Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Solving the SEC Scheduling Dilemma

In College Football, General LSU, History, Realignment, Rivalry on May 30, 2013 at 11:47 AM

We are now more than halfway through the college football off-season. I hope everyone hasn’t forgotten about me.

I’ve had a few minor things in other sports I wanted to write about in isolation, but I might do a bigger blog about other sports in the next few weeks.

To make the blog friendly to people who aren’t avid college sports fans (or at least might not have been for the last 20+ years to the same extent I have been), I think some background is in order. Before 1992, the SEC was 10 teams and had been that way for nearly 30 years (after Tulane and Georgia Tech had departed in the 1960s). There were not formal divisions, but there were teams that traditionally played one another and other teams that did not.

I know more about LSU, so I’ll use them as an example. LSU has played Florida every year since the early 1970s, but fans would drive (or fly) past Auburn (who very rarely appeared on LSU’s schedule) on the way there. The two teams of Tigers rarely met before the division system was implemented. (The division system entails playing every team in your division every year, and LSU and Auburn were placed in the same division, so they began playing annually at that time.) LSU has remained a permanent opponent of Florida despite being in another division, but since there is only one permanent inter-divisional opponent, LSU stopped playing Kentucky yearly, and Florida stopped playing Auburn yearly.

Until Missouri and Texas A&M joined within the last year, everyone seemed content with the system, which had been on a set rotation for about 10 years. The previous 10 years were operated with two permanent inter-divisional opponents, but this meant large stretches without playing any given teams of the four other teams in the opposite division. None of the teams seemed too traumatized by losing their #2 inter-divisional opponent, and I thought it was more exciting as a fan to play the other teams on a more regular basis.

The makeshift schedule that operated last year and will operate next year–and perhaps years into the future–is a “6-1-1” format. This means 6 divisional opponents (each division expanded to 7 teams when Missouri and Texas A&M were added), one permanent opponent, with the other 6 conference teams rotating to round out the schedule. This reintroduces the problem that existed under the 1992 to 2002 format with a number of teams rotating around one spot, except that now it’s 6 teams instead of 4.

There is a proposal favored by LSU, Texas A&M, and South Carolina that the SEC forget about the permanent inter-divisional opponents entirely and simply move to a 6-2 format, six in your own division, two from the other division on a constant rotation. The Advocate newspaper reports that “several” SEC coaches have said that the teams are split over whether to go that route or maintain the same format that is being used now (or perhaps a slightly modified version). I would think Florida probably leans toward 6-2 as well, given that the Gators probably place the same priority on playing LSU every years as LSU does on playing Florida every year, which is to say, they don’t find it important at all. At least not as compared to a more equitable schedule. Missouri may also prefer it, but perhaps not as long as Missouri is in the SEC East. Missouri is not a natural match-up for Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia, but it may make up for it a bit if Missouri can begin an annual series with Arkansas. (This has not been implemented yet under the current temporary format. Arkansas is still playing South Carolina, and Missouri is playing Texas A&M.) Texas A&M and South Carolina don’t want to be forced to play one another every year as left-overs. South Carolina had been playing Arkansas, which didn’t make sense historically or geographically either.

There is a third major option that no one apart from Alabama (specifically Nick Saban) favors, which is to move to a 9-game schedule, with two rotating inter-divisional opponents and one permanent one. There are a few problems with this, even though it seems to be where most of the other major conferences are going. It creates an imbalance where some teams will have 4 conference road games and others will have 5. It would also make it more difficult to schedule out of conference. It would also likely reduce the chances of an SEC team winning the national championship due to difficulties in remaining undefeated after playing 10 games against SEC teams (including the championship game) and due to the fact that the SEC as a whole (if not the individual team) may lack other quality opponents that establish how good the SEC is. A home game is not easily parted with in the SEC, given that football helps fund the other sports and in some cases even helps fund other university expenses. 100,000 seats, even if there is a weak opponent, can command a tidy sum of money.

The biggest problems with going to a 6-2 format would be that Auburn-Georgia (“The Oldest Rivalry in the South”, played at least 108 times and annually since 1944 [1902 if you take out 1943, which was not a full season for most teams]) and Tennessee-Alabama (played at least 94 times and every year since 1944 [since 1928 with the exception of the 1943 season]) would no longer be annual games.

So I think what would make a number content with the 6-2 format if they’re currently either opposed or on the fence would be to change the divisions, which should be done anyway. Put Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, and Georgia all in the same division. Add the two teams to the South and East (Florida and South Carolina) and the other team in the state of Tennessee, Vanderbilt.

I put this all on a map (at the bottom), so maybe it will make more sense that way. One problem with this is that in recent years, three teams in the proposed SEC East have won a total of 6 national championships in football, compared to only one team winning two recent national championships in the West.

But these are the annual series that are lost, and I don’t think it’s a bad list:
Miss. St.-Alabama
Ole Miss-Alabama
Ole Miss-Vandy

Don’t forget that the 6-2 format makes this less dramatic since these games will still be played every few years on average.

Missouri wouldn’t miss anything by moving West, except that LSU is not a customary or logical opponent, and maybe Vanderbilt is.

The only sensible alternative to make it more balanced would be to trade Kentucky and Florida. I’ll give a list of series that would be broken up, but first I wanted to note a couple of series that would not happen that I think would be good ones. Kentucky-Missouri makes a lot of sense, because that’s one of the closest teams to Missouri geographically, and there would probably be some carry-over from basketball. LSU-Kentucky would be brought back under the first proposal but not the alternative, it’s not geographically logical, but it is historical. Also, Florida-Auburn would be brought back under the first proposal but not the alternative. Here are the current annual series that would be lost under the alternative proposal:
Ole Miss-Vandy
Miss. St.-Alabama
Ole Miss-Alabama

This also would also require Florida to play Missouri every year, which does not make sense at all. That’s one of the reasons to move Missouri to the West in the first place.

My understanding is the teams who want the traditional rivals aren’t focused on short-term schedule balance anyway, so I think given all the variables, my first proposal is much stronger. It may be favorable to LSU in the short term, but LSU has had its fair share of difficult scheduling over the last few years. Auburn may not be a good team again for some time, and I don’t know how permanent a fixture South Carolina is near the top of the SEC. Also, Texas A&M in the West has really taken off and could compete for national championships over the next few years. That’s not to mention Ole Miss’s recruiting of late. So LSU may not even have much of a breather anyway.

So here’s a map of the first option I mentioned. Knoxville is very close to the North Carolina border, so apologies if I made it look like it is actually in North Carolina, but you get the idea of where it is relative to the other SEC locations anyway. Obviously, even though the map classifies Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina as in the Southeast, they don’t have SEC teams. Missouri and Texas are classified as parts of other regions and do have SEC teams. I erased the other state and regional names to avoid potential confusion.