SEC Realignment: Progressive Scheduling And Preserving Rivalries

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes upfield against Malik Jackson #97 and Curt Maggitt #56 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Oct. 22, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Third Saturday in October and the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry aren't going to save themselves. Time to build a schedule that can salvage the SEC's essential rivalries. Also: Should the SEC scrap its divisions?

On Tuesday, we tackled the topic of scheduling for a 24-team conference, something we might soon see with the "Mount USA." Today we look at an issue that is far less clean but potentially more important because of the conference involved: SEC scheduling.

The 2012 schedule released by the SEC a couple of months ago was deemed a stopgap measure while conference officials attempt to determine how to move forward. As awkward as the thought of scheduling for a 13-team conference may have been (when it looked like Texas A&M was coming aboard alone), we are about to find out that doing so for 14 teams over the long haul is rather difficult itself, especially when the SEC's permanent rivalries are involved. Why? Primarily because seven (the number of teams in each division) is almost as ugly a number as 13, especially when you are dealing with just eight conference games.

Here are some of the decision points as we flesh out all of this awkwardness:

  • Eight games or nine? The SEC has expressed its desire to stick with eight conference games, pointing to the simple fact that playing eight SEC games is hard enough, and playing nine might be detrimental to the cause of winning every national title game for the rest of college football's existence. You can debate whether this is actually sound, brave logic or not, but it is the logic at hand.
  • If you choose to stick with eight games (six games versus one's division, two versus the opposite division), however, it appears you are left with two awkward options:

    1. Keep permanent rivalries. This would allow you to maintain historical matchups like Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia, but it would also mean that teams in one division will play their non-rivals in the other division just twice every 12 years. If Alabama is playing two SEC East teams every year, and one of them is Tennessee, then there is obviously only room for one more East opponent in any given season, and a couple of generations of 'Bama students would come and go without ever seeing a home-and-home series with, for example, Florida or South Carolina. You can alleviate this to a degree by getting rid of the home-and-homes, where you play a school in back-to-back years, once at home and once on the road. This would mean you could play everybody at least once in a six-year span (better than 10 or 12), but there is no continuity. If you lose a tight game on the road one year, you might have to wait a while to try to get your revenge at home.

    2. Ditch permanent rivalries. Have everybody from the East play two teams from the West each year. That would have you playing everybody twice within seven years, instead of twice within 12. The drawback, however, is obvious: no more annual Bama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia, or LSU-Florida games. That is not what those schools signed up for when they agreed to take on two more teams.

Drawbacks like this may have you wondering if it is worth it to even maintain divisions at all. But fear not, there is a third way: only maintain the historical "permanent" rivalries that matter. Clay Travis beat me to the punch on this issue last week, but there are still some details to discuss.

Why are cross-division traditional rivals important?

Because some of these games are storied Southern contests. The key word there is "some." Many of these games aren't storied at all ... right now these cross-division "rivalry" games occur each year in the SEC:

Tennessee -- Alabama
Auburn -- Georgia
Florida -- LSU
Vandy -- Ole Miss
Kentucky -- Mississippi State
Arkansas -- South Carolina
Missouri -- Texas A&M

How many of these games do fans of these schools really, truly care about preserving?

Not the majority.

Travis mentioned that only Tennessee-Alabama, Auburn-Georgia and Florida-LSU are worth salvaging. One could make the case that even Florida-LSU could hit the road (it has been a marquee matchup in recent years, but it hasn't held the same historical cachet as the other two). But let's say, for instance, that three are deemed salvageable, with the other four thrown into the recycle bin. We could do this with two or four as well, but we'll go with three. How messy does that make SEC schedules?

The short answer: quite messy. But doable.

Here's how a progressive SEC schedule could work with a) eight conference games and b) only three permanent rivalries. And yes, it would take basically 18 years for everything to play out in a pretty cycle:

  • For the six teams in the permanent rivalries (Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia, LSU-Florida), you play your rival 18 times over 18 years, and you play everybody else in the opposite division three times, or once every six years.
  • For teams without a permanent rival, you play three teams seven times, one team six times and the teams with permanent rivalries just three times.

Here are a few examples:

  • Auburn has a permanent rival in Georgia. They would play Georgia 18 times in 18 years, and they would play each of the other East teams -- Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt -- three times in that span. Because of the ugliness of the number seven, it probably wouldn't be in any sort of clean, once-every-six-years cycle, but it would even out over time.
  • Missouri would enter the SEC without a permanent rival (which, by definition, makes sense since they have only ever been in a conference with one current SEC team, Texas A&M, and they have only actually been conference mates with A&M for 15 years). Over an 18-year span, they could play Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M seven times, Mississippi State six times, and the three West teams with rivals -- Alabama, LSU and Auburn -- three times.
  • Arkansas, meanwhile, would play Vanderbilt, Missouri and South Carolina seven times each, Kentucky six times and Tennessee, Florida and Georgia three times each.

(Obviously the names here are negotiable. This was just what made the most sense to me.)

Or, if you prefer table form, here's how it might work. This is the number of times over a period of 18 years teams would play each other:

Team / Opponent Florida Georgia Kentucky Missouri South
Carolina
Tennessee Vanderbilt
Alabama 3 3 3 3 3 18 3
Arkansas 3 3 6 7 7 3 7
Auburn 3 18 3 3 3 3 3
LSU 18 3 3 3 3 3 3
Mississippi State 3 3 7 6 7 3 7
Ole Miss 3 3 7 7 6 3 7
Texas A&M 3 3 7 7 7 3 6

Is this messy? Absolutely. But it would technically work. As mentioned above, it would take a ridiculous 18 years for the cycle to play out (as opposed to, basically, the four-year scheduling cycle that existed in the old, no-permanent-rivals Big 12). But it is feasible, and it does allow for certain matchups -- Arkansas-South Carolina and Missouri-Texas A&M, for instance -- to play out at a more frequent level than others without being deemed "permanent."

For a full, 18-year look at potential SEC schedules, go to Football Study Hall.

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