Matt Jones doesn’t like the direction SEC football is headed. The former Arkansas quarterback voiced his disapproval last week about the conference’s new format that will follow the admission of Oklahoma and Texas into the league.
Those two programs, which are slated to enter the SEC in 2024, will give the league 16 schools. Each school’s athletics director and head football coach recently got together at the SEC spring meetings to determine a schedule. After an 8 vs. 9 debate, they decided on a temporary eight-game conference schedule for each team with no divisions. The Arkansas football legend took exception to the idea of a division-less league.
“How do you have a conference and it’s called SEC East and West and you’re adding Oklahoma and Texas and you’re not going to play everybody in your division?” Jones said on Halftime with Phil Elson and Matt Jones, ESPN Arkansas’ midday radio show. “I just don’t understand that.”
Jones seemed to take exception with the idea of an SEC champion playing only nine total teams from the conference.
“How do you have an SEC conference with, so it would be 16, 18 teams and how do you have a champion when everybody’s not playing…it’s not even right,” Jones said. “You gotta have your east and west. Everybody has to play everybody in your division to have a champion. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put 16 teams in this division and you’re only going to play 9 of them and then you can still win the division.’ I think they’re making it up as they go along.”
Jones made his comments before an official announcement had been made so it was unknown at the time whether the league would choose 8 or 9 league games, but it was widely speculated that either way, divisions would be eliminated, making an exit from the scene faster than quick account withdrawals.
Under the new format for the 2024 season, each team will play eight SEC opponents without divisions. The ACC is going to a similar format this coming season and the Big 10 is also considering a division-less format for 2024.
Presenting a Counter Argument for SEC Football
In his time at Arkansas, Matt Jones made one SEC Championship Game appearance. The Razorbacks lost to Georgia 30-3 in that game in 2002 – a year in which Alabama was ineligible to win the SEC West and Arkansas finished with a worse conference record than SEC East runner-up Florida.
A caller on the show presented a counter argument to Jones’ opinion: What about when one division is weaker than the other? Sometimes, after all, the two best teams are in the same division and don’t get the opportunity to play each other in the championship game.
Jones responded by saying you can set the rules up how you want and pointed to the time Seattle hosted an NFL playoff game despite being below .500. He eventually conceded that other NFL teams with 11 wins that same year might have been more deserving.
A similar dynamic played out last season in the Pac-12, which did not split into divisions for the first time in more than a decade. The Utah Utes got into the conference championship game because of a strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. Oregon, Utah, and Washington finished the regular season in a 3-way tie for 2nd place and there were strong arguments for Washington and Oregon to have made that title game instead.
On ESPN Arkansas, Matt Jones added: “To have a champion, if you’re going to have ten teams in the division then everybody should play everybody. If you’re going to have 18 teams then you gotta divide it up… It’s not a real champion to say ‘Well, we only played 68 percent of the teams in our division [and] we’re the champion.’”
Some teams, of course, benefit from playing in a weaker division. Jones responded that the same issue would flare up when rotating through opponents in a division-less format, as Alabama will still get to play the likes of Vanderbilt, South Carolina and the Mississippi schools.
Responding to Matt Jones’ Take
Matt Jones made some interesting points, but the reality is he is living in a fantasy. He’s looking for a pure black-and-white way to determine the best team, but the current way does not achieve that to the extent he lets on.
Consider the current format continues a system that hurts a team when their division is the strongest. This has hurt Arkansas in the past – most notably in the Bobby Petrino era, when the Razorbacks finished behind three teams that played for the national championship (2010 Auburn, 2011 Alabama and 2011 LSU).
The current system has also helped the Razorbacks, like when Jones was the quarterback and leading Arkansas in back-to-back 9-win seasons during his sophomore and junior years. Still, ultimately, having divisions is no more fair than having no divisions. As was pointed out, both can create a soft schedule.
The nice thing about the new format is that each team will have the opportunity to play both home and away against every other SEC team within a four-year cycle. So long to going seven years between games against Vanderbilt while having to play Alabama and LSU on an annual basis.
Jones’ take is reminiscent of an old man saying, “Get off my lawn.” He experienced the game and the conference in the old format and it’s only natural for him to think fondly of that system, but change is inevitable and this type of change will only help Arkansas football.
It’s time to let the past be the past and embrace the future for the good of the conference and the good of the Razorbacks.
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