While you’ve likely heard of the teams that represent the FCS’s Southern Conference (East Tennessee State, Furman, Samford, VMI, Wofford, Chattanooga, Mercer, Western Carolina, and The Citadel) what you may not know is that their predecessors – the founding institutions of this same league – went on to rule the highest level of college football.
According to the Charlotte Observer, the Southern Conference was founded 100-years ago, in February of 1921, when a group of “larger colleges and universities of the south” met in Atlanta to form a “southern conference to govern athletic contests.”
The need for a new league for the bigger schools was highlighted in a 1920 meeting of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association when the smaller member schools called for an end to what was known as the “one-year” rule. This policy required athletes to have one year of school under their belt before hitting the field, thereby preventing freshman from participating. From a competitive standpoint, the rule was detrimental to smaller schools which had fewer students to draw from.
The issue was highlighted in a 1921 piece in Raleigh, North Carolina’s The News and Observer by Fuzzy Woodruff, who opined that the formation of a new league for larger schools with more resources would ensure “elevens are evenly matched.”
Last week I was in Athens, Ga., to see the football game between the University of Georgia and Furman. It was a real football game. Furman knew just as much football as Georgia. It knew a whole lot more about the more advanced phases of football than Georgia did.
At the end of the first half Furman was leading 7-6, but everybody knew then and there the game was over and that Furman would not be returned the winner.
Furman has a student body of approximately 250. Georgia’s student body is about four times that large. Manifestly Furman could not call on the reserve forces that were at Georgia’s command. Manifestly it was the part of generalship for Georgia to batter what Furman had to pieces and win the game as it pleased when Furman had nothing left – which is exactly what Georgia did.
I’m not criticising Georgia for doing it, but it occurs to me that there is little sport in football games played under such conditions.
The Southern Conference became official on January 1, 1922 and adopted additional rules limiting eligibility to three years and prohibiting athletes that had attended one institution from switching to another school and “engaging in athletics under any circumstances.”
The charter membership of the Southern (listed by their current institutional names) reads like a present-day Top 25: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, NC State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington and Lee (now a Division III program).
The following season, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina signed on. They were joined by Sewanee (The University of the South, now a Division III program) and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI, which is still a member of the Southern) in 1924, Duke in 1928, and Wake Forest in 1936.
The union only lasted a decade before the southernmost/westernmost schools – Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, and Vanderbilt – jumped ship and formed the SEC in 1932.
Twenty years later, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest followed suit, leaving the Southern to form the ACC in 1953.
Though it’s interesting to look back, could the blueprint for our future be hiding in our past?
What if the answer to improving the College Football Playoff scheme is not to expand it but instead to reconfigure the leagues that feed it (i.e., five Power conferences plus Notre Dame competing for four bracket spots)?
Could four regional super conferences (including one that might eerily look like the original Southern from 100-years ago) fielding a non-expanded four-team CFP bracket be what’s next?
And what if this golden nugget of historical inspiration also led to the formation of a fair space for the “smaller” schools?
Indeed friend, what if, while the new Power 4 competed for a national title, the Group of 5 programs broke away and competed for their own national championship?
The reason that Furman – in 2021 – has a clear shot at an FCS national championship is because the “bigger” southern schools stole away to form the Southern Conference in 1922 and then split again, in 1932 and 1953, to form the SEC and ACC.
The series of events didn’t leave Furman behind, or hold it back, it liberated it.
Until another such innovation occurs, programs such as Houston, Boise State, Southern Miss, UCF, Cincinnati, and Appalachian State have no legitimate path to play for a national championship. Even if they run the tables and win every single game, under the current regime, it’s not happening.
It occurs to me that there is little sport in football games played under such conditions.