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Two of the smartest people I have met as a sportswriter are former LSU baseball coach/athletic director Skip Bertman and Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
Each is consistently the smartest person in the room. When both often sat in the same room when Saban was LSU’s football coach from 2000-04 with Bertman as AD, let’s just say it was a tie. Bertman won the last one, though, when he said Saban would not succeed in the NFL and his future was on the college level.
Saban has won more college football national championships than anyone with seven – one at LSU and six at Alabama. But he hasn’t won one since the 2020 season, and they keep changing the game on him. The NCAA Transfer Portal and Name, Image & Likeness hit with an unorganized, uncontrolled vengeance in 2021. He is still kicking and screaming about it, but he adapted and is among the best at each.
Now, they’re changing the schedules in the Southeastern Conference, which used to sort of be run by Alabama, and some say it still is at times. Saban is unhappy that his permanent SEC opponents in a new, nine-game schedule beginning in 2024 may be Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. His comments about it made sense and were accurate.
“You look historically at 25 years, Alabama, LSU and Auburn are the three best in the West,” Saban said in a Sports Illustrated story Friday. “So, we’re playing them all.”
Alabama Had It Easy From 1992 On When SEC Changed
But let’s not forget who Alabama’s permanent East opponents were when the league added Arkansas and South Carolina before the 1992 season and went to divisions. Alabama played Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the East from 1992-2002 before the league went to one permanent foe from the other side in 2003 through 2023. That was Tennessee for Alabama, which made sense. They always played anyway.
The easiest win in the league historically – Vandy – and one of the tougher ones – Tennessee. At the time, that is. Before Tennessee finally beat Alabama last season, the Crimson Tide had beaten the Vols 15 straight times. Alabama was also 8-0-1 against Tennessee from 1986-1994.
Nice little pairing from Alabama’s perspective. But shouldn’t the greatest program in the history of the conference had warranted maybe at least a mediocre East team next to Tennessee back then? I mean Georgia and Florida both border the state of Alabama. Oh, but too difficult for our main attraction, the SEC said?
Auburn Had The Tougher Assignment Back In The Day
Meanwhile, the SEC made Auburn’s permanent East opponents Georgia and Florida in 1992. Georgia made sense because it was to Auburn what Tennessee was to Alabama. They played annually long before 1992. But Florida, too? What? Where’s Auburn’s Vanderbilt? Or Kentucky?
With Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC in 2024, the SEC schedule will be undergoing its first major change since 1992. The league office wants to have the schedule plan done by the SEC Spring Meetings in May. Word has leaked out that the SEC wants to move from an eight-game SEC schedule to a nine-game format, which makes a lot of sense. The league will no longer have divisions, and the SEC wants each team to have three permanent opponents with the other six rotating. The three will likely be decided in the months after the spring meetings.
Who the three perms are is a hot topic. Auburn, Tennessee and LSU make sense on the surface for Alabama. You can’t have Alabama and Auburn not meeting every season. Period. Alabama’s second blood rival is Tennessee. OK. And the Alabama-LSU game has been one of the best SEC television games annually for the most part since Saban bolted the NFL and his 15-17 record at Miami for Alabama.
But Saban doesn’t like it. Where’s Vanderbilt? Where’s Kentucky? Where’s Mississippi State? Where’s Ole Miss? Sounds like Saban, 71, may be worried about winning one more national title or two before he calls it a career. Georgia is taking over with the last two titles, and the three perms for the Bulldogs on the table are historical border rivals Auburn and Florida and Kentucky. So Georgia gets an advantage of Alabama with that last one. I see Saban’s point. So, something could change in Destin. Watch for it.
HOW LONG WILL NICK SABAN COACH?
“I’ve always been an advocate for playing more SEC games,” Saban said. “But if you play more games, you have to get the three fixed opponents right. They’re giving us Tennessee, Auburn and LSU. I don’t know how they come to that.”
It’s About Time Alabama’s SEC Schedule Got More Difficult
Maybe because it’s about time the SEC’s historically best team played the other best teams more.
If the SEC wanted to make things really interesting, how about Alabama and Georgia every regular season? Titan Vs. Titan.
