SEC schedule models: What's the best approach?
Having wasted more hours of my life than I care to admit outside the closed door of the room where the SEC's football coaches meet every May at a beachside hotel near Destin, Fla., I can confirm that the coaches usually go about their business with a collegiality that belies their on-field demeanors. Given the intensity of some of the rivalries, the occasional screaming match would be understandable. Still, I've never heard one -- though that might only be a testament to the thickness of the doors at the Hilton Sandestin.
That collegiality might evaporate this year when the coaches discuss schedule models, however. The issue was thorny enough last year, when South Carolina's Steve Spurrier suggested that only division games should count when determining the division title. With an eye on this year's meetings, LSU coach Les Miles suggested last month that the SEC should consider scrapping the concept of a fixed cross-division opponent -- which essentially guarantees some teams an easy game and some teams a brutal game in the name of tradition (sort of). Miles has a point. The champion of the SEC has played for the national title the past seven seasons. The schedule, as currently constituted with six division games, one fixed cross-division game and one rotating cross-division game, gives some teams a decided advantage in the race for the SEC title. In turn, this also gives those teams an advantage in the race for a national title. With so many capable teams in the SEC, the conference schedule should not have that much sway over which one gets to play for the national championship. (Of lesser importance -- but still noteworthy -- the current system also keeps players from playing every school in the SEC during a four-year career. Did you truly play in the SEC if you never got to play Alabama or Florida or LSU or Georgia?)
The fixed rivalries -- Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia and LSU-Florida, at least -- are the SEC's attempt to maintain some tradition in spite of the fact that it has sold out pieces of its tradition over the years for larger paydays. This began with addition of Arkansas and South Carolina and the split into divisions in 1992 in order to stage a lucrative championship game. It continued last year when Texas A&M and Missouri joined the league to enlarge its television footprint and pave the way for the formation of the SEC Network, which should provide another cash injection to an already flush league. Those moves, while initially panned in some quarters because change scares college football writers, have proven quite beneficial to the SEC's bottom line. They certainly haven't hurt the league's ability to compete on the national stage. But the most recent expansion made that fixed rivalry game even more cumbersome for teams paired with traditional powers and even more helpful for teams paired with lightweights or former powers enduring a historic run of misfortune.
Though they sound like area codes, 6-1-1, 6-2-0 and 6-1-2 are actually conference scheduling models that refer to the number of division games, the number of fixed cross-division opponents and the number of rotating cross-division opponents. The current model, instituted last year after the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri, is the 6-1-1. The 6-1-1 certainly helped national champion Alabama last year. Alabama's fixed East division opponent is Tennessee, which went 1-7 in conference play. The Crimson Tide's rotating East opponent was Missouri, which went 2-6 in conference play. Alabama won the division by one game over LSU, which faced fixed opponent Florida (7-1) and rotating opponent South Carolina (6-2) and Texas A&M, which faced fixed opponent Missouri (2-6) and rotating opponent Florida (7-1). Alabama faced Georgia for the SEC title. The Bulldogs tied Florida for the East title and won by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. South Carolina, which crushed Georgia in Columbia, finished one game back. Georgia played fixed West opponent Auburn (0-8) and rotating opponent Ole Miss (3-5). Florida faced fixed opponent LSU (6-2) and rotating opponent Texas A&M (6-2). South Carolina played fixed opponent Arkansas (2-6) and rotating opponent LSU (6-2).
That impact of luck is unavoidable in a 12- or 14-team league. LSU and South Carolina had the misfortune of drawing one another when both were very good. Texas A&M happened to draw a Florida team on the verge of going 11-2 instead of 7-6, as it did the previous season. But the fixed opponent can be controlled. When the league had 12 teams and five division games, the fixed opponents didn't affect the title race as much because the two rotating cross-division games helped level the playing field. With 14 teams and one rotating opponent, the fixed opponent can be a distinct advantage or disadvantage.
Most of those fixed cross-division rivalries didn't happen by accident, nor were they the result of a conspiracy to help any one team secure an easier path to the SEC title game. They exist to preserve longstanding rivalries. With the exception of 1943, when neither school fielded a team because of World War II, Alabama and Tennessee have met every year since 1928. Theirs is a game with a name: the Third Saturday in October.
