion Field are long gone, even though they could be purchased only as part of premium packages that can include luxury seating with closed-circuit TV, or a buffet and live entertainment in a hospitality tent, and cost from $75 to $750 apiece. Kentucky coach Bill Curry isn't whistling Dixie when he predicts that the SEC championship game may overshadow the Sugar Bowl, in which the SEC champion is the host team.

But wait a minute. There's a darker side to all this. As the South remains virtually isolated from pro sports and still believes in its sovereign right to determine its destiny, the SEC has embarked on a solitary course that could spark a civil war of sorts. In effect, the SEC has seceded from college football.

For openers, the SEC had to find a loophole in the NCAA rules to create its title game. In 1960 the NCAA passed legislation intended for the Pennsylvania Conference, a Division II league whose 12 members were so far-flung that they needed a playoff game to determine their football champion. "The rule was never meant to be used by Division I," says Dave Cawood, an NCAA assistant executive director. "Had it been submitted for Division I, it never would have passed." Now that the SEC has put one over on the NCAA, let's consider the message the league is sending to its brethren:

•The SEC championship game is a blatant affront to the reform movement spearheaded by the NCAA Presidents' Commission. The thrust of the commission's campaign has been that cutbacks in big-time college athletics are needed in such areas as schedules, costs and practice time. Now, however, two SEC teams, the division winners, will play 13 games (including a postseason bowl) in a season. The potential existed for two teams to play 14 games until the SEC, in an attempt to deflect criticism of the championship format by fellow NCAA members, agreed to keep its teams out of the two made-for-TV kickoff classics. The irony, of course, is that the SEC is one conference that could use a little NCAA reform: The majority of its members aren't strangers to the NCAA jailhouse for football infractions.

•Most SEC presidents, athletic directors and coaches oppose a playoff to determine a national champion on the grounds that it would lengthen the season and thus cause the players to miss too much class time. Yet now some of the same folks are talking up the SEC title game as if it were the greatest thing since the invention of the cotton gin. One of them is Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who says he's "100 percent against" a national playoff because it produces only one happy group of alumni and because it lengthens the season. But he loves the SEC championship game because "that game is still within the framework of the season." O.K., Gene, but isn't the real point that the playoff is expected to generate between $5 million and $7 million that the SEC won't have to share with anybody outside the conference?

•The new playoff format gives SEC teams reason to return to a provincial approach to scheduling nonconference games. After Alabama went 11-0 in 1966 but finished only third in the Associated Press poll because it hadn't played anybody outside the South, coach Bear Bryant began scheduling the likes of Southern Cal, Notre Dame and Penn State. As always, the other SEC schools followed Bryant's lead. But now that SEC teams are required to play eight intraconference games to qualify for the championship game, they are filling their nonconference schedules with such moonpies as Tulane, The Citadel, Samford, Arkansas State and Southwest Louisiana. Of the 12 SEC teams, seven won't play anybody outside the South this season, and only a couple of intersectional games—Mississippi State at Texas and LSU at Texas A&M—measure up to those Alabama-Penn State and Tennessee-UCLA matchups that gave the SEC credibility and exposure outside its home area. All of this means that a future SEC powerhouse could lack credibility with voters and end up the way Alabama did in 1966, but nobody in the conference seems to care. So the SEC is holding its own championship and saying, in effect, to heck with the rest of college football.

Although others in college football have expressed concern over the new deal in the Old South, the truth is that if it turns out to be a success, expanded conferences and playoffs between division winners could be the wave of the future unless, of course, the NCAA and its Presidents' Commission can put more teeth into their reform movement. "The concern about extending the length of the season was an important aspect of the whole time-constraint movement," says Wake Forest president Thomas Hearn. "We have to stop feeling that we can solve our financial problems by feeding an ever-growing athletic machine. The issue is, do we figure out more ways to make money or do we restrain the costs?"

Restraint? Why, there'll be a statue of William T. Sherman in downtown Atlanta before SEC football shows any of that.