Saban may be overstating Auburn and LSU a tad, particularly Auburn. For somehow, Alabama is still avoiding border schools Georgia and Florida on an annual basis. Yes, Alabama being in the center of the league geographically has more border schools, but still it has barely played Florida historically.
As far as Saban’s concern with Tennessee, the Vols are only just now getting good. It won double-digit games last season for the first time since 2007. From 2008 through 2020, it had eight losing seasons. The Vols are better, but I don’t see them taking over the league like Georgia has quite yet.
LSU may be a sleeping giant now that Brian Kelly has taken over. He inherited a program that won it all in the 2019 season, but it was 11-12 in the two years before him. Kelly won the West in his first season, but he did lose four games, including three blowouts. So, I don’t see a dynasty there either quite yet.
And Auburn is Auburn. It can be elite, but rarely for very long, similar to LSU. Hugh Freeze is the fifth coach on The Plains just since 2008. Auburn won the national championship in the 2010 season and reached the title game in the 2013 season, but it also won eight or fewer games 11 times in the last 15 years. What are you worried about Auburn for, Nick?
Saban is right, though. Alabama shouldn’t have Auburn, Tennessee and LSU as its permanent opponents beginning in 2024. It should have Auburn, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Or maybe Auburn, LSU and Oklahoma.
This is a new beginning for the SEC. So why hold onto so much of the past? Alabama-LSU and Alabama-Tennessee have at times been great rivalries. But let’s face it, Alabama-Tennessee has not been good in decades with the exception of last year. Alabama-Oklahoma can be a great annual game, too. And here’s another future great annual series – LSU-Texas. That’s two border schools that have rarely played. It’s a natural.
SEC New Schedule Needs To Move From the Past
It’s time to mix things up.
The three permanent opponents for LSU on the table are Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Texas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M would be better. On the board for Texas is Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Arkansas. LSU-Texas would be a better annual game than Arkansas-Texas, which used to have a great rivalry with Texas in the old Southwest Conference. But out with the old, in with the new.
Oklahoma’s three perms on the table are Texas, Missouri and Florida. OK, Texas and Missouri (a border school) make sense, but Florida? No, that should be Alabama.
And you know what, when the three permanent opponents are decided upon at the SEC Spring Meetings in May or soon after, it is not going to matter that much. Because all 16 SEC teams will play their non-permanent opponents twice every four years.
The ridiculous gaps of 10 or 12 years between games with other SEC teams in the past will end because the divisions will be gone.
Quicker schedule rotations have long been one of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s most sought-after goals.
GREG SANKEY TALKS WITH OUTKICK
“We need to rotate our teams through all of our campuses with greater frequency,” he told OutKick last month. “The balance issue is frequent rotation.”
LSU does not desperately need to play Alabama every year when it can play Alabama twice every four years. And that series is much bigger to LSU than it is to Alabama, which has Auburn and Tennessee on the rival meter before LSU, unless it’s a Game of the Century. How many more times do LSU fans really want to go to Tuscaloosa when they can go to Austin more now?
SEC Travel Destinations Are About To Get Much Better
“We have the best two music cities in America,” Sankey said in regards to Austin and Nashville. Now that’s the type forward thinking we need in this conference. Sankey almost sounds hip.
And you’ve been to Nashville enough, Alabama fans. Go West, to Norman, Oklahoma. It’s beautiful in the fall.
“The fans in Texas and Oklahoma want to visit places like Oxford and Lexington,” Sankey said. “Whether that’s every other year or once every four years, that’s better than once every 12 years.”
There will be much complaining in the coming months or year before the SEC schedule of 2024 is decided upon. But I’m telling you, everybody wins.
The removal of divisions is what will make everything more fun. And unlike in 1992 when South Carolina and Arkansas joined (and each has yet to win an SEC championship), the SEC is adding two real programs in Texas and Oklahoma.
Goodbye, Alabama-Vanderbilt for the most part. You two have played much too much. Hello, Alabama-Oklahoma and LSU-Texas. Don’t fret, we’ll still see you, Alabama-LSU every now and then.
Football is about change, and more exotic destinations.