Today might just be the day that Missouri makes its desire to join the SEC official. Or not. It seems we’ve been down this road a few dozen times with different schools and different conferences over the past 18 or so months. Just when it appears the tumblers will click into place, something unexpected happens.
But assuming Mizzou really does tell the Big 12 that it’s out the door — if not this week, at some point — the SEC will have some serious decisions to make regarding the future layout of the league. Adding schools creates new rivalries. By default, expansion also kills off some old ones. The key for a league as steeped in tradition as the SEC is to keep the majority of its most historic rivalries alive.
Over the next couple of posts, we’ll focus on the SEC’s division alignment options. Auburn to the East. Missouri to the East. Mississippi State to the East. Even the idea of shifting Alabama and Auburn to the East and moving Vandy to the West has been batted about by fans and media outlets. Which option is best? And by best, we mean the best for the most schools.
But before we get into that conversation, let’s look first at something just a tad less complicated — scheduling.
Most SEC coaches have said they want to sit tight with an eight-game conference slate each year. League athletic directors made it clear just two weeks ago that that remains their goal, too, even if faced with a 13-team league next fall. There are a couple of reasons the current format appeals to coaches and ADs.
First, in a league like the SEC, eight league games seem quite tough enough. Nevermind the fact that the move from six to seven to eight league games per season actually benefited the SEC. Pay no attention to the fact that the SEC’s reputation for toughness helped LSU reach the BCS Championship Game with two losses at the end of the 2007 season. In the eyes of most coaches, adding a league game would make the odds longer for winning a national crown. Even though adding conference games and a league championship game have led to more national titles in the last 20 years than were won by SEC schools in the 20 years prior to those additions.
Second, non-conference scheduling is easier with an eight-game conference plan. Each AD knows that he’ll have four guaranteed home games per year against conference foes. That allows each school to work with four open non-conference home slots each season. But if the SEC were to go to a nine-game league slate, every other season a school would play four league home games and five league road games. That means every other year, an AD would only have three slots to fill with non-conference opponents. That means less money from the sale of tickets, merchandise, parking, concessions, etc.
Championships and cash. Those are two pretty strong reasons to stick with the current eight-game format. But despite those reasons, most BCS leagues appear to be moving in the direction of nine-game schedules anyway. The Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC are either currently playing nine-game conference schedules or are planning to do so in the coming years. At MrSEC.com, we believe the SEC will eventually have to do the same.
Let’s take a look at the current schedule rotation in the SEC. It’s the 5-1-2 plan. Each season, each SEC school plays its five division rivals, one permanent cross-divisional rival, and two rotating foes from the opposite division. We’ll use Alabama as our example from here out.
Each season, Alabama plays Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss from within its own division. The Crimson Tide also have an annual cross-divisional tussle with Tennessee. That leaves the other East Division schools to rotate on and off Bama’s schedule as follows:
12-school league, 8-game schedule, current 5-1-2 format
2007 — Vanderbilt (A), Georgia (H)
2008 — Georgia (A), Kentucky (H)
2009 — Kentucky (A), South Carolina (H)
2010 — South Carolina (A), Florida (H)
2011 — Florida (A), Vanderbilt (H)
At that point, the rotation begins anew. As you can see, in a five-season span, Alabama would face each non-permanent East Division foe twice. That’s a pretty quick rotation that insures all of the league’s schools see each other quite often. It’s a system that’s proven to work well.
Now let’s imagine an expanded 14-school SEC.
For the sake of argument let’s say Missouri joins the SEC’s East Division. Let’s also put down Tennessee as Alabama’s permanent cross-divisional foe. Since most SEC officials say they want to maintain an eight-game schedule, that’s what we’ll look at below. In this scenario, the SEC’s 5-1-2 format would become a 6-1-1 format.
Our example, Alabama, would continue to play all of its division foes — something the NCAA rule book currently lists as a must if a league is to play a championship game (though the MAC was given a waiver). That would mean games against Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M each and every year. Tennessee would be an annual opponent as noted above. That leaves six East Division foes to rotate through one at a time:
14-school league, 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format
2012 — Vanderbilt (H)
2013 — Vanderbilt (A)
2014 — Georgia (H)
2015 — Georgia (A)
2016 — Kentucky (H)
2017 — Kentucky (A)
2018 — South Carolina (H)
2019 — South Carolina (A)
2020 — Florida (H)
2021 — Florida (A)
2022 — Missouri (H)
2023 — Missouri (A)
See the problem? Instead of taking just five years to play each non-permanent, cross-divisional foe twice… it would take a full 12 years under a 6-1-1 plan. In this example, Alabama wouldn’t see Vanderbilt between 2013 until 2024. That’s a long time in between games.
Now, it’s possible that the SEC could break up those games and create a format such as this:
14-school league, 8-game schedule, 6-1-1 format, games broken up
2012 — Vanderbilt (H)
2013 — Georgia (A)
2014 — Kentucky (H)
2015 — South Carolina (A)
2016 — Florida (H)
2017 — Missouri (A)
2018 — Vanderbilt (A)
2019 — Georgia (H)
2020 — Kentucky (A)
2021 — South Carolina (H)
2022 — Florida (A)
2023 — Missouri (H)
Such a plan would enable schools to play more often (once every six seasons), but it would still leave 12 years in between campus visits. Vanderbilt, for example, wouldn’t play in Tuscaloosa between 2012 and 2024. That’s hardly an ideal scenario.
For that reason, we expect the SEC will follow the lead of the other major conferences and someday adopt a nine-game schedule using a 6-1-2 format. With the current 12-team, 5-1-2 plan, each school faces its non-divisional foes twice in a five-year span. In a 14-team, 6-1-1 plan, each school would play its non-divisional foes twice in a 12-year span. A 6-1-2 plan, on the other hand, would allow each school to play its non-divisional foes twice every six years:
14-school league, 9-game schedule, 6-1-2 format
2012 — Vanderbilt (A), Georgia (H)
2013 — Georgia (A), Kentucky (H)
2014 — Kentucky (A), South Carolina (H)
2015 — South Carolina (A), Florida (H)
2016 — Florida (A), Missouri (H)
2017 — Missouri (A), Vanderbilt (H)
That’s clearly the best option for maintaining the SEC’s current close-knit feel. If the league is going to continue to play a round-robin divisional schedule — and it is — eventually the SEC will have to move to a nine-game, 6-1-2 league format. It’s hard to picture any other plan working long term. Regardless of the current wishes of SEC coaches and athletic directors.
So those are the options for scheduling a new 14-team SEC. What about aligning the new divisions? What plan protects the greatest number of historic rivalries? What plan keeps the most schools happy?
Up next in Part Two of this quick series, we’ll look at the SEC’s most storied rivalries… the rivalries most in need of protection.
(Sidenotes — We intentionally did not discuss a potential 6-2-1 format because that will appear in our third piece on divisional realignments. Also, we did not mention the fact that the Big 12 plays nine conference games now because there’s no telling what that league will look like in 2012 and beyond.)