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As the SEC prepares to discuss what the future 14 team football schedule will look like, a large point of contention has been what will become of the traditional rivalries?
Already the laments have begun as Missouri and Texas A&M glide into the conference, but what of tradition, what of the rivalries?
Yesterday Georgia’s athletic director had this to say on rivalries:
“Are we going to lose Auburn as a traditional rival?” McGarity said. “I don’t know. We haven’t had that discussion yet. It would be great for us to be able to maintain that. If you do that, you’re going to have only one rotator on the West. Does that get you through the other teams in the SEC West quicker? That’s what we’ve got to talk about.”
I think this handwringing is overplayed because as you’ll see below, this isn’t necessarily an either/or situation.
In the meantime, with an expansion to 14 teams the SEC’s current 5-1-2 format — five division games, 1 consistent rival from the opposite division, and two rotating games against the opposite division is no longer tenable.
What’s more with the NCAA requirement that teams play every team in their division — and continuing SEC uncertainty about whether or not to seek a rule change there — means each team will be forced to play six division games. (There is also complete opposition to the idea of nine league games so that’s not a feasible alternative).
That means there are two easy schedule options that have been much discussed: six division games plus two rotating divisional opponents — assuming a home/home series this means it would take 7 years to complete a full circuit in the SEC. (The better option here — if this option was selected — is to eliminate home and homes and just play a full circuit in 3.5 years before flipping and playing the other half of the series).
The other option is six division games plus a consistent league opponent from the other division. But this would mean you have only one rotating opponent. Playing a home and home with that one rotating opponent would mean it would take 12 years to complete the SEC cycle. That is, the entire league cycle in football would not be complete until the SEC’s television deal is up in 2023-24. Plainly, this isn’t an option at all. Indeed, even with an elimination of the home and home requirement it would still take six years to play each team once.
So the simplest, and best, solution is to play six division games and two rotating opponents every year so that you play everyone in 3.5 years.
But this provokes much outrage about the end of “traditional” rivalry games.
Why are cross-division traditional rivals important?
Because some of these games are storied Southern contests. But the key word there is “some.” Many of these games aren’t storied at all. In fact, the majority of
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.
Consider these “rivalries” in the current system:
1. Kentucky — Mississippi State
This has to be the worst yearly “rivalry” game in the SEC.
Neither team wants to play, lose and you’re ashamed, win and you feel like you did when you hooked up with a fat chick in college: Yeah, it happened, but you can’t even tell anyone about it.
This game just needs to die.
2. Vandy — Ole Miss.
I mean, really, do Ole Miss and Vandy fans want to play every year?
For Ole Miss fans, Vandy actually owns you in football.
And for Vandy fans, well, Vandy fans might want to play Ole Miss but only because the Commodores actually own somebody in football.
But no one cares about this game.
The only reason it’s ranked second is because Vandy probably wants to keep Ole Miss on the schedule so they have a guaranteed win. Otherwise this game will continue to be what it is, an early morning kickoff that gains attention only because there is no other game on yet.
3. South Carolina — Arkansas
Both of these teams hate playing each other because they both think they’re better programs than the other school.
Plus, this “rivalry” just developed because both teams joined the league at the same time. Not to mention the fact that this game is virtually impossible to travel for. You try driving from Fayetteville to Columbia for a weekend. Or try booking a flight.
Ask any South Carolina or Arkansas fan whether they want to continue this game or play other rotating SEC schools more frequently and they’d gladly cycle through the SEC more rapidly.
4. Missouri — Texas A&M
Based on what I hear from Mizzou fans they would rather play Arkansas than A&M.
Give up this “rivalry” game that has only been played 12 times in the history of the schools and you could play Arkansas much more frequently. Plus, you get to cycle through the SEC much more quickly, something that’s important in terms of getting Mizzou acclimated to SEC life.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M fans would also much rather play the other SEC schools as well because they aren’t picking up many recruits in Missouri and this isn’t really a rivalry game either.
What does that leave us with?
Only six fan bases, less than half of the SEC, really care about preserving a yearly rival — the South’s oldest rivalry Auburn vs. Georgia, LSU vs. Florida which has become, of late, one of the top rivalries in football, and one of college football’s most consistently bitter rivalries in Tennessee vs. Alabama. (That’s assuming, by the way, that all these schools want to preserve these rivalries. I know UT-Bama and Auburn-Georgia have been public about their desire to keep those games, but have LSU and Florida made similar pronouncements? Also, if you’re an LSU fan and you get back a game against A&M, do y’all really want to preserve the LSU-Florida game? I’m intrigued by fan response here. Let me know what you think. If LSU-Florida isn’t a must have game then you have ten teams playing a 6-2 schedule which means even greater flexibility.)
So I’m wondering, why does everyone have to play the same schedule format? Why can’t the SEC create a hybrid that preseves these three games as yearly rivalries while implementing the six division games and two rotating opponents for every other SEC school?
The eight schools without a traditional rival could play a 6-2 format, with two new schools rotating on each year. The six schools with a traditional cross-division rival would play just one new school each year. So it would take six years for these six schools to work their way through the entire conference, but the other eight schools would play each SEC rival much more frequently.
(You could argue that every school should just play a 6-1-1 format, but why play four rivalry games each year if no one really cares about watching them? Especially when adding in a format like actually provides greater flexibility to slot big games each year for television purposes.)
Thus far most talk has focused on the either/or proposition — you either keep the yearly rivalry game or you don’t — but most of these rivalry games aren’t worth keeping.
So why not just keep playing the rivalry games that fans enjoy seeing?
If a hybrid scheduling system could preserve the SEC’s top rivalries, create greater scheduling flexibility for television games, and eliminate relatively weak yearly contests, doesn’t it make an awful lot of sense?
I think so.
An unscientific Twitter poll has found limited opposition to ending LSU-Florida. That would put ten SEC teams in the 6-2 format and provide even greater scheduling flexibility. It would also mean that every 2.5 years the other ten teams could play the entirety of the opposite division except for the four teams with a yearly rivalry who they would play once every six years.
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