The Auburn-Georgia series also has a name: the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. The teams have played 116 times in the past 120 years. LSU and Florida have met only 58 times, and they've only met consecutively since 1971, but the longer rivalry between Florida and Auburn had to be scrapped to preserve the Auburn-Georgia game.
Now, those longstanding rivalries are bumping up against the hyper-competitiveness of a league that seems to raise the stakes every year and the realities of a 14-team behemoth enlarged by recent expansion. At this year's meetings, another dynamic will come into play. With ESPN's SEC Network launching in 2014, ESPN will want more Alabama-Georgia and less Alabama-Georgia State. So the pressure will be on the league to expand to nine conference games. In such a case, a 6-1-2 model with two rotating cross-divisional opponents should mix up the schedules enough to ease any concerns.
If they choose to stay at eight -- which will satisfy those less accomplished programs that need to schedule another guaranteed win to get bowl eligible -- the league's presidents need to consider unlocking those fixed cross-division games. Consider the following:
• LSU and Florida, which are 5-5 in their past 10 meetings, have both been ranked in the Top 25 when they met in nine of those meetings. Auburn and Georgia were both ranked in the Top 25 in four of their past 10 meetings. Alabama and Tennessee have both been ranked in the Top 25 in one of their past 10 meetings. Arkansas and South Carolina have both been ranked in the Top 25 in one of their past 10 meetings.
• Since 2003, Auburn -- which had an annual game against Florida from 1945-2002 -- has had to face the SEC East heavyweight Gators and Bulldogs a combined 13 times in the regular season. LSU has faced Florida and Georgia a combined 13 times in the regular season during that span. Alabama has faced Florida and Georgia a combined seven times in the regular season since 2003.
Through no fault of Alabama's, the Crimson Tide have had an easier path to the SEC title game of late than West rivals LSU and Auburn. These things are almost always cyclical. In the 1990s, Alabama gladly would have traded schedules with Auburn. The Volunteers went 99-22-2 from 1990-99. The Bulldogs went 74-43-1 in the same period. Alabama-Tennessee has always been a streaky rivalry, but the utter humiliation the Tide have laid on the Vols in most of the past six seasons suggests this isn't much of a rivalry at all. Since its win streak began in 2007, Alabama has beaten Tennessee by an average of 23.2 points. The conspiracy theorists will suggest that the combination of Tennessee and rotating East opponents such as Missouri (2012) and Kentucky (2013) means someone in the league office wants to give the Tide the easiest path, but that isn't the case. The addition of the two new schools forced some on-the-fly schedule making, and that's never easy. There is a reason conferences prefer to schedule games almost a decade in advance. (In SEC country, scheduling far in advance keeps frustrated wedding planners -- who do most of their fall business on weekends that involve the open date for the happy couple's school -- from storming the league office and beating people senseless with year-at-a-glance planners.)
Still, there is a way to make the schedule fairer for every team. Unlatch the fixed opponents. At Tennessee, Butch Jones might breathe a little easier if he didn't have to rebuild while getting his teeth kicked in by Nick Saban's juggernaut every year. Florida and LSU have staged some wonderful games, but so have Florida and Auburn. Let them play a little more often. Texas A&M fans probably want the chance to explore Gainesville, Athens and Columbia -- the one in South Carolina; they saw the one in Missouri in the Big 12 -- more often. And would anyone complain about Alabama and Georgia playing more frequently after watching last year's SEC title game?
The SEC has tossed tradition before, and sometimes with happy consequences. Florida and Tennessee played quite irregularly before the divisional split. From 1992-2006, theirs was the league's most exciting rivalry. South Carolina and Georgia, who played some fun games when South Carolina was an independent, have become excellent border-state rivals. Besides, the Iron Bowl, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and the Egg Bowl remain untouchable thanks to divisional alignments. So the league can still cling to some traditions while also ushering in a bright -- and lucrative -- future with a scheduling philosophy that gives teams a more even road to the SEC and national titles.
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