In 2018’s Week 7, Wisconsin travels to the Big Ten East’s Michigan. The Badgers last visited Ann Arbor only two years earlier.
Four hours before Wisconsin and Michigan meet, Georgia makes its first trip to Baton Rouge in a decade.
This rare trip to a conference rival has Georgia fans as excited as they were to descend on South Bend last year:
In fact, demand for tickets for this game is even greater than we witnessed last year when Georgia took over Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. The cut-off score for UGA donors to qualify to buy LSU tickets was 99,000 points, according to McGarity. Basically, that means one would have to donate a total of $99,000 over the years to qualify for tickets through UGA’s priority distribution system for this game. The cut-off for Notre Dame tickets last year was “in the 70s (thousands),” McGarity said.
Georgia’s trip to Tiger Stadium has been referred to as an “almost mythical proposition.” Georgia’s next trip to Baton Rouge is scheduled for 2030, leading one Georgia fan to ask “who knows if I’ll be in any shape to make the next one?”
No Wisconsin fan is saying the same thing about playing Michigan, as the Badgers are scheduled to return in two more years. The Badgers also travel to Penn State later this year, they went to Michigan State two years ago, and they played at Ohio State in 2013.
Meanwhile, Georgia fans will be waiting until 2024 to make their first trip to College Station to play a team that joined the SEC in 2012.
How is it that one conference can have its marquee teams playing on such an infrequent basis that gaps between road trips can be measured by FDR’s presidency or King Tut’s reign, while another has regular games between its top teams? There are two reasons:
1. Fear of a nine-game schedule
The Big Ten and SEC both have 14 teams in two divisions of seven. Big Ten teams — like Big 12 and Pac-12 teams — play nine-game conference schedules, which means they have three cross-divisional games. SEC teams — like ACC teams — play eight-game schedules, which means that they have only two cross-divisional games.
(The ACC is the only other 14-team Power 5 league, but it doesn’t have quite as many destination venues as either the B1G or the SEC. Clemson is a sight, but few people have trips to Syracuse or Wake Forest on their bucket lists.)
A nine-game schedule would mean better matchups, as it would likely lead to the replacement of a non-conference game against a weak opponent with a conference foe. This would seem to be helpful in a sport where even the best team sees empty seats against overmatched out-of-league foes.
However, the SEC eschews an approach that would lead to more good games, most likely because of opposition from coaches at mid-level programs who are concerned about missing a bowl if they do not get a healthy serving of cupcakes. If the SEC keeps the eight-game schedule only to maximize its chances of getting Playoff berths, then why would the coaches most likely to contend for those spots consistently argue in favor of a nine-game schedule?
In short, SEC fans have to wait 12 years between trips to specific road venues because of middle-tier coaches fervently needing trips to the Texas or Belk Bowls.
2. The schedule rotation
Each SEC team has a protected rival on the other side of the conference. This rule exists to protect two historic rivalries: Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee. Indeed, college football would be a little poorer if they went the way of Texas-Texas A&M, Pitt-West Virginia, Nebraska-Oklahoma, and Missouri-Kansas. LSU-Florida has also since emerged as a quality series.
However, the preservation of these rivalries has a cost. Contrast the SEC’s approach (teams play cross-divisional opponents once every six years) with the Big Ten’s (teams play cross-divisional opponents twice every six years) and you see it.
There’s a host of solutions available to the SEC.
The simplest is a nine-game conference schedule, which would bring the league in line with three of the other four Power 5 conferences.
Or the league could also go to pods or play the season in stages, with the best teams in the two divisions playing one another in the final three weeks.
In the old days, SEC teams played irregular schedules because the sport was run in a ramshackle manner. For instance, Alabama did not play Kentucky between 1947 and 1972. Bear Bryant was in his 15th season in Tuscaloosa before he finally squared off against the conference rival that he once coached. That year, Alabama won the SEC because the Tide played one more league game. In 1970, LSU won the SEC at 5-0 while Auburn finished third at 6-2. Schedules were weird.
We are supposed to live in a more planned world now.
College football’s crawl towards technocracy has given us definitive conference champions (with divisions and title games) and national champions (with a Playoff). The Supreme Court nodded the sport in the right direction by striking down its restrictions on teams playing on TV.
The infrequency with which SEC teams play their cross-divisional rivals is an anachronism, a holdover from a bygone era. No other league has in-conference road trips that are considered rare delicacies. The sport has evolved, and the SEC — faced with droves of fans who would like to be sure they can see Death Valley or the Swamp in their lifetimes — is standing athwart history, yelling “stop!”